Peter Gelb’s Hopes for the Future of the Metropolitan Opera

Nélida Nassar 08.20.2019

The General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, makes an annual European tour to meet artists and production partners, to present the opera’s upcoming season, and to arrange the programming of the LiveHD season. With its 300 million dollar budget, about half of which is provided by box office sales (along with a very small amount from public donations), the Metropolitan Opera remains an impressive organization, capable of attracting the greatest singers, conductors and choreographers, as well as of mounting contemporary repertoire. Structural problems are not lacking, and they worry Peter Gelb much more than the polemics he endures, season after season. His main concern is nothing less than the very future of opera as an art form, and the prospects are not uniformly reassuring.

The HD transmissions may be a cure for the malaise felt by all opera houses. Gelb admits that opera has become very much a niche genre, creating a challenge for all opera directors. Wherever one goes, one learns that filling the opera house is becoming increasingly difficult. Yet, while the demand is narrow locally, it is much larger globally, and thus HD diffusion is the answer to this situation. This is how the Metropolitan Opera finds itself at the heart of global geopolitics. It is quite moving to think that a Met performance is being watched simultaneously in Beirut, Cairo, Paris and Moscow! Opera, despite its decline at the box office, has becomes an agent of harmony, a common cultural referent in regions of the world that do not know each other or — worse — are experiencing widespread violence.

This paradoxical reality can be observed on the economic level: the organizations that finance the screening of opera in movie theaters do so because it enhances their image; often the shows themselves lose money. Fortunately, contrary to what some may have feared and is sometimes assumed in the media, theatrical distribution does not chase away audience from the opera house itself, except perhaps some members of the older generation. Actually, it creates an additional attraction; for the curiosity that it arouses far from New York is bringing a new audience to the Met consisting of tourists visiting the city. Nonetheless, financing remains a very critical issue, since the major patrons are turning away from opera and becoming more interested in social causes such as medicine or education. This is particularly true of the new American fortunes, many of whose possessors show little interest in the arts, and least of all in lyric art.

These economic issues have aesthetic consequences. The Met’s role, according to Gelb, is first of all to offer productions that can attract a new public. And for that, he says, we have no choice but to tell stories as best we can. Echoing what can be seen on other stages around the world is inconceivable at the Met. We look for soloists, opera producers and conductors whose primary concern is to establish a link with the public, and to make them live a story. This can create conflicts with the press. For example, someone like Robert Lepage is far from unanimously praised among the critics, but his popularity with the public is considerable and he is one of those who manage to capture new audiences.

Having said that, Gelb continues, I do not want to uphold the ideal of ​​a conservative Metropolitan Opera devoted to old-fashioned productions. When I arrived, the repertory was dictated by the few wealthy patrons who sat on the board and imposed their tastes and choices. I immediately said that I would not maintain this state of affairs; they were free to keep me or to fire me, but not to interfere with the productions. Thanks to advances in technology and the projection requirements in the cinemas, we have reached very high visual standards. Opera choreographers and producers are constantly devising new visual possibilities. That is why I refute the accusation of conservatism, even if I admit that we are not a theater bent on subverting the works we stage. We are, rather, a repertory theatre.

As for the realm of creativity, we must be able to program works which speak more directly to the public. Hence the decision to use only African-American soloists in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” And our decision, also, to present more contemporary works, simply because the questions they raise and the associated aesthetic issues are more immediately understood by our audience. I have no doubt that contemporary opera is better at connecting more directly with the present-day issues, and that it can and must become – if it is not already – an art of our time. A good example is the Opera of Saint Louis’s recent adaptation of Charles Blow’s book “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard.

But, despite their good intentions, these productions can sometimes fail to achieve their goal of attracting new audiences. Today, the Met must mobilize all the elements that constitute the intellectual horizon of the younger generations. This is particularly the case with social media. In a world where tastes and trends are more fragmented and more individual than ever, because of the extreme dispersion of social networks, we have a role to play by creating curiosity around opera. It is certain that the presence of the orchestra music director and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin who is a champion of change and a considerable asset in this regard, due to his exceptional diplomatic skills, and his desire to ensure the international radiance of the Met.

In the United States, the real issue is education. Composer Philip Glass recalls in his memoirs that in his youth, in a simple public school, children were provided with the musical instruments they wished to play. These times are truly over. Music education is in the process of collapse but at the Met we draw on all the intellectual and artistic resources of the younger generation. Through our educational outreach we provide materials that help teachers to deepen their students’ understanding of the operas, especially those who have limited financial means. That’s why the job of the General Manager today is really to fight harder and harder to keep opera on people’s cultural radar.

Ultimately we have a very simple mission: to bring people to the theatre and to ensure that they find it so beautiful and so moving that they have only one desire: to come back.