Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (in the title role) (center) performs at the final dress rehearsal prior to the premiere of the Metropolitan Opera/Sir David McVicar production of 'Adriana Lecouvreaur' (by Francesco Ciliea) at Lincoln Center's Metropolitan Opera House, New York, New York, December 28, 2018. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Met with disappointment: a quiet season for postmodern New York

Manhattan’s cultural landscape faces more tough times ahead with the cancellation of the Met’s 2020/2021 season

As protests and pandemic continue to rage around America, and New York’s elite unabatedly flee bleak urban life with Late Roman enthusiasm, the fate of the city’s premiere performing arts institution, the Metropolitan Opera, remains unenviable.

An entire season has not been cancelled since 1897

The Met closed on 12 March, cancelling the rest of its 2019-2020 season with the exceptions of an improvised “at home” gala, in which quarantined soloists performed via internet stream, and occasional pay-as-you-go livestreamed recitals of star artists. After weeks of dire rumors, on 1 June the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb cancelled the fall component of the company’s 2020-2021 season and warned that the remainder of the season might also be called off absent a “medical solution” to the pandemic. Insiders who must remain anonymous had told me months ago that they expected no new season at all. And indeed, on 23 September, two days after its originally scheduled opening night, the Met cancelled the entire season altogether, the first time it has done so since 1897.

According to its official statement, operations will not resume “until a vaccine is widely in use, herd immunity is established, and the wearing of masks and social distancing is no longer a medical requirement.” We can only hope those conditions are reached by September 2021.

View of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on October 5, 2018 in New York City. – (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Met’s predicament would be more understandable had New York’s dreadful local government not already pronounced the pandemic largely solved, backed by a chorus of Manhattan enthusiasts who insist in defiance of numerous cold facts and regulations governing their lives that that city remains a delightfully livable place.

Nevertheless, producing live opera does require hundreds of people working in close proximity on and off stage for long periods of time. Crowded audiences that skew toward an older demographic – the age group most susceptible to the virus – present a dangerous health risk. Few practical measures can reduce that risk without torpedoing financial viability, compromising artistic standards, and inviting possible legal liability. Gelb had previously suggested that “social distancing and grand opera do not mix,” but they do in hard-hit European cities, where opera companies have been cautiously reopening while the Met cowers.

The Met’s 2020-2021 saison manqué comes at an inopportune moment in its history. Having logged fourteen rather lugubrious years at the company’s helm, Gelb had recently showed some signs of turning a corner. After a slew of uninspired, expensive, and often wasteful new productions, most of which replaced beloved stagings of standard repertoire favorites that many veteran audience members still miss, the Met had embraced noteworthy operas that it had never previously performed, and even commissioned new works for the first time in nearly a generation.

Last season’s company premiere production of Handel’s Agrippina, the last opera I attended there just days before the house closed, was perhaps the most outstanding Met staging of the last decade, while Philip Glass’s Akhenaten was visually stunning and made some badly needed headlines. The cancelled new season had promised the now-postponed company premiere of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, a searing work in the expressionist vein not seen in New York since the visit of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in 1992, and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, one of the more successful contemporary American operas, which has made the rounds in regional theaters.

After many years of overprogramming crowd-pleasing Puccini operas – with works by that one composer in some seasons accounting for as much as thirty percent of the total number of Met performances, – the planned 2020-2021 season had mercifully limited his presence in the repertoire to the inescapable La Bohème.

Casting decisions in recent seasons have become more daring and energetic. The company seems to have overcome the bad publicity arising from a protracted labor dispute, which threatened the 2014-2015 season, and from its questionable handling of sexual harassment allegations in the fading #MeToo era, which resulted in a heavily publicised lawsuit (just settled for $3.5 million) brought by its celebrated former music director James Levine. The unceremonious departure of superstar singer and conductor Plácido Domingo, who had been a major box office draw for decades and had little trouble continuing his robust career in Europe theatres, was also a big blow.

Met box office revenue reported in May 2019 registered a modest improvement over mid-decade doldrums, when attendance hovered around two-thirds of capacity. Gelb announced that he was able to secure funds to cover last season’s estimated $60 million loss, and the Met’s free daily internet livestreams of past HDTV telecasts, which proved popular and appreciated around the quarantined world, will continue through the entire closure.

The newly announced 2021-2022 season balances boldness with prudence

To soften the blow of this season’s complete cancellation, the next season was simultaneously announced in its entirety. Its 23 fully staged works represent a reduction in the number of productions, but balance boldness with prudence. In obeisance to the prevailing identity politics, the season will open with the Met’s first opera by a black composer, Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Two other contemporary works on established operatic themes will have their Met premieres: Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice and Brett Dean’s Hamlet, the latter the Met’s first opera by an Australian composer. New productions of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor will round out the new offerings. Puccini will also return to please crowds and make money, with mammoth 15-performance runs each of La Bohème, Tosca, and Turandot, and eleven performances of Madama Butterfly. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg will return in its beloved Otto Schenk production, which has been spared an inadvisable replacement.

Gelb also announced what sounded like permanent changes in the Met’s technical operations, including a dialing back of the standard curtain time to 7pm (from 7:30, itself a roll back from the 8pm curtains of not so long ago), due to what the Met says is popular demand, and cuts in operas that he feels are “significantly too long,” like Handel’s Rodelinda, which will be shortened. Other productions will lose intermissions. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, originally staged in its revised multi-act version, will be revived in its original intermission-free 1869 format, perhaps the first time the versions were switched for reasons of cost and expediency rather than artistic authenticity.

What Manhattan’s cultural landscape will look like after the pandemic is anyone’s guess

The Met has a large and loyal donor base, significant government support, and an enduring artistic reputation. But it is clearly nervous. The Covid-19 deaths of two longtime Met musicians have reinforced lasting health concerns, as has the recent hospitalisation of superstar soprano Anna Netrebko, who contracted the virus abroad. Furloughs of the orchestra, chorus, and much of the administrative staff have bitten deeply into the finances of those vital employees, and they now face another full year without a paycheck in an expensive city that some have already chosen to leave. Soloists, who are effectively freelancers, are in practice not paid for performances that do not go on, and gossip and informal social media posts suggest that many may not be able to sustain their careers long enough to hold out.

A singer friend who recently filed for unemployment told me that she expects half of her colleagues will no longer be working in music a year from now. Others are offering lessons over Zoom to generate some cash. The far-off 2021-2022 performances will begin to go on sale this October, nearly a year in advance, for patrons willing to bet that the requisite health conditions will be met and that the presidential election will not result in some kind of civil war. The Met may yet survive crises of such grand proportions, but what the rest of Manhattan’s cultural landscape will look like is anyone’s guess.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover