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.