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For the Met Opera, the Pandemic Could Be a Necessary Reset

This spring, after the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of performing arts institutions around the world, Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, faced the truth.

“It’s transparently obvious that social distancing and grand opera cannot go together,” Mr. Gelb said in a New York Times interview back then, as he announced the cancellation of the Met’s fall season. In short order, other New York institutions followed that lead.

On Sept. 23, in the latest blow from the crisis, the Met announced that the cancellation would extend to its entire 2020-21 season. It’s hard to see how the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall and other musical organizations — not to mention Broadway theaters — can open their doors safely any time sooner.

To his credit, Mr. Gelb is looking at this period as not just a pause but a reboot. He has realized that if the Met is going to rise again after the virus subsides, it must do things differently, to prove itself more essential than ever. The work it presents must matter — and how the company presents itself must matter, too.

Relieved from the demands of daily performances, the Met — like the nation’s other arts institutions — must take time to think about its place within larger societal currents, especially the roiling issues of racial injustice and police brutality that have inspired nationwide demonstrations. Black classical artists and administrators have spoken out powerfully about systemic discrimination within the field.

To that end, the ambitious 2021-22 season Mr. Gelb unveiled as he announced the current season’s cancellation is also a statement of purpose that seeks to address multiple oversights in the Met’s history. If all goes according to plan, the house will open on Sept. 27, 2021, with Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which had its premiere last year at Opera Theater of St. Louis. Based on a memoir by Charles M. Blow, a Times Op-Ed columnist, and with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, it will be the first work by a Black composer ever presented by the Met. “Fire” had already been announced for a future Met season, but Mr. Gelb rightly saw that this spot — the Met’s comeback offering — was the right time and platform.

For a company of its size and importance, the Met has not done nearly enough to foster living composers and contemporary music. So it’s great that in addition to the Blanchard work, there will be productions of two other recent operas: Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice,” with a libretto by Sarah Ruhl, first staged at Los Angeles Opera early this year, and Brett Dean’s 2017 adaptation of “Hamlet.” Not since 1928 have so many new works been presented here. And it shows substantial institutional buy-in that Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, will conduct “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “Eurydice.”

The Met has also long been playing catch-up regarding female conductors. Last fall Karen Kamensek led the company’s first production of Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” making her only the fifth woman to conduct at the Met. This coming season five productions will be conducted by women: Ms. Kamensek (in a return of “Akhnaten”), as well as Susanna Malkki, Jane Glover and, in their company debuts, Eun Sun Kim and Nathalie Stutzmann. Never have this many women conducted in a Met season.

These moves are all heartening and important. Yet what took so long? How is it possible that no Black composer has ever been commissioned, nor any older work by a Black composer presented, in the Met’s history? Just this spring, Anthony Davis won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his eighth opera, “The Central Park Five,” which had its premiere last summer at Long Beach Opera in California.

Mr. Davis’s first opera, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” was a landmark success at the New York City Opera in 1986. Why hasn’t it ever be seen at the Met? In 2017, when Opera Philadelphia inaugurated a citywide festival, a highlight was the premiere of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a powerful, timely opera by the composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and the librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, directed by Bill T. Jones. Though chamber-size, the work blazed with dramatic daring, with a score that boldly drew from gospel, funk, jazz and contemporary modern styles. I could image a Roumain opera written for the Met’s stage.

And it’s baffling that the Met has lagged so badly in hiring female conductors. For at least 20 years Ms. Malkki has been one of the most exciting and sought-after conductors in classical music. Yet so far at the Met she has led only the 2016 run of Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin” — which, speaking of oversights, was the first work by a female composer presented by the Met in a century, though the company has plans to address this, too.

The Met’s reckoning with representation comes as it and Mr. Gelb deal with the severe economic challenges wrought by the pandemic. The Met stands to lose well over $100 million in revenue. Roughly 1,000 employees, including the company’s superb orchestra and chorus, have been furloughed without pay since April.

Yet if this devastating shutdown forces the Met to grapple with its role in American society and to shift the overwhelmingly traditional template of its programming, then there will have been an important upside to the crisis. The prestigious, gilded Met has hardly been a trailblazer in this regard, but it could set an example for other American opera companies and orchestras to use this time to think about — and rethink — their offerings.

I don’t mean to overstate the boldness of the Met’s 2021-22 plans. For a company that presents roughly two dozen works each season, that three of them would be new or recent seems hardly radical. And classical music and opera must do better at making their institutions — both the artists onstage and the administrators that support them — reflect the diversity of the American people.

But the Met season scheduled to begin a year from now represents an exciting start to what could be a new era. And there are signs of a more sustained commitment to change than a single season: The company announced that it has chosen three Black composers — Valerie Coleman, Jessie Montgomery and Joel Thompson — to join its collaborative commissioning program with Lincoln Center Theater.

I keep thinking back to Sept. 11. Just four days after the attacks, New York City Opera returned. Before long, so did the rest of Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Broadway. New Yorkers were making a statement that, even in the face of horror and fear, the performing arts — so crucial to the city — would go on. It was hard not to worry that, snug in your seat at the Met, an attack could come anywhere, any time. But everyone was willing to take that risk. The coronavirus is an entirely different kind of attacker. There can be no quick return to the opera or concert hall.

Will opera survive? I think it will, but probably not without major — and overdue —- changes. Perhaps colossus houses like the Met will have the upper hand. After all, the company already has international reach through its Live in HD broadcasts and, of late, its series of livestreamed recitals.

Yet companies of the Met’s size will not get any more easy to swing economically. Smaller institutions with more focused missions may well prove more flexible and adept — not just chamber opera enterprises but also larger houses that present a limited season of offerings and work out per-engagement contracts with singers and musicians. The next months will reveal much — including the big question of whether, even by next fall, it will be safe for the Met and the performing arts in America to return. We can only hope so.

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