The Met's general manager and music director oversee distinct though overlapping areas of the company. But despite their individual areas of expertise, each has an unwavering commitment to constantly improving opera's musical and theatrical standards. Of course, the challenge of making opera — with its elements of music, drama, costumes, lighting, sets, and dance — work as a not only viable but thrilling theatrical experience is among the most difficult tasks in all the arts. But by recruiting renowned stage artists like Nicholas Hytner, Robert Lepage, Jack O'Brien, Bartlett Sher, Julie Taymor, Mary Zimmerman, and others, Gelb and Levine are working to ensure that opera at the Met will be great theater.
James Levine: I always say that if I hadn't been a musician, the first thing that I would have wanted to do — other than perhaps be a doctor — is direct theater. Theater and film are right after music for me. My most thrilling musical experiences are always a balance of music and drama.
Peter Gelb: The ability to balance these two elements is essential in the opera house today. If you look at the planning of the Met's future seasons, the overarching theme in terms of our choice of directors is that they all have great experience that goes far beyond opera. I don't want to sound like I'm prejudiced, but if I did express a prejudice it would be against directors who only do opera. I think there's a certain danger working with directors who are overly familiar with the repertoire and who do the same operas over and over again. It's very important to know about opera, but what's most important is to understand how to express opera in great theatrical terms.
JL: It's exciting beyond belief when you work with a director you didn't work with before, and it goes like that. It rarely does. But you keep looking for it because there really is nothing else like it. The best collaborations between directors and conductors go through a phase, which is really extraordinary, where something about what I'm drawing out becomes expressed in theatrical terms, and what the director is drawing out becomes expressed in musical terms — and it merges. I find in all the years I've done opera, directors come from everywhere — they come from choreography, from film, from theater, from music. But if they have the feel for it, you can have a brand-new thrilling collaboration.
PG: It's now the Met's policy to establish and nurture these kinds of collaborations. In the case of any new opera production, the director, the conductor, and the theater administration work together to make sure that artistic decisions are made jointly.
JL: I remember as a kid going to opera performances and thinking, "Ach, the only way I'm going to like this is if I directed it myself." And then I watched stage directors in action, and I realized that it's really difficult. If this was so easy, any idiot could get it right. Anybody I ever saw who tried to stage and conduct at the same time faced an impossible challenge — the layout never makes it possible, there are too many things to be done at once. For example, if you stand on the podium, you cannot tell about the light — the light's in your eyes. You go away from the podium to concentrate on the light, and your control of the musical detail slips away. It really is necessary to have the best possible collaborators if you want all the aspects of the piece to come out in just proportion. I have never seen it work well any other way.
PG: That includes the right design team. It's not just the director and conductor who have to find common ground. Sets, costumes, lighting — all these elements have to further the overall vision of the piece. And the great impact of a production like, say, our new Madama Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella, is in its innate theatricality. Guided by Anthony, his designers created an organic set that was simpler and more effective than some Met productions in which every inch of the proscenium has been filled with scenery.
JL: On that note, I have to say I'm proud of the fact that we have successfully done a very broad spectrum of production styles. We have to be able to do it, because the audience doesn't want to see the same approach all the time. For example, even though they're older, Zeffirelli's productions are still stunning. It can't have been lost on everybody that I like to conduct Zeffirelli productions, and Carlos Kleiber liked to conduct them, and there are some very good reasons why. I think in an opera house that plays a broad spectrum of major operatic works, the diversity of styles is critical.
PG: Obviously, we have some Zeffirelli productions in our repertory that have stood the test of time and that we will continue to revive. My hope for this theater is that there is no one aesthetic mandate or guideline. What we want is great work that supports each opera on its own individual artistic merits.
JL: Absolutely. It's like the issue of stand-and-sing versus dramatic involvement. A great many artists of today have embraced this problem and come very near to solving it. It isn't any more a group of stand-up-and-sing singers with great voices who can't act and a bunch of people who can act very well, but we wish they would sing better. It really has synthesized very, very well. And these two poles exist in the design of productions also. If a production is busy and it's filled by ciphers, you experience it as a failure. If the production is busy but the singers can really handle it, you can get something really thrilling.
PG: The challenge that we have at the Met is to keep opera theatrically and musically alive in this century. The great composers — like Puccini — when they wrote these pieces they were thinking of them both musically and theatrically. Although the music has stood the test of time, there is no theatrical production that has ever been made that lasts forever. And we have to constantly be looking at modern theatrical sensibilities and applying them in a tasteful and intelligent way to these timeless musical classics.
JL: Hear, hear!