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Gelb and the Met: still middlebrow after all these years

In the last few weeks, Peter Gelb’s tenure as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera has come under some heavy examination in the New Yorker and New York Magazine. The consensus: Gelb is struggling. He hasn’t had all that many successes with the new productions he’s presented, particularly in this season, which is the first -- opera calendars being scheduled several years in advance -- to be planned entirely by him. Perhaps inevitably, it’s suddenly fashionable to bash him. Everything is his fault. The critics are starting to attack him; audiences are leaping on the bandwagon to boo productions that are only mediocre and not at all as scandalous as everyone would like them to be.

However, Gelb has been so successful in getting out his message that even in criticizing him, critics unwittingly promulgate it. The message is that Gelb has a great new vision of bringing in big names from other fields, like theater and film directors; the critics are saying this hasn’t always worked. The real point, though, is that it isn’t a new idea at all: opera companies have been bringing in big names from other fields since the dawn of the medium. New York City Opera was particularly successful at doing exactly what Gelb is trying to do, back in the 1950s and 1960s, as Julius Rudel wryly pointed out in a New York Times article a few months ago. Long before Gelb’s accession, other companies were bringing in the likes of David Hockney, Lina Wertmüller, Maurice Sendak, Marc Chagall, Bruce Beresford, Roman Polanski, Jerome Robbins, Ingmar Bergman, Harold Prince, Francis Ford Coppola. The English National Opera frequently enlists film directors for its productions, and provided Gelb with Anthony Minghiella's "Madama Butterfly" for the start of his first season (Terry Gilliam is slated for Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust”). Plácido Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera does too; among others, it gave Woody Allen his opera-directing debut with “Gianni Schicchi” in 2008. In short: not only is bringing in theater and film directors not new, but it’s often worked better than it has at the Met so far.
(read more after the jump)

But in the press, Gelb is the great innovator, even when that means rewriting the past. “Always a couple of decades behind, the Met is only now junking its collection of ponderously pseudo-realistic sets in favor of the kinds of lean, abstract productions that seemed startling in the nineties,” wrote Justin Davidson in New York Magazine. Weren’t those lean, abstract productions exactly the kind of thing that John Dexter was raising hackles with at the Met in the 1970s: a new, stripped-down, contemporary aesthetic? In fact, by comparison with Dexter (who, incidentally, was a theater director as well), the Met’s new productions seem decidedly overstuffed; I haven’t seen one that fits the description of “lean and abstract.” Even Luc Bondy’s “Tosca,” which drew squeals of outrage when it opened the season last fall, is not altogether lean, though its sets are certainly sparer than the ornate true-to-period Zeffirelli ones that it replaced. (That “Tosca,” by the way, has now returned with a new cast and a couple of small modifications to the stage business, and suddenly everybody loves it.)

I agree that Gelb has had problems actually identifying what’s going to make a successful production. But I submit that the real problem is exactly the same problem the Met had under Gelb’s predecessor, Joe Volpe: not that the company engages unusual directors, but that it doesn’t let them actually do what they’re good at. Gelb seems to me to have the same micromanaging side that Volpe did: the side that would see something unusual in a new production, get nervous about it, and try to rein it in.

As a result, the work of directors who are quite good in other fields is, at the Met, muted or just plain bad. I didn’t attend Mary Zimmerman’s “Armida,” the company’s latest new production mounted for Renée Fleming, so I can’t do more than repeat what others have said about it being tepid and long and uninspired (though some liked it): certainly the director’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and her “Sonnambula” at the house both showed her floundering. Adrian Noble’s “Macbeth” seemed a piece of perfect mediocrity; and Bartlett Sher, who’s touted as one of the Met’s few crossover success stories for his “Barber of Seville,” produced a piece of middlebrow pageantry in the name of “The Tales of Hoffmann.” All these directors are capable of much more. But the Met doesn’t want more. For all of its trumpetings of going off in new directions, it doesn’t really want to offend, and it keeps a pretty tight lid on excesses.

Gelb has delivered one signal achievement, but conventional wisdom appears to be taking it for granted: the live HD broadcasts to movie theaters around the world. In four short years, these have become an integral part of the opera landscape; I still don’t think they bring in many new audiences, and they may be a bigger financial investment than the company is able to sustain, but they make the existing audiences very, very happy and sell them lots of tickets. Thanks to the broadcasts, tens of thousands of people can see “Armida” for themselves on May 1. Then they can go home and complain about just how awful productions are under Peter Gelb.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 23, 2010; 6:17 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  | Tags: Metropolitan Opera  
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"I agree that Gelb has had problems actually identifying what’s going to make a successful production. But I submit that the real problem is exactly the same problem the Met had under Gelb’s predecessor, Joe Volpe: not that the company engages unusual directors, but that it doesn’t let them actually do what they’re good at. Gelb seems to me to have the same micromanaging side that Volpe did: the side that would see something unusual in a new production, get nervous about it, and try to rein it in."

Are both or either of those the problem, or is the problem rather that Mr. Gelb doesn't take into due consideration in making his choices of outside directors their understanding of music and their understanding and acceptance of the irrefutable truism that in opera the composer is the dramatist, not the librettist?

I rather think that it's that that's at the bottom of the Met's failures with new productions directed by outside directors rather than the one's you suggested.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | April 23, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

I think 'middlebrow' is a bit harsh for what's been happening under Gelb's tenure at the Met. Its certainly middle of the road (if not worse) in terms of dramatic adventure and experimentation when compared to Germany, but on an American scale I'd put it a bit past middlebrow but certainly not on the cutting edge of theatrics it would sometimes like to think it is.

I'm a Gelb defender but I agree with ACD above about the limitations of directors who direct out of the cd booklet libretto.

That 'Armida' had more problems though than Zimmerman's production.

Posted by: ianw2 | April 23, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Really I believe that Peter Gelb's problems haven't stemmed from any shortcomings as a Manager, but as a Marketer. He has failed immensely at mediating expectations of the press and his audience, and now if a production doesn't have the success of this year's "From The House Of The Dead" or the Minghella "Butterfly" both artistically AND financially, it's considered a total failure.

Really, audiences expect so much from the Met now that performances are incapable of living up to the grand image that the Met has created for themselves.

I think this is why NYCO has flourished this year under George Steele; no one expected anything to be good, and suddenly when the productions weren't the train wrecks that everyone was expecting it was a heralded success.

It is a rock and hard place for Peter Gelb at this point. It is impossible for him to step back and admit that not everything the Met does is worthy of legendary praise, but really the image of infallibility creates too much potential for a let down.

As much as I hope they find an answer to this quandary, I cannot for the life of me come up with one.

Devon C. Estes

Posted by: DevonCEstes | April 23, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

"though some liked it"

This is a joke, right? I mean we're talking about Heidi Waleson and Anthony Tommasini, professionals yes-frau und man.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 23, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

As usual, the Met is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. The captious criticisms Gelb has been receiving from all quarters are nothing new.
They've dogged the Met for decades,no matter who is in charge,who is engaged to direct or design productions,who is chosen to conduct them or sing .
The Met is blasted for lavish realistic productions, and also blasted for lean and mean ones or ones which update the story to the present day,such as with the now retired Zeffirelli Tosca vs the Luc Bondy one.Both have been savaged by captious critics.
It's a no win situation.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | April 23, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

P.S. I realized "Frau" should have been capitalized, and "Mann" should have also been capitalized and spelled with double "n"; sorry for that.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 23, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure what you mean about the Met's HD telecasts not bringing in new audiences. If you mean new audiences to the Met, perhaps you're right. If you mean audiences new to opera or at least those who don't often attend (chiefly because of high ticket prices), then I think you're absolutely wrong. One of my concerns is that the HD telecasts in cities with opera companies may affect those companies' audiences but that's the law of the marketplace. Overall, I think HD is a total success.

Posted by: BobTatFORE | April 23, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

BobTatFORE: Well, my whole point was that indeed, the HD broadcasts are Gelb's big success (though the jury is out on whether they're financially sustainable). But the widespread idea that they siphon off audiences from local opera companies is, I think, fallacious - I believe they have just the opposite effect. (Just as broadcasting ball games on TV helped raise live attendance in stadiums.)
I haven't yet seen any evidence, though, that they actually bring in an audience of people new to opera, and anecdotally everything I've seen and heard supports the idea that attendees are largely opera lovers of a certain age. But I'd love to see figures that demonstrate otherwise.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | April 23, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

The problem with what's happening at the MET these days is that Gelb may be "micromanaging" but he knows little about the art form and I suspect, does not even like or respect it. It seems just to be a vehicle for his own self-promotion and his talent for advertising anything of any quality. As for it being "fashionable" to bash Gelb, it is understandable that he is being criticized now, since both artistically and financially, he is grossly mismanaging what could and should be one of the great companies in the world. All the HD hype can't make a silk purse out of what is turning out to be a sow's ear.

Posted by: dko1 | April 23, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

All this overlooks the systemic problems that create the MET’s troubles. The house has to rely on donations from the very wealthy to survive, so it has to satisfy their tastes with lavish, conservative productions for very expensive star singers. The MET’s budget is thus twice to three times higher than for comparable publically funded houses in Europe.

The budgets for major houses in cities like London, Paris, Munich, Vienna, and Milan. range from about 100 to 150 million for 11 to 12 month seasons, while the MET’s is 300 million for only a seven month season. With half or less of the MET’s budget, these houses provide equal if not better productions, and at prices average people can afford. It should also be noted that Europe’s productions are generally more innovative. This is an interesting case where a public funding system turns out to be far more economically and artistically efficient.

In addition to the conservative tastes of the MET’s funders, the house’s star singer system also makes innovative production difficult. These singers often arrive in time for only the very minimum of rehearsals. The stage direction thus has to be of a simplistic “park and bark” variety.

Another problem of our funding system is that it only allows for America to have significant opera houses in a few select cities: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and maybe Houston, along with a six week season in Santa Fe. Germany, by contrast, has 80 year-round opera houses in a country with a third the population. Europe’s density of opera houses allows for exploration, experience, and competition which creates innovation. Meanwhile, Americans are lucky if they can see a live opera at all.

It would be helpful if the journalists mentioned here, like Midgette, Ross, and Davis, addressed these systemic problems regarding our funding system, but that will also not happen. Mainstream publications rely on conservative, corporate customers for most of their revenue. If a journalist regularly wrote about our need for a comprehensive system of public arts funding (like all other major countries have) then he or she would soon lose their job.

We can denounce Gelb, but he is not the real problem. The MET will probably just have to remain the kind of plutocratic institution that it really is and stick to conservative, extravagent, park-and- bark productions for star singers and wealthy patrons.

Posted by: wasteland | April 24, 2010 3:02 AM | Report abuse

Has "wasteland" actually tried to buy an opera ticket in London or any of the other cities in Europe that he mentions? Prices at the MET range from $25 on up per ticket. No so in Europe.

Posted by: CarlosMaryland | April 24, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Correction: The lowest price MET tickets start at $20.

Posted by: CarlosMaryland | April 24, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Actually, yes I have. I live in Europe. I just saw Boito’s Mefistofele at the Rome Opera just three weeks ago. My wife and I had an entire box to ourselves on the first balcony for $135 with wonderful, close views of the entire stage. The same tickets at the MET would have cost about $750 and would have only been available to donors. Check the websites for the Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna, Hamburg, Turin, and Rome operas and compare the prices for equivalent seats at the MET. This will confirm without question that the tickets at the MET are 3 to 5 times more expensive. And even more importantly, most of the best seats at the MET are reserved for donors which effectively makes the actual price for a good seat even much higher. It’s time Americans stop hiding from this truth.

Posted by: wasteland | April 25, 2010 2:28 AM | Report abuse

First of all, Wasteland, just how do you propose changing the way arts are funded in the US? Do you think for a minute even our greatest president in decades is ever going to be able to increase the funding to a level which would free institutions like the MET from constant fund-raising? Have you heard of the Tea Party movement? Come on!
The MET has a $300 million budget for many reasons, but just try comparing the orchestra and chorus of the Rome Opera to our MET's! The greatest opera orchestra in the world costs money because superior players must be payed well.
Can you hear the world's greatest singers at the Rome Opera as many nights per season as do we? I think not!!
And I've seen some of those "innovative" productions in Europe. The Barcelona "Ballo" was so obscene I left. And it was poorly performed besides. So yes, it cost less, but it was hideous!
I agree with Ms. Migette that most of this seasons new productions were not altogether successful. I was very disappointed by the Hoffmann, for instance, and am scratching my head over why they had to replace an elegant, creative and highly entertaining one.
How snobbish to blindly accept the notion that every artistic endeavor in Europe must be better because their politics are progressive. Please explain just how the old Hoffmann was inferior in any way? If you mean that showing empty boxes for rooms with no furniture is cutting edge artistic vision, then fine, have at it! But you cannot say it is superior, at least not with s straight face.
By stating that all the MET does is Park and Bark productions, the only way I can reply to that is, YOU HAVEN'T BEEN THERE!! Did you see the IL Trittico this season? It is so gorgeous in every way, I challenge you to find fault with it. And the acting was superb. I really don't think you know very much about the MET.

Posted by: vcsam | April 26, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

As far as Sher’s Les contes d’Hoffmann is concerned, I feel that referring to it as a piece of “middlebrow pageantry” is a little too kind. As someone who truly loves and cares about this masterpiece, I am greatly disturbed by the complete lack of understanding with which Sher threw himself into this project. His interview with Deborah Voigt, recorded during the HD transmission of his production, is a perfect example of his attitude toward this work – saying that he decided to accept it just because “it’s so weird” and admitting that he had no interest in considering any of the works by author/composer/artist E.T.A. Hoffmann, upon which the opera is based. In conducting my own research on this work, it has become abundantly clear to me that no-one can really understand this masterpiece without trying to understand Hoffmann himself, and that anyone staging the work would deliberately ignore this aspect of the opera shows a misguided ignorance that leaves me dumbfounded.
That being said, I tried to enjoy Sher’s vision with an open mind when I went to see it. And despite my misgivings regarding what Sher had said in the press, and my disappointment in the musical decisions made by maestro Levine, I did enjoy the show. But therein lies the problem. Sher’s Hoffmann is really nothing more than an entertainment, and this has proven itself to me after re-watching the production on line and on television. It does not wear well. It ignores the subtleties of this greatly complex work, and comes off seeming cheap and clumsy. Furthermore, I thought then, and think even more now, that Sher’s Giulietta act is a miserable mess (I’m not alone in this, and I would suggest that Sher look closely at it before next season’s revival and make use of the music Offenbach really composed for this act).
Is this to be the future of the MET? However you might feel about them, the famous Zefirelli productions had a lasting power that drew people back into the theatre – can we really assume that items such as Sher’s Hoffmann will do the same? I doubt it.

Posted by: charlie7093 | April 27, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Vcsam, you are right that the MET tries to buy the best opera productions in the world. Unfortunately, I disagree with how this serves the public. Even if the singers have less star-power or a production might be more modest, I enjoy opera far more when I can have a good seat, a place with a full view of the stage and orchestra and close enough to sense the immediacy of the drama. I, and the vast majority of other people, simply cannot afford such seats at the MET, so I prefer European houses. And even more importantly, the huge expenditures at the MET do not bring enough additional quality (if any) to justify the outlay. In short, the public is poorly served if an opera house is a plaything of the rich.

The most serious problem of all is that our plutocratic system of arts funding only allows for opera houses in a few very wealthy financial centers (NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston.) Hundreds of millions of Americans outside of these areas have no access to opera other than occasional slap-dash productions in rental facilities with pick-up singers and orchestras. The European system, which brings opera to all people, is incomparably better. Their system also allows for far more performances. This month, for example, the Seattle Opera only did four performances. The situation is very similar even in our so-called National Opera in Washington. Houses in comparable European cities often do 5 to 8 performances a week. In other words, they do more performances in one week than Seattle or Washington do in a month. This lowers ticket prices and makes opera available to all.

An opera house should not be a rare and elite cultural country club for the wealthy. America must begin the long process of developing a comprehensive system of public arts funding like ALL other major countries in the world already have. It will be a slow process, but without the will and vision we will never make progress. We should set aside nationalistic blustering and begin the work.

Posted by: wasteland | April 28, 2010 3:00 AM | Report abuse

Vscam, you had asked how we might move toward a public funding system for the arts like Europeans have. There are many approaches, but here is one I find interesting and plausible. In 2004 I made some calculations. With only one percent of the military’s $396 billion budget, we could have 132 opera houses lavishly funded at $30 million apiece. (With proper management, that much funding would put them on par with some of the best opera houses in the world.)

The same sum could support 264 spoken-word theaters at $15 million each. It could subsidize 198 full-time, year round world-class symphony orchestras at $20 million each. Or it could give 79,200 composers, painters and sculptors a yearly salary of $50,000 each. Remember, that’s only one percent of the military budget. Imagine what five percent would do. These examples awaken us to the Orwellian realities of our country and how different it could be. Given our wealth, talent, and educational resources, we are losing our chance to be the Athens of the modern world.

This is a plausible approach because our military is vastly over-funded. They spend more than the one-percent sum in simple wastage. There are many other approaches as well. They key for now is to gain a vision and begin the work.

Posted by: wasteland | April 28, 2010 3:44 AM | Report abuse

One other comment. There are endless debates about Europe’s Regie Theater (director’s theater) vs. America’s traditional productions. The differences here too are systemic. Most Americans will never see a live opera in their lives, or if the do, then only a small number. Under those cirumstances it is only natural that they would want to see a traditional production.

Most European opera goers, by contrast, will see dozens of performance during their lives, and often of the same opera, but in varying productions. Under these circumstances they enjoy seeing the variety created by Regie Theater. It might also be understandable that they would view the traditional productions in the States as somewhat parochial – which of course, leads to nationalistic blustering on both sides. For better or worse, due to these systemic differences, Gelb will have a difficult time moving the MET toward international production standards. Elements of the MET's productions will need to remain conservative to the point of risking parochialism.

Posted by: wasteland | April 28, 2010 4:09 AM | Report abuse

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