Peter Gelb talks about the artistic challenges before him at the opera.
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GUEST: Peter Gelb
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And over the many decades I’ve produced and hosted this weekly public television conversation, I’ve often been asked – critically, I must say – just why I haven’t invited here more of those wonderfully accomplished persons associated with the performing arts who so often are truly brilliant conversationalists.
Well, invariably, my reply is the same: I’m simply not culturally sophisticated enough myself to carry what must be my end of such encounters.
When it comes to today’s guest, however – as you’ll see in just a moment – while certainly a most distinguished figure in contemporary American high culture, Peter Gelb, the still rather newly arrived General Manager of New York City’s historic Metropolitan Opera, thinks and talks about the artistic challenges before him and the Met in terms that compel and involve us all, terms that even I can comprehend.
Now, while still in high school my guest began his association with the Metropolitan Opera as a part-time usher, started at 17 in the arts management world as an office boy with the Impresario Sol Hurok. Later, he managed pianist Vladimir Horowitz, worked with Yo-Yo Ma and many other great musical performers.
And, of course, his parents are writer Barbara Gelb (the niece of Jascha Heifetz) and Arthur Gelb, former Managing Editor of The New York Times; together they wrote a masterful biography of Eugene O’Neill.
Clearly, then, my guest’s cultural background and his
music credentials are impeccable.
Yet Peter Gelb was in the commercial music world – had been President of Sony Classical for a decade – when the Metropolitan Opera made him its Managing Director. And there were some who feared he would bring about a “crossover” from high-brow to something less…in opera even as in less demanding commercial classical music.
Indeed, that he seems now so well on the road to strengthening the Met, to rebuilding his audiences in New York and vastly expanding them across the nation and overseas, is still threatening to some who talk about “dumbing down” high culture rather than about “making it accessible” as my guest does.
So, let me ask Peter Gelb about “crossover culture”, about “dumbing down”, and – if he will – about “cultural democracy” generally. Those are … a lot of words.
GELB: A lot of words.
HEFFNER: What do you think about the inability of some people to think in terms of your expression, “making opera accessible rather than dumbing down?
GELB: Well, I think there is … certainly there is a legitimate fear that somebody new to the Metropolitan Opera who is faced with the huge challenge that I have been faced with, which is to rebuild the audience … could resort …that I could have resorted to “dumbing down”. Of course, I haven’t done that because “dumbing down” the opera would be to defeat the very essence of what grand opera is about. Which is to … and what the Metropolitan Opera has been known for, for almost 125 years now, which is putting on the finest performances of this wonderful art form that combines everything that’s great in theater and music, particularly when it’s well done.
What I have attempted to do at the Met is to try to rekindle the, the innovative and artistic spirit that the Met, in its greatest glory years was known for. Which was to really underscore the theatrical as well as the musical properties of opera.
And I think that the fears … if not accusations that I was going to “dumb down” the Met have faded since I have been showing the audiences and the loyal patrons what it is exactly that I have in mind, because talk ultimately is cheap and the, the results that are put on the stage is what really one is measured by.
HEFFNER: So the accessibility has turned out to be what’s so important here.
GELB: Well, accessibility … you know, opera … as I was saying is, is and it should rightly be presented as not just a musical experience. The Met in recent decades had become known more as a … as the great … you know, its reputation has continued as, as the wonderful opera house for great artists … it’s always been known as the place where the greatest voices of the world of opera congregated.
And, and I have certainly … everything that I have done has been to, to enhance and further that. It’s also the Met under the leadership of James Levine, its brilliantly talented Music Director for the last 36 or 37 years, has been the, the great … together with the Vienna State Opera … considered to be the greatest opera orchestra in the world. And that’s all a credit to, to James Levine.
So, but what it hadn’t done in the last, you know, 20 years or so … is really actively pursued an artistic agenda theatrically. And the result was that the productions, with occasional exceptions … I mean there was Julie Taymar’s marvelous “Magic Flute” a few years ago and some wonderful Jonathan Miller productions. And, you know, there have been some, some exceptionally good productions there. But in general, the theatricality was not being furthered and supported the way it must be when you’re dealing with an art form that is aging.
And what I discovered, after I was appointed, was that in fact what I, what I sort of instinctively knew … statistically was true. Which is that the audience was aging and diminishing. I was shown a marketing survey shortly after I arrived at The Met that indicated that the average audience age was 65, but even more frighteningly … frightening was the fact that five years earlier it had been 60 years old. So the audience was, was declining in real time and with that kind of diminishment of attendance … clearly … or aging and diminishing attendance … The Met was potentially facing its demise.
So, when I was appointed I had to take immediate action. And the Board hired me knowing that I would. Because when I was, when I was interviewed for this position … I was the last candidate to … and I didn’t even know I was a candidate until, until I was approached. It was a very mercurial process.
I, I was contemplating my future in the record business. I had not signed a new contract that had been offered to me to run the combined record labels of SONY and BMG which had merged, these two companies.
And I was approached by an emissary of Beverly Sills, the famous soprano, who was at the time the Chairman of The Metropolitan Opera Board, to ask if I was interested in talking about this position. And I went to meet with the search committee of the Board and explained to them what I thought some, some of the problems that The Met faced. Which was an artistic isolationism and a, a disconnection from mainstream culture. I mean opera, even at its most popular is, is a refined art form that appeals to the more intelligent cultural consumers.
I don’t expect, even with the greatest accessibility, you can’t expect opera to be as popular as the most popular forms of entertainment. But clearly The Met had done nothing overt to discourage the aging process of the art form. It had, it had sort of grown increasingly shrouded in this kind of veil of, of elitism and, and cultural isolationism.
And I explained that to this search committee of the Board which had presided over The Met all these years. And rather than be irritated by what I’ve said, they embraced it and, and basically in fact offered me the position within a few hours of my meeting with them.
And I signed a contract the next day. And so, with their mandate and encouragement I have actively pursued this path of cultural enhancement which leads to accessibility. Because it’s not an easy path.
The way to make opera more accessible, which is what I’ve been attempting to do, is to make it more theatrically viable. So that an audience that enjoys culture in New York that goes to museums, that goes to the theater could also find themselves at The Metropolitan Opera and realize that it is, perhaps even more spectacularly entertaining than a Broadway musical. Because opera at its greatest is a, is a supercharged kind of musical experience.
HEFFNER: Is there an outer limit of this accessibility or theatrical … theatric … why can’t I say it, too?
GELB: Well, because it has too many syllables (laughter). Theatricality.
GELB: The, the … the … yeah, I mean there is an outer limit. I mean first of all there only are 3,800 seats in The Metropolitan Opera, which on the one hand makes it perhaps the largest modern opera house in the world together with the Bastille in France, in Paris. Far bigger than most older opera houses. But small by comparison. Radio City Music Hall … 6,000 seats. Sports stadiums obviously have, have many thousands more.
But to, to … it had become a challenge to fill The Metropolitan Opera in, in recent years. In fact the attendance had increasingly, steadily declined … excuse me … since 9/11. There was a calamitous drop in attendance after 9/11 along with other cultural institutions in New York. But others rebounded, The Met didn’t. And I believe that was because the local audience had aged and had … you know, was not coming with the same frequency.
Now, after our first season we have proven that, in fact, by having a broad base of initiatives that range from bringing in great theater directors to tackle operas for the first time and present them as, as theater without, without in any way undermining the musical values … and all kinds of other public outreach initiatives from open houses … open house rehearsals to transmitting our opening night in Times Square on giant screens in front of a public that was invited to attend for free; to subsidize tickets for, for new opera initiates, to our big initiative of transmitting our operas live into movie theaters.
All of these efforts, and there are others, too. For example, we rekindled the link to the contemporary visual arts world that had disappeared. You know, The Met … if you go to The Metropolitan Opera, the first thing you notice are the giant Chagall murals that adorn the front façade of The Met.
Those murals are not their by some artistic accident. Chagall in fact was a working, scenic designer at The Met. As was David Hockney after him and that connection between the various … these, these different artistic world is something that I’ve, I’ve tried to kick start by inviting great new modern masters to display their works at The Met and to, and to work in the future on scenery.
But all this has resulted in The Met attendance … The Met’s attendance going up for the first time in six years. The Box Office was up eight percent in my first season as General Manager.
HEFFNER: Any complaints?
GELB: Well, of course, there are always complaints when you have …
HEFFNER: What are they?
GELB: … when you have an audience of 800,000 people in, in a season, as we do, there are bound to be unhappy. Oh, there are some people who don’t like productions that we’ve put on. Who feel that, in fact, I have changed the character and, and essence of The Met by, by bringing in directors who have done things that are different.
My, my whole approach to working with directors, and I’ve been asked how do I exercise creative control over new productions? And the way I do that is actually not in the production … in the creation of a production, but in the, in the choice of the director.
Because what I, what I attempt to do is find those directors whose work I admire, based upon their previous work and then, instead of trying to limit them when they come to The Met, I do the opposite … I ask them what it is they want to achieve and then I see myself as their facilitator. And, and supporter. And booster. And I try to make their lives as comfortable and exciting within this rich, you know, theatrical environment of The Met so that they can do work that is, that is up to their … only limited by their creativity. And that’s why, for example, the … so, so one production that I think was hugely successful this season was Bart Sher’s production of Barbieri de Sevilla, the Barber of Seville. Bart had never worked at The Met before. He had directed one or two operas, but he was known primarily as a theater director, which in my opinion, are the best opera directors. Because they are not in any way intimidated by the fact they’re working with singers. They think singers should be able to act just the way actors should be able to act.
And, and the best singers today want to be great actors. There’s a whole new kind of approach to, to opera from a new and younger generation of singers. Of course, in the past there was Maria Callas, there have always been great singing actresses, but now there are more of them than ever before. And, and they want to work with great directors.
HEFFNER: What do you see as the future, now, in terms of this relationship between the Managing Director and his talent? More of the same, which you give … not free rein, but important rein to your directors?
GELB: Well I think it’s very important to, to make the opera experience one in which, in which the audience feels that they are being treated to a performance … that doesn’t feel like it’s 200 or 300 years old. Many of the most famous opera masterpieces by Mozart or Verdi or Puccini are hundreds of years old and yet … and, and the reason why we still know these works is because they are such masterpieces, that they have, you know, just like great works of literature or theater … they have stood the test of time.
And yet, just like … if Hamlet … if, if, if I was running a Shakespeare company it would be unthinkable not to present Hamlet in new ways.
Recently Ed Hall, the son of Sir Peter Hall had great success in Brooklyn when he brought his all male production of “The Taming of the Shrew”, which presented Shakespeare in such a rough and visceral and immediately kind of appealing way, the likes of which I’d never seen before, a production like that. And, and that’s what directors, great directors do when they’re dealing with classic .. classics … operas or classic theater pieces, they, they get to the essence of the piece and they, they are not intimidated by its classic stature and they’re not … and at the same time they’re trying to be true to the essence of the story that they’re telling. So very often they’ll go back and try to scrape off the layers of, of, of theatrical varnish that have resulted from, from a work being produced hundreds if not thousands of times. And try to get, you know, sort of deal with it in a very basic, elemental way.
For example, Anthony Minghella directed his “Madame Butterfly” that opened my first season at The Met. And that was very … that was … that and, and the production I mentioned of Bart Sher’s “Barber of Seville” both had, obviously, far more enthusiasts than detractors because they sold out. And the proof …the proof is in the box office.
But those people who didn’t like them … getting back to your earlier question about what are critics …what are the people who are not pleased have to say?
What they didn’t like was that it was very different. They were different not because they weren’t theatrical, but they were … but they used The Met space in a different way.
In recent decades The Met has …which has a huge proscenium … for those people who have been in the theater, it’s one of the most beautiful and exciting spaces in the world to be in. But it has a gigantic opening … stage opening that is as tall as it is wide. It’s a giant square and that’s a very, very challenging space.
So a lot of directors who perhaps are less talented than the ones who I’m bringing to The Met, feel an immediate need to fill that space with lots of scenery. And for those members of our audience who have been going to the opera faithfully for, for the last 20, or 30 or 40 or 50 years had become accustomed to the idea that unless the space was filled, they weren’t getting their money’s worth.
In fact though, what can be far more theatrical and more interesting is to … is a more subtle use of that space. So Minghella when he … Anthony Minghella who, of course, is famous for having directed films like “The English Patient” and “Cold Mountain” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” … when he … but he has a theatrical background as well … when he created his idea for “Madame Butterfly” it was … it was as if it was a kind of a stylized Japanese play. It was, of course … Madame Butterfly is set in
GELB: … and it’s about a young Geisha, which immediately is difficult to present in a convincing way, because most singers who are qualified to sing Butterfly are usually … vocally have to be very mature and that certainly sort of belies the idea that they would be the 14 or 15 year old character who Butterfly is in the, in the libretto.
But what Mingella did was to strip it down to its bare essentials and created this very beautiful environment of a, of a polished wooden floor and these sliding translucent screens and he did the unthinkable thing … which is … he … instead of having a little boy play the son of the geisha … he was a puppet that was operated by visible puppeteers in a kind of kabuki and, and Japanese puppet theater. It was sort of a combination of kabuki and Japanese puppet theater elements that influenced his, his production.
So the puppet was quite controversial. Those people who had, who had grown up on a diet of traditional “Madame Butterfly’s” were somewhat shocked that a puppet would be portraying this, this living child.
Yet for those … for the audiences who liked, which is the vast majority, they thought it was, it was dramatically even truer and more moving.
HEFFNER: Newer audiences?
GELB: Newer audiences and what … the tightrope that I’ve had to walk, which has not been difficult because stylistically it’s really what I believe in … is to try to convince the older audiences that it’s …that these new theatrical productions are going to honor the musical traditions that they like and go to the opera for. While at the same time appeal to newer audiences.
And when I say “newer” audiences I mean, you know, the broader kind of theatrical audience that had … that wouldn’t have been previously perhaps caught dead in The Met because they thought it would not be a theatrically interesting experience.
So, by, by, by choosing directors who, who are great story tellers and who honor the music we have been able to accomplish both goals because they, they have not offended the older audiences. In fact the older audiences have, have enjoyed these productions, for the most part.
HEFFNER: How do you explain the growth here and the movement backwards in terms of interest, sales, etc. in classical music?
GELB: The interest backwards in, in …
HEFFNER: … in, in terms of classical music is not doing too well in terms of distribution, sales …
GELB: Well, I think the classical record business …
GELB: … is not doing too well because, you know, there’s a limit to how many times you can record something.
HEFFNER: Is that the major reason?
GELB: That’s the major reason. And I think that, you know … when, when you are working within an art form that is aging, which classical music is. It is an aging art form. Opera is an aging art form. It requires extra vigilance and creativity to make it … to, to refresh and renew it.
Now in the case of opera, I have a great advantage over, say, a symphony orchestra. Because opera involves so many different elements. There is a symphony orchestra, there is, there’s a chorus, there’s, there is opportunity for great scenery, for great dramatic action, lighting, costumes. You know it really is, it really is possible with, with skillful directors and great singers and interpreters to re-interpret opera in ways that create a new … a really genuinely new, new experience.
Symphony orchestras have a much harder challenge because they basically don’t have all these visual and theatrical aspects. It’s purely about the musical interpretation and the record companies … when I was the head of SONY Classical I discovered, very quickly that the CD had … while it created an initial great boom to the, to the industry because classical music lovers all threw out their LPs and replaced their libraries with CD libraries. The CDs also seemed to be much more enduring … in terms just physically …
GELB: … they would … they lasted longer. So at a certain point in time aficionados, you know, just either they ran out of room or they … in their, in their … even though the CDs are smaller than LPs or else they just got tired of the idea of having to buy, you know, more than a couple of copies of the same piece of music.
How many Beethoven’s Ninth Symphonies do you, do you need to own? And that, that kind of glut of recordings … plus, plus all of the recordings that had been made throughout history suddenly were re-mastered and made available as CDs. So it was just an over-supply of the same old music.
HEFFNER: You seem to have fallen into a pot of gold here …
GELB: I wouldn’t … I wouldn’t go that far … (laughter)
HEFFNER: Why not? You seem to have in so many ways here planned out what makes so much sense because we haven’t even spoken and just have a minute or so left … about the expansion of the opera.
GELB: I’m very excited about the, the idea of, of building audiences for the future through the electronic medium. And luckily, for me, I arrived at The Met at a time when digital technology had matured to such a point that movie theaters were converting their auditoriums with high definition digital projection systems.
So, we have launched on this campaign, this year, to take Saturday matinees that already were being listened to on the radio, across the country, because The Met has the longest broadcasting history of any arts institution to which Saturday matinee broadcasts. We’ve taken this year … six … this past year six season … six high def … six matinees and produced them in high definition … live … so that we’re creating … presenting operas as great spectacle, which is what it is … live into movie theaters.
And this phenomenon has been growing in that audiences across North America and in Europe, and even in Japan where it’s presented on a delayed basis because of the time difference … burst into applause after singers perform their arias, knowing they’re connected live to The Met.
HEFFNER: Peter Gelb, I repeat … you’ve fallen into a pot of gold and thank you very much for coming here and sharing it with us on The Open Mind.
GELB: Thank you so much for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.