Peter Gelb is an arts administrator currently serving as the 16th General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Throughout his illustrious career, he has shaped the classical music landscape in America, spearheading ambitious new initiatives and expanding the appeal of classical music. Gelb’s career in the arts began as early as his teenage years when he worked as an usher at the Met and as an office boy to impresario Sol Hurok. From 1995 to 2006, Gelb served as president of Sony Classical Records, before being elected as the Met’s next General Manager in 2005. As General Manager of the Met, he has pioneered the Live in HD series, which transmits Met performances to cinemas across the globe, led the company through the COVID-19 pandemic, and emphasized new works, new productions, and increasing diversity within the opera world. Among his many honors are the Yale University Sanford Medal and an honorary doctorate from the Manhattan School of Music.
As a teenager passionate about opera and an aspiring arts administrator, Gelb is a great inspiration for me. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with him about his career in the arts industry, his time at the Met, and the future of opera.
Interview by Alkis Karmpaliotis, Student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
January 7, 2024
Alkis Karmpaliotis: How did you discover and fall in love with opera?
Peter Gelb: I fell in love with the performing arts as a child growing up in New York. My first operatic experience was when I was four or five years old watching Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was made for NBC television — shows you how far opera has fallen from the mainstream cultural conversation. I remember watching that in my parents’ bedroom and being enthralled with it. My father was very much involved in the cultural scene in New York. My father, when I was a little boy, had been the second-string theater critic for the Times, under the famous Brooks Atkinson. In that position, he was the first person to give Joe Papp’s public theater a review. My father worked for the Times all his life, and even when he rose to become the Managing Editor, he always had culture under his purview. So, when I was a little boy, I was brought to the theater — not really the opera — a lot, and I saw a lot of musicals, so I grew up feeling surrounded by the arts. My great-uncle — my mother’s uncle and my grandmother’s brother — was Yasha Heifetz, the famous violinist, and my mother’s half-brother, David Berman, was a composer and a producer. So I sort of grew up in the world of the arts, loving the idea of theater and dreaming of someday having a career in the arts, even when I was a kid. When I was thirteen years old, I was taken to the Met by my parents; in fact, archivists at the Met recently found a letter, an internal memorandum from Francis Robinson, one of the assistant general managers of the Met to his boss Rudolf Bing, who had the job that I have today, informing Bing that Arthur Gelb, my father, was responsible for the cultural coverage and that that was a good thing for the Met. I guess that prompted the invitation my parents had to see an opera in Bing’s box at the new Met at Lincoln Center. I was thirteen and they brought me along, and it was a very impressive experience for me because I got to see Bing in action. I remember it was a performance of Grace Bumbry singing Carmen. Then, when I was a teenager, I worked as a part-time usher at the Met thanks to Francis Robinson and my father’s relationship. I worked two days a week; one weeknight I was in charge of the standing room of the Family Circle and then on Saturday matinées I worked the standing room in the Orchestra. That really opened my eyes up to opera because I heard all the great artists of that period, including Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, and Renata Tebaldi. When I graduated from high school, instead of going to college right away, I got a job as an office boy; I was the assistant mailroom clerk for a very famous producer and impresario named Sol Hurok. He managed and represented a number of opera singers as well. At that point, that began my career in the performing arts. I was never formally trained as a musician — I can’t read music — but, through years of working in a variety of different roles, I became very familiar with opera as an art form and, gradually, as I became more of an expert in it and more attached to it, the dream job became to run the Met. Even though I had not run an opera house before, I’d worked at the Met after I worked as an usher at various points in my career. Before I officially came to the Met, I’d done various different things for the Met on a freelance basis, from publicity projects when I was in my late teens and early twenties to producing the television and radio broadcasts on a freelance basis in the eighties.
AK: You’ve said in the past that being the General Manager of the Met is a 24/7 job. After all, the Met is the world’s busiest opera house. What are your day-to-day responsibilities as Met GM, from smooth sailing days to panic-button days?
PG: There’s actually a clause in my contract that says I have to be available 24/7. The Met is never smooth sailing, every day brings some new adventure. I wear many hats at the Met: I have overall artistic responsibility together with our Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin — he is my artistic partner — but he doesn’t conduct everything, so I oversee the larger artistic picture, from choosing the operas that we’re going to ultimately perform to commissions of new works to co-productions to major role casting, and I also oversee the business aspects of the Met because, as a producer, I have to think with both sides of my brain. I need to make financial decisions that are artistically informed and artistic choices that are fiscally responsible. Something always is going wrong at the Met — it’s inevitable when you have an intense schedule such as ours. The situation of COVID added a further complexity because, when I first came to the Met, it was a question of coaxing singers who were sick to sing, then, in the COVID era, it became a matter of keeping them from singing. Now it’s somewhere back in the middle. Every day, something happens. One of our leading, brilliant star tenors, Piotr Bezcala, who’s singing Don José in Carmen, missed the first two performances of our new production that opened on New Year’s Eve. On Friday night, he came back but it became very challenging for him. He has flawless technique when he’s healthy, and, although he thought he could manage — and he was very heroic to do it — he was really failing by the end of the performance. That’s sort of par for the course — not in his case, since 99% of the time, he’s in fantastic shape and somebody who we really rely upon to not only show up but to sing beautifully.
Opera is an art form that has to move forward to survive, which means that we have to take calculated risks in terms of new works, expanding the repertoire, new productions. Particularly when we do a new production of a work like Carmen, I go into that knowing, because it’s such a mainstream classic, that it will be controversial no matter what we put on the stage. One of the reasons why I like doing co-productions, particularly with new works, is because we like to try them out somewhere else. Unlike Broadway, opera has no previews. In a complicated new production like Carmen, even though it was not a question of refining the music or the story — that’s fixed and locked ahead of time since the opera was written many years ago — the scenery was very challenging, particularly for a repertory company. We had a director making her debut, Carrie Cracknell, a very fine English theater director, who had never really experienced the challenges of a repertory system. On Broadway or the West End in London, when you put on a play, besides having previews, you also have scenery that stays in place. It doesn’t have to be taken apart and put back together again. So, it was kind of an eye-opening experience for her to see just how challenging and difficult it is. We always try to be as responsible as possible about, on the one hand encouraging the creative teams who we bring to the Met to be as expansive in their creativity as possible and, at the same time, trying to rein them in sometimes, if their creativity is beyond the capabilities of a repertory opera company. In the case of Carmen, the production pushed us to the very limit. Sometimes, you don’t discover things until you actually do them; we try to anticipate but we never know. We had all kinds of complications during the rehearsal process. I had to end up closing the final dress rehearsal the night before because, at the piano dress, which was the penultimate rehearsal, right before the final dress, nothing worked. The Carmen production has five automobiles in the second act, a giant truck lorry and four other cars, that have wheels that are supposed to spin to create the illusion that they’re actually moving, and nothing was working on the day before the final dress. So, at that moment, I decided to close the final dress because I didn’t want it to fail in front of a large audience. Then we managed to pull together and it worked.
Then there are all the economic challenges since COVID of running the world’s largest nonprofit performing arts company without any real government subsidy and trying to make it work economically. This is much harder since COVID because, even though certain things today sell out — if you’re Taylor Swift or Beyoncé you have nothing to worry about because you’re packing in record audiences — other than the very most popular mass attraction artists, in general, the state of attendance for the performing arts in America and in Europe is much less since the pandemic. People change their entertainment habits, people stay at home, our older audiences sometimes don’t attend anymore. It’s not just more challenging to get people to fill the house but also to get donations to make up the difference between the cost and the earned revenue we get from the box office. Plus, the movie theater industry has also suffered enormously globally, and that was a staple of our revenue stream. Something that I started when I began at the Met in 2006 was to have ten Saturday matinées transmitted into cinemas, which provided us with an enormous amount of revenue even with the incremental costs of cameras and revenue sharing. It was a very significant source of net profit to the Met and that has basically disappeared post-COVID. We are still transmitting into cinemas, and we still have significant audiences, but the audiences are about half of what they once were, and because of that, instead of profiting, we break even. It’s still a valuable way of keeping our audiences connected to the Met around the world, but it’s not providing us with earned revenue. Because of that, we have to rely more heavily on donations and, with the world economic situation, the richest people in America don’t care about opera. The triple-digit billionaires do exercise philanthropy but their philanthropy is not geared towards the performing arts.
For my whole career, whether I was working in the record industry, which was failing at the time when social media changed the whole way in which records were purchased, to running an opera company, it’s always been an uphill battle. But I am not daunted by that because I feel it’s very important that the arts not only survive but flourish, and provide the kind of spiritual and artistic relief that a civilized society needs. I’m undeterred in my efforts, but there’s always a challenge, whether it’s economic or artistic.
"I need to make financial decisions that are artistically informed and artistic choices that are fiscally responsible."
AK: On the topic of government subsidies for the arts… The performing arts industry is very different in America compared to Europe. In America, funding is largely based on donations and philanthropy, whereas, in Europe, governments often subsidize artistic institutions. Tell me about which system you consider more effective. Would you prefer to be more dependent on the government rather than the private sector?
PG: Governments, as long as they last — which is an important question because the world is changing so rapidly today — I don’t think it’s a safe bet to say that government subsidies will always be there. In fact, in 2008, during the financial crisis, a lot of governments in Europe cut back on their subsidies and forced opera companies to either become more self-reliant, reliant on other means of financing, or go out of business. Today, in Germany, which has the most solid system of subsidy of the arts, it must be a great comfort for the heads of those opera companies to know that the government is going to pay all the bills, or most of them. On the other hand, I think it’s healthier in many ways, artistically, to not have to rely upon one single source of funding. When you’re running a theater like the Met, which has 3,800 seats to fill, it’s very important to feel like you’re in touch with the audience. Of course, a lot of what we do that’s new and progressive is not exciting for a certain segment of our older audience; on the other hand, it’s what is bringing in a new, younger, and more diverse audience. In Europe, they don't need to care about that, and in some cases they don’t. One of the ongoing ideological battles that I have with the music critics and the intellectual classical music effete is that they do not like the fact that the Met is more populist than they think it should be. My whole life I’ve always been accused of being too much of a populist in classical music. I, on the other hand, believe that our mission is to have a relationship with the public and reach as many people as possible, and, therefore, I think it’s essential that we think about the public — not to pander to them, because I don’t — but to think about how to stimulate them in ways that they will get excited about and respond to, whether it’s an exciting new conception of Carmen with cars or whether it’s presenting more new works at the Met than ever before. In Europe, the new works that are performed, which are not as many per opera company, are much more esoteric pieces. They’re pieces that the larger public may not embrace. I’m not saying everything we do is going to succeed, but our approach is to choose works and productions and directors and designers and singers who, collectively, can create a work that has a chance of having popular success. In Europe, more often than not, the aim is not to have popular success — it’s hard to believe but that’s true. The aim is to please a small group of intellectuals. That’s not to say that I’m not intellectually curious and intellectually motivated, but I believe that the new music that opera companies should be presenting — if you care about your audience — are works that are designed or intended, hopefully successfully, to not only be intellectually stimulating but emotionally stimulating. For art to succeed on a broad basis, it has to move people emotionally and, more often than not, it’s not the case in Europe.
AK: It’s very important to find a balance between new operas and new productions that keep the art form alive and evolving — such as the new Carmen or newly commissioned works — but also a consistent series of classics that make up the core of the operatic repertoire — such as Franco Zeffirelli’s famous Bohème. How do we find that balance?
PG: We’re always looking to find that balance. We’re in constant search of finding the right formula. There is no magic formula for the performing arts or for movies or for entertainment — if there was, everything would be a success. It’s just tinkering with the formula and trying to find ways to find that balance; that’s what being a producer of an opera company like the Met is all about. It’s about finding the right mix. But it’s not just that; each of these individual efforts, each revival, each new production of a classic, each new opera in a new production is an enormous effort on its own, and there are so many other things that we have to think about when we schedule a season. It’s somewhat like a giant game of Tetris in a sense, because, physically, all these productions have to be able to play in repertory with each other. We have to schedule and program in a way that we don’t make our chorus exhausted by having them do too many big chorus operas in a row. Or, in terms of scenery, Zeffirelli’s Bohème uses the rear stage wagon and the left and right stage wagons, which means that when it’s playing, something else that might be as ambitious can’t play in repertory, so we have to think about that too. There are so many different factors that go into planning a season, both artistic and technical, as well as economic. In fact, one of the ideas that I put into effect when I first came to the Met was to take Julie Taymour’s Magic Flute, which is a beautiful production, and get her to create an abridged English-language version of it, which has been one of the more successful initiatives under my watch. I had hoped it would become the operatic response to The Nutcracker, and it succeeded. Every year, we had more performances of it and this year we even had double casting of it so that we could get enough performances in during December while kids were on vacation. It’s remarkably successful in that it fills the house with young people and their parents and their grandparents and serves as an introduction, hopefully, for them to like opera when they’re older as well. When I was talking about Carmen creating difficulties for us, it was not so much that the production itself is so complicated; it’s being able to take Magic Flute down and put Carmen up on the same day and in time to make the curtain time. Many factors go into what we’re doing.
AK: This season, the Met has staged three contemporary works and seven new productions, perhaps an indicator of what’s to come in the future. If you’re comfortable sharing, what are some plans for the next couple of Met seasons, and where do you want the Met to be in the next 5-10 years?
PG: I can’t tell you exactly what next season is, but some of it is already public knowledge because we've announced the new works that are being done at the Met over the next few seasons. What I can tell you is that, like this season, in upcoming seasons there will be a greater emphasis than ever before on Met premieres of works that either we've commissioned ourselves or works that we've curated with new productions that we think belong on the Met stage. When I first came to the Met, John Adams, who’s arguably the greatest composer of opera of the last thirty or forty years, had never had his work performed at the Met. But since I've come, we’ve produced Doctor Atomic, Nixon in China, Klinghoffer. We’re about to do, in the second half of the season, his oratorio El Niño, which the theater director Lileana Blain-Cruz, making her debut at the Met, is directing. I think the future of opera and where opera will be in the next five or ten years will depend on our success in getting new audiences into the house and creating an ongoing sense of excitement for opera as it evolves into the 21st century. At the same time, it will ultimately come down to, economically, whether we’re able to find the resources to keep it going. That's partly a question of having an audience and also a question of stimulating the private sector in terms of donations. I can't tell you for sure where opera will be in five or ten years, but I will have been doing my job correctly if it's still around, and, certainly, I’m not alone in wanting it around.
"I can't tell you for sure where opera will be in five or ten years, but I will have been doing my job correctly if it's still around."
AK: The overarching purpose of my website, AppreciateOpera.org, is to make opera more accessible to young people. What are the Met’s policies relating to reaching out to children?
PG: Long before I came to the Met, there was the student dress rehearsal program, which I certainly embrace. In fact, I've tried, wherever possible, to give the children who come to these final dress rehearsals from public schools and private schools better seats than they used to have so that they’re close to the action and can experience it more viscerally. We've used our Live in HD program as an educational tool as well; we have all sorts of programs across the country within different school systems where teachers come to the Met in the fall and we teach them how to teach the operas as part of their curriculum. Typically, five of the operas that we transmit to movie theaters are selected, and the culmination of their being in the curriculum is that teachers take their students to see them in their local movie theater. Operas, whether it’s classics or whether it’s the new operas that we’re doing, typically have something to say, either historically or in terms of current events. That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s so important to update opera and constantly refresh opera with stories that younger audiences can relate to, whether it’s a story about social justice like Dead Man Walking or whether it’s a story about a major figure in modern history like Malcolm X with our opera X, or whether it's expanding our audience to include the Latinx community with Florencia en el Amazonas, or whether it’s a new Carmen. We’re also looking for younger singers, whether they're singers of color or just young singers who audiences can relate to. Aigul Akhmetshina, who is the star of Carmen, only 27 years old, had really resonated on TikTok. I think it’s a question of identifying with performers, identifying with stories. For a young audience, instead of seeing something that is an old, dusty production, to see something that is presented in a modern, relatable way is very important. That will get younger people excited and involved. Obviously, in an opera like Zefirelli’s Bohème, one of the reasons I've never changed that production is because it’s so good. Or take Anthony Minghella’s beautiful production of Madama Butterfly, which was my first opening night when I started at the Met, is so beautiful and so timeless. We’re opening a revival of it next week. All of these things I’m talking about are potential vehicles to get young people more involved with the Met.
AK: I like to conclude interviews with this question because I always get such fascinating answers: what would you say to a child who needs an intro that’ll get them interested in opera? Anthony Roth Costanzo recommended immersing oneself in the production and music, Lawrence Brownlee recommended having a good grasp of the story, and musicologist Dr. Gundula Kreuzer actually recommended the Met’s Magic Flute! What do you think?
PG: What I would say to anyone, whether it’s a child or a grown-up who doesn’t know about opera, is that opera, when it’s firing on all cylinders, is the most thrilling and exciting performing art form there is. It combines all of the arts, both performing and digital arts, in one art form. When we did the opera Malcolm X, Glenn Ligon, the great contemporary visual artist, created a banner for us which was then incorporated by Robert O’Hara into the production itself. It’s also important to understand what it takes to be an opera singer. They are truly vocal athletes, and, unlike any other performing art, opera singers are artists who risk and give all with nothing to hide behind because there’s no amplification there. The answer is that opera is like the biggest Broadway musical multiplied by twenty. It’s all the performing arts and visual arts wrapped into one art form. It’s the most powerful visual and oral experience you can experience, and it’s always changing and getting more exciting and better. I would hope that anyone who has any intellectual curiosity at all would be interested in experiencing it and understanding what it’s about. That’s why everything we put on at the Met is our opportunity to win over new audiences, because we want people who come to the Met to leave realizing that it is thrilling and exciting, and, if they haven’t been to an opera before, unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. Even for a production like La Bohème, which has been around for 50 years, the audience is changing. If you were at Bohème this past week or even at Nabucco yesterday, when we transmitted the Saturday matinée into movie theaters, we showed images of the audience and it was full of young people. The average age of our audience — of single-ticket buyers, which make up by far the majority of our purchasers — is in the early forties, around 43, which may seem old to someone who’s a teenager like you [Laughs] but, compared to the average age of the audience when I first came to the Met, which was in the sixties, it’s now twenty years younger. Young people get it. Unfortunately, there’s no education for the arts other than what we and a few other cultural institutions are doing. It's an art form that people have to love if they’re interested in music and theater. It’s music, theater, and visual art all wrapped into one in a delightful kind of salad!
"[Opera] is music, theater, and visual art all wrapped into one in a delightful kind of salad!"