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TASTE COMMENTARY

A Fight at the Opera
Met Maniac vs. the Met!

BY JAY NORDLINGER
Friday, December 6, 2002 12:01 a.m. EST

What, a scandal in opera? Hard to believe, I know. The operatic world is so docile, undemonstrative and shy. Still, it was rocked last month by the drama of the Met Maniac. Who's he? And, by the way, aren't they all? Yes, but this was the Met Maniac, John Patterson, builder and keeper of www.MetManiac.com, a Web site devoted to the Metropolitan Opera and in particular to its proud history of radio and television broadcasts.

On Nov. 1, the Met's general counsel called Mr. Patterson to say that he'd have to "cease and desist": The company could not tolerate, legally, what he was doing. If he persisted, he would be sorry. A formal letter followed reiterating same.

It was a tragedy of apparently "Pagliacci"-like intensity. It was David vs. Goliath. It was Tosca vs. Scarpia. It was Samson vs. Dalila.

The drama was not without irony. For instance, Mr. Patterson could hardly be a bigger Met booster. He is famous, in the opera world, for his campaign last year to restore Met radio to Washington, D.C., after a local station dropped the time-honored Saturday-afternoon broadcasts. (The Met Maniac lives in the Washington area.) With an Internet-fueled army, Mr. Patterson fought City Hall--or its radio equivalent--and won. The broadcasts sing on in the nation's capital.

Mr. Patterson started MetManiac in May 2000 as a way to feed and share his passion for historic Met broadcasts. It seems that he owns the largest collection of Met broadcasts in the world. His site--pre-scandal--included databases, search engines, a certain amount of lore, information about future Met seasons and video clips. (This last was a particular sticking point for Met brass.) Mainly the site was a "labor of love," as Mr. Patterson and his supporters say.

And there, in such devotion, was the key to the counterattack. There are no fans like opera fans (as certainly any music critic, like me, could tell you). They remind us that "fan" is short for "fanatic." And nowhere is fanaticism expressed so freely as on the Internet. There are hundreds of operatic sites, such as Opera-L.org (one of the most prominent) and Parterre.com, "the queer opera zine." On these sites, the opera wars rage. Every professional critic is a moron, of course. If you say something in favor of Plácido Domingo, you may suffer a vicious attack. Of course, if you say something against him, that could be dangerous too.

Mr. Patterson is a notably dignified voice in this world. He was at his desk when he got the call from the Met: "Are you John Patterson, the Met Maniac?" Well, yes, he replied. The lawyer gave him a bill of particulars: He could not "distribute" broadcasts, which included the trading of them (meaning the swapping of them--it's a little like baseball cards). He could not use the name "Met." He could not use video clips. He could print no information about future seasons (this despite the fact that the information was gleaned from public sources). In the tradition of cease-and-desist scares, the Met threw in everything but Wotan's sword.

Disgusted, Mr. Patterson closed up shop. He informed readers of Opera-L about this development in a gracious posting, which read in part: "Some of their concerns made perfect sense, and I was certainly willing to make significant modifications. But it quickly became apparent that they would be satisfied with no less than the complete dissolution of the site." Mr. Patterson noted that he had always "refused advertising and would not sell anything. [MetManiac] was a creative outlet--and great fun."

It sounded like a final aria, but in fact a swelling number from the e-chorus was about to begin. Fans of both Mr. Patterson and the Met went ape. One of them wrote: "At a time when opera around the world is struggling for resources to build an audience, what possible sense does it make to attack your fans?" Another said: "I would think those Terribly Bright People [i.e., Met officials] would be sending roses" to Mr. Patterson instead of "poisoned violets." Still another raged against the company's "Gestapo tactics." He might have said "Prussian tactics," remembering Maria Callas's famous charge against Rudolph Bing, the legendary general manager of the Met at mid-century.

Today's general manager is Joseph Volpe, something of a legend himself. He began his work at the Met as a carpenter and now, of course, runs the place. If you're looking for Horatio Alger in modern America, try Lincoln Center. If you're looking for someone both thick-skinned and pragmatic, Mr. Volpe is again your man.

Opera fans around the world decided to inundate him with letters. They also began a campaign to withhold pledges. "Money talks," as one of them pointed out prosaically but truthfully. (Mr. Volpe, for his part, says, "People tell me all the time, 'I'm going to stop donating.' And often it turns out that they never donated at all!") One man informed the Met that he would be yanking the company from his will, depriving it of a million dollars. "How stupefyingly shortsighted can one be?" he asked.

After a few days of this, Mr. Volpe said, in essence, "Enough already." He called Mr. Patterson and offered an olive branch: Would you, the Met Maniac, come up and work this out with my people? Mr. Patterson did, and it worked out.

The deal: Mr. Patterson would have the name of his site back for a dollar a year. No video clips, except with permission. And no indication of trading or even any indication that he has a broadcast collection at all. According to Mr. Patterson: "I told them, 'That's OK. I already have everything I can get. My collection's more comprehensive than yours!'" He has long stated that he intends to donate his collection to the Met upon his demise.

The revised MetManiac.com will have many of its earlier functions, and it may also be more journalistic, says Mr. Patterson. He's happy. Mr. Volpe's happy. The fans are happy. The Met Maniac says that he has a heightened appreciation of the legal headaches faced by the company. He also believes that the Met brass now have "a better understanding of the growing power and influence of the Internet--and even some insight into the concerns that their best fans have" about the way the company handles itself. So, la commedia è finita--and, unlike "I Pagliacci," it turned out all right. Much less blood.

Mr. Nordlinger is managing editor and music critic of National Review. He also writes about music for The New Criterion and the New York Sun.

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May 8, 2007
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