On September 25 the Met's gold curtain will rise on a vivid new staging of Madama Butterfly by Anthony Minghella, an event that will mark the Oscar-winning film director's Met debut‹as well as the first time since 1986 that the Met has opened its season with a new production. It's all part of the master plan devised for the Met's future by the company's general manager elect, Peter Gelb, who says that a projected total of seven new stagings per Met season is the "cornerstone" of his scheme to "replenish and revitalize" the company's repertory in the coming years. "My commitment is to build upon the Met's already high musical standards‹the greatest in the world, in my opinion, of any repertory opera house, while furthering its theatrical standards as well," says Gelb.
"We won't be at seven productions next season," he continues, "but with the new family version of The Magic Flute that we will present during the holidays, you might say that we are at six-and-a-half. I'm very pleased that James Levine will conduct three new productions‹including the opening night of Butterfly‹as well as several of the revivals."
Gelb is quick to point out that much of what will be new at the Met next season was originally planned under the eye of Joseph Volpe, who will retire at the end of July after 16 years as general manager, but Gelb has put his mark on much of the company's new product for 2006-07 by getting closely involved in decisions about casting and the hiring of directors and designers. The opening night Butterfly, however, is directly attributable to Gelb's arrival at the Met. During Gelb's previous career as president of Sony Classical, he had worked with Minghella on the sound track of the director's 1999 film, The Talented Mr. Ripley. "I am a great admirer of Anthony's work, and knew he was a great lover of classical music as well as a great man of the theater. I received a congratulatory note from him when my appointment to this job was announced and immediately fired back a note thanking him for his good wishes and asking him when he was going to direct his first opera. That's how I discovered that he was already planning a new Madama Butterfly for English National Opera. After talking to him, I became convinced that his Butterfly would be a great production. What makes it so successful‹it was an enormous hit for ENO when it opened there last fall‹is its apparent simplicity. It is deeply, deeply theatrical. Minghella is a great storyteller and his Butterfly engages the audience's imagination completely." (In a neat bit of symmetry, the Met's newest Butterfly, featuring Cristina Gallardo-Domas as Cio-Cio-San, will arrive at the house during the season that marks the centennial of the opera's Met premiere.)
The Met's next new production for 2006-07 will be a new Il Barbiere di Siviglia, opening on November 10. It will be directed by Bartlett Sher, the Seattle-based director responsible for staging Lincoln Center Theater's award-winning The Light in the Piazza. Gelb says that the Met's new look at Rossini's classic comedy will be "very mobile and fluid, with a lot of moving parts‹a sophisticated Barbiere that exemplifies Bart Sher's light, stylish touch." Barbiere's leading lady will be the young German soprano Diana Damrau, who Gelb calls, "an extraordinarily gifted singer and actress. Her successful debut here as Zerbinetta last fall is an indication of the great stardom we hope she will achieve. We've cast her in leading roles in two new productions next season‹Diana will follow her Rosina in Barbiere with Aithra in our new Ägyptische Helena." She will be joined by Met favorites Juan Diego Flórez and Peter Mattei.
Helena, the Richard Strauss fantasy that Gelb terms "a soap opera in mythological garb" has been absent from the Met since 1928. It will return to the company on March 15, directed by David Fielding. Gelb says that Fielding's approach to Helena "is quite serious, in terms of what is going on inside the characters' psyches, but has great visual style and wit." Deborah Voigt, one of the Met's favorite Strauss sopranos, takes on the title role.
The Met's new realization of Il Trittico, Puccini's evening of three one-act operas, is set to bow on April 20. Gelb says that the production team "was inherited by me, but who wouldn't be happy to inherit Jack O'Brien, one of this country's great theater directors? He tells me it has been his dream of some 20 years to direct at the Met." O'Brien's Broadway directing résumé includes Hairspray as well as Shakespeare's Henry IV; the versatile Tony-winner should realize all the tragic and comic opportunities in Puccini's bittersweet triple bill, the setting for one of opera's mega-hits, "O mio babbino caro." The cast includes Maria Guleghina, Barbara Frittoli, Stephanie Blythe, and Salvatore Licitra.
Director/choreographer Mark Morris makes his company debut with the new Orfeo ed Euridice, and Allen Moyer, the much-admired set designer whose recent New York theater credits include The Little Dog Laughed and Twelve Angry Men, creates the opera's striking ambience. The incandescent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is the Met's Orfeo; English soprano Lisa Milne is her Euridice. Opening night is May 2.
There's a world premiere at the Met next season, too. Tan Dun's pageant of ancient China, The First Emperor, set to have its debut on December 21, will star Plácido Domingo as Emperor Chin‹ the first time he has created a role at the Met. Zhang Yimou, the internationally celebrated director of such films as Ju-Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers‹as well as a Turandot staged in the Forbidden City‹directs. Tan Dun is another colleague from Gelb's days at Sony: Gelb was, as he puts it, "artistic midwife" for several of the composer's works, including the award-winning soundtrack for the Ang Lee film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "I feel as if I've been a part of Tan Dun's career, and I'm glad that we've remained friends. It has been a privilege to step into this project, which will be a remarkable evening in the theater."
The "half" new production Gelb referred to is the 90-minute, English language adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute, designated as the first in an annual series of "family entertainment" events. The "family" Flute has the first of its six matinee outings on December 29, with director Julie Taymor and Maestro Levine providing the magic, just as they do in the company's full-length presentations of the Mozart opera. "Part of convincing audiences‹of all ages‹to come to the Met is providing them with new directors for opera that they may have already identified in film and in the theater. More broadly speaking, these new productions will complement a series of new artistic and audience development initiatives such as our new gallery for contemporary visual art and a program to develop new operatic works with Lincoln Center Theater. The Met is the place where audiences can experience great new visions‹and we've got some of those visions in place next season."
F. Paul Driscoll is editor in chief of Opera News. His in-depth interview about Peter Gelb's future plans for the Met appeared in the April issue of Opera News (available online at www.metoperafamily.org/operanews).