In the face of new trends, new voices, new issues, and historical content “you can’t have an enterprise without fans/critics.” The cultural institutions of a city (country) belong to its citizens; the citizens (fans, critics, creators, producers, etc.) with conviction will continue to both attend and comment on cultural institutions represented by both MET (opera houses) and other cultural fields.
Why not sing in translation, as was common in the 19’th Century?
Michael Canaris, many operas are still sung in translation but it’s not an easy feat to accomplish if your goal is to do it well. Like poetry, libretti are notoriously difficult to translate in a manner that allows them to continuously fuse with the music.
In my experience German opera works better in translation than Italian opera does. Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (an opera that many people believe is a great first operatic experience for children) is frequently sung in English with great results. On the other hand I can’t think of a single Italian opera that translates well. As for French opera, several years back I saw the Metropolitan Opera perform “Les contes d’Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann) in English; it was perfectly fine.
Several opera companies valiantly specialize in opera sung in translation; the Opera Company of New Jersey comes to mind. In my opinion, the results are mixed at best.
Whether an opera is translated into English or even written in English (as the opera recently enjoyed by Professor Mead, “Billy Budd” was), supertitles are still helpful to those who are unfamiliar with the opera to follow the story.
Personally I prefer supertitles where the words are projected onto a screen above the stage to the “Met titles” which appear on the back of the seat in front of you. To me, supertitles provide better sight lines but it’s all a matter of taste.
The tradition of singing in translation is as dead as a doornail. The English National Opera in London is the only significant opera company that still does it. Most opera aficionados [myself included] want to hear the original language, especially when most opera companies today use supertitle translations. Opera composers wrote their operas to be sung in their original languages; it just doesn’t sound right when it’s sung in the wrong language.
Gilbert and Sullivan are quintessentially British but even when their operettas are performed by American opera companies they are frequently accompanied by supertitles. It just makes it easier to follow the story even when the performance is sung in a language you are familiar with.
This is all fine, but the objections to Gelb have been exactly your qualifiers – there should be no “gimmicks,” “artificial excitement,” “self-conscious staging.”
As an example – I don’t have a problem with Gelb bringing in the director of Jersey Boys to restage Faust, but I do have a problem when that same director says he wants to purge all that fusty religious stuff from the opera. This is where knowing the libretto gets in the way – because no matter how hard they try to make Faust a nuclear scientist whose life is passing before his eyes in a poison-induced fever dream, there’s no getting away from the themes of salvation, redemption and resurrection that are explicit in the libretto.
So, when the church bells start ringing on Easter Sunday, what does that mean? And when Marguerite starts climbing that endless fire escape to the sky, where exactly is she going – to the roof to get a sun tan? The audience doesn’t have the director’s inner musings to go by when trying to figure out time cuts from 1950 back to WWI, or what the heck Marguertie is even doing in a story which is now about a physicist regretting the development of the nuclear bomb. Sometimes you have to admit that there enough relevance in gorgeous music.