Editor’s note: Would you like to be a fly on the wall at the world’s biggest and most prolific opera house? Here’s a sneak peak at the life of Peter Gelb, general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera and New York Times Magazine.
By CHIP BROWN, New York Times Magazine
Most mornings Peter Gelb, the 59-year-old general manager of the world’s most prominent opera company, rises between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. The elegant Upper West Side duplex he shares with his wife is four blocks from Lincoln Center. He puts on a bathrobe and pads downstairs to the kitchen, where he turns on his La Pavoni espresso machine with the hand-levered piston that allows him to feel, amid all he can’t control at the Metropolitan Opera, that he can at least control the quality of his coffee. He fixes a skim-milk cappuccino with two shots of espresso, eats a banana and then sits down in his home office, where the walls are decorated with autographed scores by Verdi, Puccini and Shostakovich and the shelves are filled with hundreds of CDs, including some by his great-uncle, the renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz. Gelb himself has no particular musical gift, but his ability to remain alert while attending 280 or so opera performances and rehearsals a year on apparently very little sleep qualifies him as a virtuoso of some sort.
After checking overnight box-office totals and other automated reports, Gelb typically uses the predawn hours to telephone agents, artists and opera impresarios in Europe and Japan. But this morning in late October, only months after his most difficult season — a season of scathing reviews that indicted him for accenting spectacle over cohesive drama and various other felonies having to do with his taste, temperament and sensitivity to criticism — he has decided to overhaul a script. Any underling could handle the job of rewriting remarks for the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky when she introduces the Met’s “Live in HD” broadcast of “Otello” in two days, but Gelb is an unabashed micromanager, and the Met’s “Live in HD” broadcasts didn’t become his capital achievement because he let somebody else make the coffee.
So he opens his laptop. The stakes will be high the afternoon of the show, he notes. Johan Botha, the tenor playing Otello, has been out with a cold and will be making a comeback in front of 4,000 opera fans in the house and another 250,000 watching in movie theaters around the world. Better call them “discerning” — 4,000 discerning opera fans in the house. He types some more stuff about adrenaline and taking vocal risks, and now he needs only a line to wrap things up. He recalls a phrase he heard years ago in Italy when he was representing classical artists and producing music documentaries, one that conveys the backstage intensity of an opera house as the curtain is about to rise. It pretty much sums up life at the Met — for the performers and for the man in charge, in need of a comeback himself after a bitter, bruising year. “As we say backstage: In bocca al lupo. Into the mouth of the wolf.”
The job of Met Opera general manager is as iconic in its way as mayor of New York or manager of the Yankees. By any standard, Peter Gelb, now well into his seventh season, has established his tenure as among the most significant in the Met’s 130-year history. Giulio Gatti-Casazza saw the company through the stock-market crash and the depths of the Great Depression. Rudolf Bing delivered it to its new home at Lincoln Center. Gelb has guided the opera company into the digital age and has put an art form long associated with aristocratic privilege on a more populist footing.
Annual new productions at the Met have nearly doubled; geriatric demographic trends have been arrested, if not reversed; fund-raising is setting records. The Met now has a 24-hour channel on SiriusXM radio; an iPad app; education programs in more than 150 schools in 21 states; subsidized tickets; free dress rehearsals. When Gelb became general manager in 2006, the number of subscribers surged and the percentage of sold-out shows rebounded off historic lows. Subscriptions and the percentage of house seats sold have tailed off in the past few years, and the Met recently had to roll back last season’s 10 percent ticket-price increase, but these negative box-office trends have been offset by the growth of the audience for the Met’s “Live in HD” broadcasts, which Gelb initiated and which last season drew 2,547,243 viewers in 54 countries.
“Peter’s record of achievement and ambition is unparalleled — I think he’s saved the Met from brontosaurusdom, and I say that as someone who has been going to opera since 1958,” says André Bishop, who as artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater has joined Gelb in establishing a commissioning program for new operas and musical-theater pieces.
And yet if plenty of people are over the moon about the changes, plenty of others are keening arias of Internet rage and indignation. This, after all, is opera, opera in New York, not some dainty pastime like professional hockey, and the stage is crowded with grumbling members of the old guard who aren’t renewing subscriptions, disenchanted reviewers, vendors of vitriol on blogs like Parterre Box, self-described “opera queens” bristling at the loss of beloved productions and even old-fashioned letter writers like the one who recently sent Gelb a hand-scrawled note saying: “You are an uneducated disgrace to the Met. Resign now!”
The cast of critics includes some classic connoisseurs like Joe Pearce, a retired banker in Brooklyn, who first got hooked on opera at 12 when he heard Mario Lanza singing in the film “The Great Caruso” and now, at age 74, has 60,000 records, is the president of the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society and can make a case for why any of the four broadcast recordings of Giovanni Martinelli singing at the Met from 1938 to 1941 puts every other performance of “Otello” to shame. In a post last year on The Times’s Web site, Pearce said he wondered whether Gelb understood the difference “between his true opera-loving audience and the happening-seekers he would convert” and dismissed as nonsense the idea that new meaning could be found in great works of art “through semi-Eurotrash reimaginings by third-rate theatrical minds.” The bigger issue, he told me — bigger than any one opera-company general manager — is the decline of vocal artistry. “Singers are no longer being trained to act with their voices like they used to do,” he said. “Now they act with their bodies.”
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