A letter I’ve just Sent
Dear Ms. Manuela Hoelterhoff and Mr. Frederik Balfour;
I am writing in response to the February 28th article on Bloomberg.com titled “Let Sippy Cups Into the Metropolitan.” I make additional references to Ms. Hoelterhoff’s October 22nd article “Muhly’s Internet Creep Gets Stabbed in Met Opera Premier.”
I am about to accuse you both of something rather serious, something that would unravel your credentials as culture journalists. I mean of course, that you have both, perhaps, lost sight of what it means to enjoy an opera. This may, or may not, be your fault. Of course some blame must be placed on the fundamental misunderstanding of how one enjoys great music that currently plagues American audiences. Perhaps more blame can be placed on the confusion over exactly how the Met is funded; it must be stated that while there is a great amount more state allocated funding for Bavaria’s ice cream ladies than there are for the carpeting at the Met. I am not saying that subscribers and donors need to be treated to private bars, while the rest of us only hope that the bar line moves fast enough during one of the two the half hour intermissions. What I am saying, is that perhaps you are misguided. Perhaps you thought that you were showing up for an all inclusive evening of one stop entertainment where the food, drink, tunes, and fun would be flowing. You thought wrong.
Opera is not now, nor has it really ever been, entertainment. Opera is theater. One may go to the theater for several reasons, however I really don’t believe that any of them should be ‘to be entertained.’ For that there are blockbuster movies, rock concerts, ferris wheels, and break dancers on the subways. These are entertainments that can be enjoyed while baking a cake and pouring yourself a glass of champagne. Hey, at the AMC, you can even bring your soda inside with you! And a flask if you want, no one will stop you. We go to the theater to experience the performing arts. We go to bear witness to the parts of society that we may not have otherwise paid any attention. We should go to allow the combined efforts of music, sets, drama, and singing to strip away the masks that we normally wear in our daily lives and to reveal hidden crevices of our own psyches. We go to the theater so that we may grow as people.
I am not so daft to hope that the audience will sit stoic while the esoteric practices of audience etiquette are ritualistically obliged. In fact, these people aren’t at the theater to grow any more than you are. They are there because of some inherent and selfish need to show up and be seen there. I am asking that instead of sitting passively, we engage into the meaning, context, and questions raised by the works arguments. That instead of accepting any production at face value, we instead turn to thinking critically about the music, mis-en-scene, the sets and lighting, and the singing and examine how these elements combine to make an argument that transcends the walls of the theater. Or, alternatively, how they don’t.
Of course, I realize that there have always been popular hits— Verdi’s melodies became gondola singers’ standards, Mozart’s music is enough to become an incessant earworm— however, the cultural community of New York City demands that you listen for more in order to properly hear this music. Without that sense of deeper thinking, the important issues of Mozart’s moral maxims would be as overlooked as Verdi’s sense of revolution and independence for Italy. I see from your review of Muhly’s Two Boys that you make no effort to really understand what the music or libretto is trying to say. Now, perhaps for you it didn’t say anything, or enough, but instead of offering a critical lens, you scoff at the work’s topical issues. You ignore the issues the opera raises: issues which you are perhaps too old to even understand. You overlook that the magical realism and cultural impact of the internet community has been foregrounded in the opera, as it has in today’s generation, and these concerns become secondary or tertiary in your review. You complained that there weren’t enough tunes, as if this work should be tailor made for your own favorite genre of tunage. You may not have liked the Met’s latest commission, but isn’t a journalist duty bound to at least ask why? I am accusing you, Ms. Hoelterhoff of abandoning your journalist impetus when you refused to ask the questions necessary to gain an understanding of the work. You write the piece off, instead of opening a discussion into the questions and demands that the work raises.
Your complaints about the Met are similarly topical and trite. Instead of looking beyond the issues on the surface of your experience and question the validity, purpose, or direction of opera in the 21st century, you reduced your journalism to shallow, petty, and idiotic prose. You applied the exact brand of non-thought that should be forbidden of audiences in the theater. Certainly in regards to such important music and a venerable institution, you can find time to ponder the deeper issues in regards to the Met’s current ticket concerns. The lack of critical thinking which now permeates the spheres education, politics, economics, journalism, and arts does little to advance ticket sales. You’ve chosen to abandon your responsibility as a journalist to ask questions that are bigger than sensationalized media and your obligation to write truths.
In growing more and more impassioned in this letter, I’ve realized that what I want to say is that I believe there are problems deeply woven into the fabric of the Met. That I think there are issues abound with their programming; with their style of outreach; with their own commitment to smothering critical thought about their productions; with their choice of directors; and even with the amount of leg room in the Family Circle. All these and more amount to legitimate concerns for the future of our beloved Met Opera. Lack sippy cups, however is not a legitimate concern. Neither is the late seating call. Show up on time, because if nothing else in this world, we should at least expect that of you.
To many of us who regularly attend Met productions (and I regularly attend a lot of theater) your article was near nonsense. That so many of us have never experienced your petty complaints, means that perhaps you were confused about exactly . I have no issues with the cellophane, or with the bar lines, finding a drink at one of the five bars, or with any of the lobby spaces. In fact, I quiet like the space under the stairs where there is ample space and a wall full of the greatest singers’ seen on the Met stage. The art gallery does much to encourage a look at the themes of the opera in a way that is immediate and visual. Just because it’s goals are lost on you, doesn’t mean they are lost on the rest of us.
What concerns me most, is that you know better, Ms. Hoelterhoff. I can only assume that your own anger at the Met’s inability to sell seats, and your astute, though unpublished, observation that it parallels a decline in taste, may have momentarily blinded your writing skills. It is evident that modern pop culture’s tendencies towards superficiality has blurred the lines between sensationalist pop media, and true journalism. A similar line has been blurred between real art and entertainment. Do not encourage your readers to abide by this blurred line.
Please don’t bring your drinks into the opera. Don’t bring your cell phones, or your popcorn, or your closed mind. Instead bring your sense of critical thinking. Bring your brain, and your desire to look deeply into the plot of what is presented for you. I suspect ticket sales won’t be amiss if we begin to encourage and teach all audiences how to react this way to the opera and that a return to levels of taste in art, rather than sensationalized wow-factor could actually be the restorative potion we seek.