Every now and then a story comes across the wire that is inexplicable. You read it, you scratch your head, and you conclude after much thought that it makes no sense. Occasionally the mystery comes from stylistic lapse, as in the case of the report of the Mexican bus that does not "plunge" into a "ravine" or the tornado that managed not to hit a mobile home park or an elementary school. But sometimes you just can't figure it out no matter how hard you try.
The latest example came over the weekend when Peter Stein and the Metropolitan Opera attempted to flesh out the back story behind Stein's withdrawal from a new Met production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. What was formerly mysterious has now, after explanation, become utterly incomprehensible.
One of the Met's major new productions for the 2010-2011 season was to be Mr. Stein's Boris Godunov. Peter Stein, or his people, had negotiated quite a deal with the Met: he got to select the designers, extra rehearsal time was requested and granted, and a star-studded cast was arranged. The well known, though in my view massively over-rated, Valery Gergiev was engaged to conduct. And then, on or about July 21, 2010, it was announced that for "personal reasons" Mr. Stein withdrew. Ten weeks before opening night the Met, in a rare stroke of luck, was able to replace Mr. Stein with the extraordinarily talented and unquestionably competent Stephen Wadsworth as the show's director. There is, thus, an excellent chance that having fallen into this manure pit the Met will come out smelling like roses.
Matters quickly went down the Rabbit Hole when Mr. Stein endeavored to explain the "personal reasons" behind his sudden withdrawal. To suggest that his stated reasons lack the ring of truth is to bespeak the obvious.
According to a report in the New York Times, Mr. Stein had spent over a year working on this production, its sets, choreography and over 600 costumes. "All that was left was to work with the singers, he said" according to the Times. And then the Berlin-born Italian-based director applied for his work visa.
In a few short lines the Times limned a scenario worthy of Kafka: "In June [Stein] went to the consulate in Berlin for a work visa for the Met job and was forced, he said, to stand for hours in a stifling room with 50 other visa applicants. When he finally reached the consular official, 'He said to me, "Why don't you laugh?"' Mr. Stein recounted. "I said, 'I stay here for two and a half hours standing and I am an old man.' The officer replied, 'In this case you will not have a visa,' and sent me away,'" Mr. Stein said. Mr. Stein said that the experience left him humiliated and deeply offended."
The Times notes that "Several weeks later he returned and managed to gain a work visa, helped by a Met employee who had flown to Berlin. But the experience rankled, and Mr. Stein sent an e-mail to [Met General Director Peter] Gelb saying he was 'terrified and demotivated' out of fear that a similar incident could occur in the United States." He indicated that such a "similar incident" would result in his immediate departure back to Europe.
Peter Gelb, apparently concluding he was being set up, advised Mr. Stein that the Met had spent millions of dollars for costumes and scenery on the Boris production, and that "we can't now be held hostage to the possibility that an airport procedure or some other event will offend you and result in your immediate departure." He sought a guarantee that Stein would completely fulfill his contract, and that in the absence of such guarantees the Met would be forced to make "alternative plans." At that, Mr. Stein withdrew.
Stein told the Times that Peter Gelb should have interpreted his e-mail as being a cry for help in the form of protection from upset, reassured him that all would be well, and with quivering lip and a tug on the forelock requested that he come to these shores and make Art. Instead Gelb, taking a page from the Joe Volpe song book, pretty much said "Stop acting like a baby, get your butt over here and get to work." Not many of us would blame him.
Peter Gelb could, of course, have told Mr. Stein the truth: That he would not be forced to endure intolerable waits in order to be subjected to the cruel whims of bureaucrats unless he presented himself to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and that he would not be stopped and asked for his papers unless he traveled to Arizona. But we are dealing here with a man of artistic temperament who felt offended by a State Department employee's alleged actions, and he decided to take it out on the largest arts institution in America.
Mr. Stein, at age 72, deems himself an "old man." I cannot understand how, when he presented himself at the consulate in Berlin and saw the line in front of him, he did not simply turn around and come back at some other time. Given the fact that the Met was willing to dispatch a minion to Berlin to help smooth the bureaucratic visa path, wisdom would have suggested that had Stein left the consulate immediately, e-mailed the Met and asked for assistance, he would have gotten it within 48 hours. And assuming that Mr. Stein has an agent, one does have to wonder where he or she was as this idiotic tableau played out.
We know that since September of 2001 US visa procedures have become burdensome, overly complicated, and very difficult to negotiate. Although the idea that Mr. Stein had to wait two and a half hours at the consulate to make his application is not unreasonable (this would be a light day at the DMV), the remainder of the tale does not seem plausible. As the fifty applicants in front of him were called, could it be that no one offered the self-styled "old man" a vacated chair? And although consular officials are armed with immense discretion, I am entirely unaware of their being invested with the authority to deny a work visa on the grounds that an applicant failed to laugh. Although we have become accustomed to believing virtually any story about arbitrary, capricious and mindless bureaucrats, this one seems to be a good deal less believable than most.
Mr. Stein appears to have the belief that in order to work he must feel wanted, he has ascribed the shabby treatment he was meted out by a consular official to the Met, and he took it as an indication that he was not wanted. There is a difference between artistic temperament and pure stupidity. Could it be that in his 72 years Mr. Stein has never had an unpleasant run in with a bureaucrat who had something (a passport, a driver's license, a voter registration card) he wanted or needed? Is the German Civil Service so courteous, rational and pleasant that his dealings with them have been a seven decade breeze? Is the Italian Civil Service, with whom he has presumably dealt during his years in Italy, so mechanically efficient that the US Consular staff in Berlin looks like, uh, a bunch of Italian bureaucrats? Has the man ever had a run-in with a French bureaucrat? Or tried to blow his nose on a public street in Switzerland?
Mr. Stein could not resist a parting shot at the Met, which he likened to a factory. "I'm not used to working in a factory" he said with no small amount of venom. One can readily understand how such gratuitous cracks might have disposed a consular official to tell the author of such snotty-grams to take a hike, but in fairness I think I'd like to hear the State Department's version of the June events before passing judgment. All of this, in short, tends to suggest that Peter Stein had cold feet about his Boris Godunov debut at the Met and trumped up an excuse to get out of his contract. He did it in the least tolerable manner possible.
A stage director capable of referring to the Met as a factory is the sort of fellow perfectly capable of dressing Tsar Boris in a tutu and making Price Shuisky up to look like Tammy Faye Baker. By turning the production over to Stephen Wadsworth the Met has put a major new production into the hands of an experienced, indeed brilliant, director. In the last analysis, Met audiences may well want to send a box of candy and flowers to the anonymous consular official in Berlin who has done them a favor beyond price.