So many people I know think they don’t like opera. They have little experience of it and perhaps are intimidated by the foreign languages, the length of the performances, and the use of music for all the dialogue. Whatever the reason, they avoid anything which smacks of opera.
The 2020 New Year’s Eve Gala concert from the Metropolitan Opera of New York on Thursday should be an exception. Filmed in Augsburg, Germany, live from the neo-Baroque Parktheater (“a marvel of glass and cast-iron” which opened in 1886), it is a delightful concert appealing to opera experts and novices alike. It premiered on New Year’s Eve and is available to view by streaming until January 13th.
The setting is stunning. When most other opera houses around the world are shuttered, this performance comes from an opera house which is small, intimate, and with what appear to be windows which let in natural light. Lighting for the concert used the windows to wonderful effect. All the seats on the floor of the hall were removed, replaced by a small round stage where the performers sang, accompanied by a pianist for some songs and a small string ensemble for others. The production was conducted according to German COVID-19 requirements, shot with numerous cameras, linked to the control room in New York, and directed by Gary Halvorson, the director of the Met’s Live in HD theatre transmissions.
The Gala program includes arias, duets, and ensembles from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, Puccini’s La Boheme and La Rondine, Verdi’s Il Trovatore and La Traviata, and others, as well as operetta excerpts and Neapolitan songs. These are some of the most popular pieces in classical music and will be familiar to many who think they know nothing about opera. Excerpts from the concert are available on YouTube.
The performers are sopranos Angel Blue and Pretty Yende and tenors Javier Camarena and Matthew Polenzani. Blue starred as Bess in the Met’s production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which opened the 2019–20 season. She is founder of the non-profit Sylvia’s Kids Foundation, which offers scholarships to high school graduates. Yende comes from South Africa, made her debut in Latvia and has sung with most major opera companies around the world. Mexican tenor Camarena is “one of opera’s most celebrated bel canto singers.” He made his Met debut in 2011 as Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. American tenor Polenzani made his debut at the Met in 1997 as Boyar Khrushchov in Boris Godunov and has sung nearly 400 performances of 40 roles at the Met since.
The women wear lavish dresses, the men tuxedos. Needless to say, their singing is superb. It was wonderful to see them perform live in such a setting, and to know that people were watching together from all over the world.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased on the Met’s website at metopera.org. Once you have a ticket, you can watch the concert as often as you wish. The concert can be seen on a computer, mobile device, or a home entertainment system (via Chromecast or AirPlay).
The Gala Concert has been marketed as part of the Met’s fundraising campaign “to support the company and protect its future.”
To put it into context, you may be interested to know that the New Year’s Eve Gala has contributed to labour conflicts at the Met. The newsletter, Ludwig Van Toronto, on January 1, 2021, published an article by Anya Wassenberg entitled “THE SCOOP | Frictions Grow Between Met Opera, Met Orchestra And Staff After New Year’s Gala.”
The Met is the largest classical music organization in the US with about 1000 employees including musicians, stagehands, and members of the chorus. It is said that the Met has lost $154 million in revenues since the pandemic began. On Thursday, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians complained that the Gala continued the Met strategy of outsourcing its musicians which was “artistic malpractice and unacceptable.” In December, the stagehands were locked out. The unions are concerned that employees of the Met have not been paid or supported during the pandemic, and that future contract negotiations will be affected. I had assumed that the “fundraising campaign,” which was the purpose of the MetStars series and the Gala, would have supported as many Met employees as possible. Apparently, it did not extend to the musicians, stagehands, and chorus.
Comments about the New Year’s Gala reflect the situation. Most agree that it was a splendid concert with great music and fabulous production values. Some chose to boycott the concert because of the labour issues. I have no informed opinion about the situation. The only thing I will say is that the Metropolitan Opera has led the world in making opera accessible to the masses. If making opera more popular is one of the objectives of the MetStars series, including the Gala, then it will contribute to the future of the art. That is a good thing.
As for the concert, it is absolutely exhilarating. The choice of music is diverse, demanding, delightful, and upbeat. The words reflect common operatic themes, the vagaries of human experience, and are translated in the subtitles. The performers are super-energetic and totally engaging. That they touch each other, hold hands, and hug is novel and good to see after ten months of rigid physical distancing. By the time they end the concert, singing Auld Lang Syne, they clearly are having great fun. It’s a concert which will leave you smiling as you enter the new year.
(By the way, Ludwig Van Toronto, and Ludwig Van Montreal, are websites dedicated to lovers of classical music. Their email newsletter notes that while the mainstream media is cutting back on classical music coverage, Ludwig Van is investing in it. Its motto is “If You Think Classical Music is Dead, You’re Dead Wrong!” You can choose to receive the email newsletter daily, weekly, or monthly. I had no idea that it existed and am delighted to plug into what it has to offer. Check out their website.)