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Open aria theater

Free admission. Outdoor big screens. Live satellite radio. And this is opera? It's a new game at the Met, where Peter Gelb is breaking all the rules.

October 15, 2006|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

New York — HOW'S this for coming strong out of the gate -- the Metropolitan Opera season had not yet officially begun, the gala opening night still days off, and yet the guy in the suit, who doesn't sing a note, was getting an ovation, cheers, "Bravos!" from a packed house, all 3,800 seats filled.

And it wasn't only veteran opera-goers who had scooped up those free tickets for the final dress rehearsal of "Madama Butterfly." Delsin Sefman, 5, was clutching a miniature Power Rangers robot while trying to make sense of the tear-jerker about the Japanese woman who falls for an American sailor. "I didn't like what the girl did to the boy," Delsin told his mom, Tousette, a New York corrections officer, a corrections officer.

Of course there's no rule saying someone from the prison world can't be at the opera, and she had been before ("I used to date a guy who had orchestra seats"), but that's hardly the traditional image of the opera crowd exemplified by an old Weegee photograph showing a society woman in a fur coat passing common folk on the street who glare at her while dripping with hatred, just as she drips with jewels.

Then again, the Met filled 93% of its seats not long ago. Last season the figure was 77%.

During an intermission in the open rehearsal of "Madama Butterfly," the corrections officer mom led her son outside, where workmen were erecting a platform for opening night, when the gala performance of the Puccini opera would be projected on screens in Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square -- to be followed by offering other Met productions on satellite radio. "I found out that you can get some tickets for $15 too," said the tot-toting mom.

To be sure, not everyone was sold on what's going on at the nation's leading opera house. George Bash, 80, originally from Transylvania, was wary of importing directors from the movies or Broadway to give its operas a new look. Bash once saw a "Magic Flute" with "exaggerated" staging that "distracted from the singing," he said. "I hope they will not neglect the singers."

Then the crowd headed inside for the final act of the "Butterfly" directed by just such an outsider, Anthony Minghella, who won an Academy Award for "The English Patient." With "Butterfly," he told the performers not to sing at their first run-through, to merely speak their lines. He used a Japanese Bunraku puppet instead of a young actor to play the love child of Cio-Cio-San and the American, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. And when the heroine realizes that she has lost her beau, and the child, and does what an opera heroine does -- kills herself -- dancers dressed in black appear to pull lush red fabric from her throat. Yards of fabric keep coming out, as when a magician pulls scarves from his sleeve, until they stretch into enormous diagonals across the stage. Both beautiful and horrifying, the image of spreading blood unfolds above them as well, for the ceiling over the stage is mirrored and tilted toward the audience.

Finally Pinkerton cries "Butterfly!," the curtain falls and the people rise again to treat the singers, orchestra and conductor James Levine as if they were rock stars, bookending the reception given before the show to the man in the suit, Peter Gelb, who has emerged, almost overnight, as the great hope of, if not an entire aging art form, at least the 123-year-old Met.

"I've never been cheered by 4,000 people," the Met's new general manager said later. "Who wouldn't be excited?"

Yet, given how he'd been in the post a matter of weeks -- since Aug. 1 -- Gelb knew it would be wise not to let the cheers go to his head before anyone sees if his bid to lift "this veil of formality" from the opera house will work.

"I'm also realistic enough to know this was an audience that got 4,000 free tickets," he said. "Why wouldn't they cheer?"


Unconventional resume

GELB jokes that when he was born, 52 years ago, his great-uncle Jascha Heifetz, the violinist, came to the hospital and put a tuning fork to his ear "to check for signs of innate virtuosity." The punch line: "My mother informs me that I failed the test."

While that giant of 20th century music was in his maternal bloodlines, his father, Arthur Gelb, was no slouch either, having risen from copy boy to become managing editor of the New York Times, serving as a drama critic in the process.

The first time Gelb went to the opera, at 13, he saw "Carmen" from the box of a Met general manager, Rudolph Bing, who served from 1950 to 1972. His most vivid memory of the night was Bing's jumping from the box and "jousting with a spectator who was yelling 'phooey!' at the end of one of the arias."

Gelb suggests he was almost a normal kid, collecting boxes of baseball cards. But the radio under his covers at night was tuned to WQXR-FM, a classical station.

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