On Wednesday, September 23, the Metropolitan Opera released a statement that the entire 2020-2021 season has been canceled. It was yet another a shock to the system of the city, and it came just two days after what would have been opening night.
The decision was scientific, economic and painful. For some time, Lincoln Center has stated that the curtains would remain down until a COVID-19 vaccine was widely available. The Metropolitan Opera, on advice of health officials, took that further stating, “Because of the many hundreds of performers who are required to rehearse and perform in close quarters and because of the company’s large audience, it was determined that it would not be safe for the Met to resume until a vaccine is widely in use, herd immunity is established, and the wearing of masks and social distancing is no longer a medical requirement.”
While audiences at art museums can wear masks and view inanimate masterpieces from a safe distance, for a performing arts organization, its people are its treasures and its future. The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, stated “The inability to perform is taking a tremendous toll on our company.” The sentiment was echoed by the Met Opera Chorus on Facebook: “This news is a setback, and a monumental disappointment, but we will not allow it to silence us. The city, the nation, and the world need music right now.” Recorded performances will continue to be shown on Lincoln Center At Home.
While the announcement sounded a mournful tone, it also carries hopeful notes. Based on the best judgment of medical advisers to the Met, we’ll all be able to enjoy live performances next fall. So there’s a light (in the form of those iconic chandeliers) at the end of the tunnel. Also, ambitious plans are underway to bring updated classics and fresh new works to audiences.
The season opens with the New York premiere of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the Met’s first presentation of an opera by an African American composer. It’s based on the memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow about growing up Black in the 1970s in Louisiana. It’s just one of a number of steps the Met is taking to increase diversity and broaden its appeal.
“To be on the podium for the Opening Night premiere of ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ is sure to be an absolute thrill,” said Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Met, adding, “I’m very pleased that our programming will be more responsive to the important social changes that are taking place. I’m happy too, that five distinguished conductors — Jane Glover, Karen Kamensek, Susanna Mälkki, and, in their company debuts, Eun Sun Kim and Nathalie Stutzmann — will all perform at the Met in 2021–22, the most women on the podium in a single season in Met history.”
Also, three Black composers — Valerie Coleman, Jessie Montgomery, and Joel Thompson — have been added to the Metropolitan Opera / Lincoln Center Theater New Works commissioning program, and African American artist Rashid Johnson has been tapped to create large-scale artworks.
All of those are about what’s happening behind the curtains – curtains that won’t rise for a year. What does it mean for New Yorkers who love and miss the Met?
Anne Hawkins, a veteran Manhattanite, former professional musician, now literary agent and self-confessed culture vulture, lives a short walk from Lincoln Center. She usually has subscriptions to the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic and American Ballet Theatre, and said that in a typical season, she’s at Lincoln Center about once a week. She sees the announcement as a harbinger of better times. “If they’re planning a 2021-22 season, it’s good news. I just hope they’re able to do it.”
Hawkins is an opera lover who doesn’t love watching them online. “My music system is just not adequate to the task,” she admits. Besides, something is lost. “Opera is so interactive between the audience and the performers. One feeds into the other to a greater extent, I think, than in most cultural forms. The audience is almost a living organism if they’re really rapt into the opera. Sometimes there’s this incredibly beautiful aria and the last note plays out, and then there’s just a dead silence. And then people breathe and say, okay, I’ve recovered. Now I can clap.”
She’s looking forward to the promise of new works and fresh interpretations and believes there’ll be an appetite for different kinds of experiences, including even editing and changing classics, if it’s done well and the audience is prepared. As for “Fire Shut Up in my Bones” she says, “I am dying to see it.” What she misses most, though, is, “I think, just the opportunity to participate. This is not a meal in a restaurant. This is something you do in a huge space with a whole lot of people, and everybody is like-minded about it. I just like being in that cultural milieu.”
That unique New York vibe is part of why Hawkins is riding out the pandemic in the city. “There’s just no place I’d rather be,” she says. “I don’t want to be on a ranch in Wyoming. I’m sure it’s absolutely beautiful and I’m sure there are lovely elks that come to visit from time to time, but that’s just not the sort of wildlife I’m used to.”
“To be on the podium for the Opening Night premiere of ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ is sure to be an absolute thrill.” Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Met Opera