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Gelb and The Met


Having posted a piece that was kind to critics and thus risking opprobrium from all quarters, I suppose I ought to be wary of writing a piece that is sympathetic to the current opera demon, Peter Gelb. 

Let us be clear, I don't know what the detailed financial situation at the Met is, I don't know how its budgets are split and allocated, I don't know how much they spend on sets and productions. I just read selective figures used negatively and that is always something we should be wary of.  What Gelb and the Met are going through is probably entirely unique in the opera world given the scale of economics involved and the accusations of mismanagement that are being thrown around are hard to reconcile with some of the realities; it is certainly true, for example, that Gelb has taken the Met's turnover from $222 million to over $300 million in eight years which doesn't immediately suggest mismanagement, but that is as glib and superficial an analysis as anything else I've heard.

A house of the Met's size will suffer more acutely when things turn downwards, which in many respects, the theatrical world of opera has, despite increasingly delusional claims of 'new' audiences in cinemas and for online streaming.  I have spoken of audience behaviours changing, the digital world's effects on that behaviour and there is the economy, too. A supertanker takes a long time to react and a house like the Met will always be slower to realise which way the tide is turning and to make adjustments to its course. Further, it is understandable for a house which had been growing and developing, enjoying great success and financial stability to suffer a little hubris. 

Gelb and the Met board have been facing big problems and have chosen to tackle them by cutting costs which in a heavily unionised house is always going to be difficult and challenging. The recent agreements have been the subject of spin, conjecture and claims for who won or lost. It is easy to look at what we in the UK would consider eye-watering salaries of chorus members and see an easy solution or to demonise technicians for their working practices and pay in order to find economies. Again, I don't know the absolute truth or nuance of these matters but overall, one doesn't need intimate knowledge of the books in order to draw some obvious conclusions. Gelb had to try to persuade his colleagues that his is the right course and tough negotiations appear to have found a solution of sorts.

But we also have to look at how and why the Met and large houses like it get into the position they are in and I am suspicious when people simply say "they have been doing it wrong". Audiences have a role to play in the way a house develops, its repertory choices, its casting, its production style. Their expectations inform -heavily- the decisions of house managements.  I had a meeting with Peter Gelb in February of this year when visiting the Met. It was a courtesy visit, not to discuss anything substantive and we shared a coffee in his office for an hour or so. The conversation moved to repertoire and how the Met used to give a home to the sort of late Italian opera we are so fond of at OHP. His response was to point out that his audience have come to expect big stars and that the rep will always be determined largely by the sort of work these singers wish to do. I felt a sting of sympathy for him when he said that; he is locked into a model of mega stars, lavishness and conservatism and his audience hold the keys. I know he has been lambasted in some quarters  as the creator of this problem but nobody was complaining at the time as they queued for the latest star vehicle and field of poppies; "Ours", they said, "is the greatest opera house in the world".

Individuals give huge sums of money to the Met and over time this very substantial group of wealthy donors forms into a powerful collective mindset and I can well imagine the pressure Gelb must feel from their group influence. If we think the Met's current woes are related to repertoire choice and production style then we ought to look squarely at what its audience has been demanding and responding positively to in recent times.  

Critics of the Met say that it is profligate, that it pays enormous wages, spends breathtaking amounts on its productions and it probably does; let's face it, all major opera houses are profligate in one way or another, spending sums of money on aspects of their work that we all might feel it is possible to achieve for far less ( I have seen the books of a few UK companies and reckon I could lose quite a bit without jeopardising quality!) But the bigger the model, the greater the risk of this happening and it takes nerve to realise it and try to change the status quo. If it wasn't Peter Gelb, it would be someone else.

Everybody associated with the Met, either behind the scenes or as audience and supporters has a responsibility for creating the Met that exists today. Everybody enjoyed the good times, came to expect certain rewards and participated in the emergence of a mighty producing house that spreads its work around the world through cinema. Audiences, by their purchasing choices or their donation-linked opinions have generated a programming policy and production style with all the attendant expectations of scale and lavishness; would they attend a smaller production of a rare work featuring less famous but nevertheless outstanding singers?  I doubt it, and so does Gelb from the looks of things.  

Audiences become extremely possessive of their favourite cultural institution and they like it to change as little as possible. Employees are essentially the same but it is rare that we all see eye to eye on everything. Cultural pursuits are like that; audiences must trust those who run their opera houses up to a point but they will react badly if they don't like something.  I imagine Gelb, with the enormous body of private money keeping his company afloat has a more acute need to walk a razor sharp line than any of us really understands and the sheer size of his organisation means that small changes have big results or consequences. However,  ultimately, audiences - who will always retain the right to make purchasing choices and are thus not obliged to support their opera house on auto-pilot, unquestioningly - must also ask themselves what it is they want and how they want it to happen; neither choice will come without a cost.

Comments

  1. Declining ticket sales indicate the audience has voiced its opinion.

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  2. Well, yes. But what do they want? They have supported and apparently approved for the past few years.

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  3. One thing the audience definitely does NOT want is the beautiful old productions being replaced with ugly new ones.

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    Replies
    1. Oh you mean like the 43 year old Rosenkavalier they trotted out again last season?

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    2. Beat to hell it still looked better than most of thr new and improved rep.

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  4. Well that is a matter of opinion and whether Gelb has made mistakes or not is a matter for conjecture, but he finds himself between the Devil and the deep blue sea

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  5. Going to the MET is expensive, it takes time to travel to Manhattan if you do not live in Manhattan....and there are so many other things which people focus on.....TV , the net etc. times have changed, therefore the discussion needs to take this into account. Life has changed for many.

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  6. It has indeed and that is something of which I am acutely aware.

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  7. Excellent post, Michael, but some of it sounds a little like "I must follow them; I am their leader!" Having followed the debates for some time, I've not seen any statement of artistic principles by him. In fact, it's reasonably clear that he stands way right in the revolution-reform-conservatism spectrum. The pity for him is that he won't be judged by whether he delivered what the MET Board or the audiences wanted him to, but by whether he delivered great opera. So far, he hasn't.

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