Arts and Entertainment

A Virtual Gala: The Show Continues at the Metropolitan Opera

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Issue 15, Volume 110

By Zoe Buff 

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A 9,270 square feet stage; an empty audience of 3,800 seats; countless crystal chandeliers hanging in silence; a deserted auditorium of red velvet walls; and a golden ceiling sit alone quietly, missing the roar of the timpani and a soprano’s soaring high notes. Yes, it’s true: the lights have dimmed on Lincoln Center’s beloved opera house.

The COVID-19 outbreak did not make things easy for the Metropolitan Opera, a non-profit organization that relies on support from donors and audiences around the world to make up almost half of its revenue. When the outbreak forced the opera house to close and cancel the rest of the 2019-20 season, the company faced one of its toughest challenges yet.

Soon after the inevitable shutdown, the Met Opera began a series of different encore presentations from the company’s “Live in HD” series, initiated by Peter Gelb when he became the Met’s General Manager in 2006, bringing opera performances to cinemas around the world. The encore presentations were released for free through on-demand streaming every night. Hoping to keep their heads above water during this financially difficult time, the Met encouraged viewers to donate on their website.

Nonetheless, the artistic association is missing two months of performances, and nightly encore presentations would not be enough to make up for that lost revenue. As part of its “The Voice Must Be Heard” campaign to support the organization and protect its future, the Met Opera hosted a virtual At-Home Gala, streamed on the website and presented via Skype, on Saturday, April 25. The unprecedented event, hosted by Gelb and music director and acclaimed Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, featured a star-studded cast of nearly 40 principal artists, each performing from their homes around the world. In addition to solo recitals by leading opera singers, the gala presented pre-recorded performances of the Met Adult Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Nézet-Séguin. The event was the company’s most ambitious effort to bring music to the world during the lockdown and seek financial support from their audiences.

“This is an extraordinary time for the Met. We are dealing with it as best we can. We are bowed by the coronavirus, but undaunted because we are fighting to ensure the future of this institution,” Gelb said to his company and audiences around the world. “We are launching a major fundraising campaign so that the needs of the Met, which are greater than ever, can be met every night,” he stated.

The gala also paid tribute to members of the Met community lost to the pandemic. Earlier this month, the Met Opera orchestra’s violist Vincent Lionti passed away after contracting the coronavirus. To express their devastation and sorrow, the orchestra came together to create a beautiful pre-recorded tribute, featuring renowned soprano Joyce DiDonato and seven violists. The performance was conducted by Nézet-Séguin, who said, "To lose him to the virus made this reality so much closer, immediate, that we could lose a member of our family to this threat.”

The gala organized other ensemble performances, such as the Met orchestra’s heartfelt interpretation of the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and a brilliant collaboration between the Met chorus and orchestra to perform “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s opera “Nabucco.” All musicians and singers recorded their parts separately. Rather than follow a mechanical click-track, they watched a video of Nézet-Séguin air-conducting to keep tempo, ensuring the natural flow of the music.

There were quite a few notable solo performances from the At-Home Gala. David Chan, one of the Met orchestra’s concertmasters since the 2000/01 season, collaborated with Nézet-Séguin, who played the piano, in a pre-recorded performance of the Thaïs Meditation, a short, melodic excerpt from Massenet’s three-act opera.

Memorable performances of couples include Roberto Alagna and his wife Aleksandra Kurzak performing an amusing duet from Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore”; Diana Damrau and her husband singing "Là ci darem la mano" from Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” in their kitchen in Orange, France; and distinguished bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, accompanied by his wife, harpist Hannah Stone, performing from their living room in Wales. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov sang from his home in Moscow only a few hours before his wife gave birth to their son; Renée Fleming gave a heartwarming rendition of Verdi’s “Ave Maria” from her sunny country house in Virginia, and baritone Peter Mattei, the first performer of the gala, serenaded us with an aria from “Don Giovanni,” accompanied by his neighbor on the accordion from his lakefront home in Stockholm.

Many were disappointed when Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, a widely celebrated artist and one of the major selling points of the gala, and her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, were unable to appear live. As the final performance of the event, Netrebko and Eyvazov performed in a pre-recorded studio version of a Romance by Rachmaninov. Netrebko’s absence was amplified by Gelb’s excessive praise of her, parading her as the Met’s “reigning diva.” His behavior, however, came off as slightly disrespectful to all the other principal singers from the Met who had taken the time to appear and perform live at the gala on Saturday.

Given the nature of the online gala, the attire of the principal artists varied from glamorous outfits of tuxedo jackets and elegant concert dresses to casual wear of blue jeans and T-shirts. Some artists performed from their kitchens while others fancily decorated their living rooms for the occasion. Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili had a “NO AUTOGRAPHS PLEASE” sign on her piano; American soprano Jamie Barton displayed Harry Potter books on the shelf behind her piano; and German bass René Pape performed along with his little figurine, #PapeDuck, which reflected his signature style and sense of humor.

Surprisingly, there were few technological issues as the virtual stage shifted between countries around the world. The singers each introduced and complimented each other between performances as they passed along the spotlight. The four-hour gala was a wonderful opportunity for the artists to reunite with opera and do what they love best: bring music to audiences all around the world. “Ooh, it’s fun to get to sing again!” Jamie Barton exclaimed at the end of her performance.

Gelb hoped to overcome the Met’s budget deficit of $60 million and financial struggles during the shutdown with the free encore presentations and the At-Home Gala. “There were many small donations but it’s too early to total,” he explained. “This type of program only works because of the horrible conditions that we’re in right now. I got so many e-mails and text messages from people that said that they were in tears for large portions of this program.” The principal artists, along with the Met chorus and orchestra, are all struggling as well. Though their health benefits continue, company members have not been paid since March, a problem seen not just at the Met but in thousands of other non-profit organizations around the world.

The At-Home Gala was a source of endless inspiration, as it surely amplified the magnificent and beautiful voices that must be heard during this time. The Met’s brilliant usage of available technology reminded us of how much we love opera and how much we will miss it for the next few months. As Nézet-Séguin stated, it is a “strange and terrible time.” But in an inspiring and uplifting message, he declared, “Music and the arts cannot be silenced. We shall return.”