Vesti la giubba, Bro'.
For the longest time, if you went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, you’d see horses. Horses in La Bohème. Horses in Cavelleria. Horses in Carmen. It wasn’t that people wanted to see horses onstage, just that one wealthy donor liked horses. Put on a production without a horse, and she’d bolt.
Now that approach is out to pasture. In the past year the Met has seen a drop in donors; a major drop in audiences of the kind that came to see La Bohème or Cav, while the audience for contemporary operas stayed the same. Now Peter Gelb, the General Manager, promises a change of direction: the Met will dip into its endowment; it will reduce the number of productions; it will produce more contemporary works, at least more works that can be called contemporary in the chronological sense. As Winston Churchill said, "“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.”
This time they may have closed the gate after the horse ran out. The Met was built around the expectation that it would cost a lot of money to run, which in turn would force the Met to rely on wealthy donors and wealthy audiences, or middle-class audiences at least. Lowering the cost of admission is not in the cards for Gelb, only an expectation that the same audiences can be kept, or will return eventually. His options are limited, for a variety of reasons.
First: Lincoln Center was built to anchor New York City as a Kulturstadt, a global cultural attraction. What the Lippizaner are to Vienna the Met was to New York, but it’s not clear that the concept has legs. Already certain Kulturstädte are revising their approach, offering fewer attractions at a higher price for wealthier customers. This might work in Vienna; it won’t work in New York. Don’t count on wealthy foreign visitors.
Second: why would the same donors who’ve tightened their purse-strings loosen them tomorrow, unless they get more of what they’ve been demanding, say, horses? Perhaps the Met should try for a new class of donors, in tech for instance. AI horses? Cryptonags? Why not?
And third: As Adorno pointed out, the Culture Industry is so structured that the audience no longer comes to enjoy the performance but the cost of the ticket.The higher the cost, the greater the pleasure: income per visitor increases while the actual audience decreases and cultural institutions are finding, in this time of economic realignment, that they need to re-evaluate where they stand on that spectrum. The social worth of admission prices has been so deeply embedded in their structure—financial, physical and psychological—that it’s almost impossible to disengage. Gelb doesn’t want to grow his audience, merely keep what paying audience he has.
“The challenges are greater than ever,” he says. “The only path forward is reinvention.” Individuals may reinvent themselves to a certain extent, but institutions are constrained by their own infrastructure and the Met has been wired from the outset to be dependent on large numbers of paying visitors, offering large groups an exclusive, meaning costly, experience.
La gente paga, e rider vuole qua. Is the offer still good? Can the audience be brought back with more contemporary operas? Or is it that the audience is fed up with operas of any type or time whose presentation and content are dictated by rich donors? Could the Met’s target audience be reacting like Madame Bovary, of whom Flaubert wrote that she was like a horse that’s been held too tight, it pulls up short and the bit flies out of its mouth? Is the dwindling of the audience a form of cultural Quiet Quitting?
There’s a bitter skit, almost unbearable for a white viewer, in which Key and Peele, the Black comics, come onstage as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively—not that they have anything to say, but because they’re guaranteed to get an enthusiastic response from their audience, no matter what they say or do, how well. This is the same embarrassment you feel on a Saturday matinee on Broadway, watching a production so desperate it’s given up on all but the predictable, the equivalent of a cover band, recycling the lives of well-known personalities or novels by means of well-known personalities as actors. And this is the same audience Gelb wants for the Met, the same shallow music a mere prop for a familiar narrative: an opera about Harvey Milk; an opera based on The Hours, with “star” performers; and, yes, an opera based on the life of Malcolm X. “Opera should reflect the times we’re in,” says the Met’s music director. “It’s our responsibility to generate new works so that people can recognize themselves and their realities on our stage.” Not new works that are valid as works, mind you. Not works in which “people can recognize themselves,” actually. Merely an audience desperate to imagine itself as privileged, a middle-class audience desperate to define its own social position through predictable music and familiar narratives. Does such an audience still exist, sufficient in quantities, rich enough in cash and desperate enough in its cultural ambitions to guarantee the Met’s survival? That bird, I think, has flown.
Theodor Adorno. “On the Fetish- Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhart, ed., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Urizen Books1978), p. 279.