Why I’m Bummed About the Met Opera’s Free Summer Concert Series

04/25/2012 8:57 AM |

The old days
  • The old days

The Metropolitan Opera will stop by Brooklyn for 90 minutes this summer—well, three singers and a pianist will. On July 27, the company will host a recital in Brooklyn Bridge Park as part of its summer recital series, which will include performances in all five boroughs. (Concerts in the Bronx, Staten Island, Harlem and Queens will last one hour.)

But it wasn’t so long ago that the Opera brought concert versions of full operas to parks around the city; in 2007, Gounod’s Faust rang out across the ballfields in the Long Meadow in Prospect Park. In 2008, at the height of the economic crisis, the company began to scale back, performing just one superconcert, with two star singers and orchestra, in Prospect Park. In summers since, the Met has gone from borough to borough with the even more modest recitals it will again host this year.

“Once again, this year’s program is sure to inspire a whole new generation of opera lovers,” parks commissioner Adrian Benepe said in a press release. But will it? The appeal of opera, I think, lies not just in the music, but also in the grandeur. Sure, mammoth sets were never transported to parks around the city, but the large portable stages set up in expansive locales evoked some of the epic scale of the opera house. Wine, twilight, and the moon—in a word, romance—compensated for whatever might have been lost. Unfortunately, this year’s recitals will likely be over before the sun sets.

When the Met cut back on its outerborough summer outreach, it also introduced the Summer HD Festival: ten consecutive nights of free screenings, outside at Lincoln Center, of selections from the company’s Live in HD series, which is broadcast in theaters around the country and the world. Live in HD has been a big success for the company, not merely in terms of revenue, but in bringing the company’s work to a larger audience. These live streams double as a marketing tool, as pay-per-view advertising, establishing the brand. When Americans think of opera, more of them now think of the Metropolitan Opera.

Sure, there’s no loss of scale in HD recordings of full stagings; they may very well be inspiring new generations of opera lovers. But I wish the Met hadn’t decided to promote its HD Series at the expense of its summer intercity touring. An HD festival is obviously cheaper: it doesn’t require much travel, or musicians, or conductors. But movie screens in the plaza at Lincoln Center are not the same as live musicians in the outerboroughs, surrounded by living trees, performing for audiences surrounded by fireflies and friends. Those concerts were beautiful; I have gazed at the stars during “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix.” I’d like to think they were important, too. They’re what made the Metropolitan Opera more than a theater on the Upper West Side—they’re what made it a city institution.

Well, at least the Philharmonic will be back in Prospect Park this summer.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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