The Metropolitan Opera announced its 2016-17 schedule this week, and it still can’t quit its old standbys. Just three days into its new season, which starts in September,1 the Met will have already returned to its most-performed work:2 Puccini’s “La Bohème.” About a month after that, Verdi’s ”Aida” will take the stage. Two-and-a-half months after that: Bizet’s “Carmen.” The three most-performed works in Metropolitan Opera history will all appear next season, as is so often the case.
Opera types call them “the ABC’s” for the letters in their titles — and because they’re staples of opera repertories. When you add in the fourth-most-performed opera in Met history, Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which will also be staged next season, those four operas will account for nearly a quarter of all the Met’s performances next season — even though 22 other operas are being mounted.3 That top tier of operas are a class unto themselves: Company archives show that a season rarely goes by without them. You can see that below in the chart, which compares those top-tier operas with others being performed next season.
Since its Met premiere in 1900, “La Bohème” has been staged in all but eight seasons, according to the Met archives. And the current Franco Zeffirelli production, unveiled in 1981, is the most-seen production of all operas in the company’s history, according to John Pennino, an archivist at the Met. Some recent years have yielded as many as 25 performances in a season of 242.
As a close observer of the opera world, I wouldn’t dare suggest that the top-tier operas don’t deserve such frequent showings. There’s a reason they’re beloved: “Aida” evokes ancient Egypt through grand sets and choruses; “La Bohème” has unforgettable characters who embody the transience of life and art; “Carmen” wraps lushly exotic melodies around the story of a femme fatale; and “La Traviata” portrays an ill-fated love affair with both glamour and intimacy.
But for the Met, which is the country’s largest and most influential opera company, their unrivaled popularity can present a challenge: How can it expand its repertoire while being dependent on the top tier’s popularity?
The top four works are reliable entry points for many newcomers — crucial at a time when the Met has been grappling with an aging subscriber base and a sluggish box office. Overplaying them, though, could take up slots that would otherwise go to lesser-known works. That’s a tension almost any premier artistic institution has to work through: how to stay solvent while trying to advance the art form. General manager Peter Gelb told The New York Times on Wednesday that the company is “always trying to find ways to satisfy confirmed opera lovers, as well as excite new ones.” Under Gelb, the Met has sought to replace aging productions with new, modernized stagings, and traditionalists have sometimes responded harshly. Six new productions are planned for 2016-17. (The Met declined to comment when we asked about the repertory balance.)
In September, the Met reported that houses were, in aggregate, 74 percent full during its 2014-15 season, compared with 76.9 percent the previous season. Over the past couple of years, the company has faced a multimillion-dollar shortfall that it has since closed; last season, it reported a $1 million surplus.
The Met hopes to see newcomers become the confirmed opera lovers of tomorrow, but creating a path from “La Bohème” to an arcane gem by Handel or a premiere by Nico Muhly is not a simple proposition. If there’s a way forward, it involves a healthy opera ecosystem in which the old favorites, lesser-known operas and contemporary works co-exist and opera-goers are steered from one to the next.
Once you’ve seen Mimi’s death scene in “La Bohème” for the umpteenth time, it’s nice to know there’s something else to see every now and then.