Why All the Booing?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I was fortunate to be invited to the opening of the Metropolitan Opera two weeks ago. The new production of Tosca made news when the production team was greeted by a chorus of boos when they bowed at the end of the performance.

I was surprised not so much by the boos as by the press coverage. Over the past thirty years of opera-going, I have seen many new, adventurous productions greeted by jeers when they debut. (Who can forget the reaction to Sir Peter Hall's Macbeth at the Met in 1982?)

For some reason, when directors approach favorite operas with a fresh perspective, audiences get angry. Perhaps it is the high ticket prices. Perhaps it is the fear that this new approach will become the norm and all opera productions will be similarly challenging. Perhaps it is the fear that this is the last production of the opera one will ever see.

I am fortunate to be able to see many opera productions, so perhaps I do not represent the average audience member. But I, for one, enjoy when a director takes a new approach to a work, as long as it is faithful to the music and makes sense.

When I ran the Royal Opera House, we created a new production of Tristan und Isolde that was very unusual. Tristan and Isolde each 'lived' on a boat that glided across a clear black (plexiglass) sea. They lived in their own worlds and never touched. I thought the director, Herbert Wernicke, had a beautiful concept. The production was not as well sung as I would have liked; I felt this undercut the director's concept. I expected negative reaction to the singing; the press, however, took after the production. One journalist called it "the lowest point in the history of the Royal Opera House." Wow.

I enjoy a beautiful, highly realistic production (pace Franco Zeffirelli). But I also enjoy a high concept production when it is executed well; they force me to examine the opera in a new way.

There was much to like in Luc Bondy's production of Tosca. Though ultimately I did not find it entirely persuasive, I particularly enjoyed the way the production put the relationships between the three principles in the spotlight. I believe Peter Gelb is doing what must be done by engaging important directors to create new productions; no performing arts organization can survive simply as a museum for beloved productions. And it takes courage to present a new production that is clearly going to be controversial on opening night.

But even if one did not enjoy this production, and even if one felt angry, booing seems to be an overreaction. Making art is about taking risk. Embarrassing serious artists when they are taking important risks seems hardly a smart approach that will foster additional experimentation. Next time you don't like a production, go home and write a blog.