First it was the Metropolitan Opera. In 2006, when Peter Gelb took over as General Manager of the Met, after Joseph Volpe’s long and distinguished tenure, the critic Norman Lebrecht wrote sadly that Gelb’s “contempt for artistic values and his adulation of mass entertainment point to an historic shift in Met priorities.” And so it has come to pass. Mr. Gelb promised early and often to pander to, er … that is, to reach for “a broader audience” in order to halt what he described as the Met’s progress down “a declining slope toward extermination.” His answer? Slick marketing, an infatuation with movie stars and other celebrities, and “transgressive” productions that cater to a generation whose idea of spectacle is defined by Hollywood-style special effects.

Mr. Gelb had to come to the Met in person in order to wreak havoc. Gérard Mortier, now head of the Paris Opéra, seems to have managed a similar feat by remote control. We remember the reaction to the news that Mr. Mortier was to take over at the New York City Opera beginning in 2009. Among most of our acquaintance, the response oscillated among outrage, trepidation, and despondency. And well it might. For anyone who has not had the dubious pleasure of attending one of Mr. Mortier’s “updatings,” let us quote from Heather Mac Donald’s “The Abduction of Opera” in the Summer 2007 issue of City Journal. Mortier, Ms. Mac Donald wrote,

staged a Fledermaus at the Salzburg Festival that dragooned Johann Strauss’s delightful confection into service as a cocaine-, violence-, and sex-drenched left-wing “critique” of contemporary Austrian politics. An American tenor working in Germany remembers another Fledermaus with a large pink vagina in the center of the stage into which the singers dived. The innocent sea captain’s daughter, Senta, in the Vienna State Opera’s Flying Dutchman has posters of Che and Martin Luther King in her bedroom instead of a picture of the mysterious Dutchman, and burns herself to death with gasoline rather than jumping into the sea to meet her phantom beloved. Don Giovanni is almost invariably an offensive slob who masturbates and stuffs himself with junk food and drugs, surrounded by equally repellent psychotics, perverts, and sluts.

A lot to look forward to, what? Many people thought that Mr. Mortier’s advent at the City Opera would spell the end of that worthy but long-struggling institution. As it turns out, though, he may have accomplished the same thing by staying away. Last month, he suddenly announced that, because the City Opera could only come up with $36 million of the $60 million he’d been promised for productions, he was going to keep his marbles in Paris rather than come to New York. This, of course, left the City Opera in the lurch at just about the last possible moment. Not exactly a pleasant thing to do to a financially strapped institution in the middle of a worldwide financial crisis. The predictable result: the future of City Opera, already cloudy, is now entirely up for grabs. Perhaps Mr. Mortier has an “updated” idea about professional obligations as well as opera productions?

Trendy cultural impresarios like Peter Gelb and Gérard Mortier claim to recapture the classics and make them “relevant” to a contemporary audience. But do Mozart or Strauss or Verdi require the ministrations of the bad-boy pseudo-avant-garde establishment in order to speak compellingly to us? The same question might be asked of Shakespeare or Milton, or indeed of Aeschylus or Homer. The literary critic Irving Howe, writing about this issue some years ago, recalled a colleague complaining that the classics of Western culture did not address her experience. Howe witheringly asked, “Why should they? And more to the point can her experience address the classics? One … reason for reading the classics is that they widen and deepen our experience, pulling us out of the all-too-visible limits that any single self is likely to have. Precisely the ‘irrelevance’ of the classics is what makes them relevant.” Indeed. Heather Mac Donald makes a cognate point about recent efforts to transform operas into postmodern dystopian fantasies.

Gérard Mortier says that in updating operas, he seeks to “transform a work dated in a certain era so it communicates something fresh today.” He has it exactly backward. There is nothing less “fresh” than the tired rock-video iconography, the consumer detritus of beer cans and burgers, or the anti-imperialist, anti-sexist messages that [trendy] directors graft on to operas to make them “relevant.” What is actually “fresh” about a Mozart opera, besides its terrible beauty, is that it comes from a world that no longer exists. And it is, above all, the music that bodies forth that difference. The Baroque and Classical styles in particular convey an entire mode of being, one that values grace and artifice over supposed authenticity and untrammeled self-expression.

It would be a pity if Gérard Mortier managed to destroy the City Opera by declining, at the last moment, ever to set foot in it. We sincerely hope it won’t come to that. But perhaps better that sad eventuality than the artistic humiliation and artistic death it would have suffered had he decided to come and spend whatever millions were given him to “update” that much-besieged institution.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 4, on page 2
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