When the curtain rises on the new Metropolitan Opera season Monday night, the roller-coaster ride that has marked Peter Gelb's seven years as general manager will once again plunge into the unknown and whether it produces squeals of delight or screams of horror will be played out on the Met stage over the next eight months.
As he has since taking the reins of arguably the world's most prestigious opera house in 2006, Gelb is opening the season with another new production, this one a fin-de-siècle setting of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin by the estimable theater director Deborah Warner and directed by the actress Fiona Shaw.
Starting his eighth season, Gelb has staked the future of the Met and what he sees as the future of opera on teaching a very old dog a whole routine of new tricks by bringing in smart and hip theater and film directors to spank fresh life into what is often viewed as a staid and elite art form.
Gelb's mission is to bring opera to a new and younger audience by making it more relevant at least to the late 20th century if not the 21st. The balance sheet so far is far more in his favor than not, though some diehards among veteran opera buffs still maintain his approach is killing opera rather than saving it.
Certainly one Gelb innovation is a resounding success: the Met's Live in HD series of televising performances to cinemas around the world has drawn over 2.5 million people to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries. This season the Met will telecast 10 operas, starting on Oct. 5 with Eugene Onegin and including two performances spotlighting James Levine's much anticipated return to the podium.
The report card on the Met's new productions is impressive. It has not, however, been all straight A's. There have been a couple of F's, and this has provided ammunition for critics of Gelb's tenure. A couple of examples illustrate the extremes.
In his first year at the Met's helm, Gelb opened the season with a new Madama Butterfly that the late brilliant movie and stage director Anthony Minghella had staged for the English National Opera. It was a revelation and restored one of the old warhorses of the operatic repertory to its rightful place as great dramatic musical theater.
One of the low points, however, came in 2009 with a new production of Tosca by Luc Bondy that replaced a much-loved Franco Zefferelli version. The new one, which among other things turned Rome's Palazzo Farnese into a virtual brothel and included mock fellatio onstage, was derided by critics and audiences alike.
The roller-coaster hit another stomach-wrenching dip for Wagner fans before climbing to a new height earlier this year. A new, expensive, and troubled production of the Ring by Robert Lepage was the object of scorn when it was first unveiled in 2010. But a stunning new Parsifal by Francois Girard in February was a smash hit and muted most of the early criticism of the Ring.
One of the questions only time can answer about the new, modern productions is whether they will have the same staying power, or legs, as the old favorites. The hottest new production last season, for example, was a Rigoletto set in 1960's Las Vegas. It was wildly popular and trendy and became the must-see opera of the year. But is it a production that opera lovers will want to return to over and over?
One of the allures of the traditional settings for operas is that, in the absence of time travel, it is the only way a 21st-century audience can visit, for example, the 16th-century court of the Duke of Mantua or 17th-century Seville or 19th-century Paris. In the case of Zefferelli's Tosca, which featured wonderfully detailed sets of the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Farnese Palace, and the battlement of the Castel San Angelo, a night at the opera was like an evening tour of Rome.
One solution to the risk of losing an audience once the fad factor disappears is to keep doing new productions every few years. But with each new staging costing millions of dollars, that can prove a costly remedy.
Gelb is committed to the concept that they are necessary to expand opera's appeal to newer and younger audiences and by the end of the coming season he will have mounted 50 on the Met stage during his reign as general manager, 20 of which were either co-productions or imported from European opera houses.
But opera, like Shakespeare, can survive just about any new concept, however outlandish it may seem at first. And the one certainty about Gelb's tenure is that whether you are a rabid fan or an intransigent critic, he has put the world of opera back in headlines, livened the debate on its future, and brought opera to millions of people around the world who otherwise would never be able to attend a performance at the storied opera house at Lincoln Center.