The arts in the United States are struggling for many oft-stated reasons—the down economy, with fewer dollars to spread around; joblessness; poverty; younger audiences accustomed to special effects; and the transition to a digital entertainment world that carries with it a shorter audience attention span. These are challenges that all entertainment forms face today.
One man has chosen to be bold in the face of a dwindling, aging audience and debt that would shrivel anyone’s faith. He took a risk, but, financially, at least, the risk seems to have paid off. Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera for the past six years, is certainly controversial. The mission handed to Mr. Gelb was to raise money by building the Met’s image from that of an elitist, inaccessible, private club to entertainment with the potential to create excitement, attract younger audiences and, most importantly, revive the art form. His philosophy that you have to spend money to make money has led the Met to invest in media enterprises, like HD broadcasts from movie theaters, and glittering new live productions of cherished opera favorites.
Mr. Gelb has said that what fuels him “is the fear of the art form not surviving. To think that an art form or an institution like this is immune to the possibility of extinction would be a big mistake. I have to do everything in my power to make it interesting in an environment in which arts education is virtually nonexistent. “ David G. Knott, who is in his third year on the Met board, said he and his wife, Françoise Girard, “wanted to be part of, ‘Let’s renew the art form, let’s connect opera to new generations of audience, and let’s make this part of everyday lives.’ ”
Although ardent fans of the classical arts decry the “watering down” of traditional presentations that attempt to keep opera and ballet relevant for current audiences, there is ample evidence that supports Mr. Gelb’s actions. History indicates that it has always been true that art evolves, and rises and falls in popularity and, until now, has survived. Every generation that lived through the evolution more than likely complained that the changes weakened the form.
Ballet, for example, over the past 400 years, has continued to maintain its essence while, at the same time, having adapted itself to remain relevant. Catherine de Medici, when she married Henri II of France in the 1530′s, brought with her the traditional Italian festivities that closed an evening’s entertainment. These ballets des cours, or court ballets, were danced by aristocratic amateurs, for an aristocratic audience. The prominence of dance in these events increased, leading to the Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581, widely regarded as the first real ballet.
By the year 1661, ballet was so popular that Louis the XIV of France, who loved dancing, began the first ballet school. The steps that had always been used were modified from social dances to a vocabulary with strict rules to govern their use. New placement of the legs and body facilitated seamless transitions from one movement to the next. Ballet was no longer only for monarchs and aristocrats. It became a career for professionals.
Ballet forms continued to evolve into the 1700’s, when performers started wearing specific types of costumes, hairstyles and footwear. Choreography became more important and women dancing en pointe, on their toes, added to the extension of balletic line and graceful movement.
The 19th century saw a change to romantic ballets like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake in which stories with fantasy-filled plot lines ruled. The most influential figure in American ballet came from this romantic tradition to take ballet forward into possibly its most dramatic transition.
George Balanchine, a Georgian Russian, grew up under the influence of Petipa and the makers of the great story ballets. Balanchine’s history is well -known to most dance lovers. Introducing neoclassicism to ballet audiences, he used the traditional classical vocabulary but took it in an entirely new direction. He changed the execution of ballet steps to create a faster, more nimble look and, by building a different technique, developed a plié that could be barely discernable, with the weight staying on the ball of the foot. Rather than settling on the heels to end a sequence, this type of plié made it easier to start the next movement seamlessly. He commissioned musical scores by Hindemith and Stravinsky that defied the usual selections of “pretty” pieces that had accompanied the romantic ballets. He used sets painted by emerging artists and sometimes dispensed with elaborate costumes in favor of black and white dancewear. All of these things were considered a travesty, at first, until audiences became accustomed to them but, as Balanchine commented, we now whistle Stravinsky when we shower.
Mr. Gelb has defended the actions he has taken for the Opera by saying, “Without trying, there is no chance. All you are left with is your history. We’re not a business. Our profit is art.” Only with change can the arts evolve and only with our support can they flourish.