"Thank you sir, may I have another?"

The Met made the evening news.” Indeed it did, in the only way anything in the high arts could make the evening news, by becoming juicy gossip. The story is that the audience booed the opening night production of “Tosca.” Please note, they booed the production, not the singers or musicians.

The new Met director, Peter Gelb, is on the record as wanting to bring in new audiences to the opera house, and his means for doing so seem to be a combination of creating new productions of standard works and commissioning new operas. I am in complete sympathy with his means and goals, but fundamentally the results, as Alex Ross points out, need to be good. The boos had nothing to do with the quality of the performance, however, and so I’m actually glad they came.

I have not seen the production yet, but reliable critics have weighed in on the musical shortcomings, as well as those of the stage sets and direction. The tell is that the singers got the usual ovation, and that’s the problem Gelb, hopefully, is working to solve. He will ideally save opera from its fans.

Opera is sung drama, with music which tells us about the characters and the overall story. The characters sing because they can find no other way to express themselves, and the singing and music tell us about what is going on inside them, especially the things they themselves are unaware. The use of music gives opera a dimension no other medium has, not even film, in that the drama can run on separate, parallel tracks and still be together and mutually supportive in real time. The great example of this is the quartet from “Fidelio,” Mir ist so wunderbar, where the four characters privately sing about each other, and do so in simultaneous consort. Nothing else in human culture can express something so indescribably complex in a way that is immediately transparent and apprehensible.

Too many opera fans miss this drama, though, and think of opera as a collection of arias to be followed immediately by applause, not for the character or the music, but for the star diva/divo, “Brava Angela,” rather than “Brava Violetta.” Verdi, however, did not write arias to display a star, but to allow Violetta to reveal herself to us. When the experience of this dramatic characterization is so overwhelming that the audience must respond, then by all means, allow me to join in (there is a live recording of “Fidelio” which is so overpowering that the audience overwhelms the finale with deserved, passionate shouts and applause), but attending opera just to gush over a particular star does not indicate an actual appreciation of the form or the work. Same for accepting the most literal production and nothing else. By all means, again, boo a lousy production – I have – but also boo a lousy performance – I have – even if it’s by a star whose name is up there in lights.

I’m encouraged by the booing in this sense, that if Gelb manages to drive away the type of audience that sleeps or chats through most of the production, only to perk up for the obligatory applause after Vissi d’arte, then he will have made the Met culturally relevant by replacing them with audiences interested in the drama, and in what the production says about the drama. The idea that the drama is important should be implicit, but that’s rarely the case in the greatest hits parade of decrepit warhorses like “Tosca” which burdens most opera houses. I think the future is exciting for the Met, and they have already brought in new audiences with “Satyagraha” and “Doctor Atomic.” They should be able to keep that new audience, and gain more, by making the standard repertory something that matters, and the fact that it still exists means it does indeed matter. Treating it as such means that some productions will fail, but nothing ventured nothing gain. Bring us more things to boo, please, Mr. Gelb.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.