From Great Plans to Great Results : A Conversation with Peter Gelb

On Aug. 1, Peter Gelb assumed the full functions of general manager at the Metropolitan Opera, upon Joseph Volpe’s retirement. Having worked as president of Sony Classical since March 1995, Gelb brings a keen business savvy and a vast knowledge of the classical music industry to the Met. He was also president of CAMI Video, and has won six Emmy Awards as a producer and director, as well as a Peabody Award for Marsalis on Music, an educational television series. From 1987 to 1993, while at CAMI, Gelb served as executive producer of the Metropolitan Opera television programs, and was responsible for the Met radio broadcasts. His association with the Metropolitan Opera dates from his teenage years, when he worked as an usher. In the early 1970s, he also did publicity work for the Metropolitan Opera’s ballet presentations.

William C. Morris, president and CEO of the Met, considers Peter Gelb the “logical choice” to succeed Volpe. Deeply aware of the need to expand and attract audiences as well as revitalize the art form, Gelb shares with CS readers some of his innovative plans, offering a universally encouraging motto: “If you don’t have great plans, you can’t possibly have great results!”

Tell me about your childhood.

I grew up in Manhattan. When I was growing up, my father was not only working as the second drama critic at the New York Times but he was also moonlighting with my mother—who is a writer—preparing a highly regarded biography of Eugene O’Neill, the playwright. As a child, I was very jealous of O’Neill, because I felt that he was robbing my parents from me. I didn’t get to see enough of them because of him, although I did have a perfectly happy childhood.

As a result of my father’s position, I was introduced at a young age to theater and music. I would go to performances. I remember seeing Hamlet when I was 5, and The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park when I was 7. My mother’s uncle was the great violinist Jascha Heifetz, so I had a strong connection to the music world. I also remember, as a kid, I used to go to bed at night listening to WQXR radio under my pillow.

Since your parents were involved with words and the ability to write, how do you think that influenced your development?

I think that because they wrote about music and theater, it opened up that world, which struck me as being very glamorous, appealing, and exciting.

You started working at the Met as an usher at the age of 16. Can you recall any memorable performances you experienced during that time?

Yes. I particularly remember Leontyne Price singing Aida. That was amazing! Two other great singers I heard then were Renata Tebaldi—in what must have been a very old production of La fanciulla del West—and Franco Corelli in La bohème.

Was the house packed?

It was always packed! My assignment was to be in charge of the standees in Family Circle. They were a group of boisterous and “fanatical” fans who would often get into arguments with each other, and I would find myself in the position of trying to keep the peace. In those days, there were claques that demonstrated on behalf of the singers; there would be confetti demonstrations at times. There was a lot of excitement!

Do you think opera is still capable of generating that kind of excitement today?

Yes, but I wish there were more of it. That kind of excitement was present last season at the opening of Don Pasquale for Anna Netrebko—a very thrilling moment in the theater. My hope is that it will happen more and more by dramatically increasing the number of new productions and getting more top directors here. With that, my plan is certainly in no way to diminish the importance of the singers. In fact, if anything, I hope the opposite will happen: By having more new productions and opportunities available to the top stars, they will sing here more often and in greater concentrations.

You are bringing back the glamour of the opera star and the tradition of creating a production for a star singer. For example: Toscafor Karita Mattila, and Carmen for Angela Gheorghiu.

That’s what the Met has always been about, and it’s not that it isn’t that way now. It’s just not as consistently planned as I think it can be. For me, the dream production is one where you have the great stars, director, and conductor, and the right repertoire in a harmonious combination. The future Tales of Hoffmann is a perfect example, with the dream cast of [Anna] Netrebko, [Rolando] Villazón, Elina Garan?a—a wonderful mezzo who hasn’t made her debut here yet—and René Pape, who will be making his Met role debut as the four villains, with Luc Bondy directing and Jimmy Levine conducting.

Of course, one hopes everything will come to pass the way one plans. But if you don’t have great plans, you can’t possibly have great results, so you have to start with great plans.

Who were your favorite singers of the past?

There were so many great singers—but when I was 18, working as an office boy for Sol Hurok, I heard Maria Callas in her farewell concert tour. Later, in 1983, I produced the first satellite television production that involved multiple locations connected live to each other. I believe this was the first one in history, long before any international rock satellite concert! It was a tribute to Callas, in honor of the 60th anniversary of her birth. It involved live performances in the four theaters she had had the closest association with in the later part of her career: the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Royal Opera House, the Paris Opera, and La Scala.

In each opera house, I arranged a live performance tribute to her with an amazing collection of stars. Each house had a giant screen so that when there was nothing on stage, the audience could enjoy what was happening in another opera house, shown on the screen—so the performances weren’t overlapping. The whole production was televised all over the world at the same time.

Another wonderful singer I heard on recording is Björling. And then, of course, Pavarotti. I remember hearing him and Sutherland in La fille du régiment.

In your opinion, what makes a singer a star?

I don’t think you can define the qualities. Even if there was a formula, it wouldn’t be one that human beings can necessarily pre-calculate or know how to apply. It’s that magical chemistry that involves artistry: great vocal ability and theatrical charisma. Either you have it or you don’t.

Of course, some stars may have such an abundance of qualities in one area that the other aspects are less important. Look at Pavarotti. He is not a great actor and yet his voice contains all the elements of theatricality, musicality, vocal beauty, and incomparable artistry—more than enough to make him one of the greatest singers in history.

It’s not definable, and yet when you hear a star, you know you’ve heard one! I wish there were more, because we need them all! Anna Netrebko, Karita Mattila, Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, Natalie Dessay, Deborah Voigt—these are just examples of the sopranos, and I don’t want to leave anyone out. But these singers can transport the public. They have the ability to appeal to an audience beyond just aficionados. This is what we need if we’re going to increase and replenish the opera-going audience, which is an aging audience.

That’s why the challenge the Met and I have together is so great! We’re dealing with an aging art form. The only hope we have to keep this 3,800-seat theater filled with people and excitement is to be more energetic and creative than ever in trying to galvanize the art form, with new productions, [and] exciting combinations of artists and directors—to be tireless in creating opportunities without in any way diminishing what has been and is already great about the Met.

Many singers regard the Met as the greatest house in the world—and it may be the most challenging, too. But the foundation is there. The Met is a magical name throughout the world, and I need to be able to take advantage of that to create these opportunities!

Do you have any plans for the Lindemann Young Artist Program?

To be honest with you, at this point, I have not delved into that yet. We have wonderful artists in the program, like Mariusz Kwiecien, who is a truly spectacular talent, a real star.

The program is a very important part of this institution, very close to Maestro Levine’s heart, and I support its activities. I am not an expert in how it runs yet—but it is critical that we continue developing young artists. At the same time, I think it is interesting to note that Italy is producing fewer great new talents than other countries.

Why would you say that is happening?

I think it has to do with the fact that opera is declining in Italy. This is a country that has an opera house in every city, and most of those houses have significantly declining audiences and operatic programs.

When I was president of Sony Classical, it was very obvious that Italy had become one of the least important markets for the sale of new recordings of classical music and opera. I think there is a direct correlation to the fact that Italy is not producing the same proportion of great new singers as it was before. Other art forms are draining the pool of operatic talent. A hundred years ago, a serious composer would write classical music. Today a serious composer can write pop music, or movie soundtracks, or music for video games; there are so many different opportunities.

I believe it’s more than coincidence that many of the top singers now are coming from Latin America or Spain. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that opera in those parts of the world has a more important place in society and culture than in most countries. This is something worth examining more.

The outreach programs are another important aspect of the Met’s work in developing new audiences. Will you be involved with that?

Most of these educational programs at the Met are done through the Metropolitan Opera Guild, but this is certainly an area that needs to be supported and expanded. My ideas for the Met in building bridges to a broader public include reaching out educationally, and they will help the Guild’s efforts to amplify its work in this area.

My project to create a much broader and more active media program has an educational component. All my plans for the Met include not just changing or expanding the artistic activities, but also finding ways to make the Met a more transparent institution in terms of its relationship with the public.

You are also instituting the “family opera,” beginning with an abridged version of The Magic Flute in English.

Yes, although this will not be the beginning of a trend of abridged versions. In the case of The Magic Flute, an abridged version is appropriate. The following season—‘07- ‘08—we’re adding another new family opera production of Hansel and Gretel, in English but not abridged, directed by Richard Jones, the English theater and opera director. For the next four or five seasons, my plan is to rotate The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel as our family entertainment operas in English during the holiday season. It’s our operatic response to the Nutcracker.

What did you learn from Sol Hurok that continues to influence you today?

There are several things I learned from him. One is actually being put into place at the Met: our ticket pricing. Hurok believed that the most and least expensive tickets always sold first, and what we are doing now is a variation of that. A handful of the very best seats in the house are being dramatically increased in price, with the understanding that a subscriber who doesn’t wish to pay for this additional increase can move a seat or two to the left or right and remain almost in the same location without having any price increase. In fact, 90 percent of ticket prices are unchanged. It’s only the super-exclusive locations.

So would the thinking behind this be: If somebody can afford those high prices anyway, another $50 or $75 would not be such a dramatic increase?

Well, you said it, not me! But I agree with you. I don’t want to be cavalier about it, and some subscribers are not so happy about it. On the other hand, we have taken the lowest-price tickets in Family Circle, which were $26, and reduced them to $15. So there will be 90,000 seats through the course of the season available at $15 a piece, and that—as somebody pointed out to me—is lower than any Broadway ticket!

You have to be very mindful of your audience—Hurok was a master of that. One of his favorite sayings was: “If the people don’t want to come, you can’t make them,” which means you have to know what you are doing.

I think one of the reasons the Met board turned to me, as opposed to someone who had been the “Intendant” of an opera company, is because of my experience as a producer who thinks about art and commerce and who has worked in both the for-profit and non-profit worlds of the performing arts. My experience began with Hurok, and it’s that kind of approach of being a producer and entrepreneur that I will bring to my work at the Met.

You are developing the visual aspect of opera to attract more audiences. Is there any concern that sometimes the staging might inconvenience singers who are not so physically able, and how would you negotiate that with the director?

First of all, I would advise singers that if they want to be successful in the 21st century, they have to think about opera in terms of musical theater, meaning: it is to their advantage to be mobile. They should realize that they’re putting themselves at a terrible disadvantage not to be physically able to manipulate the stage and [not] to be theatrically savvy. Sure, if the next Pavarotti comes around, there will always be room for a singer whose vocal abilities are so great that they transcend any physical challenges. But it’s to any singer’s advantage that they have the voice and physicality to be the complete package. However, that’s not going to replace a great voice.

This theater demands great singing, there’s no way of getting around it. We’re not looking to replace great singing with great bodies. We want both. That’s what singers need to train themselves for, if they want to be successful—and that’s what we need if we want to keep this art form alive, because we have to convince the public that opera is a satisfying experience at all levels, musically and theatrically.

So would the director have complete autonomy?

No. It’s a collaboration. The way the Met has functioned in the past was that sometimes directors were not consulted about singers, resulting in many of the world’s greatest directors not wanting to work here. So, my job as head of the theater is to find partnerships between directors, conductors, and singers that work. If they don’t work, then people won’t play together. My job is to combine these different forces. Certainly, any great director is not going to work here unless they approve the cast, whether the cast is appointed before the director is hired or afterwards, and the same thing is true of a conductor.

It takes great skill to bring all of these factors together.

That’s what I’ve been doing all my life; it doesn’t always work but the attempt must be made. What the Met cannot do is have the attitude that, “We are the Metropolitan Opera and we will operate in a vacuum and make imperious decisions!” I said this at the press conference, and I repeat it to you: The heart and soul of this institution are Maestro Levine and this orchestra that he’s molded over almost 40 years into the greatest opera orchestra in the world. All of the decisions I am making are in collaboration with him, and he is very eager, for the sake of stimulating the orchestra and for the art form, to have other great conductors come here. The same way he would never allow a cast on stage without approving it, no great guest conductor or director would do that either. It’s a question of being mindful; it’s all about communication.

And about being a great diplomat.

I’m not saying I’m a great diplomat. Great diplomacy is not so difficult; it’s a question of timing and making sure decisions are not made peremptorily, in a way that artists are affected. If all the artists involved are consulted, chances are things will work well.

How will you select movie theaters to show the live transmission from the Met on Saturdays? Are you focusing on particular areas of the United States?

It’s based on a number of factors. We have a very strong and devoted radio public so we’re trying to identify movie theaters in sections of the country where there is a concentration of Metropolitan Opera audiences in existence. The other very important factor is that, even though many movie theaters across the country already have high definition projection systems, only a few hundred are equipped with satellite dishes at this point. So we are limited to those theaters because I want this to be a live experience. Whatever arrangement we make is not going to be on an individual theater-by-theater basis; it will be with a distributor who deals directly with movie theaters. It’s the same way a movie is released.

What is your advice to conservatories and universities in developing the stars of tomorrow?

I think that conservatories and teachers should understand what the needs of the 21st century are for opera. That includes the whole package, the physical and theatrical aspect. They should know what opera companies require and be very careful to nurture talent within the right technical foundation. And I also think they should strongly encourage each student’s unique individuality, which is an important factor in becoming a star.

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the book “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.