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Ruben Östlund’s The Square necessarily took the fictional route in order to have wicked fun at the expense of the great cultural institution. But “official” accounts don’t have to be a dead loss: The Opera House, commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of New York’s Metropolitan Opera setting up shop at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, joins 2014’s The Great Museum as a documentary with pressing questions about the place and weight of culture in modern society.
Given the ululating Valkyries and moustachioed tenors available, it’s a surprise when The Opera House quickly gets deep into the nuts and bolts of the federal urban renewal plan in the US. Yet it’s here, describing the slum clearance that took place to rehouse the Met in a new cultural quarter, that the film – directed by Grey Gardens’ co-editor Susan Froemke – is at its most cutting. Starting with the beloved but decrepit old Met on 39th and Broadway, it inadvertently becomes a fascinating social history of the West Side – and, to its credit, doesn’t let itself off the hook when it comes to the urban Götterdämmerung the construction unleashed on the neighbourhood’s residents. “We were just like everybody – we were nobody,” laments one Puerto Rican shifted to the South Bronx.
Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man played at Lincoln Center’s groundbreaking ceremony, but Froemke never fully squares these stories with opera’s long-accused elitism. Instead, the film reverts to quietly absorbing inside-baseball territory – the struggle to design, build and stage work at the new building – lit up by a couple of uncommon personalities: the dachshund-doting general manager Rudolf Bing, a Viennese Reynolds Woodcock; and principal interviewee Leontyne Price, the African American soprano from Laurel, Mississippi, who graduated from Juilliard to open the new hall. She mists up when she recalls her parents being invited to sit in Eisenhower’s box. Perhaps she’s the best rebuttal to the notion that opera can’t touch the masses.
Source: The Guardian
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