When you're running the busiest opera house in the nation, if not the world, a logistical nightmare you could do without is a one-night-only potpourri involving two dozen hand-picked stars in arias and ensembles from two dozen repertory titles. But economics dictate fund-raisers regularly, so here is Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, marshalling troops for the company's 125th-anniversary gala, which is set for March 15.
Since taking over the Met in 2006 Mr. Gelb has staked his reputation and the house's fortunes on presenting top musical talent in bang-up theatrical packages. It takes bravado to apply the same standard to what is, in essence, a concert of party pieces. All the same, Mr. Gelb has decreed that each segment be conceived as a miniature production unto itself, commemorating a great moment in Met history.
"With a gala you typically have a disparate group of great talent arriving from great distances at the last minute," he said in a recent interview. "There's no time to 'direct' them. The drama has to be in the singing. That can be thrilling musically but visually tedious. We've all lived through many galas like that."
Alphabetically, the roster this time runs from Roberto Alagna to Deborah Voigt, by seniority, from the newcomer Aleksandrs Antonenko, a tenor from Latvia, to the veteran tenor Plácido Domingo. Mr. Domingo, a tenor and conductor now in his 40th season with the company, is both the workhorse and the guest of honor, appearing in tactically chosen scenes from Puccini's "Fanciulla del West" (evoking Enrico Caruso), Wagner's "Parsifal" (which the Met was the first company to take up in defiance of the composer's ban on performances outside Bayreuth, Germany), Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" (a foretaste of Mr. Domingo's future appearance in the baritone title role) and Verdi's "Otello" (an opera he owned for decades).
James Levine will conduct, and many other house favorites are expected in previews of future Met assignments: Stephanie Blythe as Amneris, René Pape as Boris Godunov and Wotan, Ms. Voigt as Brünnhilde, Ben Heppner as Siegfried, Natalie Dessay as Violetta.
To showcase them in style Mr. Gelb has assembled a high-powered production team. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, joint directors and designers of Philip Glass's "Satyagraha" last season, will again hitch up with the video artists Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of Fifty Nine Productions. Costumes are designed by Catherine Zuber, whose extensive credits include "The Light in the Piazza," "The Coast of Utopia," the current Bridge Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Bartlett Sher's Met production of "Il Barbiere di Siviglia."
At Parsons-Meares, a shop that furnishes fantasy costumes for shows like "The Lion King," "Wicked" and "Mary Poppins" and also built the fat suit for Kevin Kline's Falstaff, Ms. Zuber was inspecting an angel for the apotheosis from Gounod's "Faust," the opera with which the Met opened the doors of its original home at Broadway and 39th Street, on Oct. 22, 1883.
Ms. Zuber's angel — one of three, their wings thick with silken feathers — harks back to the inaugural production. Images survive in the Met archive, which owns not only photographs, posters, programs and other memorabilia but also historic costumes kept in climate-controlled storage. Working from this treasure trove and other sources, the creative team assembled an image bank that grew to three large binders, establishing historic points of reference for each of the gala's segments.
For the gala, Mr. Gelb quoted a budget between $1 million and $2 million, on a par, he said, with his more economical new productions. For 20-odd tableaus that is a shoestring. But a gala is no occasion for deficit spending. This one, Mr. Gelb said, is the culminating event in a special anniversary drive designed to meet exceptional financing requirements over the next several years. The target for the drive, which extended over multiple seasons, was $170 million, this in addition to the $100 million the company seeks to raise annually. The gala puts the Met over the top.
"We're proud of that," Mr. Gelb said, "but sobered that our goals must be further enlarged. Without this economic crisis we'd be sitting pretty."
Even so, he means this event to look lavish.
In some departments technology makes it easier to achieve more with less. Scenery will mostly take the form of projections, computer graphics and animations developed from archival materials.
On a recent conference call from London, Mr. Crouch and Mr. McDermott said that even before the gala was conceived they had been captivated by a blowup of Caruso in "La Fanciulla del West," surrounded by a lynch mob in a forest clearing with a noose around his neck. When the project began taking shape, this was the first image they set out to recreate.
"When Plácido steps into that picture," Mr. Crouch said, "we'll be trying to tap into a line of energy that goes all the way back to the original production. We're trying to get as close as we can." So there will be a hollow tree and a man in it, holding the rope. But the forest background will be projected, probably in sepia tones at the start, with color phasing in gradually as the aria proceeds.
The final duet from "Siegfried," Mr. McDermott said, harks back to 1887. "I'm very excited that people will get to see Wagner in the fantastic costumes you never get to see anymore," he added. "A helmet with horns! That's something you don't get to show very often as a director. There's a reason why singers strike old-fashioned poses. Even if you want to reinvent, you have to heighten and stylize in some way. That's inherent in the form of opera itself. Why not go with it?"
Elsewhere the scenic design takes different approaches, mixing and matching, filling in blanks. The blockbusters of Franco Zeffirelli, though still in use, will be represented by projections of his conceptual sketches, which streamlines operations while adding a visual grace note. "Zeffirelli's watercolors are very beautiful," Mr. Crouch said. "We don't want the night to last forever." Mr. Gelb is shooting for a "tightly managed" three hours and hopes that the scene changes themselves will add to the fun. (Ovations could throw the timetable off substantially.)
With the costumes the options are to build, borrow or rent.
The chorus in "Faust" will raid the Met's production of Verdi's "Ernani," an antique that is still in service.
"The costumes for the current 'Faust' weren't appropriate," Ms. Zuber said. "The shapes were all wrong. But the 'Ernani' costumes fit the period." Marius Kwiecien is meant to conjure up Ezio Pinza as Don Giovanni, in a rented movie costume originally worn by Colin Firth. Dressing the miners in "Fanciulla del West" was easier. "For Western wear," Ms. Zuber said, "there are plenty of suppliers."
Certain outfits that Ms. Zuber calls iconic are being replicated as accurately as possible. Juan Diego Flórez will appear as the Duke in "Rigoletto" in a copy of an extant costume worn by Caruso. For Waltraud Meier's Carmen, Ms. Zuber is recreating, from photographs, a spicy toreador number created for Rosa Ponselle by the glamorous designer Valentina.
Elsewhere Ms. Zuber is taking poetic license. Appropriately enough, Renée Fleming's gown is inspired by a portrait of the legendary beauty Maria Jeritza, the original Met interpreter of the aria Mr. Fleming has chosen, from Korngold's runaway hit "Die Tote Stadt," except that Ms. Fleming's dress shows off her trim waistline. And while the "Rosenkavalier" segment pays tribute to the American premiere in 1913, the archival evidence shows frocks that contemporary eyes find limp and dowdy. Ms. Zuber is giving them a "heightened silhouette" that evokes the period yet perks them up. "This isn't just a memory," she said. "It's a gala."