On February 22, the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) announced their 2023–2024 season, to much anticipation and then quite a bit of boredom. I then eagerly hoped for better results from the Canadian Opera Company (COC) the next day but was met with similar disappointment.
Let’s start with the good. The Met has six new productions, which means either an opera never previously performed at the Met, or a new design and staging of a previously performed opera. Particularly promising are La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi, Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catán, which is the Met’s first Spanish language production, and X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis. The lattermost production features a creative team full of debuts; for six out of the seven, it is their first Met production. This piece, which centres a Black American story, showcases the Met’s “dedication to [expand] the repertoire and to [reach] new audiences,” according to their press release. Similarly, the COC is debuting Aportia Chryptych by Haui and Sean Mayes, which centres on the true historical story of Black Nova Scotian contralto who rose to operatic significance.
Operas that are not super ground-breaking but are at least fun include Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie and Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod at the Met, and The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček at the COC. While I was extremely excited about Kevin Puts’s 2022 premiere of The Hours, I am not sure if a revival just one year later will be nearly as successful. The production did well, but between its broadcasts on PBS and in cinemas, I do not think opera audiences need to see the exact same thing so soon.
Unfortunately, the majority of both the Met and COC upcoming seasons fall into my next category: just kind of boring. The same Mozart, Puccini, and Wagner operas that are performed year after year without much to freshen them up. One that particularly had me asking “why?” is La Bohème by Puccini at the Met. Not only was this production performed only this past season, but the production, designed by Franco Zeffirelli, originally debuted in 1981. That’s right, that means there has not been any substantial changes to any Met production of La Bohème since 1981!
Now we move to the category I am genuinely concerned about. The COC, at least, has no operas that fall into this category. The Met, however, has a few. Madama Butterfly and Turandot, both by Puccini, are exotic operas that take on the settings of Japan and China, respectively. However, in Madama Butterfly, there are no Asians in the roles of Cio-Cio San, the main geisha character, or her companion Suzuki. Similarly, in Turandot, which takes place in mythic Ancient China, I could only find one Asian person among the main cast. I very much question the choices of the Met to put on both of these operas when they insist on having white people play Asian roles. Bizet’s Carmen, a popular favourite, also worries me. Although this season boasts a new production, it will be with a modern twist, centring around issues of human trafficking. I am worried about how this idea might play with the depiction of Romani people in the original opera, but I do have a suggestion. After years of women stepping forward and the classical music world largely ignoring them, in August 2022, famous Italian tenor Placido Domingo was linked to a sex trafficking rig in Argentina. I would be really impressed if the Met used this production to ironically comment on the gender dynamics in opera and the scandal and continued support of Domingo. Perhaps he could even play Don José! But I shouldn’t get my hopes up.
Finally, it is important to note that while some steps are being made towards new productions and interesting works, both companies’ new seasons are cementing a belief that only men can write operas. With twenty operas from the Met and seven from the COC, not one is written by a woman and very few are written by people of colour. Their strides towards diversity and inclusion are simply not fast enough, and are probably part of the reason why opera is seen as a dying art. Independent opera companies, such as OperaQ, re:Naissance, Manitoba Underground Opera, Tapestry Opera, and Essential Opera have been working hard to reflect on values enforced by opera, as well as figure out how to create new and fresh productions that bring opera into the 21st century. Without large companies taking on these values, however, I fear that opera will not be able to engage enough of an audience to go on.