Where, oh where is “Winners and Sinners,” now that we need it most? Back in the 1970s, when Theodore M. Bernstein was assistant managing editor at The New York Times, he wrote and circulated the W&S newsletter to shed light on quotidian details of writing in the Times — examples of good work and momentary lapses and that seemed small but weren’t. It was always fun, but more important, it was always instructive.
If Bernstein were with us at this hour (when journalism hath need of him!), he might well call out the phrase “…the house’s first Spanish-language show” in a home-page blurb on the New York Times website (September 3), which profiled soprano Ailyn Pérez and previewed the upcoming production of Florencia en el Amazonas. “The house,” of course, is the Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883 at 39th and Broadway, relocating to Lincoln Center in 1966. Different address, but it’s still the house — just as Madison Square Garden, which has moved and been rebuilt more times than the Met with equally disappointing results, is still the Garden. By overlooking or ignoring the fact that Met presented the world premiere of Enrique Granados’s “Spanish-language show” Goyescas in 1916, the Times omits a critical moment not just in music history, but also in the history of the largest performing arts institution in the U.S.
At the Met, 140 years of tradition are an asset but can also be a hindrance in an era of change. This is the house where the French-born international star Lily Pons interpolated the Marseillaise during a radio broadcast of La fille du régiment six months after the fall of Paris during World War II. The premiere of Goyescas at a comparably historic moment took a tragic turn: with World War I raging, Granados — famously jittery about sea travel even during peacetime — sailed to New York with his wife for the premiere. During their return trip, they drowned in the English Channel en route to France when their passenger ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. This agonizing loss came when the world was awakening to the brilliance of Granados and other Spanish-speaking composers including Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, and Joaquín Rodrigo.
Nowhere else in the U.S. could the premiere of Goyescas have taken place. Only the Met among American opera companies has such a major presence in music history, and it remains the company upon which the future of American opera depends more than any other. Running it is a famously tough job. Peter Gelb deserves bravos for mounting Florencia en el Amazonas in a production by Mary Zimmerman that will showcase the talents of the superbly talented Ailyn Pérez, one of the Met’s most accomplished and popular stars. It’s also worth noting that when the important Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov created his opera Ainadamar on another revered Met soprano, Dawn Upshaw, it premiered at Tanglewood in 2003 and then moved to Santa Fe, Chicago, and Detroit, but has yet to be mounted in New York. Spanish-language operas by the great Alberto Ginastera made it to the old New York City Opera and to Washington, but not to the Met.
Every major opera company and orchestra in the U.S. is struggling for relevance — to appeal to younger patrons and to demonstrate greater inclusiveness, diversity and accessibility on stage and in its audiences. For the Met’s longtime patrons, this seems to mean changing everything radically while keeping everything exactly the same. When Gelb assumed leadership of the Met in 2006, it seemed that this balancing act couldn’t get any harder. Then Covid came along — not only making everything harder, but also accelerating the rate of change.
The dearth of Spanish-language shows is just one of many problems Gelb inherited. Another is the growing scarcity of cultural reporting in the U.S., even at the Times. It doesn’t help that Times critics such as Joshua Barone, author of the Ailyn Pérez profile, adhere to a reviewing style that concentrates on the minutiae of performance details while glossing over more important aspects and gratuitously comparing new productions to earlier ones. As Ted Bernstein would surely have reminded us, cultural reporting is serious journalism. Even in an artist profile or preview piece, remember the big picture and get your facts right.