copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
13 January 2007
Flicking through the Metropolitan Opera programme
with its proliferating lists of donors, one is struck dumb by
the number of synonyms for stumpers-up of cash: there are founders,
benefactors, sponsors, production funders, Golden Horseshoe
donors, donors of the Save the Met Broadcasts Campaign, companies
participating in the Met Opera Corporate Special Projects Program,
and all this before you reach the Patron Program and the Encore
Society. Every donation type is calibrated, from "$1,000,000
or more" to $4,000, which seems to be the lowest level
at which you receive name recognition.
One might think the place was awash with money.
Then one flicks back through the lists of administration, orchestra,
chorus, ballet, the six prompters, the three diction coaches,
the 40-odd assistant conductors, and astonishment gives way
to despair. This kind of operation is surely too large for creative
thought. Oh, the orchestra looks, on paper, like an orchestra,
the chorus like a chorus and the ballet like a ballet, but the
"roster" of artists goes on for ever, and the administration
is enough for a city state.
What is crucially missing at the Met, as in
most opera houses around the world, is flexibility: a sensible
small theatre where new work, together with old work designed
for small houses, can be presented without the expenditure of
millions of dollars. New work is seldom put on in these mammoth
auditoriums, but when it is, it gets money thrown at it with
hysterical zeal, in the hope that cash will make up for whatever
turns out to be missing from the mix. But the fact that so much
cash is flying around only inhibits creativity.
Outreach is the dream of these houses. Their
audiences are in danger of dying off, and it seems sensible
to look for a younger generation of opera-goers. Why not turn
to the world of film and see what benefits can be transferred?
There is nothing wrong with such an idea on its own, so long
as the chief objection is understood from the start.
A film score is not, or does not have to be,
a continuous piece of music. It is like a set of episodic commentaries
on the action of the film, interpreting or pointing up mood,
plot, emotion. An opera, on the other hand, is typically a continuous
piece of music, like a very long symphony. Like a very long
symphony indeed, in some cases. Beethoven's Ninth comes in at
a little over an hour. The First Emperor, Tan Dun's new opera
at the Met, detains its audience (interval included) for three
hours and 20 minutes.
The story derives from a screenplay by Lu Wei,
The Legend of the Bloody Zheng. The first emperor seeks to persuade
a childhood friend to compose an anthem to glorify his empire.
The friend, who has suffered under the emperor's tyranny, refuses
and goes on hunger strike. The emperor's crippled daughter tries
to persuade the friend to eat, eventually feeding him from her
own mouth. This last manoeuvre does the trick, and the couple
make love, with the result that the princess is miraculously
cured, but the longed-for anthem of celebration never gets written.
In its place, what we hear is the chorus of the slaves at work
on the Great Wall.
We had Plácido Domingo in the title
role, and that gave us a sense of an event. We had, as director,
Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, House of Flying Daggers) and the costumes
were designed by Emi Wada, who won an award for Kurosawa's Ran.
The composer, conductor and co-librettist was Tan Dun himself
(Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and he shared the work on the
words with Ha Jin, a Chinese exile who writes poetry and novels
in English and who came up with a script that sounded like a
stilted translation from Chinese.
How to get through an opera in which everything
is excellent apart from the music and the words? I went on the
fourth night, by which time Domingo no longer seemed dependent
(as the New York Times reviewer had initially noted) on the
prompter's box. Other singers included Michelle DeYoung, Elizabeth
Futral and Paul Groves. In addition to the Met orchestra there
was a Chinese band on stage, and there were Chinese dancers.
The music was said to be an attempt to recreate
the lost music of ancient China "as Tan Dun has imagined
it based on extensive research and scant historical evidence",
and to combine this with the tradition of Italian opera. Indeed,
the chorus of slaves came over, in dramatic terms, much like
such choruses in Verdi, while the meeting of the Chinese musical
tradition with that of the western orchestra brought Puccini
to mind. One thought how well, and how economically, he had
achieved this marriage of styles, and how long ago.
One of the Met's undoubted successes of recent
years, Julie Taymor's Magic Flute, was back again, and I saw
it for the first time. This is Mozart with plenty of birds and
enormous dancing bears. It was lavish to some purpose, filling
the large auditorium with colour and fun. One wouldn't call
it a great interpretation (or, indeed, a great performance),
but it was a great spectacle, and that seemed fair enough to
You could enjoy it in two versions. I went
to the full performance in German, with JD McClatchey's words
available on the screen at your seat. The alternative, aimed
at children, was a reduced 90-minute version, singing McClatchey's
text. Since The Magic Flute doesn't make much sense, it did
no harm to see it treated as a musical in the same genre as
The Lion King. But I kept thinking how tiny the original theatre
in Vienna, and how skimpy the original production, would have
been, and how much easier it would have been for the Queen of
the Night if she had been performing in a house of idiomatic,
Mozartian size. Indeed, how much easier it would be for all
When the big houses do something that bursts
their seams, as happened when the Met put on Tarkovsky's production
of Prokofiev's War and Peace, with horses and so many extras
they had to extend their changing rooms into the car park, the
result can be incomparably thrilling and true to the idiom of
the original. But not all opera is grand. Vastness yields a
diminishing return. For a small-scale work, a smaller house
gives the better, vaster effect.