Saturday, April 28, 2007

It wasn't broke

Presumably this has been going on since December and I was too preoccupied to notice, but now I have and I come before you to ask: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH THE MET BROADCASTS?

For something like eighty years, there was a live opera broadcast every Saturday afternoon with one announcer who filled you in on the cast, the plot, the details of the production, the number of bows everybody took, and other pertinent details. Milton Cross, then Peter Allen, and lately Margaret Juntwait handled this job with knowledge, enthusiasm, and a certain amount of grace under pressure, occasionally vamping when the curtain was delayed because of a baritone's split trousers or a mezzo's panic attack. The intermission features were polished and professional (full disclosure: I once won a prize for having my question used on the quiz), and it usually ended before the witching hour of 5 pm, no matter how slowly Maestro Levine was conducting Parsifal. And we were content, and sometimes more than content.

In retrospect, everything began to go sour when Texaco (now ChevronTexaco) withdrew its decades-old sponsorship. Apparently their gasp-inducing profits did not justify spending five or six million dollars a year on opera, even with alleged music-lover Condoleezza Rice on the board of directors. I think Mrs. Wallace of the Reader's Digest fortune stepped in for a year, while an effort was made to assemble an endowment which would make the broadcasts self-supporting. This does not seem to have happened, for the Toll Brothers are the current sponsors. Really, before last season I thought Toll Brothers made cookies. Toll House cookies? But they just make the houses, McMansions for the ostentatiously loaded. Anyway, good for them for keeping up one of the few cultural traditions that make the world loathe us a little less (these broadcasts even reach China).

Then came the Met's new boss, Peter Gelb, a former producer of classical records. For the past twenty years, "producing" classical records has followed two paths: coming up with crossover projects for the PBS audience (The Three Tenors Sing the Elton John Songbook kind of thing) and re-packaging material from the vaults. Take an old set of Brandenburg Concertos, slap a couple of bare-chested hunks on the cover and call it "Baroque-Bach Mountain." Mr. Gelb did all that after serving as Vladimir Horowitz's manager, which involved putting a small notice beside the Carnegie Hall box office -- HOROWITZ TICKETS ON SALE -- and getting out of the way. Thus are careers in musical management made, and it doesn't hurt at all if your father works for The New York Times.

Mr. Gelb decided the broadcast needed some sprucing up, so now Margaret Juntwait has a co-host to provide color commentary. Another person is positioned backstage to bring us you-are-there reports from the stage manager, who is supposed to be supervising a hundred men as they move gigantic sets over a stage the size of Bryant Park, but no -- he's chatting about how many trucks are required to bring in the scenery. This is a class-action suit waiting to happen. Another deputy, often Renee Fleming, is in the dressing room to interview the champ -- I mean, the diva. All that's missing is a Tim McCarver-type analyzing every doubtful note. ("Boy, I mean, that's only a B flat, he's gotta make that. You kinda wonder about that high D that's coming up. Let's hear it again...") As quizmaster, Edward Downes may be truly irreplaceable, but I wonder if they tried hard enough. Worse, the panel have been issued with little bells like the ones used to summon bellhops in William Powell movies. Listeners are given a question and instructed to respond by e-mail, like those snap polls on TV news. Will this attract more listeners than it drives away? Did people complain about the old format, or is this just Gelb's way of marking his territory?

It's sad, especially on a beautiful spring day like this, with a perfectly splendid, hot-blooded performance of Il Trittico to enjoy. I'm not against change per se, but I used to feel like part of a tradition stretching back to the yellow brick brewery on 39th street and all those unforgettable afternoons shared with people in every part of the world. (And, inevitably, some I couldn't wait to forget.) Maybe I'll get used to it. Maybe the new, spectacle-hungry Met will abandon terrestrial radio altogether for movie theaters and the satellite channel it already operates. Free opera will go the way of the NBC Symphony and the Young People's Concerts. As Falstaff says, "Tutta declina."


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