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Radical Changes at New York's Met Opera
New performance ideas to recruit younger audiences
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-09-28 16:50 (KST)   
The first time I saw the opera "Madame Butterfly" was a number of years ago and I don't remember the details. I only remember that it was an elaborate performance. It was the first opera I ever saw. But what impressed me most was that good tickets to the opera in New York City were expensive, and so this was a rare experience for me, as it would be for most other people in New York, or indeed an experience that many would never have.

This has been the situation until the recent experiment by the Metropolitan Opera (Met) in New York, which placed large screens and bleacher seats outdoors in Times Square and in Lincoln Center on the opening night of the 2006-2007 Opera Season.

Also the Met opened to the public the dress rehearsal of "Madame Butterfly," its first opera of the season, on Friday Sept. 22. Tickets to these events were free to the public. For tickets to the dress rehearsal one had to wait in line and there are reports that the line formed at midnight the evening before the tickets were to be distributed. Not all those on the line got tickets to "Madame Butterfly." When the tickets to "Butterfly" ran out, those on the line were given tickets to a dress rehearsal later in the season, for the opera "The Barber of Seville."

The "Madame Butterfly" dress rehearsal of the opera, was a first for the Met, offering an opera free to a packed audience. The production started on a spectacular note, with lovely music and dance. The music, acting, singing, and costumes for the opera were all excellent. It seemed that not only did the audience relish the performance, but that the performers were delighted to have such an appreciative audience from the public for their dress rehearsal.

The actual opening night for the opera had been sold out weeks in advance, even though the tickets cost as much as $1,750 for a good seat. The Friday dress rehearsal open to the public, before the official season's opening, was even more of a special event, as it welcomed the public to view the opera, even before the high-priced audience.

The opera "Madame Butterfly" was first performed in 1904. It is the opera most often performed in the U.S., even though it presents the stereotype of a passive Japanese woman, known as Madame Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San), who is blinded by her love for her American husband (Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy) and hopeful that as his wife she will be treated in a more equal way than the poor treatment she describes as common at the time for women in Japanese society.

A Japanese husband could end his marriage, Butterfly explains, just by casting the wife out of their home. She is rudely disappointed when her husband disappears for three years, only to return with his American wife. When Pinkerton learns that Butterfly bore him a son, he sends his wife and the U.S. Consul to get custody of the child. Madame Butterfly turns over custody of the child and dies of a broken heart.

The performance was well done. The role of Madame Butterfly was admirably played by Chilian soprano, Cristina Gallardo-Domas. The role of Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, played by Marcello Giordani, and the supporting roles of Suzuki, Butterfly's servant, played by Maria Zifchak, and Sharpless the U.S. Consul, played by Dwayne Croft, were all quite fine.

The opera is directed by the film maker Anthony Minghella. The setting, lights, costumes and choreography create a simple but lovely frame for the story, in the first act emphasizing Butterfly's hope that her marriage will fulfill its promise. Butterfly's son, who appears in the second and third act, is played by a puppet, in the tradition of Japanese Bunraku where there are three actors dressed in black manipulating the life-size puppet. The use of the puppet for the child highlights the lack of reality of Butterfly's faith that she would have a better life as the wife of an American.

Cristina Gallardo-Domas as Cio-Cio-San with Cio-Cio San's child (Blind Summit Theatre) in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."
©2006 Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The new manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, explains that he recognized the need to broaden who could attend the opera when only 77 percent of the last season's tickets were sold. Also he was worried because the average age of those who attended the performances went up each year and was 65 years of age last year. With fewer and fewer people, especially young people going to the opera in New York, serious changes were needed to deal with the crisis.

Opening the dress rehearsal to the public was the first of a number of measures planned by Gelb. The free showing of the opening night of the Fall Season on large screens in Lincoln Center and Times Square was another part of the plan to introduce opera to a larger sector of the population.

The new manager of the Met recognizes also that to generate more public interest in opera, he will need to transform not only how and where opera is performed and staged, but also the content and subject matter. The Met reports that it has set up a writers' workshop and it has invited selected musicians and playwrights to participate in the workshop. While this is a sign of needed new experimentation, how the subject matter for new productions is determined is also an area that merits attention. I am reminded of interesting productions of more modern works at the Met like the production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's opera "The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny" and John Harbitson's "The Great Gatsby," both of which portrayed the decadence of a culture built on the worship of how much money one has.

It would be desirable if a writers' workshop opened up dialogue with the interested public to learn more about the themes and literature the public deems important in order to broaden the scope of ideas for future new productions.

Several years ago I posted a comment on an Internet discussion group about New York City, commenting about the fact that the artistic complex where the Met is located was being managed in a way that catered to the wealthy, even though it was supposed to be a public arts complex. At the time it seemed a contradiction that public support for the complex was deemed important, but that little of what it offered was available to most people because of the high price of the tickets. The fact that the ticket price was kept high even though that meant there would be empty seats for a number of performances, seemed a serious problem with the way the public and the arts are treated in the New York

Changes at the Met, like opening a dress reheasal of an opera free to the public, are even more remarkable when one realizes that the opera is the institution in the U.S. that one might expect to be the most resistant to change. It is a welcome sign that the new manager recognizes the necessity for the Met to be an institution more open to the public. It will be an interesting innovation if more free performances follow and a larger number of New York's residents and visitors can explore the grandiose themes that opera at times makes available to its audience.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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