Peter Gelb repeats a lie on TV

Interviewed this week on NYC-Arts, the manager of the Metropolitan Opera made the following statement (at 05:55 on the video):

The box-office sales are down because box-office sales in every city in this country are down for classical music and opera. This is an endemic problem that America faces and that is faced in Europe as well.

This is untrue, and Peter knows it is untrue.

The Lyric has just reported record results. So have Vienna, Amsterdam, Dresden and more. We’ve reported these results on over the past couple of weeks.

Peter Gelb is out there telling the world that opera is doomed when others are getting off their butts and making it bigger and better.

If everyone else thinks opera is growing and Peter Gelb alone insists it is doomed, what we have here is not an artistic crisis but a clinical dysfunction at the top of the Met.

At the start of the interview, Gelb is asked what responsibility he bears for the Met’s bad figures these past seven years. He refuses to answer the question, three times.

Watch below.

peter gelb paula zahn

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  • What is wrong with this man? Is he trying to destroy opera in the country?

    It’s time for others like Domingo, Fleming, DiDonato, Voigt to step up and say something. Gelb’s comments damage everyone.

  • European cities are irrelevant to the argument he is putting forwards. He claims classical box office is down in every city in America; just because the Lyric is up and some European cities are up doesn’t mean he isn’t right. The Lyric could be up but the average in that city could still be down.

    He may well be wrong, of course, but it’s surely unfair to claim he’s wrong by using figures from countries he isn’t even referring to.

    • Chicago only ranks 97th in the world for opera performances per year. It’s numbers were up by virtue of performing a popular musical.

  • Over the past few weeks many opera companies and arts organizations have refuted what Peter Gelb has said. He’s talking about the slow death of opera while other companies have been talking about survival of the art form. He’s negative and they’re positive. He seeks to cut artist’s compensation by a third while others are seeking solutions. He wants everyone to believe what he says without providing any verifiable figures while others are asking for proof. In short, he’s the wrong man for the job which he make clearer every time he goes on record.

    • The problems faced by the NYCO, San Diego Opera, and the National Opera confirm his observations, as would the losses LA incurred with its Ring. Houston had to eliminate its recordings due to a lack of funds. Dallas cancelled a performance of a work by Libby Larson due to a lack of funds. San Francisco and Chicago have had financial problems in recent years and their rankings for performances per year have fallen. Houston still works with a budget that is about 1/5th to 1/4th what is normal for houses in major European cities. Boston ranks 252nd in the world for opera performances per year, and Dallas 257th. Philadelphia can’t make the top 100. So there’s some numbers for you. Not that they’ll cause Americans to face reality. Some of the Met’s problems are specifically related to some management issues, but some not.

      • But here you have the Managing Director of the Metropolitan Opera being asked point blank specific questions and he completely evades Paula Zahn’s interview and just delivers his talking points. It very frustrating to read/hear his comments repeatedly in the Times, WSJ, etc. when much of what he is saying is very misleading or simply not true in regard to the 16 unions that work at the Met. He won’t admit any culpability and just assumes everyone should take huge pay cuts so he can continue spending. He never says how he will turn things around. He only says everyone should accept much less in terms of total compensation. The unions have all stated that they would be willing to cooperate if he would allow them the financial data that he is making his case around. He continues to refuse this request.

    • Wouldn’t it be fair to say that cutting salaries is proposing a solution? If you’ve got to cut costs somewhere, then it is a place to start for sure. You might think others have better solutions, and that’s reasonable enough; but it’s unfair to suggest other people are finding solutions and Gelb isn’t, whether you dislike his solution or method of going about it or not.

      • I’m sorry but I disagree. Cutting salaries is not a good place to start but, rather, a last recourse. To cut the salaries of the orchestra, chorus, stage workers, etc. is surely a sign of failed management. Peter Gelb had knowledge of his budget and chose to exceed it. Now he’s in a bind after eight consecutive, unsuccessful seasons and is looking to spread blame onto those who have performed for him quite well during his tenure.

        • True. If he asks for pay cuts, he should also present plans/concepts for cutting production costs as well. Cutting salaries will deeply harm moral. Cutting productions costs won’t. In fact, it could spur the sort of creativity Gelb has been searching for.

          Still, those stage hands making 450k. I’m very pro union and pro labor but that sticks in my craw a bit.

          • I’m glad you said that and you make interesting points regarding both moral and creativity! But just to be clear, the average stage-hand doesn’t make anywhere close to that figure. The top couple guys make that because they oversee everything that goes on (an extremely complex job given the lack of storage space and complex schedule. Dress rehearsal on the stage in the morning/afternoon and a performance in the evening. The crews work around the clock right through the night. Amazing things go smoothly at all.) For example, the chorus master makes about the same salary and, likewise, oversees everything that deals with the chorus (by the way, the average chorister makes more in the range of $160,000.00 instead of the $200,000.00 Mr. Gelb repeatedly announces.) I know all this sounds like a huge sums of money but keep in mind that no one at the Met works a 40 hour week. Employees routinely work 70 to 80 hours a week during some of the busiest points in the season. Anyway, we all hope for the best and wish to see the season start on schedule!

          • These overtime charges and long hours need some explaining — something the unions need to do. Houses in Paris, Munich, Vienna, Hamburg, Prague, Moscow, and London do similar numbers of performances per year, (even more in some cases since their seasons are 3 to 4 months longer) but they don’t seem to have such crushed schedules, nor salaries as nearly as high. Why can’t the Met manage its affairs with working hours similar to other major houses? And even calculating NYC living costs, the salaries at the Met compare quite high by international norms. (It ain’t cheap to live in Paris either.) There are no technicians in Europe getting 450K, no orchestra musicians getting 200k, or choir singers getting 160 to 200k. So why are the salaries at the Met so high? Tough questions, I know.

          • Good question. Unfortunately, I have no good answer. The only response I can offer is that it’s just different. For example, I have a friend in Hamburg and they say that it’s less money but much less work. Another friend in Vienna says it’s a little less also but the schedule and quality of life is much better. And so forth. Can’t explain the whole New York/Met overtime thing except Gelb/management picks the shows, not the unions. For example, some of the hardest working folks in the house are the chorus who are at work as early as 10:00am for dress rehearsals and not off the stage until close to midnight after the final curtain. 12 to 14 hour days sometimes for weeks on end. Long days and so the OT adds up.

          • The question of how more economical (or less lavish) productions might affect morale is very interesting. In the end, a demoralized orchestra is probably a lot worse for an opera company than a demoralized production team. But who can say for sure?

            Opera is principally a musical genre, so it’s probably a good policy to keep the musicians happy first, and the productions folks second – to put it rather brutally. People will accept simpler sets, but will howl if the music goes bad. We should also remember that the range of possible good productions, even in less expensive forms, is very wide. And the Met uses such lavish productions it has some room to cut in that area and still be pretty ritzy.

          • Where are you getting your figure of 450K for stagehands? That is completely false. Those guys are NOT getting anything close to that amount. You are mixing up Carnegie Hall with the Met now. You should really check your facts.

            COncerning the orchestra pay…
            If you were to hire any of the top orchestras (NY Phil, Chicago, Philadelphia…) you would be paying the orchestra musicians WAY more than 160K-200K a year. Do you even know what the job demands?

            Let me ask you a few questions:
            1) Do you realize that operas are 3.5 to 6 hours long? The average symphonic orchestra concert is 2.5 hours long.
            2) Do you realize that the MET rehearses 4-5 days a week. A musician can be rehearsing and performing up to 4 different productions at a time.
            3) Do you realize that the MET has 7 performances a week with only Sunday off? Even though they don’t play 7 shows a week you will still frequently not get 2 days off in a row. That is mentally and physically exhausting.
            4) Do you realize that the orchestra also has to play 3 Carnegie Hall concerts a year which fall on a Sunday which creates a seven day work week not to mention even more stress on top of the regular job.
            5) Do you know the cost of living in NYC? It’s not cheap. Compared to other top orchestras salaries and their cost of living the Met Orchestra is NOT being overpaid.
            6) Do you take into consideration that the musicians also have to go home an practice for hours ON TOP of the hours that they spend at the Met? That orchestra does not get to go home and forget about their job like most people.

            The Met orchestra is one of the hardest working orchestras in the world. The job is grueling. Some productions have multiple conductors requiring the orchestra to accommodate to a new interpretation without even having a rehearsal with the new conductor which is yet another element of stress to deal with. That orchestra is by no means overpaid. I would dare any musician who has not played the Met schedule to come in and “breeze” through it and then say that they were overpaid. It’s not gonna happen. Half the cello section has had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome not to mention the violin players that are dropping like flies because of hand and shoulder problems. In fact, you couldn’t pay me enough to be member of the string section there. I’m so tired of hearing “overpaid”. We’re talking about one of the most highly specialized group of musicians in the world who is required to play an enormous repertoire. They are required to perform in front of a 4000 seat theater and are broadcast live on digital radio 3-4 times a week plus broadcast live in HD about 10 times a season. Do you know what kind of pressure this is? I doubt it. And you say that they are overpaid. You should be embarrassed.

          • The New York Times writes: “The average annual total salary and benefits of those highest-paid stagehands, at places from the Metropolitan Opera to the Roundabout Theater Company, is nearly $310,000, according to the nonprofits’ most recent tax filings.” See:


            310K *on average.*

            Both sides are presenting impassioned black and white arguments to advance their bargaining position. This will continue through the coming lock out.

          • But are we talking total compensation or salary/take home pay? Total compensation includes all benefits such as health insurance, pension and whatever else is included in benefits. We can’t confuse this $310,000.00 as being wages. They won’t be seeing this figure in their paychecks. Additionally, at various jobs that I’ve earned overtime, I’ve really didn’t see much in the way of big payout. If I’m not mistaken, overtime earnings are heavily taxed by the Federal Government. Basically, after all’s said and done you just working more hours at pretty close to your hourly rate.

          • But the Times article adds: “In 2011, for example, the four top stagehands at the Metropolitan Opera earned more than $500,000 each in total compensation (including retirement and other benefits), tax filings showed.”

            That’s two million dollars just for four stage hands. I’m unconvinced such compensation is justified, especially in a non-profit.

          • But the couple guys making that sort of money are the top guys that are responsible for the whole kit and kaboodle, not the guy putting together the sets and sweeping the stage. Statistics don’t lie but how they’re used can be very deceiving. The average take home for the average stage-hand is probably around 200K a year. However, this is for an 80 hour a week gig! Put into a context of a 40 hour work week it’s a pretty normal pay check for NYC. It’s a specialized job with a crazy schedule.

        • Steve: In addition to citing work week hours, as justifications for high pay, could you translate that into annual hours worked? As you note, working schedules back- or beneath-stage at a theater are not commensurate with working in a office. I think annual hours worked would give us a better gauge of the appropriateness of these workers’ pay.
          Thank you.

          • But the question is also why the Met is organized in such a way that it has to pay so much overtime. Other major houses that do a similar number of performances do not have these huge overtime costs.

          • Unfortunately, I don’t have that data at my disposal but the weekly hour estimate for busy periods during the season is pretty close (and there are usually more busy periods than not.) The season ends in mid-May so my best guess is that the stage-hands probably continue with the American Ballet, the chorus is off and returns to work mid-July and the orchestra returns at some point late August or early September (not sure). One must also take into consideration that the time off in the summer offsets the fact that no one gets time off for Holidays or Saturdays. There are shows on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, President’s Day, etc. And, of course, there are two performances on Saturday. Really not much time off during the season.

  • Yes, donors give the cash for new productions, but if those shows aren’t pleasing to the audiences and seats remain empty, there’ll be a negative cash flow problem. Mr Gelb need look no further than the bottom line for his clunkers like “Tosca”, “Faust”, “Rigoletto” and to his penchant for hiring directors who have little or no knowledge of opera but who come with big price tags. If there are so many “antiquated” rules and clauses in the union contracts, why wasn’t a team put to examining those documents years ago?
    He’s never going to admit he’s in any way at fault though- it’s the other 99 members of the band who are marching out of step.

  • Going against the tide of anti-Gelb comments I would like to offer a few positives.
    The HD broadcasts have been brilliantly produced and raised the profile of the Met worldwide.
    Gelb managed to bring to the Met conductors of the highest level who had been missing. Barenboim, Rattle, Maazel, Muti and Salonin to name a few.
    Gelb also kept his faith in the eventual return of James Levine throughout his unpredictable illness.
    I accept that all his decisions have not worked out well but the constant drumbeat of negativism on this site is unfair.

  • Paula Zahn’s “interview” was more like a personal attack on Mr. Gelb. She didn’t listen to his answers and continually tried to blame him for the Met’s problems. I doubt anyone can second guess him for his innovations, many of which are working. Never did Ms. Zahn ask about the antiquated, grandfathered benefits in union contracts. I’ve been an opera goer for 53 years and I applaud Mr. Gelb. It’s interesting how many new productions (in opera houses worldwide) are panned critically and after a couple seasons become artistically revered. Oh yes, from day one, I loved the “machine” Ring cycle.
    Bob Burke

  • So yet again Gelb talks about new production costs being covered by donors. I am sure they cover the costs of design and construction of scenery and costumes. Do their donations also cover the extensive rehearsal time, I wonder? Specifically, is all the massive overtime which arises from insufficient attention being given by the Gelb administration at final design stage to the actual physical and technical problems thrown up by designs also included? I suspect not, and that is part of the reason why the Met’s finances are being dragged down by so much expensive overtime.

    Like politicians, Gelb in this interview stays on message without specifically answering the key questions. Yet he cannot escape blame. He claims he is both Artistic Director in addition to being CEO. That is an impossible combination in any major arts organisation, particularly one as large as the Met.

  • 53 years at the opera makes you a veteran. I’ve only managed 42 but I got to disagree. She listened to his answers as we all did. After all, she was sitting there in the studio! She chose not to respond since he failed to answer her questions (it is an interview, after all. He didn’t buy the air-time and, therefore, was beholden to an interview and not a “soap-box”.) Actually, I liked her questions and would love to know exactly what his culpability is in this whole situation. I’ve already read his side of the story in the NY Times, WSJ, ect. Peter Gelb’s “holding forth” brought nothing new to light.

  • Gelb put the HD in place, fine, he did the one thing he knew how to do in an opera house. The HD will not bring them to a balanced situation. If he were working for a conventional business the shareholders would have tossed him out on his rear several years ago. Moreover, based upon his skill-set he never would have been hired in a for profit world. (He was a failure at Sony, ask his secretary who threw scalding hot coffee at him on the way out the door after she had had enough of his stupidity there. Ask the CEO of the merged Sony-BMG Corporation why they didn’t keep him.) He’s a loser in this business, now a ney sayer and he lies. The Metropolitan Opera board is a bunch of weaklings who need to figure out for themselves that their ship is sinking and their ties are best severed now before it’s too late. He’s been on a 6 year ego trip, he was wrong for the job when they hired him, he is wrong today.

    • Wow, that’s pretty harsh but you’re right. I was aware of everything except the incident concerning the secretary, coffee and his stupidity (now that’s angry)! It’s particularly problematic when Gelb insists that the employees accept every proposal and pay cut or face a lockout (the financial situation is not the musician’s/stage-hand’s fault). He’s overspent for years now and wants to spread the blame and expects other to pay for the losses he’s racked up. He’s not negotiation in good faith, he’s simply offering an ultimatum without any realistic plan for the future. Just take from the dedicated workers so he can spend more on questionable productions seems to be his plan. I think maybe you’re right. It’s time the Met looks elsewhere for a new GM.

      • There should always be room for negotiation, in any contract situation. That said, there is an old adage that it’s never a fair deal unless both parties feel screwed at the end. The Board should understand that Gelb’s crying doom and gloom and that’s not an effective manager and an embarrassment to the organization.

        Many of the Metropolitan Opera staff have little to no respect for him. He’s thought to be highly paranoid and it has gotten so bad that many employees do not say anything on the phone that might be used against them, or write e-mails which may be misconstrued. They ask their friends and colleagues to send e-mails to their personal accounts so they may be read at home.

        The reason he is still there is Ann Ziff, the Board Chairperson whose bizarre relationship with Gelb appears to be akin to Stockholm syndrome. Does he have something on her one wonders? She inherited her husband’s fortune, but apparently does not have a head for business. Does she know about the stress the Metropolitan Opera employees are under with his delusional attempt at leadership? My guess is it is all ivory tower and she has no idea.

        I think at this point, someone with

        • Yeah, it’s unfortunate, but I’ve not heard very much praise regarding his abilities. Perhaps his only saving grace in the eyes of the board is if he can cut down the unions who the board unjustly blames for the cost of productions.

        • “They ask their friends and colleagues to send e-mails to their personal accounts so they may be read at home.”

          Gee, isn’t that where they should be reading personal emails? Sounds like good management to me (and typical of almost any workplace in America). I hope this labor event is about more than that or workplace restrictions on online shopping and Facebooking.

        • With the exception of HD, tell me one positive thing Mr. Gelb has brought to the Metropolitan Opera. The vast majority of his productions have been panned in the press. His production retention of his productions is abysmal. He attempts to run the place like a tyrant and his people have little respect for him. Keep in mind Gelb has no formal education beyond high school, he never ran an opera house, he was unsuccessful at Sony and lost his job in the merger and only was employed at the opera house as a favor to Ronald Wilford and his Father by Beverly Sills. He’s incompetent. There is absolutely no reason to give myh name when the facts are on my side.

        • One positive thing? Sure. He has brought to the Met the idea that it needs to modernize, that it needs to leave behind the aesthetic parochialism that characterizes opera in NYC.

  • The Met’s operating budget was $209 million when Mr. Gelb took the helm in 2006. Last year it was $311 million. That’s a 48% increase in the budget in 8 years. That’s why the unions feel they shouldn’t face cuts.

  • Isn’t one key issue the fact that Gelb is only now calling not only the future of the Met but also the future of all opera a Götterdämmerung about to happen? The Union agreements that permit such huge amounts of overtime and such generous benefits did not suddenly appear. They have been in place for many years. The reason for their being an issue now is primarily because Gelb’s administration has been excessively lax in its policies as regards controlling costs, particularly the vast amounts of overtime under his watch.

    The Lepage Ring has been frequently cited – with justification. When Gelb and his team first discussed the production and looked at the designs, virtually any competent technical team in other opera companies would have realised that the stage would have to be strengthened at considerable cost, that additional technical rehearsals would be required for each opera and that everyone taking part in performances would be on excessive overtime due to the increased changeover time resulting from longer intermissions. That the final designs were approved without this being done, surely illustrates only too well the conflicts that arise between Gelb the Artistic Director and Gelb the CEO. These roles can NOT be combined in such a large House.

    As for ageing audiences, yet again Gelb can be severely criticised for raising this issue now. As I have written before, he has a rather stupid knack for forgetting what he has said in earlier interviews. This appears in an interview with The Japan Times in 3 September 2010: ‘Before Gelb took his post on Aug. 1, 2006, the Met had been experiencing declining attendance as the audience “was aging at the rate of one year every season and the average age of the audience was 65,” says Gelb.’

    So the writing was clearly on the wall in 2010. Yet the last set of Union negotiations were in 2011 just after the worst recession in living memory! Why was no attempt made at that time to signal concerns about ageing and declining audiences in Union negotiations? Why at that time were serious attempts not made to obtain some drastic changes in work practices? Could it be, perhaps, that Gelb was then negotiating his own 10-year contract extension and did not want to send a signal to his Board that all at the Met was not as rosy as he was making out?

  • For an opera company that hoovers donor money, the Met seems curiously cavalier about donor confidence. With the economy the way that it is, securing over a billion dollars in donations in the next five years is no joke.

    • To evaluate that number we need names, locations, and budgets. Americans are pretty generous in how they label things.

      • Names, locations, and websites are all listed if you would have bothered to look at the link.

        If we go back further than 2000, we can see the trend toward smaller firm formation starting in the 90s. The organizations are primarily chamber opera companies, with a handful of new music organizations which produce operas or have had operas commissioned by/for them. Most of them also have their past seasons and rep listed. Only a smal proportion of the organizations are producing grand opera.

        Right now I’m simply concerned with finding how much growth has happened as well as where and why (the two posts linked in the link above outline some of that) they’ve formed. With a number of recent organizations within the past 15 years which are approaching the number of organizations since the previous century, that’s bound to have some kind of impact on what’s a purported decline in opera (in the US at least).

        • No apparent budget info, so it’s not possible to know what these institutions actually accomplish. Based on Operabase’s stats for performances per year by cities, they aren’t accomplishing much in terms of opera performances by most any accepted definition of the term. This, however, won’t keep Americans from giving a name and little else to an organization and then pretending they have an opera company. It shows Americans are interested in music theater, but that they lack an effective system to fund it. These facts, of course,will meet with insistent denial which only makes improving the situation even more difficult.

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