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LIZSTS | 5 Essential Lessons Peter Gelb Has Learned From The Met Opera

By Peter Goddard on February 27, 2020

Peter Gelb
Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

“Opera is an old art form. We’re trying to teach it new tricks” — Five key takeaways from Peter Gelb’s 14 years as General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera is having the season of valhallian dreams.

The potential of François Girard’s Flying Dutchman (March 2-27) is already reviving memories of the director’s Parsifal from the recent past. The fall’s hit Met offering of Porgy and Bess saw its run extended. Philip Glass’ “un-Aida” Egyptian Akhnaten received rock concert reviews. And the season has been front-to-back solid with stars on the rise. One example: American soprano — and marathon runner — Lisette Oropesa proved she owns the title role in Jules Massanet’s opera comique, Manon.

The question is: How flash-in the pan will this prove to be for Met General Manager Peter Gelb. He’s been the opera world’s piñata since he took over in 2006 — at a salary now over $2 million-plus — with promises of modernizing the Met experience answered with Met Opera Live in HD broadcasts, and the company on Met Opera Radio-SiriusXM. Today a $312-million-plus (U.S.) operation, the Met is world’s largest repertory theatre, with 3,800 seats. “Still, part of my job is always raising money,” Gelb tells me.

He’s been at the mercy of the media after threatening the company with bankruptcy in 2014 as seat sales dropped to the 80 percent level. Equally unpleasant was always being compared to the legendary Met boss, Rudolf Bing, the impresario who moved the company into Lincoln Centre in 1964. (All Giulio Gatti-Casazza the Italian-born earlier Met head had to do was have the company survive the Great Depression.)

(A deeper more New York question is, how would Gelb’s father have dealt with junior’s mercurial career. Arthur Gelb was a powerhouse New York Times journalist/arts editor/executive almost his death in 2014 aged 90. He knew a lot about fame and how to create it as when he “discovered,” Barbra Streisand and boosted Times careers of Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd. Even so, I’d guess junior would catch a break from Arthur this year.)

In fact, is it time to suggest that Peter Gelb, all of 67-years-old, has been far more right than wrong all along, and that his “vision” — a word he uses a fair amount — that well be a template for other companies?

“We’re trying to be agile, artistically nimble and thoughtful,” says Gelb. “It’s not easy. Opera is an old art form. We’re trying to teach it new tricks.”

Five essential Gelb lessons (so far) go this way:

+ Follow the money

This year we had Sunday matinee performances because we have new audiences for the Met,” he says. “We’re changing to conform to the new audience. Next season there’ll be no performances in February but more in the Spring itself.”

+ Re-think what opera asks and can deliver

“We are developing shorter operas for family,” says Gelb. How about 90-minute works?

+Broaden the repertory.

“Whether it’s a new production of an older work, or a new work,” says Gelb. “Part of my vision is to introduce at least one work that’s new to the repertory.” He cites jazz trumpeter Terrance Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones opera scheduled for the 2021-’22 season. The Blanchard will be the Met’s first opera from an Afro-American composer.

Gelb: “Philip Glass’ Akhanten is not a work I planned for the Met. I resisted it initially until I saw it at the Los Angeles Opera (it opened in 2016). And I fell in love with it. I can’t claim to have taken part in the creative aspect other than being smart enough to bring it to New York.”

+ Don’t go pop.

“All of this doesn’t mean we’re going to produce opera as a pop experience. We have a symphony orchestra. We have a chorus. We are an opera house.”

+Think long-term.

“Always find a path to financial stability; always find ways to manage costs to further amplify earning potential.”

— — — — —

For the complete Met Live in HD broadcasts, see full listings at Cineplex Events.

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Peter Goddard
Peter Goddard
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