When Franco Zeffirelli’s production of “La Boheme” debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1981, audiences were awed by a grand spectacle. During the second act, which occurs at a Paris café on Christmas Eve, every inch of the stage was filled with performers in 1840s dress. It was a quintessential Parisian café scene with bustling waiters, angry patrons and a lively street scene. There was no doubt that this was Christmas in the Latin Quarter.
Then in 2006, Peter Gelb became general director of the Met, and things changed.
On Oct. 11, Met audiences attended a revival of Richard Eyre’s production of “Carmen.” In this production, which originally replaced Zeffirelli’s on New Year’s Eve 2009, spectators witnessed a new take on opera’s classic oversexed gypsy. Instead of taking place during the 1810s, Eyre’s version updated the setting to Seville circa 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, to exploit both the sexual tensions and economic struggles of Spain’s underclass.
Eyre’s production is part of Gelb’s mission to present more theatrical opera, to draw a wider public. Many of his directors are new to opera, because Gelb believes that those unfamiliar with opera can provide a jolt to what is perceived by some as a stale art form. Gelb’s roster of famous directors has included the late film director Anthony Minghella; Broadway director Bartlett Sher; and Robert Lepage of Cirque du Soleil.
Judy Rabi, who is new to opera, attended the performance. She recently purchased a subscription to the Met and endorsed the new approach. “I do think it makes it a more vibrant production,” she said.
Others disagreed. Cicely Goulder, a visitor from London who attended her first opera at the Met, believed the “Carmen” production was very “safe.” She did not realize the opera was updated to Franco’s Spain. Despite that, she acknowledged that opera houses need to find new ways to draw people in. She said it can be done “[without dumbing] it down.”
The use of theatrical productions to widen the art form’s appeal is not specific to the Met, and has been seen outside of the United States, in productions in Austria and Italy.
According to Briana Hunter, a mezzo-soprano, the two styles of productions approach opera from different points of view. In reference to Zeffirelli’s elaborate productions, she said, “Traditional productions like his remain iconic because they truly embraced the high stakes grandiose nature of the art form.” She used the palace scene from Zeffirelli’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” as an example. “If this is a princess and a palace you’d risk your life to possess, it better look a whole heck of a lot better than where the common folk are living,” she said.
Commenting on the modern productions, Hunter said, “As you change the world [the characters] live in, it changes the range of things they might be able to do physically.”
In a July 2012 interview with Opera News, a magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, baritone Gerald Finley said one problem with the new productions is that sometimes directors chase after metaphors and forget about the need to set the opera in an actual location. Finley mentioned a production of “Don Giovanni” modeled after “La Dolce Vita,” the 1960 film directed by Federico Fellini. Finley told Opera News, “I thought it was a very interesting idea.” However, it was “much more difficult to bring that to life on stage without real strong imagery of set and location.”
Sometimes new productions can be outright offensive. Clint Strindberg, a gift shop assistant at the Met, recalled a production of “Mosè in Egitto” in Italy, where two characters were turned into Yasser Arafat and Osama Bin Laden. Strindberg, who saw the opera with his Jewish friends, described their reaction as “agog.”
Nevertheless, it played to sold-out audiences. And according to Strindberg, “As a marketing tool, it succeeded very well, as I have not stopped talking about it, and that [is] one of the ways an art form stays alive.”