Tag Archives: Peter Gelb

Ups and downs at the Met–a NY Times profile

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

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Peter Gelb (center), general manager of The Metropolitan Opera, with soprano divas Anna Netrebko (left) and Deb Voigt | photo by Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times

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.”

To read the full article, click here.

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Met’s ‘Live in HD’ — cash cow or godsend?

Anna Nebtrebko in Manon /Covent Garden Production photo by Bill Cooper

Should the Metropolitan Opera’s award-winning series The Met: Live in HD  be considered a cash cow or a godsend? 

More of a godsend, dear readers. And here’s why. The Met pays plenty to offer Live in HD to 1,500  theaters in 46 countries. In a recent statement to opera media, Met officials stated that nine live transmissions grossed $48 million while netting $24 million in the last completed season, 2009-10.  That means the participating theaters earned a healthy premium of  revenue, such a healthy portion, it might be considered fatback in the deep American South. 

But what the healthy figures (more than seven million HD tickets sold worldwide since the HD series began five seasons ago) don’t show is how The Met: Live in HD is building audience for live opera. Yes, live opera. 

Mariusz Kwiecien as Don G. / photo by Nick Heavican, Metropolitan Opera

It is a hugely impactful outcome–that Live in HD can build younger and broader audiences worldwide–precisely what opera, the art form, needs. And cinema opera brings in revenue–to the tune of $24 million, which buys a lot of period costumes (and other stuff) for shows like Don Giovanni (scheduled for HD Live, October 29, 2011.) 

Whenever the Met transmits an HD broadcast, it always encourages viewers to frequent live opera–of course, at the Met, but in their hometowns and home countries as well. 

In a recent event announcing their 2011-12 season, Managing Director Peter Gelb affirmed that Live in HD is serving current audiences as well as building future audiences for opera. 

“Our tour guides who interact with tourists to the Met report far greater numbers.  Most tourists come with a mission to see a landmark in the house that they’ve seen in HD shows.  The main purpose of The Met: Live in HD is to increase the bond between the Met and our global audience, and increase attendance.” — Peter Gelb 

 The Met has announced eleven Live in HD productions for 2011-12 and they are:  Anna Bolena on October 15; Don Giovanni on October 29; Siegfried on November 5; Satyagraha on November 19; Rodelinda on December 5; Faust on December 10; The Enchanted Island on January 21; Gotterdammerung on February 11; Ernani on  February 25; Manon on April 7; and La Traviata on April 14. 

'The Enchanted Island' / Photo by Nick Heavican

Tickets go on sale in September. Met members in the U.S. and Canada have ticket priority before general viewing public. 

Happy viewing. And if fish have lips, I’ll be stuffing my face with popcorn during Don G in fall of 2011.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Don Giovanni, North American Opera, Opera broadcasts

new Met? you bet!

Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse/Muse

This past Saturday, I saw my first official “new Met” production in person, Bartlett Sher‘s version (which was also a vision) of Les Contes d’Hoffmann.    

You’ve all heard the buzz, haven’t you:    

“Under [general director] Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera has focused on the fresh and the new, streaming out spiffy high-def broadcasts of its elegantly marketed new productions.”
–Zachary Woolfe    

Fresh. New. Elegantly marked. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.    

A longtime devotee of musical theatre, in the past I found Metropolitan Opera productions stiff and labored by comparison. But no longer. In Sher’s Hoffmann, everything worked liked the hand of God was orchestrating the show, that is, if God manipulated singers and dancers like a gifted painter manipulates his palette. Which may not be as bizarre or as blasphemous a comparison as it sounds.    

We are sexual creatures by intelligent design, and Offenbach was clearly caught up in man’s (and, of course, the woman’s) sexuality. Though decadent, the depiction of man’s baser sexual self as integral to the poet Hoffmann’s personality seemed natural and plausible.    

tavern scene

How can we lose ourselves in Hoffmann’s tortured psyche, believing he fell in love with a mechanical doll, if we refute his attraction to, no, obsession with burlesque? His deep love for a courtesan has to ring as true as his love for a dying singer.    

In opera, vocal perfection never goes without notice nor appreciation. In the Met’s Hoffmann, one doesn’t have to sacrifice overall sophistication, theatricality, or sheer artistry to the altar of vocal perfection.
 
It absolutely worked for me, and I can’t wait to go back. Soon.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classic Opera, opera trends, Reviews