Tosca's Curse on the Metropolitan Opera
Tosca, Puccini's popular potboiler, appears to have put a curse on the Metropolitan Opera and its General director Peter Gelb.
The Met’s recent announcement that star tenor Jonas Kaufmann has withdrawn from the cast of the its new production of Tosca scheduled for New Year’s Eve 2018—his fourth successive cancellation at the Met-- is the latest in a series of Met missteps related to the “shabby little shocker” as musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called the Puccini work.
These mishaps—the ‘Tosca curse’ if you will—puts the spotlight on a major deficiency of the US system that depends primarily on private funding for the arts.
Beneficial change can be thwarted if the major private donors for whatever reason—ignorance, bad taste, politics, corruption, refusal to admit past mistakes—subsidize bad art by continuing to bail out the responsible parties with their checkbooks.
This is precisely the situation at the Metropolitan Opera where steadily declining box office receipts indicate the audience, wanting change but not getting it, is voting with its feet. Jonas Kaufmann is not the only one not showing up at the Met these days. By the time the Met donors wake up to the situation, an entire audience can be lost.
Peter Gelb’s troubles with Tosca began in 2009 when he mothballed the beloved Franco Zeffirelli 1985 production in favor of Luc Bondy’s failed Euro-trash one-- a move that set off wide-spread audience protests and alarm bells that the venerable Met had been placed in the hands of glitzy public relations guy not a knowledgeable opera person.
Indeed, Mr. Gelb admitted that jettisoning the Zeffirelli Tosca had been the biggest single blunder of his tenure when he announced what he called a ‘post Zeffirelli’ new production of the Puccini work.
Doesn’t the Met chief realize how dumb he looks promoting a ‘fake Zeffirelli’ when he was the one who threw away the real thing!
But the Tosca debacle is not about a single and costly error as Mr. Gelb would have us believe; rather, it is a reflection of his chronic propensity to tear down wonderful things willy-nilly and not be able to replace them with anything like the quality that had been lost.
The New Year’s Eve Tosca reminds us of all the unnecessary and painful losses the Met has endured under Mr. Gelb—Hoffmann, Cavalleria Rusticana, I Pagliacci, Parsifal, the dreadful Ring and many more.
Now adding to the humiliation of having to prematurely replace the Bondy production with a ‘fake Zeffirelli’—a costly matter for an opera house that’s on the ropes financially—the Met has endured yet another Tosca humiliation due to the abrupt withdrawal of the star tenor.
When Rudolph Bing was running the Met in the 1950s and 60s, embarrassing cancellations didn’t happen because insiders respected Mr. Bing as a tough and knowledgeable opera person who would retaliate against those who crossed him—and that counted.
Today, Met cancellations are commonplace—and not only by the top singers. The Met has lost its cachet in the opera world and this is showing up in the growing number of cancellations.
Of course, in Bing’s day the Met was governed by wealthy patrons who were committed to bringing first-rate opera to New York City. That’s why they hired Bing-- a cultivated Viennese with vast opera experience-- in the first place.
The Bing Board made a strong case for private funding for the arts, because their funding in fact promoted great art at the Met.
But today’s fat cats on the Met Board—‘Peter’s friends’-- just want to be part of the scene; they write the checks and give Mr. Gelb free reign to run the show as he pleases even though the empty seats are screaming, ‘We want a better product’.
At the Met good stuff is being prevented from replacing bad stuff because the big private donors have been willing to dig deep into their pockets to subsidize the bad stuff. The more you subsidize the more you get.
It’s not only the quantity of money that counts for a private funding system to work properly –it’s the quality of money as well.
Peter Gelb likely will be shown the door at the Met only when the Board finds the financial burden of compensating for the everyday bleeding taking place at the Met box office too much to tolerate. By then though the Met may not be able to re-capture the audience it has lost.
Private funding by 'poor quality' money can be a dangerous thing for the arts.