Opera diehards, as a rule, couldn’t care less about the present; it is the past and the future that energize them. At any given intermission, they’ll refer to the performance at hand, but generally just to make the point (A) that someone sang the role better in 1952 and (B) that this awful soprano has no business planning to sing Norma in three years.
But while the past is over and done with, if ripe for endless rehashing, the operatic future has lately come under new scrutiny.
Since 1996 Brad Wilber, a reference librarian and crossword puzzle enthusiast, has published Met Futures, an online list of repertory and casting for upcoming seasons at the Metropolitan Opera. Drawing on information in the public domain and tips from sources, it’s a valuable, dependable, much-loved resource, providing a wide-angle view of the Met’s artistic direction and singers’ choices. (Anna Netrebko is singing her first-ever Tatyana in Eugene Onegin in 2013-14! La Donna del Lago has its Met premiere two years after that!)
This being opera, the list has also been the fodder for gleeful gossip, with a small but influential readership. Its updates have been regularly picked up by other blogs, and Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has referred to it in interviews.
In May, Mr. Wilber was contacted by the Met for the first time. He received a phone call from Sharon Grubin, the company’s general counsel, who asked Mr. Wilber to take down Met Futures. Though Mr. Wilber, 41, has long included a disclaimer on the site (“Keep in mind that although I try to post only solid information, the information should always be treated as merely speculative. I am in no way affiliated with the Metropolitan Opera”), the Met didn’t think it went far enough.
“She said their uppermost reason was that the site contains errors,” he said in a phone interview last week from his office at Houghton College, a small liberal arts school about 60 miles southeast of Buffalo, “and those errors, whatever percentage, create mistaken expectations on the part of the public, even with my disclaimer. And that it also sometimes muddied negotiations with artists. They said that that created difficulty for them.”
Others would disagree with the Met’s assessment of the list’s accuracy. “The accuracy of Brad’s site was quite spectacular one to two seasons in advance,” said James Jorden, the publisher of the opera gossip and discussion blog Parterre.com. “For example, six months before the Met announced their 2011-12 season in February 2011, Brad had the entire repertory and all major casting in place and, as it turned out, it was 100% correct. Farther down the line there were some predictions that might have been inaccurate, or else the Met might have changed their plans. For example, I remember a couple of years ago Brad predicted that the Met would do Rienzi around 2014: that prediction stayed in place for a few months and then disappeared from the Futures entirely.”
The list never included Mr. Wilber’s own speculations, and he was diligent about adjusting incorrect information. “I made pretty sure that I didn’t put up something that I hadn’t seen in print or on a website or in a direct communication,” Mr. Wilber said. “I never ever put any guesswork or assumptions on there.”
But Mr. Wilber agreed to remove the list, which he did early last week. “I’m not by nature an especially subversive person,” he said. “And I always told myself that if it got to the point where the Met expressed concern I would take it down.”
Representatives from the Met’s communications department offered him some CDs, which he accepted, and they spoke with him about the tone and content of his farewell post. (In response to an interview request, the company released a statement: “The Met asked Mr. Wilber to please stop providing unconfirmed information about future seasons, and he agreed.”)
Several lawyers with experience in similar matters agreed that the Met lacks a compelling legal claim in the case.
“I don’t know the facts of the situation involving the Met,” the noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said in an email, “but as a general matter the Met has no legal right to control what is said about it unless the material published is libelous or written in a way to suggest falsely that the Met itself is the author. Material in the public domain may freely be described so long as the copyright laws are adhered to and non-defamatory material from sources may be published whether or not it was confirmed.”
Hopefully Mr. Wilber will reconsider his decision and put his list back online. But even if he doesn’t, I spoke with other bloggers who expressed interest in hosting a similar feature. It would be deeply unfortunate if the Met attempted to pursue such a weak case against any of these people, who would almost certainly lack the company’s legal and financial resources. The fact that the company cannot seem to control leaks of information, to Mr. Wilber and others, is not the bloggers’ problem. It’s the Met’s.
The attempt to silence Mr. Wilber is comical, particularly since the Met Futures list pointed to a healthy artistic future, studded with new operas, expansions of the repertory, and exciting directors like Dmitri Tcherniakov. It seems like the company should have other priorities than intimidating a fan whose work provides a resource for other fans—a site that, at the end of the day, just increases excitement about the Met’s offerings.
With a music director whose health problems make his every appearance a crapshoot, a folly of a Ring production whose massive set cost millions and tends to break down, and a marked lack of success developing homegrown productions, is this really what the Met is choosing to spend its time on?
Well, at least there is the 2016-17 season to look forward to; according to Mr. Wilber’s last update, it will feature a new production of Verdi’s Otello starring Aleksandrs Antonenko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky and a revival of Rossini’s Armida with Diana Damrau.
“If the departure of the Met Futures list leaves you missing it,” he said in the farewell post on his site, “I’m sorry about that. I will really miss it too, you can be sure. But I plan to continue offering the Met all my usual forms of support — attending performances in the house, going to the cinema for live-in-HD presentations, listening via radio, etc. I hope you’ll do the same.”