Watching Gelb, I was reminded of something he had told me during our first meeting: ‘I’m accused often of being a micro-manager, which I am.’
The Met’s Grand Gamble
Since Peter Gelb took the reins at the Metropolitan Opera, in 2006, he’s relentlessly picked up the pace—more new productions, more aggressive marketing, live high-def broadcasts—until everyone from chorus members to major donors has felt the strain. But is Gelb presiding over a leap into the 21st century, or the slow decline of the world’s greatest (and most extravagant) opera house? Examining the Met’s $47 million deficit, the horrendous economics of opera, and the effort to sell high culture to the masses, the author reveals what a huge risk the controversial impresario is taking.
One Saturday afternoon in early November 2009, I joined Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, inside a satellite truck parked behind Lincoln Center. A matinee performance of Puccini’s Turandot was about to be transmitted, live, from the Met in New York City to 1,014 movie theaters across the country and around the globe.
Inside the opera house, 13 cameras captured every detail in high definition; the feeds were relayed to us in the truck. We could see the Ukrainian soprano Maria Guleghina backstage, getting ready to play the sadistic Chinese princess – the title role. Up front, the ushers handed out programs and guided people to their seats. “Guys,” the video director said, speaking through a headset to his cameramen, “I need audience shots. Young people. Is there anyone under 40? Find young people!”
The Met’s famous “Sputnik” chandeliers, huge glittering spheres of crystals, were now going up. It was curtain time, and the soaring pagodas of Act I were coming into view. Ever since Franco Zeffirelli designed it, in 1987, critics have scorned this production of Turandot, calling it “gaudy,” “a veritable symbol of operatic excess,” and “Cecil B. DeMille meets P. T. Barnum.” Yet despite its gaudiness, or because of it, Turandot, with its cast of 237 singers, dancers, and extras, remains one of the most popular of the Met’s productions. At the matinee performance in November, all 3,800 seats were sold.
“Here we go, guys,” said the director. “Standing by. Ready. Dissolve!” Frantically, the technicians in the satellite truck faded one shot into another. “Ready, Eight?” yelled the director, “Ready? Go! Five? Ready? Go Five! Three? Three! Two? Two! Ten seconds on this shot! Cut!”
It was hot and cramped inside the truck, though no one else seemed to notice. Gelb, perched on a stool right behind the director and wearing a headset, was leaning forward, tracking every fast-paced command. “The backlight is too high,” I heard him say. “It’s casting a shadow.” Watching Gelb, I was reminded of something he had told me during our first meeting: “I’m accused often of being a micro-manager, which I am.”
Gelb is proud of the Met’s live transmissions, and not only because they were his idea. This season, more than 1,000 movie theaters in 44 countries will screen live performances from the Met. With about two million people expected to watch one or more Met operas on the big screen this season, Gelb’s new initiative is as close to populism as opera can get. For $20 a ticket, more or less, the greatest operas in the world are now accessible to everyone, from Mobile, Alabama, to Topeka, Kansas, from Osaka, Japan, to Lima, Peru. Some of these viewers have never seen an opera. Who can foretell what kind of impact the Met’s high-definition broadcasts will have?
Opera-lovers of an earlier generation learned to appreciate the art form by listening to the Met’s live public-radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. One day some of the people watching Turandot in movie theaters might be subscribers to the Met—or, better yet, donors. “We’ve had thousands of new donors through our high-definition transmissions,” Gelb told me. “Did I mention that to you? That’s where the future million-dollar donors are going to come from.” In other words, the transmission from the satellite truck in New York City to the far reaches of the planet wasn’t about just the democratization of opera—it was an essential component of Peter Gelb’s long-term plan to save the Metropolitan Opera.
Gelb, 56, is tall and angular. When I first met him, last fall, he was wearing a black suit with a dark shirt and dark tie. He typically wears the same thing to work every day. On some people, this uniform might seem affected; on Gelb, it suggests efficiency.
He is known for his punishing schedule, for sending e-mails to his staff well before six a.m., and for roaming the corridors of the Met late at night. He has always worked this hard, apparently. “His work ethic, his ability to shift time zones and work long hours, was, in a way, superhuman,” marveled Alex Miller, who worked for Gelb from 1995 to 1999, when Gelb was president of the Sony Classical record label. Compensating perhaps for a lack of previous experience in opera, Gelb monitors every aspect of the Met, in compulsive detail. “At first I assumed that he wasn’t interested, that he couldn’t possibly be interested in knowing everything,” one member of his staff told me, referring to Gelb’s request to be copied on even the most trivial information. “Then I learned better.” In Gelb’s unnaturally tidy office, the only sign that he has a life outside the Met is a framed photograph of his wife, the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson.
“He’s the hardest-working general manager I’ve ever seen,” said Bruce Crawford, chairman of the advertising agency Omnicom Group, who has served the Met in one capacity or another since 1976 (as a major donor, as general manager from 1985 to 1989, and as president and chief executive officer from 1984 to 1985 and from 1991 to 1999).
Since becoming general manager, in August 2006, Gelb has devoted his considerable energy to shaking up the Met. Specifically, he hopes to attract a new, broader audience (those elusive “young people” the video director was searching for while filming Turandot). “Opera can be so much more than audiences have been accustomed to—it can be this thrilling theatrical experience,” insisted Gelb. “Part of my strategy is to have the Met be at the forefront of theatrical invention.” Based on box-office results, Gelb’s efforts to make opera a thrilling experience are working: from a low of 77 percent in the 2005–6 season, just before Gelb took over, the percentage of seats filled at the Met increased to 88 percent last season.
But it may be that not even a superhuman effort can save the Met. Opera is out of fashion and out of date, I’ve been told. In the past few years alone, the number of Americans who attended an opera, any opera, dropped by more than a third. At the same time, the median age of opera-goers keeps increasing: it now stands at 48. All across the country, opera companies are cutting short their seasons, firing staff, or simply closing their doors. The Baltimore Opera declared bankruptcy in 2008, after 59 years in business. The Connecticut Opera shut down last year. In Los Angeles, the opera house is on life support: it’s sustained for the time being by a $14 million emergency infusion from Los Angeles County. The Washington National Opera and the Met’s hometown rival, the New York City Opera, are in desperate straits.
Don’t be alarmed. The Metropolitan Opera is not about to close its doors anytime soon. It’s the biggest, grandest, most respected opera house in the world. Each season, between September and May, the Met typically stages seven performances a week—about 220 performances in total—and just about every production is spectacular. Its repertory is varied and rich. Its orchestra, under the direction of the distinguished conductor James Levine, is recognized not only as the world’s best opera orchestra but as one of the best orchestras in the world, period. As for its singers: at one point in his or her career, every great opera singer appears at the Met. In the words of the American soprano Renée Fleming, who’d finished performing in Der Rosenkavalier shortly before we spoke, “The Met is at the top of the operatic food chain.”
And yet, if you spend as much time as I have examining the Met’s financial statements, you’re likely to conclude that, in its current state, the Met is not sustainable. Budgets are overstretched, the endowment is seriously depleted, and, for seven of its past eight seasons, the Met has been operating at a loss. The Met’s accumulated deficit now stands at $47 million. Making opera exciting and relevant is not an inexpensive undertaking.
The Met’s Web site can tell you all about every performance staged since its first opera house opened in 1883. Did you know, for example, that October 29, 1956, marked Maria Callas’s debut at the Met, in the title role of Bellini’s Norma? Were you aware that Verdi’s Aida has been staged by the Met 1,115 times since 1886? All that and much more is just a click away. When it comes to revealing financial information, however, the Met is less forthcoming: only one annual report is available online, and it dates from the 2006–7 season. Money, or its lack, is not something the Met feels the need to discuss openly. This great institution has been around for 127 years; why should its survival suddenly be in doubt? “I have never seriously contemplated the possibility the Metropolitan Opera would not open next season” is how William Morris, president and chief executive officer of the Met, put it to me. “I don’t plan to ever seriously contemplate that, which doesn’t mean that we are not economically challenged; we are.”
I managed to gather 12 years of financial data from the Met. The numbers were discouraging. In the past three fiscal years, since Gelb became general manager, annual expenses have soared by 27 percent to a frightening $282 million in fiscal 2009—almost four times what it costs to run the San Francisco Opera, the second-biggest opera company in North America. This, while revenues from box office, movie tickets, and other media (television, radio, video) were a mere $110 million last year.
More worrisome data emerged: the Met’s endowment, never impressive to begin with, has collapsed, from a high of $336 million in fiscal 2007 to $247 million in fiscal 2009. The stock market is down, of course, but that’s not the only reason the endowment has shrunk: badly in need of cash to fund its operations, the Met has quietly, and (in retrospect) imprudently, drawn down its endowment by a total of $61.5 million in the past three years. At the same time, the so-called drawdown rate jumped to 8.3 percent of the endowment last year, well above the 5 percent rate that’s considered appropriate for nonprofits. How long can that aggressive drawdown rate possibly last?
Already, the Met has been forced to put up its valuable Chagall murals as collateral on a $35 million bank loan. Arranged in 2004, the original loan was borrowed against the Met’s endowment. Last year, however, with the endowment way down, the bank demanded additional collateral, with the result that the Met was forced to mortgage the immense 36-foot-high Chagalls, which were commissioned by the Met’s most famous general manager, Rudolf Bing, and have hung on either side of the opera house’s grand central staircase since 1966.
All of which suggests Gelb does not have much time. In short order, he has to augment box-office sales, attract new opera-goers and donors, and balance the budget. Thus, for one thing, he has sharply increased the number of new productions, introducing 20th-century operas such as Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, and (coming next season) John Adams’s Nixon in China. For another, hoping to make opera more relevant to a modern audience, Gelb has commissioned contemporary filmmakers, theater directors, choreographers, and artists to stage new operas or overhaul classics (Bartlett Sher, Patrice Chéreau, Luc Bondy, Mary Zimmerman, Robert Lepage, William Kentridge, and Peter Sellars, for example). Meanwhile, more and more of the operas that once defined the Met are being phased out—in particular, Franco Zeffirelli’s grandiose productions, some of which had been in rotation for decades (Tosca, Carmen, La Traviata). Needless to say, many opera purists are unhappy. “In trying to make the Met cool and downtown-y and glitzy, Gelb is pushing away the old audience,” one longtime opera critic informed me, bitterly.
In his first year on the job, Gelb hired Anthony Minghella, the late English film director (The English Patient) and playwright, to direct the season’s opening production, a new version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. He then spent $500,000 on outdoor advertisements: they appeared on the sides of New York City buses, on telephone booths, on lampposts, and at subway entrances. That kind of promotion may be standard on Broadway, but, for the Met, which for many years was perceived as an intimidating, elitist institution, it was a radical move. Gelb also hosted the Met’s first-ever “open house,” inviting the public to wander onstage, and giving away thousands of free tickets to the final dress rehearsal of Butterfly, bag lunch included. The debut performance, on September 25, 2006, was shown live in Times Square, on a Panasonic jumbo screen.
This season, the first over which Gelb has had complete control (most productions are commissioned years in advance), was designed to make a statement, too. For the opening gala, last September, Gelb ditched Zeffirelli’s baroque production of Puccini’s Tosca, a staple of the Met’s repertory since 1985, and replaced it with a stripped-down version by Luc Bondy, the Swiss-born intellectual and theater director. Whereas Zeffirelli’s Tosca depicted every overblown detail of Palazzo Farnese in Act II, Bondy’s set was abstract, ugly. While Zeffirelli followed every direction in the libretto, faithfully, Bondy got rid of the crucial scene in which Tosca, having just murdered Scarpia, places candles at his side and an oversize crucifix on his chest.
Bondy’s Tosca was greeted by long and angry booing from the audience. “This production is a crime!” yelled an old man sitting not far from me. Critics hated it, too. “Fiasco” was the blunt title of a review by Alex Ross, *The New Yorker’*s respected music critic. Zeffirelli himself jumped into the fray, describing Bondy as a “third-rate” director. In response to the uproar, Gelb remained calm: without fresh, new productions, he believes, the Met will stagnate. Besides, even a critical flop, like Tosca, attracts attention. From the NBC Nightly News to the pages of Le Monde,this was one Metropolitan Opera production that made headlines everywhere.
I visited Bondy in Paris, at his apartment across from the Luxembourg Gardens. He had hoped to get rid of the clichés in Tosca, he told me; he intended to make it less operatic and more theatrical. “The problem is, most of the time, opera is terrible,” he said. “Most of the time you don’t really have the—how you say—le plaisir et la satisfaction, to see something where everything is there: music, acting, lighting, costumes, everything. Most of the time you see an opera, you ask yourself, Why don’t they just do it on a record?”
Almost two months had passed since the debut of Toscain New York, and there were rumors that the Met would bring back Zeffirelli’s version. Bondy was tired of the ongoing controversy. “You know,” he said casually, “it doesn’t matter, because publicity is publicity.”
“This Is, Like, the Most Boring Aria”
Tosca is just one of eight new productions at the Met this season—up from six a year earlier. (In the old days, before Gelb, five new productions a year was considered ambitious.) As well, another 18 operas, revivals from the Met’s repertory, are being staged this season. From costume designers to stagehands and choristers, everyone I spoke to at the Met felt pressured. “Compression” was the word used by Robert Maher, a member of the Met’s chorus, to describe the phenomenon of squeezing more and more productions into the season. “When I came into the company, I was assigned to 19 operas,” he told me. “This year I’m assigned to 25.”
“I kind of like a challenge, like anybody, but this is pushing even me,” the director Bart Sher admitted. When I met him, last October, Sher was in rehearsals for the Met’s new production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, a complicated, disjointed French opera, and, as far as he was concerned, there wasn’t nearly enough time to get it right.
Sher is best known for his 2008 Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a production that won seven Tony Awards. “Rapturous” is how Ben Brantley, theater critic for The New York Times, described it. According to Peter Gelb, Sher is a “wild bundle of creative energy,” and the kind of director who can re-invent opera. But here it was, just after 11 in the morning, and Sher looked worn down, worn out. He’d been struggling to give Hoffmann the flow and excitement of a great film or a brilliantly staged piece of theater. During months of preparation, he’d envisioned something out of Fellini; instead, what he saw that morning was tedious and melodramatic. “This is, like, the most boring aria,” Sher whispered to me, rolling his eyes. His hair, long and partly gray, was unkempt. His clothes—black jeans and T-shirt—were rumpled. A half-eaten sugar doughnut was on the table. Suddenly, Sher jumped up. “Stop!” he commanded. “It gets too opera-y here,” he said. “Keep it real. The gestures get too grand, too big. O.K.?”
Several of Hoffmann’s principal singers still hadn’t arrived in New York: no one was sure when Anna Netrebko, the glamorous Russian soprano, would show up. The opera’s choreographer, Dou-Dou Huang, was delayed in China. And Joseph Calleja, the Maltese tenor hired at the last minute to replace Rolando Villazón in the title role, had never sung the part before. “You know,” explained Sher during a break in rehearsal, “it’s like this ship that’s out at sea and the crew’s not big enough to run the whole ship—everybody’s doing too many things for too long.”
This frenzy of activity, this compression, was not unexpected. In some ways it defines what has come to be known as “the new Met”—that is, the Met under Peter Gelb. “There’s no question that people here are working harder than they have ever worked before. I know that,” conceded Gelb unapologetically. “And the fact of the matter is, people do adapt.”
In measuring Gelb’s success, outsiders typically look at box-office results. From Gelb’s point of view, however, there is a more vital measure: donations. In part, every decision he makes, every new production, is meant to inspire donors. “This is not a business,” Gelb assured me. “From the beginning of time, the high arts were subsidized, and I’m not capable of changing that.” Historically he’s right. The giant shortfall between the Met’s expenses and revenues has always been compensated for by donations from individuals—an astonishing $108 million worth last year. More than half came from a single source: the Met’s managing directors, a very rich and very powerful group of the opera house’s 40 most generous patrons. Among them: the hedge-fund manager Bruce Kovner (worth $3.5 billion, according to Forbes), Mercedes Bass (wife of Sid Bass, worth $2 billion), Jacqueline Desmarais (wife of the Canadian financier Paul Desmarais Sr., worth $3.9 billion), Mark Getty (heir to the Getty Oil fortune and founder of Getty Images), and Christine Hunter (daughter of the late industrialist J. William Fisher). They’re the Medicis of our age, these directors, and for the moment the future of the Met depends entirely on their munificence. A case in point: as this article was going to press in mid-March, I received the best of all possible news from sources close to the Met: two managing directors had just pledged the princely sums of $10 million and $30 million, respectively.
To remain members of the Met’s discriminating board, managing directors are expected to give between $250,000 and $500,000 a year. At a minimum. In 2006, Mercedes Bass donated $25 million, a Christmas present from her husband. At the time it was the biggest individual donation in the Met’s history. As Bass cheerfully explained to The New Yorker in 2007, “I said to Sid, ‘Sooner or later we are going to do something for the Met,’ and he said, ‘Well, what’s your thinking?’ I said, ‘Well, if you really want to give me a great Christmas present, this is what I would like to do.’ The whole decision took about five minutes.”
The story of the Metropolitan Opera’s founding is the story of new money in America. It all started, it is said, when the aspiring Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt, daughter-in-law of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, was shut out of the Academy of Music. The Academy, on East 14th Street, wasn’t just the city’s leading opera house; it was also a gathering place for the most refined members of New York’s Knickerbocker society. Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence opens one January evening at the Academy: “The world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to.”
Kept out of the Academy, the “new people”—the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, the Goulds, the Havemeyers—founded their very own opera house, the first Metropolitan Opera, on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets. Before too long this jewel of the Gilded Age had overtaken the Academy of Music as the city’s most exclusive and desirable cultural institution. Its dominance was assured when Mrs. William Astor, arbiter of New York’s high society and a longtime member of the Academy of Music, purchased Parterre Box 7.
So exclusive was the new Metropolitan Opera that Jews, Catholics, foreigners, and other undesirables were not permitted to buy or rent boxes, which were reserved for the Protestant elite. Finally in 1917, reluctantly, the Met offered Box 14 to a man named Otto Kahn, a German Jew and managing partner of the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Company. Of course, Kahn was an “exceptional Jew,” born to a privileged German family, highly assimilated, and highly cultured. Even today, his 80-room mansion, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 91st Street, is considered the finest example of Italian Renaissance architecture in New York. (It’s now the home of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private school for girls.) What’s more, as the Met’s founders had to concede, he was the opera house’s biggest shareholder, its most powerful director (chairman of the board from 1908 to 1931), and by far its most generous benefactor (in total, he donated $2.5 million, a sum equal to about $50 million today).
For all of Peter Gelb’s democratic instincts, the Met, which moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, continues to reflect the whims and bank accounts of the very rich. In contrast to Europe—where, for example, 64 percent of the Bavarian State Opera’s $110 million budget is underwritten by the government—less than 1 percent of the Met’s budget is normally covered by government grants. The absence of government support means: (a) the average ticket price is high and about to get higher (rising 11 percent next season, to $138); and (b) the job of general manager requires, above all, that he court big donors. As Gelb noted to me, more than once, even if the Met sells every one of its 3,800 seats, it still doesn’t come close to breaking even.
It’s a daunting job, hunting down big donors. Once they’re identified as such, potential donors—people with “capacity,” as they’re known in the jargon of fund-raising—are warmly invited to join Gelb in his box, to dine with Gelb at the Grand Tier Restaurant, to join Gelb on a backstage tour. “Peter is a terrific fund-raiser; he’s a natural,” said an admiring Coralie Toevs, the Met’s head of development. Gelb sold Agnes Varis on the idea of the Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman Rush Ticket program: two hours before most performances, 200 orchestra seats, normally priced at $100 each, are sold to the public for $20. The cost to Varis: $2.3 million this year. Again and again, Varis has generously responded to Gelb’s personal appeals for more money—a total of almost $21 million since 2006. She’s paid for the Met’s outdoor advertising campaigns. She’s underwritten the Met’s now regular, and free, dress rehearsals for the public. She’s financed four new productions: *Salome, The Magic Flute, Satyagraha,*and Doctor Atomic. And in the fall of 2008, just after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the bottom fell out of the economy, Varis persuaded her fellow board members to buy $3 million worth of unsold seats. (Without that helpful boost, the percentage of seats sold in the 2008–9 season would actually have been lower than in the previous season.)
Some board members complain that under Gelb, as the need for money has increased, so too has the pressure to increase their donations. “The fact of the matter is, if you’re going to be on the board of a nonprofit, you are expected to be a major contributor,” remarked Varis. “Yeah, sure, there’s pressure to give more—but why wouldn’t there be? You don’t have to give more if everything is going well, but the economy is going down the toilet and it’s not going to get any better.”
Varis, who earned her fortune in the generic-drug business, is self-made. Raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the youngest of eight children born to Greek immigrants, she was the first member of her family to graduate from college, with a degree from Brooklyn College. Her father, an ice-cream peddler, died when she was 14. Her mother worked in a garment factory. Like Gelb, Varis believes that opera can be packaged and sold. As she put it to me, “Everything that you see that’s a big hit, whether it’s in a movie or a Broadway play, is also an opera. I mean, you got drama, you got sex, you got crime, you got everything—it’s there! It’s just about the way it’s packaged, the way it’s packaged and the way it’s presented.”
Opera is the most expensive of the performing arts, by a long shot, and the Met is the world’s most extravagant opera company. A new production costs between $2 million and $3 million. Costume budgets alone run upwards of $1 million an opera. Labor, tightly controlled by 16 powerful and uncompromising trade unions, is terrifyingly expensive, accounting for $213 million last year, more than three-quarters of the Met’s budget. Consider: members of the Met’s chorus make as much as $175,000 a year each—and that’s before benefits that include nine weeks of paid vacation, a defined-benefit pension plan, and health insurance underwritten entirely by the Met. For principal singers, the top fee is $16,000 a performance, which means that Renée Fleming, for example, received $128,000 for eight performances of Der Rosenkavalier this season. As for Peter Gelb, even after taking a voluntary 10 percent pay cut last year, his total compensation is still one of the highest in the nonprofit world, approximately $1.3 million.
Viewed from the perspective of an economist, the Met is like something out of the pre-industrial age. There are no “efficiencies.” Nothing is scalable. It takes just as many musicians to stage La Bohème today as it did 100 years ago. “That’s why opera’s not economic—there have been no productivity increases almost since opera was founded,” remarked William Morris, the Met’s C.E.O. and a managing director since 1996. A Harvard M.B.A., a onetime managing director at Lehman Brothers, the former chief executive officer of J. & W. Seligman (a money-management firm that was sold to Ameriprise Financial for $440 million in 2008), and currently the chairman of Carbo Ceramics Inc., Morris can’t help but view the Met through the lens of a businessperson. “If you know anything about economics,” he told me, “you know that labor productivity is what has driven Western civilization’s economic progress for hundreds of years—being able to produce more goods with an hour of input from a working person. Opera has been exempt from that favorable trend.”
For a firsthand look at what Morris was talking about, I spent an afternoon backstage. “Watch your head on Bridge Two!” someone yelled. “Watch Bridge Two!” I was standing 65 feet above the stage, on a narrow catwalk known as G4. Overhead, suspended from cables in midair, were dozens of fly pipes, massive steel tubes controlled by dead-haul winches, each capable of lifting up to 1,000 pounds. Painted backdrops and mammoth pieces of a set were being hoisted this way and that. A lighting technician scrambled way up an A-frame ladder. At the top of the grid, 110 feet above stage level, something needed adjusting. The air smelled of sulfur: it was the stench of hydraulic oil from the stage-lift cylinders. It was Don Juan’s hell.I looked down. Everywhere, like so many insects, workmen were rushing to and fro on the stage. The rehearsal for From the House of the Dead had run late; the set was being dismantled and moved into containers. In less than three hours, a performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville would begin. Paintbrush in hand, a set designer did a touch-up here and there. Automated Vari-Lites were being re-programmed and re-hung. A crew of carpenters hammered away at something I couldn’t see. At stage right, on one of the three rolling wagons stored in the wings, I could see the set for the next day’s show, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust.
‘A logistical nightmare” is how Lou Pavon, who was overseeing the set change that day, described his job to me. Every minute counted. If the curtain was late, as it has been so often this season, the performance might run into overtime. What that means to the Met, mostly, is money—in the form of double time or double-and-a-half time. Again and again, in the weeks that I spent at the Met, schedules were pushed into “penalty” hours: rehearsals ran late, breaks and dinner periods were cut short or skipped altogether, and, on at least one occasion, an opera ran on past midnight. One Met insider suggested to me, sotto voce, that the unions, unhappy with Gelb’s growing demands on them, were covertly using slowdown tactics to express their grievances. Either way: this was the new Met under Peter Gelb, and it was not economical, not at all.
“Of course I worry about it,” said Gelb, on the subject of the Met’s finances. “But I don’t really know how else to proceed.… I don’t know any other way of ensuring a future for opera than what I am doing now.” In Gelb’s view, spending money is the only way to bring in money—that is, to sell more tickets and attract more donors. His strategy, in other words, is a high-stakes gamble. To cut back is as good as giving in. “The Met was retrenching before I took over,” he told me. “The way the Met was operating was reminding me of that scene in Around the World in 80 Days where they’re burning parts of the boat to keep the engine fired up, to keep it going. That’s a short-term solution, but it doesn’t provide long-term salvation.”
“It was a tight financial time,” explained Gelb’s predecessor, Joseph Volpe. “I always tried to balance the budget.” Volpe, who ran the Met from 1990 to 2006, was thrifty; he pulled the Met into shape, financially speaking. At the same time, opera critics said he lacked imagination when it came to programming. By recycling the same tired productions, he had discouraged people from coming to the Met. Volpe, who is 69, wants to set the record straight, now that Peter Gelb is being held up as the architect of a new, dynamic Met: with enough money, he too could have been creative. “Peter spends money in ways I never could,” Volpe told me. “If I had Mercedes Bass and I could have spent money upon money in those days, it would have been a lot different. But I couldn’t. You know, I couldn’t.”
In hiring Gelb, the Met’s board of directors chose someone who was the direct opposite of Joe Volpe. Famously, Volpe, born in Brooklyn, rose right through the ranks at the Met, from apprentice carpenter in 1964 to general manager in 1990: he was the ultimate insider, able to describe every technical detail of the Met’s backstage operations, trusted completely by the Met’s trade unions, voluble and blunt. (He remains close to the unions, so much so that earlier this year Gelb hired Volpe as a consultant to lead the Met’s impending and critical labor negotiations.) Yet Volpe’s 16-year tenure as general manager is now largely defined by the terrible years immediately following September 11, 2001, when the number of subscribers to the Met declined, donations dried up, and the percentage of seats sold fell dramatically, from 93 percent to 77 percent. What kind of person was needed to replace Volpe? “We were looking for an energetic young person to lead us out of the trap in the early 2000s caused by 9/11,” Bill Morris told me.
Just two days after first meeting Peter Gelb, the Met’s board of directors offered him the position of general manager. Gelb had no experience running an opera house; still, even as a teenager, when he’d worked as an usher at the Met, he had dreamed of one day running the place. “I have always been ambitious about moving forward in this world,” Gelb told me candidly. “My pitch to them was that the Met was an organization that had a great history and past, but that was completely disconnected from contemporary culture and society. I was very straight with them. I told them what I really believed, which is that it had disengaged itself and that it needed to be re-engaged. I remember using metaphors, like it was an isolated island that needed bridges.”
Gelb’s appointment was controversial. In his previous job, running Sony’s classical-music label, he had promoted albums that were lowbrow, according to purists. They accused him of being “commercial.” Specifically, they pointed to Gelb’s so-called crossover projects, ranging from Yo-Yo Ma’s Appalachia Waltz to Michael Bolton’s album of opera arias and James Horner’s blockbuster soundtrack for the movie Titanic. Was any of this classical music? Maybe not, but under Gelb’s direction, Sony Classical produced one commercial hit after another. “If ‘classical’ music recording is limited to Beethoven and Brahms symphonies and standard operatic repertoire then we’re finished,” Gelb told Gramophone magazine in 1996, shortly after becoming president of Sony Classical. “If there isn’t an audience there’s no point.”
Peter Gelb’s parents, Barbara and Arthur Gelb, were members of New York’s cultural aristocracy. Arthur spent 45 years working for The New York Times, from 1944 to 1989, first as a night copyboy, then as a drama critic, deputy cultural editor, metropolitan editor, and, finally, as the paper’s influential managing editor. He and Barbara met at the Times. Back then she was a copygirl who’d gone to Swarthmore, a niece of the great violinist Jascha Heifetz. Married in 1946, the Gelbs, working together, wrote not one but two landmark biographies of Eugene O’Neill. In his 2003 autobiography, City Room, Arthur recalls a family excursion to Central Park’s Shakespeare Garden: “Pointing to his statue, we explained that Shakespeare was the world’s greatest playwright. Peter, then five, was indignant. ‘Oh, yeah?’ he said. ‘And what about Gene O’Neill?’”
Peter Gelb did not attend university. Instead, on graduating from Manhattan’s Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, in 1971, he took a job as an office boy for the impresario Sol Hurok. It wasn’t long before Gelb had worked his way up, becoming assistant manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the conductor Seiji Ozawa. By that time his instincts for publicity were well developed. In January 1979, shortly before Deng Xiaoping became the first leader of the People’s Republic of China to visit the United States, Gelb and Ozawa seized the historic day, wangling an invitation for the B.S.O. to tour China. There was a hitch, however: to pay for the tour, they needed $600,000 urgently. The day before Deng’s arrival in the U.S., using every contact they had, and working through the night, Gelb and Ozawa persuaded the Chinese leader to use the occasion of his gala reception in Washington, D.C., to announce the B.S.O.’s momentous tour. “Within a week, we got all the money we needed,” Gelb proudly told a reporter.
In 1981, when he was 27, Gelb became Vladimir Horowitz’s manager. If Gelb is known today for soothing his divas and directors, for accommodating their every whim, he may have learned this talent while working for Horowitz. As Horowitz himself admitted, he was high-strung. He would perform only on Sundays, at exactly four p.m. By edict, his Steinway was positioned onstage at Carnegie Hall at a precisely specified angle, not one degree more or less. He never left home without a water purifier. “Every place has a different kind of water, and I don’t want foreign chemicals in me,” he explained.
In 1986, Gelb orchestrated Horowitz’s return to the Soviet Union. It was the pianist’s first recital in his homeland since defecting in 1925, and it was a media sensation. The New York Times covered the story at length, on its front page, as if Horowitz himself had brokered an end to the Cold War.
Horowitz’s favorable and frequent coverage in The New York Times did not escape notice. Spy magazine, for one, kept careful count of every Times article about Horowitz, suggesting that young Peter Gelb was taking advantage of his father’s position at the paper to manipulate coverage. By that time, Gelb had joined the powerful talent agency Columbia Artists Management Inc., better known as cami. He started and ran cami’s video division, broadening the appeal of classical music by producing television documentaries about classical musicians. In 1993, when cami Video was bought by Sony, Gelb joined the giant Japanese entertainment company. Within two years, having consolidated control of the firm’s vast global classical-music business, he was promoted to head Sony Classical.
In Gelb’s Wikipedia entry, he’s quoted as having once said, “I know what good music is, I just don’t want to record it.” Gelb says the quotation was taken out of context; nevertheless it does suggest how he is perceived by his critics—as a marketer above all else. “I am a marketer. I’m not ashamed to be a marketer,” Gelb told me matter-of-factly. “I was happy looking at the Billboardrecord charts and seeing Titanic selling 700,000 copies every week, week after week. There was something exciting about that. I didn’t feel like I’d made a pact with the Devil. The idea that artistic success could only be measured in terms of commercial failure somehow was something that I just found ridiculous.”
As far as Gelb is concerned, selling opera to the masses is the only way the Met can survive. But is opera a commodity? Can it be packaged and marketed? When I asked the conductor James Levine that question, he hesitated. Levine, who has been the Met’s music director since 1976, is well known for his amicability, and for his tact. I’d heard rumors that he was unhappy with the new Tosca. The maestro avoided that subject. Journalists always took things out of context, he remarked. He wanted to be clear: he supports Gelb’s strategy for the Met.
And yet: “For some people, you keep redefining the cutting edge—and then you’re a conservative if you’re not on it,” he said enigmatically. “And I can tell you what bothers me about that: nudity is not always more sexy. I know so many moments in film or theater where two people touch each other fully dressed, which beats the hell out of gratuitous nudity in my opinion. I know many an old square-framed, black-and-white film which transports me the way an ordinary film never does.” What did this have to do with the Met? Levine shifted in his chair. Although he’d been out of work for the past two months, recuperating from back surgery, he looked relaxed and no less vigorous than usual. He smiled. “Therefore,” he continued cautiously, “I think there is a degree to which some aspects of the operatic repertoire cannot be re-invented.”
On December 3, 2009, Bart Sher’s production of The Tales of Hoffmannopened at the Met. It was the Met’s first new production of Offenbach’s opera in 27 years, and a lot was riding on its success—Gelb’s reputation for re-inventing opera, for one thing. I sat with him in his box that evening. The house was sold out.
When the performance was over, as the audience was applauding, Gelb rushed backstage. He kissed Anna Netrebko and congratulated Joseph Calleja. “Wonderful,” he told Sher. “Bravo!” Then he slipped out a stage door and, heading for his office, pushed through the crowd of people coming out of the auditorium. A woman grabbed his arm. “Mr. Gelb?” she began, “I just want to thank you for globalizing the Met. I’m from Washington, D.C. We appreciate it.”
We arrived in his office, Gelb and I. It was past midnight. He was out of breath, as if he’d just climbed the stairs of the Empire State Building. Leaning against the wall, he closed his eyes for a moment. “How do you feel?” I asked. “Shock,” he replied. “I always feel shock. It’s hard to describe. On the first night of a show, you are living in constant fear of something going wrong. And something always goes wrong. It’s nerve-racking.” As usual, the flat-screen TV in his office revealed what was happening onstage. The stage was empty.
The next day, Gelb would read the reviews: most critics disliked Hoffmann. “Muddled and meandering, a jumble of half-baked ideas,” The New York Observer concluded. A “dud,” said the New York Post. Even Anthony Tommasini, *The New York Times’*s well-tempered music critic, did not go easy on Bart Sher.
But tonight, Gelb still had work to do. The after-party for Hoffmann was under way. The cast and crew had gathered on the Met’s Grand Tier. Some of his biggest donors, including Mercedes Bass, were also there, waiting for Gelb. Dinner was about to be served, and Gelb had to deliver a speech. It was time to leave, his assistant reminded him, politely. It was getting late.
Gelb took a deep breath, poured a few drops of Purell on his hands, and headed for the party. Yes, it was very late, and he didn’t have a moment to lose.