Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Peter Gelb

Peter Gelb has been General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera since 2005. He has especially in recent years been the target of criticism in the press, on line and in social media. Seldom is a good word said about this gentleman who inhabits a job most opera lovers think they can do better. Maybe they can. I admire a manager who brought the  Met to the world live in HD. I love the crowds in Times square and in front of Lincoln Center watching performances together. A community of people who don't go to the Met focused on opera. The message is one the Met neglected for years: "This is for you, too." (The New York City Opera did this message masterfully. Don't get me started.)

Opera is an emotional art.
At its best it calls up a visceral reaction from the audience. It is difficult to view a beloved work with objectivity and an ear toward the box office. The General Manager of the  Metropolitan Opera is not hired to love opera. not on company time. Save that for his I-pod on the elliptical in the gym. He's hired to put butts in seats, to maintain a healthy box office and a balanced budget. If he shows a profit at the end of the season, he'll be canonized by whatever God(s) a board of directors can invoke. AS with the U.S. presidency, I can't image who would want this job.

I'm sure it helps if the GM loves opera. The criticism on line comes from persons emotionally in vested in the art form. It comes from people who weep at the end of La boheme and who stay awake through the Ring cycle. There are people who believe opera performance stopped with the retirement of Maria Callas, the death of Luciano Pavarotti or when Placido Domingo decided to become a Verdi baritone.

I have never met Peter Gelb. My name means nothing to him. I have no knowledge of the day to day operations of the Metropolitan Opera. Once I lived in standing room. At this writing I have not been inside the  Met in nearly ten years. What performances I've seen since then have been in movie theaters. I don't need to be told that seeing the Met in the opera house is different from HD or any other D in a movie house, popcorn or not. Back in the day we snuck popcorn, beer, and worse into the Met for the standing room munchies. My point being that as of today I write from several degrees of separation.

I still love opera. I love the stage craft and dramaturgy. I love imagining what Parsifal's relationship was with Herzeleide. Did he bounce baby Lohengrin on his knee? I love wondering if Norma's 'Sediziose voci' is delivered in defiance or fear. I don't need a tree to be a tree. I need singers who can communicate the text. Stage craft that makes sense. I want to be moved, uplifted and changed in a positive way. It don't have to be happy and giddy leaving the opera house. But I do want to know that I have experienced something special.

Gelb is charged with providing the visceral thrills. There's a core repertoire Mozart-Verdi-Wagner-Puccni that must be maintained. I'm the first to admit that the Luc Bondy Tosca helped nobody. But the Luc Bondy Tosca was part of the point.

Gelb's passion seems to be re- energizing the audience. Forget the core audience. I'm not getting any younger. If I'm the target market then money's being wasted. I'm the choir. Don't preach to me. I'm not the young choir. I think Gelb's mandate is bring "downtown" opera. He wants to rough it up. That's not bad. It's an honest attempt to bring in audiences  who thought Lincoln Center was a president of the United States. A dead president. The person who successfully reinvigorates the opera audience is smarter than I'll ever be. So far, it seemed that juicy productions have been the rule. I liked the Vegas Rigoletto. The person responsible for the recent Parsifal has my devotion forever. I love  having From the House of the Dead and Doctor Atomic available.

The Ring. Ah, the Ring. That would have been any GM's largest gamble. Do we all remember when people came from all over the world any Ring cycle? The four music dramas were ......(fill it in)--proof. Not anymore. The Robert Lapage Ring was relentlessly promoted. Millions spent to reinforce the Met stage were widely resented in days of post crash austerity. Enfin, the Lapage staging gave some visual thrills. Th Ring became about The Machine. The Machine malfunctioned. People laughed at the Machine. The Machine became the show at Wagner's expense. Who could imagine such a thing happen? The problem with many of these new stagings is that they do not wear well. Once seen, okay. Even I'm not sure I want to live with a Vegas Rigoletto.  The Lepage Ring began as an attempt to rethink  opera's most iconic work. Opera's most iconic work didn't need Robert Lepage. It needs the magnificent Met orchestra, which must have felt dissed by the expense over runs, and great singing actors.

Which goes to the point of the Met orchestra, chorus and everybody backstage. Where are their betters? Thy don't have any. I'm not here to say anyone's salary is inappropriate. I'm not paid what I'm worth. Are you?  But you neglect one group at the expense of another, then you got a problem. Orchestra, chorus and backstage are fixed asserts. Opera productions need to be built around them, not vice versa. Front of house spectacle doesn't work without reinforcements.

I would ease up the relentless pre-promotion. You are setting up a disaster if your product doesn't live up to the hype/ I would realize that your new target audience may have the money but wold rather spend it elsewhere. Lights cameras and machines will not bring in the crowds. The Met management and boardrooms are still tone-deaf (!) as to the paying customers. Yeah I know you are dealing with an expensive art form and that ticket sales don't cover costs. Opera began as a popular art but soon needed to be supported by the nobility. I'm sure there are noble hedge fund managers in the 21st century. Gelb, who comes from the New York  intelligentsia lacks an approachable touch in public. Who didn't love Mr. Volpe's capo di tutti capi persona? My way or the highway. Volpe made that fearful and fun. Gelb can't bring that off. He comes across as cold.

One thing opera never is is cold. It's not cynical either. Hard to put a price tag on love but that's what opera comes from. Go ahead, laugh. Opera is about that, too.

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