New Statesman – Lessons from America

Peter Conrad

Published 22 January 2007

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is battling for new audiences, enlisting celebrity support and staging daring productions, writes Peter Conrad 

In the 1970s, as New York staggered towards bankruptcy, the Metropolitan Opera made a desperate plea to prospective ticket-buyers. "Strike a blow for civilisation," its advertisements begged. Only a few years earlier, a slum had been bulldozed to make way for the marble-clad theatres of Lincoln Centre, propped on a podium above the brawling streets; the surrounding area remained treacherous. This was opera bravely proclaiming its civilising mission in a city on the skids. Today, the social landscape is irrevocably altered. The marble of the cultural citadel is grey and pock-marked with age, and the musical offerings of Lincoln Centre are outshouted by the glossy wares of the emporia lining a rebuilt Columbus Avenue. And, in our politically correct times, an opera company – surely synonymous with elitism and privilege – dare not pretend to be a civilising force; it must find a niche in the market place of popular culture, amid the babble, glitz and dreck.

Last September, the Met began its season – its first under the command of a messianically vigorous new general manager, the former recording in dustry executive Peter Gelb – by doing exactly that. A gaggle of celebs, most not celebrated for their interest in opera, was wrangled to attend the opening night: David Bowie and Iman, Jude Law and Sienna Miller, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, Rufus Wainwright and his mum. Flashbulbs popped as apoplectically as at the Oscars. A mile away down Broadway, the Nasdaq, Panasonic and Reuters screens in Times Square switched off their reports on the Dow Jones index and their tallies of Iraq casualties to relay Anthony Minghella’s sleek, lacquered production of Madama Butterfly (taken over by the Met from English National Opera).

New Statesman – Lessons from America.

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