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Friday, September 15, 2006

Database Diving RE: The Met

Once again, some research that I’ve been doing for an essay on one subject has led me astray—and directly into another. While perusing the Metropolitan Opera’s newly designed Web site, I stumbled across some fascinating data that has prompted me to shift gears—thus the basis of today’s blog. I’ll return to my original topic—technical observations on the newest form of opera broadcasts—in a few days.

The Metropolitan in New York is generally viewed as opera’s flagship location, having supplanted over the years such venues as Milan’s La Scala and London’s Covent Garden. Much of the Met’s prominence can be attributed to Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts that, every winter and spring since the 1930s, have brought a small slice of New York culture to the world. Another reason involves the sheer number and variety of works performed there, as will be discussed below.

Much the same way that Carnegie Hall is the ultimate destination for aspiring concert musicians, nearly every opera singer hopes one day to sing at the Met. Politics aside—and there are plenty of those, you can be sure—the thrill of performing in a Metropolitan Opera production can hardly be matched elsewhere, or so I’ve heard. My own budding professional singing career began and ended on the stage of old Symphony Hall in Minneapolis, so I can only imagine what it must be like to step out into the footlights and gaze upward toward those gorgeous, sparkling chandeliers allegedly designed (or at least conceptualized) by Beverly Sills.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Met’s new Web site is its listing of every production they’ve done since the company got its start back in the mid-1880s. This Repertory Report acknowledges the title of every opera, its number of performances, the date of the first performance of that work, and the date of its most recent performance.

Only two operas have been seen more than a thousand times on Met stages—Puccini’s “La Bohème” (1178) and Verdi’s “Aida” (1093). Rounding out the top five are Bizet’s “Carmen” (936), Verdi’s “La Traviata” (917) and Puccini’s “Tosca” (880). Not surprisingly, each of those operas was featured as recently as the 2005-06 season.

For the Met’s inaugural season, here’s the lineup in order of each composition’s debut:

  1. Faust (Gounod) — October 22, 1883
  2. Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti) — October 24, 1883
  3. Il Trovatore (Verdi) — October 26, 1883
  4. I Puritani (Bellini) — October 29, 1883
  5. Mignon (Thomas) — October 31, 1883
  6. La Traviata (Verdi) — November 5, 1883
  7. Lohengrin (Wagner) — November 7, 1883
  8. La Sonnambula (Bellini) — November 14, 1883
  9. Rigoletto (Verdi) — November 16, 1883
  10. Robert le Diable (Meyerbeer) — November 19, 1883
  11. Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini) — November 23, 1883
  12. Don Giovanni (Mozart) — November 28, 1883
  13. Mefistofele (Boito) — December 5, 1883
  14. La Gioconda (Ponchielli) — December 20, 1883
  15. Martha (Flotow) — January 4, 1884
  16. Carmen (Bizet) — January 5, 1884
  17. Le Prophète (Meyerbeer) — February 12, 1884
  18. Hamlet (Thomas) — February 21, 1884
  19. Les Huguenots (Meyerbeer) — March 19, 1884
  20. Roméo et Juliet (Gounod) — April 16, 1884

Categorized by the language in which the original libretti were written, this first season featured ten Italian operas, eight French operas, one German opera, and “Martha,” which may have been sung in German although is often performed in English here in the States.

These days the Metropolitan Opera is known for its extravagant productions, including elaborate sets, fancy costumes, well-known conductors and (relatively) highly paid singers. Even in its infancy the house did not skimp on expenditures, which makes the next discovery even more puzzling.

Mounting a new opera involves a lot of costs, directly recoverable only by amortizing them over many performances. There are certainly opportunities where costumes, props and sets can be employed for more than one opera—the priestly garb and Renaissance-era furniture from the first act of Meyerbeer’s “L’africaine” will serve equally well in a production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo”—but other expenses involve a one-time outlay that is unique to that production. This would include renting or purchasing musical scores, paying performers for rehearsal time, the cost of stage direction, and so on.

These days, opera companies from different cities share productions over the course of multiple seasons. That’s another way to keep costs down. One of the exciting things about Denver’s new opera house is the fact that performances here are no longer being done “in the round”—an execrable practice for much of the past 20 years due to the venue the company was forced to usewhich allows productions done in more conventional spaces to play here. For example, the version of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” that will close our company’s 2006-07 season was created in cooperation with the Boston Lyric Opera and the Minnesota Opera.

But the Met doesn’t often share productions with other houses, choosing instead to design and build everything on its own. So it was interesting for me to see so many operas listed that barely made a dent in the overall performance history at the Met. And what’s even more fascinating, some of the works performed a bare handful of times are quite popular, if not downright important.

Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz” first appeared at the Met in January 1894, only three years after its Rome debut. The opera has been seen only five more times there, most recently in 1923. Other reasonably well known operas with a mere half-dozen Met performances include Puccini’s very first composition, “Le Villi” (last performed in 1909), Lalo’s “Le Roi d’Ys” (last performed in 1922) and Massenet’s “Le Roi de Lahore” (last performed in 1924). Here are some other surprises. Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” (soon to be a subject of this very blog) has been performed only four times at the Met (most recently in 1916), as well as Catalani’s “La Wally” (last performed in 1909). The biggest surprise of all? Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” often considered his greatest dramatic triumph after “Lucia,” has only been seen ONCE on Met stages—on December 5, 1904. What’s up with that?

A listing of the other singular operatic performances at the Met (six works in addition to the Donizetti) dredges up an unsurprising number of forgotten compositions. The only other name on the list familiar to me without requiring further research was “The Telephone,” a Gian-Carlo Menotti P-O-C whose only redeeming value is that it’s short. The other one-time wonders include “The Happy Prince” (Malcolm Williamson), “Santus Francisus” (Adriano Ariani), “Mors et Vita” (Charles Gounod), “Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor” (Otto Nicolai) and “Cecilia Valdes” (Gonzalo Roig)—although the latter is more properly classified as a zarzuela, the uniquely Spanish form of opera.

Some additional operas that have seen surprisingly little life at the Met include Boieldieu’s “La Dame Blanche” (3x), a three-act opera that had enjoyed incredible popularity in 19th century Paris, Rossini’s “Il Signor Bruschino” (5x), the most acclaimed of his five one-act comedies, Cimarosa’s “Il Matrimonio Segreto” (2x), the composer’s best-known work and probably the finest example of “opera buffa” to come out of late 18th-century Italy, and Spontini’s “Fernand Cortez” (4x), one of his two operas (the better-known “La Vestale” is the other) to be recognized as having laid the groundwork for transmogrifying the art form into “grand” opera.

Since Giacomo Meyerbeer is one of my compositional heroes, I could hardly close this essay without resorting to at least a partial rant. His five French operas—taken together they constitute more total performances and greater generated revenue than any other grouping of five operas ever produced in Paris—have been shamefully underrepresented at the Met.

Meyerbeer’s three-act “Dinorah” was performed a mere total of five times, most recently in 1925. His grandest opera, “Les Huguenots,” has enjoyed 129 performances, but it’s highly unlikely that anyone is still alive who saw it at the Met, since it was last done there on April 26, 1915. I think that’s a disgrace. His final opera, “L’africaine,” clocks in at 71 performances, the most recent of which was in 1934. The opera “Le Prophète,” revived as a vehicle for Marilyn Horne and last performed at the Met in 1979, has had a total of 99 performances. And Meyerbeer’s very first grand opera, the tuneful and dramatic “Robert le Diable,” has been done there only seven times, and not since 1884!

You can validate your own rant (“I can’t believe that the Met has done “Die Fledermaus” almost twice as many times as “Eugene Onegin”) or spend countless hours checking out the depth and breadth of your favorite singer’s historical Met repertoire by visiting here and following the appropriate links. Happy hunting!

Hi Paul - I have really enjoyed reading your blog, and would like to get in touch with you personally. I cannot find a way to do that...? Please let me know if and where I can reach you.

Anyone who wishes to reach me directly may do so by writing to operablogger (at) yahoo (dot) com. I will endeavor to answer all inquiries in a timely manner.
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