Maestros! Divas! Unions! Another Met Season begins

This season at the Metropolitan Opera will be dominated by the story of a maestro and a diva. Opening night,

This season at the Metropolitan Opera will be dominated by the story of a maestro and a diva. Opening night, Sept. 27, music director James Levine returns to the podium to conduct Wagner’s Das Rheingold, as the Met releases a box set of 32 CDs and 21 DVDs–22 complete operas in all–in honor of his 40th anniversary with the company.

After bad press and bad feelings surrounding Mr. Levine’s injury-related cancellations last season, the box set feels redemptive, a reminder of his prominence and influence, the precision and passion of his conducting and the ways he’s grown the Met’s repertory–Berlioz, Berg, Schoenberg, world premieres. That said, it’s still uncertain whether Mr. Levine will be able to fulfill this season’s commitments. The box set is most of all a reminder that the Met needs as its music director not just an excellent conductor but a vibrant, committed, present musician who can truly lead the company’s artistic direction.

The cancellations, the uncertainty: All is forgiven. But on the occasion of this extraordinary anniversary, Mr. Levine and Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, must think hard about what will best serve the Met and its audience.

It is not only Mr. Levine whose recent struggles are highlighted by the quality of the box set. One of his favorite singers, the soprano Deborah Voigt, stars in four operas in the set–more than any other singer. But those memorable performances are reminders of how disappointing she’s been in recent seasons. When she appeared last year in one of her signature roles, Chrysothemis in Strauss’ Elektra, her voice was thin and squally, a pale echo of her Chrysothemis in a 1994 video recording included in the box set. She hasn’t sounded as radiant in five years, at least.

The coming season poses major challenges for Ms. Voigt. In December, she takes on the role of Minnie in performances of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the opera’s world premiere at the Met. It’s a sympathetic part well suited to Ms. Voigt’s temperament, but it requires a warmth of tone she hasn’t shown in a while. Her more highly anticipated test will come in April, when she sings the first Brunnhilde of her career, in Die Walküre. Given the reduced size and power of her voice, the success of the run will say a lot about the future course of her career.

As that run of Walküre goes on, a less public but no less important performance will be taking place: negotiations for a new contract between the Met and its labor unions. Mr. Gelb chose Joseph Volpe, his predecessor, to lead the Met’s negotiating team because of Mr. Volpe’s success with the company’s labor relations. But it is unclear whether even Mr. Volpe will be able to secure much-needed savings for the company.

“The Met is going to present a spectacular array of operatic music next season,” said Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), which represents the Met’s principal singers, choristers, directors and production personnel. “But it also has a continuing obligation to ensure that it treats the singers, dancers and production staff that create its music in a fair and reasonable manner.”

Any union concessions will likely involve the schedule of wage increases over the coming years. The structure of the Met’s health benefits and pension plans is not likely to change. (The Met would like to begin shifting pensions from a defined benefit plan, in which employees receive a certain amount regardless of economic conditions, to a defined contribution plan, like a 401(k), in which payouts are invested and therefore contingent on the economy.)

“There’s no room for negotiation” regarding the pension and health plans, Mr. Gordon said in a phone interview.

The timing of the negotiations–scheduled just before next summer’s tour of Japan–puts added pressure on the Met: A strike would not just be bad public relations; it would force the tour’s cancellation.

Mr. Volpe’s presence, though, is generally acknowledged to make a strike less likely. “With Volpe,” Mr. Gordon said, “you have a reasonable expectation it’s going to come out O.K.” Whether for the good of the Met, or to show up his successor, or both, Mr. Volpe seems inclined to make a deal work, even if it will largely preserve the Met’s difficult budget situation.

While financial matters may prove intractable, Mr. Gordon said AGMA will also seek to address one of Peter Gelb’s signature initiatives, bringing “name” directors to the Met. Now that audiences might seek out “Mary Zimmerman’s Lucia” rather than just “Lucia,” there will be a renewed effort to protect directors’ work.

“Let’s say Bart Sher directs something,” Mr. Gordon said. “He has very limited rights if the Met redoes it. We want to improve the rights of directors and their compensation when things they direct are restaged by the Met.”

Indeed, the season will begin with one of Mr. Gelb’s favored directors, Robert Lepage. Rheingold, along with Walküre in the spring, are the first two installments of Mr. Lepage’s elaborate, technologically advanced version of Wagner’s Ring cycle. There will be acrobats and stunt doubles, interactive video projections and Bryn Terfel. It will, in other words, be pretty cool. Whether it will balance the small and large moments–the characters in Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust kept getting lost in Mr. Lepage’s Met production–is another question.

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo opens in November; John Adams’ Nixon in China finally arrives at the Met in February, in Peter Sellars’ vintage production. Both are must-sees, as are the Met debuts of two great conductors: William Christie leading Mozart’s Così fan tutte in November, and Simon Rattle with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in December.

Valery Gergiev, at one time a plausible successor to James Levine, will conduct a new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in October, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, rather than the German director Peter Stein, as originally planned. It turns out that Mr. Stein’s cranky demands for hand-holding through the visa process were met with an ultimatum from Mr. Gelb.

It is not the first time a Met general manager has been forced to resort to deal sternly with divas. Rudolf Bing canceled Maria Callas’ contract; Joseph Volpe fired Katherine Battle, and famously told another soprano that her wig was going onstage, with or without her. The publicly restrained Mr. Gelb, who styles himself a very different kind of impresario, has now joined this grand tradition.

Another Met tradition seems to be starting: With every New Years’ Eve, another Zeffirelli production is retired. Last year was Carmen; this year, La Traviata. Mr. Zeffirelli’s grandiose production is not universally beloved, but the spare Willy Decker production that will replace it is perhaps the furthest the Met has yet strayed from a traditional aesthetic in the standard repertory. It will be interesting to see how the audience responds, particularly since the production lacks any of the company’s established stars. The Violetta, 32-year-old Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, is having her Met coming-out this fall: La Traviata opens on the heels of the new Don Carlo, in which she will also star. For her, the story is just beginning. Maestros! Divas! Unions! Another Met Season begins