From the New York Times Magazine of March 21, 2013–a look into the life of the General Director of an opera company, albeit one a tad larger than Eugene Opera!
The Epic Ups and Downs of Peter Gelb
By CHIP BROWN
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.”
Many of the innovations of the new era at the Met — loved or loathed — were on display at the kickoff of Gelb’s seventh season last September, when the company introduced a new production of Donizetti’s “Elisir d’Amore.” (One of Gelb’s first edicts was that Met seasons should begin with new productions.) In keeping with his populist agenda, the performance was being broadcast on a giant screen overlooking the plaza of Lincoln Center and on the Nasdaq screen in Times Square. The production was directed by Bartlett Sher, one of the theater directors Gelb recruited in hopes of making Met productions as compelling theatrically as they are musically.
As in recent years, the pageant on the red carpet and the gala dinner that followed in Damrosch Park included people you don’t expect to see at the opera, like the Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire and the Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The financial angels on whom the Met depends also attended, notably the board vice chairwoman, Mercedes Bass, who, along with her then-husband, Sid Bass, helped usher in the Gelb era in 2006 with a $25 million gift to the Met, and the chairwoman, Ann Ziff, who in the last three years has, with her family, given more than $53 million. “We were incredibly lucky to find someone like Peter,” Ziff said when I met her at her office. “He brought us a new vision. You don’t know you need a new vision until someone brings it, and it’s made a huge difference in the popularity of opera around the world.”
During the final hour before the curtain, Gelb was in constant motion, negotiating the labyrinth of the opera house like the Keymaker in “The Matrix Reloaded.” Mounted on walls at strategic intersections were Purell hand-sanitizers that he ordered installed to curb the illnesses that afflict opera singers and vex opera execs. (He once considered inviting medical researchers to study the incidence of performance-canceling ailments at the Met but eventually thought better of it.)
At the five-minute call, Gelb was standing backstage in front of the field of prop wheat for “L’Elisir” as a makeup artist powdered his forehead.
“We harvested and fumigated real wheat from the Meadowlands,” he said, “but it turned out to have all sorts of bugs in it, so now we have simulated wheat.”
On the teleprompter atop a Steadicam were the remarks he had tweaked that would introduce the new season. He seemed calm amid the frenzy, but one of the Met staff members whispered to me, “It’s when he’s really calm that you can sense his trepidation.”
Spotting the soprano Anna Netrebko, the evening’s star, Gelb said, “Have fun, Anna!” and then turned to Joe DeBonis, the Steadicam operator. “It would be great if you could see Anna in the background shot.”
“I’m sure she’ll find the camera,” DeBonis said.
Costumed members of the Met chorus filtered into the wings, toting baskets of fake fruit. As the orchestra struck up the national anthem, the choristers began singing in silvery-soft voices, so reverently hushed even “bombs bursting in air” seemed like a line from a hymn.
“House to half, 40 seconds, gentlemen,” said Arthur Lewis, the broadcast stage manager, who was relaying a cue to an assistant director in a truck parked outside on Amsterdam Avenue. “We go in 10 seconds. Nine, eight seven, six.”
“Good evening,” Gelb said. “I’m Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Welcome to our opening night. . . . As always, our mission is to connect grand opera to you. We’re aiming for the operatic fences from now until May.”
As the orchestra started up, Gelb scurried through the double doors, down a hallway and up some stairs, where he rematerialized in the parterre box reserved for the general manager. Early in his tenure, he switched the general manager’s seats from Box 15 to Box 23 because it had a more centralized view and enabled him to better monitor the visual balance of productions.
He ducked out before the intermission to attend to donors; in the waning minutes before Act II, he made his way to the party in his office, where a bartender was pouring wine for the “Elisir” production team and other guests. The office was furnished with a black desk, a leather couch and bookshelves holding Gelb’s Grammy and his six Emmys (five for producing, one for directing).
When the opera was over, Gelb raced backstage, watched the principals complete their in-house bows, then led them and a train of camera operators and light porters on a breathless dash out the double doors, up a floor on an elevator, through the long hall of the Belmont Room and out into the Grand Tier lobby, where the group tumbled to a halt on the Met’s outdoor balcony. Gelb was careful to hang back as the plaza crowd of about 3,000 bathed the cast in bravos.
“Another cultural triumph,” he said to me, managing to sound sincere and sarcastic at once, as if for all his ambition to bring new audiences to opera, he knew he was possibly on a fool’s errand, having failed to heed the wisdom of his very first boss, the theater impresario Sol Hurok, who told him, “If the public doesn’t want to come, you can’t stop them.”
The dinner crowd under the gala tent was generally old enough for Social Security but plainly not in need of it. Populist flourishes were few and far between. I sat next to Richard Wagner’s 67-year-old great-granddaughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier. Safe to say, we never did get to discuss a Marxist critique I stumbled across that described opera institutions as “bastions of premodern decadence edifying contemporary capitalists with apolitical spectacles of archaic escapism.”
Gelb practically lives at the Met. After the short commute from his apartment, he normally camps out in front of the main stage at a desk fashioned from a board laid across orchestra Rows R and S. He monitors the morning rehearsal and drops in on rehearsals on the C Level Stage, the Orchestra Room and other studios. For the year that back injuries kept the Met’s celebrated musical director James Levine from coming into the office, Gelb went up to Levine’s apartment on the Upper West Side. Now Levine is back at work; Gelb confers with him several times a week about his planned return to the podium on May 19 with a Met orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall and the three operas he is scheduled to conduct next season, “Così Fan Tutte,” “Wozzeck” and the Met’s new coproduction of “Falstaff.”
After a two-minute lunch — Greek yogurt alone in his office — Gelb has meetings for casting, marketing, press coverage, script reviews and preproduction for “Live in HD” broadcasts. Sometimes visiting directors arrive with scale models of proposed sets. He always attends the evening’s performance if the production is new or features a new singer.
His job is bits of many jobs — publicist, marketer, fund-raiser, talent scout, party planner, staff psychologist, physician’s assistant. He sometimes finds himself tracking sunspot activity that can interfere with satellite transmissions during broadcasts. He recently spent nine hours making detailed presentations to Wall Street rating agencies that were evaluating the Met’s successful $100 million bond offering. (The Met is breaking even but carries about $50 million in debt.) Every Friday he recaps the week over breakfast at Nougatine on Central Park West with Ann Ziff and the Met president, Kevin W. Kennedy.
When the Met’s finances are in order — payroll for 3,400 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees eats up 75 percent of the Met’s $330 million annual operating budget — Gelb’s most important job is artistic director.
“My goal is to hire brilliant directors whose productions are entirely their vision, and my job is to support them and see that what they want to get done, gets done,” Gelb told me one morning during a rehearsal for Thomas Adès’s “Tempest.”
Because he is a step removed from what’s on the stage — the hand that hires the hands that direct and design new productions — operagoers can judge Gelb’s sensibility only as it is refracted in the work of others. People always ask what his favorite opera is. His stock reply is “whatever one I’m working on at the moment.” Which is to say he doesn’t have a favorite. Among operagoers, that’s a kind of heresy. Odd as it is to say about a man who sees 280 performances a year and promotes opera with a missionary zeal, Gelb is curiously cool in a form not famous for sang-froid. Not for him the roiling partialities of the true fanatic. He did not grow up as an opera nut. No precocious epiphanies over rare Maria Callas recordings; no late adolescent moments of mystical prepossession. He first saw the inside of the Met in December 1967 when he was 14, attending a performance of “Carmen” with his parents. The family sat in Rudolf Bing’s box. What impressed him more than Grace Bumbry’s mezzo-soprano or the jewel-box glamour of the theater was Bing bolting out of his seat to confront a heckler.
If Gelb’s childhood had a soundtrack, it was the patter of an Underwood manual typewriter and the murmur of Mom and Dad up late writing books. Gelb is the younger of two boys born to Arthur and Barbara Gelb, who for many years were fixtures of New York culture. Arthur had a 45-year career at The New York Times, rising from copy boy to managing editor, and Barbara Gelb became a successful writer and author with her husband of two biographies of the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill.
There was prodigious musical talent on Barbara’s side of the family. Her mother, Elza, was a sister of Jascha Heifetz, whose musical abilities, according to family legend, were discovered one day in Vilnius, Lithuania, by his father, Ruvin, who noticed happy songs he played on the violin made Jascha giggle and sad ones made him cry. Fitted with his own violin at age 4, Jascha made his Carnegie Hall debut at 16; meanwhile, Ruvin began to shake the family tree, hoping to flush out more prodigies. He approached each of his grandchildren with a tuning fork and held it up to their ears to see what reaction the sound provoked. When great-grandchildren appeared, he tested them, too. Both Gelb, who was born in New York on Nov. 10, 1953, and his brother, Michael, two years older, received visits from great-grandfather Ruvin.
“Peter was his last hope,” Barbara Gelb recalled. “Grandpa struck the tuning fork and held it by Peter’s ear, but he got no reaction.”
Gelb doesn’t remember meeting Ruvin, but he does remember once meeting his famous son.
“He was nasty,” he said. “I was 5 years old, and he refused to give me his autograph.”
Gelb’s early years in New York were spent in an apartment at 103 East 86th Street. At 7, he was allowed to go out alone with Michael to play handball in back of an RKO movie house and stop for pizza at a place on the corner of 86th and Lexington. They roamed unsupervised as far south as P.S. 6 on 82nd Street, where they both went to elementary school. At apartment-house entrances, they jumped to see who could touch the awning; Michael kept track of the results in a notebook.
“Peter was very independent,” says Michael Gelb, who now owns a design-and-construction company in Massachusetts. “He was a resourceful, strong-willed, fearless kid.”
Any doubt that this was so was demolished for good one night before dinner when he was 9. His mother had been nagging him about tidying his room. In response, she recalled, “he said, ‘The dictatorship is over!’ ”
At 16, with his father’s help, Gelb landed a part-time job as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera. He earned $40 working a weeknight and a Saturday matinee. He had to intervene when fights broke out among the standees in the Family Circle; if things got really out of hand, he called in off-duty firefighters who moonlighted as security. He learned how ushers supplemented their wages, offering standees seats for $5. Gelb’s time at the Met coincided with the end of the golden age of singing stars. He was thrilled to hear Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi and many other great singers. All the same, the music of his youth was the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix and Joplin. Even today, at home, he sometimes listens to the bands he grew up with. If his wife, Keri-Lynn, a classical-music conductor, isn’t traveling, they listen to the British singer-songwriter Sade. Gelb especially loves jazz: Django Reinhardt, Chet Baker, John Coltrane — tellingly not Coltrane the improvisational genius scrabbling for divinity in epic live renditions of “My Favorite Things,” but Coltrane the cool, session-master, coloring between the lines with the singer Johnny Hartman.
Ushering at the Met did instill in Gelb the desire to find a behind-the-scenes job in the performing arts. And to do so as soon as possible. Much to his parents’ distress, the prospect of college didn’t interest him. “He didn’t have the patience for college,” his mother said. His father said: “I wanted him to become a professor. But I knew he had some spark in him, and he could be anything he wanted to be. He worked very hard at every job he had. He always had a vision of what he wanted. And he never asked us for money.”
Gelb’s decision to forgo college reflected not only his eagerness to get out into the world but also his confidence that he could teach himself whatever he needed to know. “I’ve always learned on the job,” he said. He was driven — by what, exactly, he isn’t sure, apart from the sense that it must have to do with the example of his parents up late at the typewriter. There was also the counsel he received when he was 7 from his father, offered with the best intentions but daunting nonetheless: “He told me that I should be confident I could do anything in my life I wanted, as long as I was the best at it.”
Rudolf Bing coped with the stress of running the Met by supposedly whacking his desk with a fly swatter; Gelb hits tennis balls. I went to watch him one Saturday in mid-December at the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club, thinking there might be some insights at the base line that couldn’t be found in his office. He gave his only order of the morning to a cabdriver in Manhattan. (“Go east on 58th Street, you’ll catch all the lights.”) When we got to the tennis club, it was almost surprising that he came out of the locker room in a white sports shirt and shorts and not the dark suit and black Balmoral shoes he always wears at the office. He muted his two phones. He paused to bang the clay off the bottom of his sneakers with his red racket, then glanced across the net at Luis Checa, a 55-year-old club pro, and cracked off an ace.
“Fifteen-love,” he said.
He was limping around the Met all week, but after a cortisone shot in his left hip, he was almost nimble. So much did he prize the respite of a tennis game that he kept a list of courts and club pros in cities like Warsaw and Tokyo and could say “my hip hurts” in his bad Italian: Mio fianco fa male.
Ace again, in the ad court. Then two more. He was up 1-0.
“It must be my steroids,” he said.
Was the pro going easy?
“No, never,” Checa said. “We’ve been going at this for 12 years.”
Checa held serve; Gelb won the third game.
“I can’t sit down,” he said, sipping some water during the changeover. “If I sit down, I’ll stiffen up.”
He broke Checa’s serve to go up 3-1, but then Checa, a lithe Ecuadorean who also teaches ballroom dancing, broke back.
“It’s a question of you warming up and me deteriorating,” Gelb said ruefully.
Checa held serve, and the match, squared at 3-3, came to the pivotal game. Two ground strokes sailed long, and Gelb was down 0-30. He lost the next point. On the brink, he saved himself with a volley at the net and fended off defeat again with another winner. But on the next point, he rushed in to pick up a drop shot and knocked it long, wincing as he slid on the clay. “C’mon, man!” he muttered to himself. The doctor who gave him the injection said there was so little room in his hip joint that the cortisone flowed back into the needle. Combing his calendar, Gelb had found a light week in March when he might slip away for an operation. His right hip had already been replaced twice.
When he dropped the next game, he chucked his racket on the court. “That’s pathetic!” he said in what for him was a near-operatic outburst. Checa closed out the match when Gelb netted a second serve.
“An ignominious double fault,” he sighed, shaking hands with the pro.
The competitive fire was obvious, but more impressive was the stoicism on display when he stuffed a bag of ice into his shorts.
“Tomorrow I have a regular game, unless I wake up and can’t move,” he said.
Waiting for the aerial tram back to Manhattan, Gelb revived his phones. An e-mail from a French distributor inquired if the Met planned to cancel its transmission of “Aida” because of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the day before. Gelb marveled at the misreading of American culture; no matter how much he raised the profile of the Met, it was hard to envision the day when calling off an opera performance would strike anyone as a meaningful sacrifice in the wake of a national tragedy.
When Gelb was first approached for the Met job in 2004 by the great soprano Beverly Sills, who was then the Met chairwoman, his candidacy was a surprise. He had never run an opera company, much less one as complex and influential as the Met.
After high school and a stint as an office boy with the theater impresario Sol Hurok, he got a job as a classical-music publicist at Gurtman and Murtha, which was then a public-relations firm. His parents hadn’t stopped pressuring him about college, and eventually he applied and was accepted at Yale. As if hedging his bets, he arrived on campus in the fall of 1973 with a job (again secured with his father’s help) as director of information for the Yale School of Music. Two weeks of classes was all it took to know he wasn’t going to finish the semester, much less get a degree.
When he returned to New York and resumed work at Gurtman and Murtha, he saw a small notice about Vladimir Horowitz’s making a comeback in Cleveland. He called Horowitz’s manager and suggested the pianist wasn’t getting very good press coverage. He was invited to meet Horowitz and his wife, Wanda, daughter of the conductor Arturo Toscanini, and tell them more about good press coverage. It was the beginning of a 15-year friendship in which Gelb eventually became Horowitz’s manager.
In 1977 Gelb moved to Boston to work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa, managing the orchestra’s historic tour of China in 1979. Two years later, he was hired by Ronald A. Wilford at Columbia Artists Management in New York. Wilford, whom Gelb considers his mentor, represented many of the greatest classical performers of the last century, but thanks to his sharp negotiating tactics, he was once accused of “killing classical music.” (“You can’t kill classical music — I tried!” Wilford told me recently at his Broadway office.)
In 1982, Wilford founded CAMI Video and put Gelb in charge. Gelb made nearly three dozen films and documentaries, including “Soldiers of Music,” which captured the return to Russia of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, after 16 years of exile. (From 1988 to 1993, Gelb produced 25 television broadcasts of Met performances.) When Wilford sold the video business to Sony in 1993, Gelb went with it. He eventually emerged as the president of Sony Classical, with a reputation as a skillful marketer and a master of high-low populist crossover products: lucrative but aesthetically suspect records like Michael Bolton’s opera-aria collection called “My Secret Passion,” or Gelb’s biggest hit, the soundtrack for the movie “Titanic,” which sold more than 25 million copies. Nevertheless, he was a champion of classical music; he was eager to enlarge its audience, and he had a knack for handling temperamental artists.
After an initial vetting by Sills, Gelb met with members of the Met search committee. Gelb knew what he would do if he ran the Met. In interviews with board members, he made no bones about why attendance was down and subscriptions were declining. Elitism was strangling the opera company, he said. The Met was disconnected from the daily life of the culture. It was stagnant theatrically. The digital revolution was passing it by. Drastic measures had to be taken.
Two days later, Gelb signed a five-year contract. (It has since been renegotiated several times and last year was extended through 2022.) Gelb spent a year and a half studying under the general manager, Joseph Volpe, who began his 42-year career at the Met as a carpenter. During the apprenticeship, Gelb traveled extensively. He met directors. He took singers to lunch. He attended operas in Europe. He drew up an ambitious program of changes that he announced at a news conference pointedly held on the Met stage in February 2006. Some of his plans to modernize the Met were nothing new. Bing, with similar ambitions, brought in directors from Broadway and Hollywood. More significant than Gelb’s decision to change the typeface of the Met logo from Garamond to Baskerville 10 Pro would be the profit-sharing agreements he and Volpe eventually negotiated with the Met’s unions. The deals allowed for digital transmission and broadcast of Met productions.
Gelb formally assumed the job as the 16th general manager in August 2006. For the opening of his first season a month later, he jettisoned the old gala format and installed a new co-production of “Madama Butterfly,” directed by the filmmaker Anthony Minghella and first staged by the English National Opera. It was a smash; Gelb was the new golden boy. The setup was right out of a libretto.
“I think last season was the most difficult I’ve had,” Gelb said one late afternoon this winter. “The first year at the Met I was new, and everything I did was applauded. I had a prodigious run of luck. Then the reckoning came.”
We were sitting in his apartment. In the music room was one of the Met’s famous “Sputnik” chandeliers — a copy Gelb commissioned — and a Steinway baby grand, a gift from Sony after the success of the “Titanic” soundtrack.
The reckoning was fallout from the Met’s new production of Wagner’s four-part “Ring des Nibelungen.” To direct what would be the most ambitious and expensive production of his tenure to date, Gelb hired Robert Lepage, a 55-year-old actor, playwright, filmmaker and director from Quebec with a catholic résumé of directing credits ranging from rock concerts, plays and operas to circus performances. “I think Lepage is a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly,” Gelb said. Lepage made his debut at the Met with a production of Berlioz’s “Damnation de Faust” in 2008 and then set out on the epic undertaking of the “Ring.” It cost $16 million and might well have claimed Gelb’s hair if most of it weren’t gone already.
“There were moments I thought it might go down,” he said. “Many people on my team begged me to cancel it.”
The struggle was captured in “Wagner’s Dream,” a recent documentary by Susan Froemke, which Gelb commissioned. The set of the “Ring” featured a 45-ton contraption of 24 rotating planks, known as the Machine, on which video images were projected, including, once, when the computer system rebooted during a performance, the Windows logo. The Machine was so heavy that the Met stage had to be reinforced; more alarming, it sometimes creaked so loudly it seemed to be competing with the orchestra.
“Peter supported the vision we had for the ‘Ring’ and wouldn’t compromise it,” Lepage told me in October. “He said, ‘There’s too much noise,’ and he was totally right, but he was always behind me. I felt like I was the one saying, ‘Oh, we’re going too far!’ and he was the one saying, ‘Do what you want to do.’ ”
“Das Rheingold” opened the 2010-11 season to boos scattered amid the ovations; the cycle concluded with “Götterdämmerung” in 2012. Many Wagner devotees were aggrieved. Typical of the reactions was a letter Gelb received from a neuroscientist at Columbia who suggested the whole “Ring” cycle was “a 15-hour artistic failure.”
The professional critics were just as disenchanted. “The Met’s new ‘Ring’ is the most frustrating opera production I have ever had to grapple with,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times. The New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who welcomed the Gelb era at the Met in 2006, said of Lepage’s “Ring”: “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.’’
“I have to stand by the ‘Ring,’ ” said Gelb, who is bringing the cycle back next month. “The same reasons people hated it are the reasons so many other people liked it. I think it pushed the theatrical envelope. The audience came out for it. The only way you measure success is if people go to it.”
A fair number of operas in the Gelb era have been hits with audiences and critics alike, but there have been some high-profile bombs. When I mentioned the Met’s 2009 production of “Tosca,” which was directed by Luc Bondy and widely derided for its cheap eroticism, Gelb grimaced, acknowledging it had been “a fiasco.” But he typically stands behind the directors he has hired, a quality much admired by Bartlett Sher, whom Gelb brought to the Met and who received mixed reviews for the four Met productions he has directed.
“Peter’s resilience and loyalty and doggedness in the face of adversity is really amazing,” Sher said. “I don’t know what it is that critics think he should be doing — the diversity of productions he’s put on is amazing.”
By the end of this season, Gelb will have brought 50 new productions to the Met since 2006. Of those, eight were ones he first saw abroad and decided the Met should present too. Twelve were co-productions that he initiated with other opera companies, an arrangement that helped defray expenses (the cost of a new Met production ranges from $1.5 million to $4 million).
“It’s hard to defend myself without sounding defensive,” Gelb said. “What’s difficult and frustrating for me is that so many critics seem to have so little appreciation for what we’re trying to do theatrically. I think there is a lack of understanding about our effort to make these productions appealing to an audience that may or may not know much about opera.”
Gelb normally maintains an even keel in the face of criticism, parrying censures with a shrug or a witty paraphrase of a Eugene O’Neill dig at critics: God bless every bone in their heads. But last spring he compounded the crummy reviews with a move that belied his reputation as a master of the press. The incident had the makings of an S. J. Perelman parody, as would any story that begins “Piqued by a bad review of ‘Götterdämmerung,’ . . .”
What happened was this: Piqued by a bad review of “Götterdämmerung” in the April issue of Opera News — and further inflamed by a column in the May issue in which the Opera News features editor, Brian Kellow, wrote: “We are in the midst of a very bad period. . . . The public is becoming more dispirited each season by the pretentious and woefully misguided, misdirected productions foisted upon them” — Gelb suggested the magazine stop reviewing Met productions. Nominally at least, Opera News is an editorially independent monthly, but it is published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which was set up in 1935 to support the Metropolitan Opera, not slap it around.
Gelb’s inability to ignore the commentary seemed part of a pattern of oversensitivity and highhandedness, given that he previously telephoned the president of WQXR, the classical radio station that broadcasts Met performances on Saturday afternoons, to complain about a blog entry on the station’s Web site, an entry subsequently removed. Under pressure from Gelb, Opera News announced it would no longer review Met productions. An article about the row appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Typical of the many comments on The Times’s Web site: “If Peter Gelb needed the world to know exactly what a colossally stupid, arrogant tyrant he is, [here] it is. His tenure at the Met has been marked by the most lowbrow, boring, musically inept productions the Met has been subjected to in years.”
Almost immediately, the Met, not the Guild or the editorially independent staff of Opera News, announced that Opera News would continue to review Met productions after all. In an interview with The Times, Gelb said he had made a mistake.
Seven months later, when I asked him about the dust-up, he still seemed aggrieved that he had to retract his remarks.
“I had to say I made a mistake, because The Times played it as a censorship story,” he said. “That pushed ‘the button.’ But it wasn’t a censorship story. The Met development staff raises almost all of the money that is raised each year in the name of the guild, $7.8 million last year, which comes in the form of annual gifts ranging from $75 to $1,500. The Met retained $6.5 million and turned over $1.3 million to the guild to help subsidize Opera News. My point was that the guild should stop publishing reviews of the Met altogether, which was not an act of censorship but what seemed to me like common sense under the circumstances. Why should the Met pay for a publication that’s writing negative reviews of Met productions? It’s annoying, like having a pet that bites you.”
His actions, he said again, didn’t constitute censorship because “I wasn’t trying to put Opera News out of business.”
It was hard to follow the logic. It seemed likely Opera News had never seen itself as the Met’s pet, despite the allotment of kibble it received from the Met via the Guild. But say it was, say it was a dog, a nice dog that always licked your hand. Then, for reasons having to do with its feelings about your résumé of opera productions, it started chomping on your leg. What would you do? Keep feeding the dog while it bites you? In a less sentimental country, you could just shoot the dog, but with opera critics already in high dudgeon, the last thing you need is a baying mob of dog fanciers on your back. So maybe you come up with a less drastic solution. Glue the dog’s mouth shut perhaps. You’re not telling the dog what it can and can’t bite; you’re just not allowing it to bite at all. In theory, if it wants to bite other opera companies and it can get its mouth open, fine; it just can’t bite you, the provider of its kibble. In other words, everything Gelb wanted to do to bring Opera News to heel (“Down, Opera News! Sit! Sit! Good boy!”) made a certain amount of sense.
But how was it not censorship?
Gelb did say he had learned a lesson. “What I learned is that even if I feel sure and right about something, I should take a deep breath and think about the consequences of my actions,” he said. “It’s easy in a state of righteous indignation to act too quickly.”
By mid-March, the current season was turning out to be everything Gelb had hoped. A run of intriguing and even well-reviewed new productions — “The Tempest,” “Maria Stuarda,” “Rigoletto” — crested with raves for “Parsifal.” “I think artistically this has been the best season so far under my watch,” Gelb said. Three days after getting a new left hip, he returned to work in time to say goodbye to the cast of “Parsifal.” He was even looking forward to the return of the “Ring” cycle in April, hoping the production, unchanged from last spring, would not be the equivalent of remounting Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg.
Even some skeptics were coming around. For example, Roger Jacobs, who used to see 25 operas a year and started going long before he opened a secondhand shop on 14th Street called Time Machine, which sells everything from used comics to ancient issues of TV Guide, told me recently: “It’s very easy to say about Gelb, ‘String ’im up!’ And on the basis of ‘The Ring’ last year, maybe he should be. You just can’t waste money like that. But then there’s a show like ‘Parsifal,’ which is universally beloved. I thought it was gorgeous — I was pretty much weeping from beginning to end. Are the people on the blogs who hate Gelb going to give him credit? No! I want to hate the guy, but I think there’s a bias against management. When has there ever been a popular general manager of the Met opera?”
And as for Joe Pearce and his 60,000 records — Pearce who once did a lecture on “Parsifal” for the Wagner Society of New York titled “Montsalvat’s Chosen People: Jewish Singers in Wagner’s Most Christian Opera” — he pulled in his horns, having heard the performance of “Parsifal” on the radio last month. “It was one of the most beautiful broadcasts I’ve ever heard,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe I’m letting my standards down.”
One morning in mid-November, when it was still too soon to know how the season would pan out, Gelb took a road trip to New Haven. He had been invited by a Yale professor who was teaching a course on the nature of genius. He didn’t know much about the class or what the professor wanted, but he liked to talk to students and not just because they might one day be opera subscribers. He invited me along.
His driver picked us up in a Buick Enclave, and we headed up the West Side and into the Bronx on a bright day. Gelb had 1,198 unanswered e-mails on his BlackBerry but seemed happy to reminisce.
“Nobody knows what a producer does,” he said, recalling the time he organized Horowitz’s return to Russia in 1986. Horowitz, who liked to eat the same food every day, would not have gone back to Russia had Gelb not guaranteed him his daily dinner of fresh Dover sole. Promising was easy; finding the fish next to impossible. Gelb enlisted the U.S. ambassador, who talked to the British ambassador, who arranged to have sole flown in from London that staff members of the U.S. Embassy, wearing T-shirts that said “Dover Sole Airlift,” fetched from the Moscow airport. The Italian ambassador supplied Horowitz’s fresh asparagus. A contingent of Marines was dispatched to guard the pianist’s Steinway. Not long before Horowitz died, he called Gelb and told him he was like family now and he didn’t have to call him “Mr. Horowitz,” he could call him “Maestro.” In 1989, it fell to Gelb to organize Horowitz’s funeral. He arranged for the body to lie in state in the lobby of La Scala and convinced the priests in charge of Milan’s most famous cemetery, Cimitero Monumentale, that Horowitz was on the verge of converting to Catholicism and could properly be interred in the Toscanini family crypt. His final service was to get measurements and confirm that Horowitz’s large American coffin would actually fit in the Toscanini family crypt.
When we arrived in New Haven, Gelb was startled to discover the class was in the very building where he worked almost 40 years ago, finishing out his semester of college as director of information for the Yale School of Music.
“That’s where my office was,” he said as the car pulled up. “I built a fire in one the fireplaces, but the flue wasn’t open or something, and smoke poured out into the dean’s office.”
When he got out, Craig Wright, a professor of music and humanities, was waiting on the sidewalk.
They shook hands.
“Thank you for coming,” the professor said.
“Tell me a little about the class,” Gelb said. “What is the focus?”
“We’re exploring the nature of genius.”
“Who are the geniuses, for example?”
“Newton. Mozart. Einstein.”
“And Gelb!” Gelb said, laughing.
It did have a ring to it. The sublime, the ridiculous, six nights a week from now until May, and then you start all over again.
Chip Brown is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the oil boom in North Dakota.
Editor: Sheila Glaser
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 21, 2013
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the year the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung had its premiere. It was 2012, not 2010.