In the 1980s I was the 30-something manager of the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, arguably the greatest concert pianist in history. Mr. Horowitz was bored by practicing, but lived for his public performances, when the various demons with which he was plagued permitted him to leave the confines of his Upper East Side townhouse.
Mr. Horowitz took juvenile pleasure in referring to intermissions as “interpissions” and would command me to surreptitiously surveil the audience in the lobby during the interval to hear what they were saying about him and report back. He needed to know, since his performances were fueled by the audiences’ frenzied response to his virtuosity, as well as by the natural acoustics of the concert halls that provided him with instant audio feedback. (Although he once, cynically, told me, “Check good, acoustics good.”)
He was fond of quoting from Mozart’s letters, ripped pages that he would stuff into the inside of his elegant smoking jacket and pluck out over his nightly dinners of Dover sole — the only main course he would eat, for fear of indigestion. It turns out that Mozart was obsessed with audience reaction to his performances, too. In one of Mozart’s letters to his father, he wrote: “In the midst of the first allegro came a passage I had known would please. The audience was quite carried away. There was a great outburst of applause.” He went on, “I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation.” Mr. Horowitz found a soul mate in Mozart, whom he decreed would not have been a composer without a public to win over. I think he may have been right.
On March 16, a few days after I had to announce the premature ending of the Metropolitan Opera season, the 135th in its illustrious history, instead of performing we began streaming a different, prerecorded opera every night free. The initiative has been an undeniable success. After 12 days, we racked up an astounding 100 million viewing minutes as opera lovers on lockdown around the world reveled in the soprano Deborah Voigt’s heroic exploits as Brünnhilde to redeem the world in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and enjoyed the rest of the operatic pantheon from Puccini to Strauss. Other opera and theater companies have since joined us in opening up their libraries; homebound performers like the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato are resourcefully offering their own live solo streams. This migration to online isn’t restricted to opera and theater; it’s also happening in the realms of pop, world music and hip-hop.
It’s heartening to see how popular the performing arts remain amid a crisis. And yet even as we celebrate this proliferation of internet-based performances, it’s also worth stating that this can at best be only a temporary fix. Because even with the technology that makes remote performing possible, artists and audiences need each other. Audiences long for great performers; playing in front of them is what causes an artist’s adrenaline to rush. This is the alchemy of the performing arts, the metaphysical energy that flows to and fro across the footlights. Or as LeBron James put it recently, “I ain’t playing if you don’t have the fans in the crowd.”
There are also the ways that a great auditorium can shape a performance in the way that a cramped living room can’t. In the documentary film “The Opera House,” the diva Leontyne Price tested the acoustics of the then brand-new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966 during rehearsals for the opening night production of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” “That first time I walked out on that stage at the new temple Met, I thought, You got to be kidding. It was so huge,” she said. “The first note I sang, I thought I was singing to Staten Island. It was that incredible.”
It was the combination of the acoustics of the Met and its rapturous audiences that helped inspire Ms. Price to become the greatest Aida of her day; such a connection is not something that can be accomplished by streaming from home.
There are rare exceptions: Famously, the pianist Glenn Gould was a germaphobic genius who forsook public performances and spent the latter part of his career wearing gloves at all times, except while recording in a sanitized studio. He was also a control freak who wanted to be in total command of every note that he produced, something only possible in a recording environment.
But for every Glenn Gould there is an Anna Netrebko, the dramatic soprano who this past New Year’s Eve stepped onto the stage of the Met and fearlessly sang the notoriously difficult aria from “Turandot,” “In questa reggia,” for the first time in her life in public, nailing it as convincingly as Reggie Jackson’s three home runs for the Yankees in game six of the 1977 World Series and bringing instant comparisons to Birgit Nilsson, the incomparable Swedish soprano who owned the role in the 1960s and ’70s.
To be sure, streaming in isolation during the pandemic is certainly a good way for artists and their fans to remain connected. And in a time like this, safety, of course, is paramount. My wife, Keri-Lynn Wilson, a globe-trotting conductor who was supposed to be rehearsing at Juilliard this spring for a new production of “La Bohème,” has temporarily traded in her baton for a vacuum cleaner, in between studying scores and playing the piano. I do the cooking and she does the dishes; now I’m responsible for scrubbing our cast-iron grill pan in the quieter evenings instead of being backstage tending to the preperformance jitters of neurotic tenors. How I miss them!
The Met’s whirlwind of a music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is isolated in Montreal with his violist partner, Pierre, and their three cats, Melisande, Rafa and Rodolfo. This week, Yannick would have been commuting between his two artistic homes, New York and Philadelphia, eagerly shuttling between performances of Massenet’s “Werther” on the stage of the Met and the complete Beethoven symphonies in Philadelphia in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday. Instead, he is studying, supporting his fellow artists via social media and waiting. We’re all waiting.
Until the pandemic subsides, there will be no audiences to move performers to ecstatic heights and no auditorium-size acoustics to help shape nuanced performances. We are in a state of suspended animation — hopeful, determined, but beyond eager to be back in front of a live audience again. There can be no great performance without it.
Peter Gelb is the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
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