Sunday, October 26, 2003
Yesterday was different because Renee Fleming has taken on the central role and was being supported by the fresh-voiced, extremely gifted and astonishingly cute young tenor Rolando Villazon, and the hunky Dmitri Hvorostovsky whose gorgeopus baritone is at its zenith these days. Press on this production had been strong and all performances featuring Fleming are sold out. Virtually nothing else at the MET is selling out these days and some performances--very good ones with fine casts--have large blocks of empty seats.
There seem to be three or four reasons for this, all of which have managed to strike at about the same time. The economy is still sluggish and this fact is having a devastating effect on arts donorship as well as ticket sales. Secondly, our schools have for so long neglected or totally abandoned any presence for the arts--and in fact have in many cases taught the kids that European-desceded "high art" is an anti-democratic, "elitist" passtime--that we have raised a couple of generations that avoid theater, opera, etc. like the plague. The audience is aging and, as its members die, they are not being replaced by an equal number of youngsters growing up to the arts. Also, the new generation of gayboys is finding a kind of mainstream acceptance unknown to its older predecessors; they are far less inclined to find refuge in traditional gay safe gathering places, like an opera house, and far more liable to be out with the other boys, large numbers of them "metrosexual" or otherwise completely gay-friendly, skateboarding and playing sports.
There is a war between the modern school of stage direction and traditional opera lovers who can't stand post-modern productions. They are retreating into the past faster and faster via their extensive LP, tape, DVD and CD collections rather than pay for what are often stunning and revelatory theatrical experiences which they reject in nostalgia for the day when opera was just "voice, voice, voice." A corollary is the claim that there are no huge voices or exciting personalities on the stage any more. The shade of Nora Desmond can be heard spitting out in disgust, "You are still big because you remember the old days, it is opera that has gotten small!"
But there is one other cause that has been written about and that seems to be quite powerful--the suburbs are hesitant to come into the city and gather in vulnerable public buildings. It isn't an "afraid of inner city violence" thing any more but a heritage of 9/11. I have read several articles on this trend and many opera and theater companies are working hard to restore their links to the largely affluent suburban audience. It was not so long ago that what turned out to be an "urban legend" circulated: in a black humor mood, the stage managers of productions in Broadway theaters had started a pool on which of them would be the first to be hit by a suicide bomber in the audience. I have confirmed through contacts in Actors' Equity that it really isn't true, but the very fact that it began and spread indicates that the subject was out there and on people's minds.