The Met averts shutdown: Does opera have to be grand to survive?

After months of wrangling, the musicians’ union and Met’s management came to terms on how to cut costs just in time for the 2014-15 season to open in September. Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, bohemian opera prospers. 

John Minchillo/AP
The Metropolitan Opera house is illuminated at Lincoln Center, on Aug. 1, 2014, in New York City. The Met's former Lincoln Center neighbor, the New York City Opera, founded in 1943, went silent last year.

The live spectacle and resounding, unamplified human voices of opera, its dwindling number of aficionados say, is something the digital age, even with its many wonders, can never top.

But the centuries-old European art form, best heard in hoary acoustic houses designed for an era before electronic sound, is confronting dramatic 21st century themes: fiscal viability, efficient product distribution, and the generation of Snapchat and YouTube.

Even New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera, the art’s grand dame with the largest production budget on the planet, may be beginning to hear the proverbial portly person sing.

Last year, the Met’s former Lincoln Center neighbor, the New York City Opera, founded in 1943, went silent – as have numerous regional opera houses around the country the past decade. And dwindling attendance and a series of big-budget blunders threatened the world famous venue’s 2014 season, as the Met’s management threatened to lock out musicians and other workers if they didn’t agree to a 16 percent pay cut.

On Monday, however, after months of often vituperative wrangling, the musicians’ union and Met’s management finally agreed to terms, sharing cost-cutting and avoiding a lockout. The 2014-15 season is set to open in September with a new production of Mozart's “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

Still, daunting challenges remain for the kind of grand, world-class operas the Met puts on. “With ticket prices as high as they now are, the Met is no longer for the average person,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film studies expert at the University of Nebraska, who attended the Met regularly in the 1950s and '60s, and comes back to his home city to catch an opera on occasion.

“The Met used to be open to all; now it is open only to those who can afford to pay anywhere from $250 to $500 a ticket,” he says via e-mail.  

But while opera’s grand spectacles may be suffering, a new, more bohemian opera scene has been emerging in New York, where artists and musicians have long come to create and perform.

In Brooklyn, the Vertical Player Repertory, founded in 1998 and under the slogan, “We take opera to another place,” puts on alternative and experimental operas. In a series of memorable performances in 2007, the repertory drew thousands to a production of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, performed on the deck of an oil tanker at the Red Hook Container Port.

Then, in 2008, the small company performed Jacques Offenbach’s "Les contes d’Hoffmann" within an amphitheatre of stacked shipping containers and atop tons of raw lumber.

Other companies, too, have sprung up, including the Gotham Chamber Opera in Manhattan, which brings lesser known baroque operas to audiences, and draws rave reviews. And smaller, intimate chamber operas, such as The Little Opera Theatre of New York, take the old art form and give it a more hipster vibe.

“The culture of opera is alive and well in New York, even if the two best-known brands (The Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera) are struggling and defunct, respectively,” e-mails Christina Wallace, a former rehearsal associate at The Met, and now director of Bridge Up: STEM,  an educational program at the American Museum of Natural History.

“The truth is that many (many) of the people required to make opera – singers, conductors, directors, designers, orchestral musicians, composers, stagehands, and yes, even arts administrators – make New York City their home,” Ms. Wallace continues. “So despite the gnashing of teeth ... opera isn't leaving New York City any time soon.”

But for those who love the opera, the key is just getting more people to witness a performance.

“Unless people are exposed to this art form, in my experience, it’s hard to generate much interest,” says Jason Tramm, artistic director of the MidAtlantic Opera in Morristown, N.J. “But once people are bitten, once they’ve actually sat in an opera house, and they just ‘get it,’ they become life long advocates of the art form”

“I think that masterful music, combined with the unamplified, undoctored, natural human voice are really the strengths that opera has to offer,” he says.

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