Will Peter Gelb Become the Sheldon Meyer of Opera?

It is now a year since Peter Gelb assumed the post of general manager at the Metropolitan Opera, and the Met has just announced that it is expanding Gelb’s signature innovation—its “high-definition” simulcasts into movie theaters—from about 100 to more than 300 screens this coming season. “We’ve created the opera equivalent of the Hollywood movie roll-out,” Gelb told the Times‘ Anne Midgette. And for those who worried that the pay-per-view theatricals would dilute the home gate, one can’t argue with these numbers: subscription sales have already increased for next season by 10 percent.

For the Norman Lebrechts of the world who lamented that Gelb’s “contempt for artistic values and his adulation of mass entertainment” would lead to “the dawning of a new age of Popera,” a possible clue to the ultimate trajectory of a Gelbian opera world might be found in the parallel career of Sheldon Meyer, the celebrated Oxford University Press editor who single-handedly put popular culture on the literary world map.

Meyer, who retired in 2001 and died last year, edited and published many august scholarly volumes on American history. But he also, as OUP author Gary Giddins wrote, “turned the world’s oldest and most staid publishing house into the leading chronicler of jazz, Broadway musicals, popular-song writers, broadcasting, and black cultural history.” Without a doubt it was Meyer, more than any other prestige editor in publishing, who valorized the scholarly treatment of pop culture, changing the perception of OUP from publisher of the multivolume Oxford English Dictionary to flagship house of baseball and Tin Pan Alley scholars. To cite but a few outstanding examples, Meyer brought out Gunther Schuller’s books on jazz, Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song, and Gerald Bordman’s multiple volumes on American musical theater. Meyer generated such seismic ripples that the 2001 revision of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians extensively treats world and pop music, unthinkable in the previous Grove editions of Eric Blom.

But not every pop culture book published under Meyer’s imprimatur held to that unimpeachable standard: he also published a biography of Al Jolson that reads like a pulp novel. Today the music section racks of Barnes & Noble and Borders teem with books published by epigones of Sheldon Meyer. “Un-Meyerian” pop music books outnumber “art” music books by a factor of 4 to 1, at least.

The Metropolitan Opera, with its “diamond horseshoe,” was for much of its history the embodiment of the aristocracy of art. No supertitles. No marketing or pandering. But at the same time, there was an acceptance in general mass culture: the Texaco broadcasts; the appearances of divas on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson; the “slumming” of Met announcer Milton Cross and composer Deems Taylor on lighter radio broadcasts.

Peter Gelb is now proposing that many Met operas will eventually end up as DVDs for home viewing. But is there a danger that MTV-age new audiences will come to accept the DVD replica as a kind of music video fungible equivalent to live opera? Just as the cheaply pseudocultural books proliferating about pop artists pose as equivalents of the high-cult Sheldon Meyer-type pop culture book? For a quarter century archival videotapes of Broadway and off-Broadway shows have reposed in the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. No serious theater buff would tell you that watching any of these is equivalent to seeing the play live in real life, or that live staged plays all ending up on DVD would be a good thing.

Gelb told Midgette that “every Yankee game is broadcast. The Yankees would tell you attendance has gone up because of it.” That is certainly true, though the live acoustic reality of voices in opera is missing in DVD—a quality more essential to appreciation than anything lost in a baseball game broadcast—and in time new audiences may forget to notice the difference between broadcast and live. How high definition, really, is the sound reproduction in even the best movie theaters? A few years ago I attended a screening of the 1998 documentary film Richter: The Enigma at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. I was appalled by its shockingly distorted reproduction of Richter’s piano tone and dynamics. And this was at the sound system of the movie theater next door to the Juilliard School. (It was largely the fault of the film’s soundtrack, which made a travesty of Richter’s art.)

Three cheers, absolutely, for Mr. Gelb—I unequivocally support his initiatives, I think they are exciting and wonderful for opera. It’s just that the backdrafts of Sheldon Meyer’s wonderful career pose some troubling potentials. Where does accessibility border on dilution, and where does democratization border on debasement and market-driven stultification? Somewhere. Tune in to find out in our cultural tomorrows.

18 thoughts on “Will Peter Gelb Become the Sheldon Meyer of Opera?

  1. rtanaka

    Analysis of popular music is usually pretty interesting when put into perspective of developing social trends. I had a class where we listened to hip-hop and rap musics (like the NWA)…generally I don’t listen to that type of music very much but it became interesting when it was put into the context of racial and social inequalities happening during that time and place.

    Lot of postmodern scholarship can be fairly critical of popular culture as well. There’s been lots of negative reactions against the excessive sex and drug culture of mainstream popular culture, so its studies doesn’t always have to be a glamorization. But I think that it’s a good thing that now scholars are “allowed” to study such subjects, because it’s very much a part of reality that we live in.

    It’ll be interesting to see with what happens with the MET. I heard that they were consistently in the red in recent years so maybe this’ll give them the boost they need. I generally don’t think that accessibility leads to dilution, as long as the ideas remain in tact.

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  2. philmusic

    Mark, my question is whether institutions and their gate keepers are leading the trends or merely following them.

    Many of things you mention have been going on for years. For example, the singers fach and great singing being sacrificed for visuality and the singers “personality” is not a recent occurrence in Opera. Mr. Gelb is one of many.

    As for publishing, I wonder how long (and how many) Colleges and Universities have featured courses where such books on popular music are required? Perhaps these trends started with European literary theory which does not accept artistic distinctions. The unquestioned acceptance of everyone’s musical biases leads to the enshrinement of the entertainment status quo. All things being equal, which they are not, the big money wins.

    Unlike visual arts, where it is understood that there are commercial arts as well as “high” arts, music must find its own moorings as every music sub-genre has its own avant-garde. For those untouched, or unaware of art music these sub-genres have filled a vacuum. At one time it was a marketing joke– If Mozart was alive to day he would be in the Dave Clark Five. No longer. Popular music, I mean the stuff that sells and sells big (or not so big), has co-opted the classical music/new music scene. It is no surprise then that institutions and gate keepers turn to these composers for new works. If the “Doors” were a band today they too would be “avant-garde” and probably compose an opera as well.

    American operatic institutions from their inception have had a very poor record of commissioning American works that enter the repertoire. They continue to commission the inexperienced (read “hot”) composer, and after that work is premiered as a “big event” they commission someone else just as inexperienced for another “big event”. In contrast; Verdi composed a lot of opera before he caught on, and he was not insulated from helpful practical criticism that gate kept composers are. For example; the two most famous composers of American Opera living today chose not to, or are unable to, write for the operatic voice.

    Hardly a high standard for success. Are you going to tell them? Don’t look at me!

    Anyway, since we have no real American Opera Repertory theater we as composers we can’t learn from our past successes or our failures.

    Phil’s Page Text

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  3. Frank J. Oteri

    At least two interesting, and not necessarily answerable, questions are raised by Phil’s assertion that “the two most famous composers of American Opera living today chose not to, or are unable to, write for the operatic voice.”

    First: Who are the composers he is referring to?

    Second: What exactly is an operatic voice? And, by extension, if what is meant is a voice trained in the vocal techniques associated with so-called standard operatic repertoire, can that voice serve American English as convincingly as it does the languages for which these very culturally specific techniques were developed: French and Italian, and with some adaptations, German and possibly Russian?

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  4. Chris Becker

    “…if what is meant is a voice trained in the vocal techniques associated with so-called standard operatic repertoire, can that voice serve American English as convincingly as it does the languages for which these very culturally specific techniques were developed: French and Italian, and with some adaptations, German and possibly Russian?”

    Hasn’t it already served English texts in operatic works like The Great Gatsby, John Adams’ operas and oratorio and/or works for orchestra and voice by Peter Leiberson? Maybe I’m not clear as to what your question is…

    And don’t English speaking composers often compose using other languages? Phillip Glass for instance? Diamanda Galas? Or vocalise like John Zorn?

    The technique required for these aforementioned works is different than (the no less valid) techniques required to sing a Robert Ashley Opera or kick it with an electric blues band or the score for a Bollywood film…as a composer, I don’t weigh one technique against another. There’s room for all of it – so-called standard rep you refer to as well as the rest of the world…

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  5. Frank J. Oteri

    Chris: points taken. I just thought a clarification was in order as to what Phil meant by “the operatic voice.”

    The word opera is now commonly used to describe a very wide variety of music, yet from my vantage point, when folks talk about “the operatic voice,” they’re referring to someone singing Carmen or Tosca. Don’t get me wrong; I love both of these works and many others of their type as well as the many fine singers who have sung and continue to sing them.

    But in a world where John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, Meredith Monk’s Atlas, Robert Ashley’s Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland, and even The Who’s Tommy are all rightfully acknowledged as operas—which is the musical world I live in—the phrase “operatic voice” can mean anything.

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  6. philmusic

    to clarify-

    its not that a composer doesn’t care for the operatic voice, thats a fine and resonable choice as it doesn’t suit every style of composition. My problem is this– if you don’t care for, or like that voice, why have your works performed by opera singers?

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  7. philmusic

    …The Who’s Tommy .. (is) rightfully acknowledged as opera(s)—which is the musical world I live in “”

    Acknowledged by who?

    Oh, I mean Acknowledged by “The Who?”

    lol

    Reply
  8. Frank J. Oteri

    Well, admittedly not everyone acknowledges Tommy as an opera. Just the other day, Mark Swed went out of his way to prove exactly why Tommy isn’t an opera. Ultimately, though, I didn’t quite buy it, especially when he raised the following point:

    The fact that there aren’t individual characters who sing in Tommy, merely songs about characters, doesn’t invalidate the work’s opera credentials. In two contemporary British operas—Gerald Barry’s “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit” and George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill—the singers are not the characters and the narrative is, as in a Renaissance madrigal or a concept album, delivered by one and all.

    I’ve long been a Gerald Barry fan but Into the Little Hill was one of this summer’s musical epiphanies for me. Before experiencing it live, I wasn’t completely sure it met my personal definition of opera since the singers sing around characters rather than as characters. But, already acknowledging Tommy as an opera, I was able to make that aesthetic leap and it’s well worth the trip. Swed goes on to define opera as “drama… resolved through music.” And then claims that “[r]ock musicians don’t tend to think like that, nor do they have the technique” which to me sounds a bit prejudicial.

    That said, even Matthew Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces was quick to point out the distinction between opera and rock opera when I asked him what his thoughts were on that word in in our recent talk for NewMusicBox.

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  9. Chris Becker

    I agree that the term “operatic voice” is vague if you look at the spectrum of contemporary works that can be defined as “operas.” And I don’t think these genre expanding works – like Ashley’s or Monk’s – take anything away from the Handel or Mozart operas if the term “opera” is shared. Although, the average listener might indeed confuse Joan LaBarbara with a Rene Fleming when it comes to technique – they’re both “opera” singers, right? Well, yes and no. They each do something different.

    Every voice is unique – even those belonging to singers who are studying a tradition and certain technique. I don’t feel comfortable at all saying across the board that men or women who sing opera all sound the same or are incapable of expressing themselves because they’re bearing the weight of a heavy tradition. That’s nonsense.

    So maaaaybe I was pushing it a bit after reading your comment, Frank. Glad you’re back, by the way…

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  10. rtanaka

    Any of you guys think that there’s a move towards greater clarity and understanding of the narrative in contemporary opera? Among musicians it’s generally accepted that most of the time you’re not gonna understand what’s being said but in my experience audiences generally appreciate having the libretto at hand, or having subtitles during the performance.

    Even compositionally, starting with Schoenberg’s sprechstimme and going further, it seems like there’s been a lot more usage of gestures resembling the spoken voice as time goes on, often used as a way to normalize the text with the audience’s ear. The use of video and technology, even in older works, also seem to help facilitate this kind of understanding of the narrative. Opera has sort of always been a kind of obscure and alien thing for most people, but these things seem to help people within that medium to connect.

    Course this may just be my experiences going to these things, which admittedly I don’t do too often. Methods aside, operas tend to be looooong, which is highly discouraging for most. Maybe shorter works are in order as well?

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  11. william

    Rtanka asks: “Any of you guys think that there’s a move towards greater clarity and understanding of the narrative in contemporary opera?”

    I do. My wife and I have spent the last 30 years trying to develop new forms of chamber music theater in which the text, music, and acting are of equal importance, and where every word can be understood – even when almost all of the words are sung. This required the development of new concepts for setting the words, new techniques for the way they are sung, far more precise notation of theatrical elements in the scores, and new production methods. For those interested, we have audio and video clips on our website.

    See the clips from “Miriam,” premiered in the Munich Bienneale:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/Miriam.htm

    And “Cybeline,” premiered in the REDCAT Theater of Disney Hall in Los Angeles:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/cybeline-info.htm (Scroll down for the video links.)

    And audio clips from “Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano,” premiered in the K-9 Theater in Konstanz,Germany:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/Street.htm

    The sites also include PDF scores for “Cybeline” and “Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano.” (They do not look good on screen, but print beautifully.)

    Many of our concepts were developed during the seven years we spent creating music theater works based on the texts of Samuel Beckett. We have an essay written for a multimedia festival at Juilliard that outlines our techniques. See:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/vistas.htm

    Please note that the email address at the top of the message is obsolete. My new one is below.

    William Osborne
    William@osborne-conant.org
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

    Reply
  12. philmusic

    Ryan, as in all recent compositions including Opera and “New Music Theater” (to use a term coined by Ben Krywosz) the approaches can go in many different directions.

    As a generalization– Opera usually has a sung text which reveals the story, no need for any editorial help to explain it. In “New Music Theater” anything goes.

    Phil’s Page

    This is shameless self promotion but I just posted a new lesson on Opera!

    Reply
  13. rtanaka

    Ryan, as in all recent compositions including Opera and “New Music Theater” (to use a term coined by Ben Krywosz) the approaches can go in many different directions.

    Well, western culture is very much rooted in the narrative form so trying to break free from that will be of some trouble, I think. I’ve seen non-linear narrative techniques which work fairly well (flashbacks, storylines which switch perspectives depending on its character focus) and I guess you could maybe argue that reiteration of thematic forms is also a form of delinearization since it references itself circularly. But nonetheless, a narrative is still a narrative…it tells a story, and for the most part people are curious as to what’s actually going on.

    Assuming that the composer isn’t experimenting for its own sake, what are these “other directions” and what would be the purpose of utilizing these other types of techniques? Heck, even Harry Partch’s texts usually tell some kind of story.

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  14. MarkNGrant

    Certainly the many postings here evince the lively interest in redefining the boundaries between opera and “opera.” What bears reiterating from my original premise is the aesthetic problem of DVD opera as podcast. Any opera podified into a DVD, no matter how high def technically, is missing an essential musical instrument: the opera house. The architecture of any live hall interacts with the live sound and with live human ears in a way that cannot ever be exactly reproduced. Any recording of opera is microphone- and loudspeaker- based. I speak not just from my armchair but as a composer who has used both experiences– microphones and pure acoustic sound– in productions of my own theatre works. I think if the art of music, in its inevitable advance toward new forms, were to envelop everything in electronic sound and swallow up acoustic sound forever, it would be a catastrophe for art. Digitization is great for archiving information but a problematic medium at best for the rendering of artistic nuance.

    Let me make an analogy from painting. Famous paintings, even before digitization, were widely disseminated throughout the world via mass reproduced prints. A fine print of, say, a painting of a Cape Cod house by Edward Hopper, will show the image with apparent truth and fidelity, yet will not capture the artist’s exquisitely skilled rendering of light and heat that one can only experience palpably by standing in front of the actual painting. All the more so with digital paintbrush reproduction. And all the more so with live acoustic music, particularly the opera. You cannot palpably experience the unique resonance of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus unless you are actually there. That’s not to say that DVD replications shouldn’t exist. It’s only to say that the replica should not be taken by newcomers to the art as a fully valorized equivalent. It’s only a replica.

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  15. philmusic

    I get that Mark-it also goes for, dare I say it, all music.–one exception though– performers who have passed away can only be heard through recordings.

    Hey Mark, don’t I get my question answered?

    Ryan, I think you missed my point.

    The question is not about presentation —linear or flasbacks—its about a works ability to convey its meaning without an editorial (for example–a written explanation) by a curator or its creators.

    Phil

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  16. rtanaka

    The question is not about presentation —linear or flasbacks—its about a works ability to convey its meaning without an editorial (for example–a written explanation) by a curator or its creators.

    Making the text more audible doesn’t seem like an editorial process to me — it’s just presenting what’s already there in very clear terms.

    How do operatic works convey meaning without the use of narrative? You mentioned that there were “different ways”, to approach opera, so I was wondering what these alternatives were. Has any of it worked well enough to become standard practice?

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  17. philmusic

    Ryan, –this sounds like a college course to me– you might start with Virgil Thomson the “once group” Robert Ashley etc. and as I mentioned the work of director Ben Krywosz.

    Reply

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