The silken ladder that Peter Gelb ascended

The silken ladder that Peter Gelb ascended


norman lebrecht

August 12, 2014

Maxim Gershunoff, the veteran New York manager and presenter, reflects on Peter Gelb’s early career. We cannot vouch for the pinpoint accuracy of every last detail, but the general picture is correct. Mr Gershunoff was writing in response to a New York Times soft-soap piece on  the Metropolitan Opera manager.


peter gelb tv


As a 90 year-old, and former VP in the offices of the late, great impresario, Sol Hurok who used and risked his own funds for his dreams of presentation, may I submit herewith a bit of history relevant to your remarks re Peter Gelb.

Peter Gelb got his first job as an office boy through Martin Feinstein. As the head of the publicity department for Hurok, Feinstein, granting a favor, happily obliged Arthur Gelb, Managing Editor of The New York Times back then, and gave Gelb’s boy a job in the publicity office.

Shortly after, Hurok Concerts, Inc. was sold to General Electric. The major innovation GE would bring to its newly purchased subsidiary would be the televising of a prestigious Hurok subscription concert series to movie houses throughout the country. Technological problems prevailed and the project was abandoned. With technology having advanced in over three decades, Peter Gelb recalled what might have been and, although not his original concept, revived the idea for the Metropolitan Opera.

Gelb went from the Hurok office to work as a publicity account functionary at Gurtman and Murtha, publicists and artists managers. Peter’s godfather, legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, came along for the ride to Gurtman and Murtha. Peter Gelb’s career path was quite liberally and literally strewn with the softening effect of rose petals.

He next was elevated to directing publicity at the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the fortuitous time of its highly publicized visit to China. Some time in the ’70s, Ronald Wilford, President of Columbia Artists Management, Inc. was glad to employ young Gelb in CAMI’s office, surely pleasing Gelb père once again.

After that position, Gelb went on to SONY Records and when it looked like he was about to lose that job, the Gelb family friend Beverly Sills interceded and promoted Gelb with the Metropolitan Opera Board of Directors. Hired as Managing Director with the responsibility of artistic direction, as well, Peter Gelb has been less than cautious, if not ignorant, of his fiduciary obligations, relying too heavily on large scale donations to bail him out of budgeting problems.

At this juncture, needing a scapegoat he points his bookkeeping problems to the costs of the unions failing to admit to his own ineptitude in dealing with the Met’s multi-million annual costs. Still further, as a manager without prior experience, he proves incapable of negotiating with the unions in question; first threatening a lockout of all the Met’s union employees. Now, finally, he looks to the intercession of a Federal mediator to function as the Met’s manager and jump start a beginning to perhaps the end of his current problems which he alone created. In the immortal words of Chester A. Riley: “What a revolting development this is.”

Maxim Gershunoff


  • Nick says:

    Gelb’s total lack of experience in managing a full-time performing arts organisation at any level, let alone heading the biggest opera company in the world, has long been a subject for posts on this blog. The extent to which ‘connections’ have enabled him to get in way out of his depth are amply proved by this response of one of the most experienced artists’ managers and promoters.

  • Save the MET says:

    He got it mostly correct, but left out the fact that Arthur Gelb sent his critics to review Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts and at one time whilst Peter was there, was reviewing more BSO concerts, than New York Philharmonic concerts.

    One of these days, he and Wilford’s trip to a German jail on extortion charges, which were handled under the counter should also be discussed. Peter was leveraging his video tapes of the Berlin Philharmonic with various arts minitries throughout the World in order to get von Karajan concerts. The proceeds of which never were provided to the orchestras musicians.

    • Nick says:

      Re those German courts, since it was so long ago (26 pages back) I’ll repeat part of a post I made in the 16 July thread titled LOOK PETER GELB: YOUNG OPERA LOVERS…

      In 1987 when Gelb was handling touring for Karajan and the Berlin Phil, a cancellation opened up at the end of a tour to Tokyo and Osaka in April 1988. Taipei was suggested as a possible venue. Gelb then wrote to the Taiwan promoter:

      “You would provide all-inclusive fees for von Karajan and the Orchestra, totaling [sic] 600,000 DM [$318,000] for a total of 2 concerts. In addition, you would be required to purchase the Taiwan broadcasting rights for 10 previously produced television programs of von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic at the price of 35,000 US dollars per program, hence totalling 350,000 US dollars for all ten programs. You would be required to purchase the 10 programs before the tour takes place, You would also be required to present us with an unconditional letter of credit for all the above fees no later than Nov. 1, 1987.” The Taiwanese rejected the “offer”.

      All this was done without prior authorisation from either von Karajan or the Berlin Phil, according to Richard Osborne and is quoted from his excellent biography “Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music.” (pp 713/714). When the orchestra’s Intendant, Wolfgang Stresemann, heard of Gelb’s proposal to link tour concerts with commercial video airings that would bring far more profit to CAMI [run by Ronald Wilford] than the commission on the tour concerts alone, he described the deal as “immoral, unethical, impossible to imagine.”

  • Richard Cumming-Bruce says:

    Am I alone in finding that the recent fixation with Peter Gelb on this page is getting distinctly wearisome? He may well be responsible for less than inspired stewardship of the Met, for all I know, but the point has now been made ad nauseam.

  • Toshiro Ogawa says:

    Appointment of MET Opera General Manager
    (MET Board Choice of P.B. was a Big Mistake)

    The current trouble with the MET Opera derives from the primordial sin of the MET Opera board which chose P.G. in 2006 to replace Joe Volpe.

    Why they chose such a person of no experience in this field to manage a performing arts enterprise spending an annual budget of hundreds of million dollars without a rigorous vetting process is truly incomprehensible.

    In addition, after his appointment the board has totally let P.G. loose in every aspect of running a world class opera house with a highly regarded creative/artistic reputation and the most comprehensive creative and technical operation. P.G. has so far fortified his own administrative offices with “agreeable staff” while dissenters have been immediately “escorted out” from his domain with the assistance of security guards.

    Perhaps he thinks he can cover for his lack of experience/ knowledge by appointing advisers/consultants from outside, such as Ioan Holender (the retired Intendant of Viennese Music Empire) and Eva Wagner (Formerly Co-Director of Bayreuth Festival and a disinherited daughter of Wolfgang Wagner). Even if the Board feels “privileged and delighted” that these two names have been enlisted by P.G. to serve the MET Opera, they cannot make up for lack of artistic sense at the top.

    P.G. seems to have convinced the Board and the press (especially the NY Times where he has nepotistic connections) that his HD broadcasts around the world are going to save the ship financially; but an honest accounting shows it is still leaking as attendance at the house itself falters. Nor can “co-productions” borrowed from abroad and fit onto the Met stage fully make up for lackluster productions designed in-house under P.G.’s guidance.

    Ever since this neurotic “Great Opera Impresario” in a camouflage of self-assured “promoter-supreme” took command, with his opera banners stretched on the front façade, the MET has steadily been sliding downhill. We are losing the great opera house. Whether Ms. Bubbly Sills truly recommended P.G. to the Board in her last breath before she passed away is a serious question.

    Certainly he never forgets to include his “portrait” at every occasion of press/video interview. Isn’t he using such occasions for his own propaganda at the expense of the MET?  His habit has become the norm, his gospel is louder with “invigoratingly breathtaking new Reggie” and the close-up oriented and heavily manipulated global HD television broadcasting of opera productions on stage.  Other observers doubt that global popularity of HD venture can quickly translate to a box office boom. It is not easy to estimate because of naive assumptions in his propaganda.  As soon as HD reached the peak of popularity – then came his confession – “HD is cannibalizing box office sales”.  The savior of the declining world of operatic art has quickly changed his Technicolor coat, and shamelessly starts drumming up his doomsday prophecy.
    The only way to save the MET Opera is to cut “Labor Cost” – a very popular mantra of management here –  demanding lower basic pay and less overtime.   The fundamental biological question is, Who “creates” a season of opera production – i.e. repertory, directors, singers and designers (designs) – and then come theatre workers (stagehands, electricians, wardrobes, etc.).  All elements are consequential – when bad choices and decisions are made at the point of “conception” (planning the season) – the result is what you have now!  The artistic management chose to invest extraordinarily high amounts of money for the physical opera environment.  That so much is spent for preminary construction and stagehands’ labor for building-up and taking-down afterward on stage, is not the stagehands’ fault – it is entirely in the domain of MET Opera administrator. The orchestra musicians, singers, chorus groups, stagehands, electricians and all theatre tradesmen do not create “demands of work”.  They are the recipient of work requirements created by the management.  Thus, if one dreams of an ideal working relationship in the theatre (including opera house), the management and workers must work together to achieve the best result artistically and financially from the start – “immaculate conception”. It is in the college freshman carriculum – “Theatre 101”.
    The current air at the MET is much worse than that of Beijing, China – deadly poisonous.  They require a “mediator” of working environment as well as a financial one.  This poisonous atmosphere in the Met Opera would unfortunately remain for a long time after so called “Labor Issues” are resolved, unless this self-serving “Man of Opera”? finds his way out.

  • Toshiro Ogawa says:

    Peter Gelb’s Career

    Mostly From Wikipedia

    *Born: 1953, son of Arthur Gelb former Managing Director of The New York Times.
    *Graduate from High School of the Teacher’s College at Columbia University.
    *Usher at the MET Opera during the high school years (How long?)
    *Age 17, Mail-Boy at the Sol Hurok Organization (well-known Russian born Impresario’s office)
    *Violinist Vladimir Horowitz’s personal manager (under Sol Hurok)
    *At his young age of 26, managed the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 1979 tour to China at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
    *Found “CMI Video” at Columbia Artist Management, 1982
    *Produced Julie Taymor’s opera and “Oedipus Rex” (1992) and “Damnation of Faust” (for Seiji Ozawa,
    *Head of SONY Classics, 1995
    *”Three Tenors Sing Chrisma Hymns” in English at Konzerthaus in Vienna (allegedly lip-sung – caused contoraversy), Sonmy Classics, 1999
    *MET Opera General Manager, 2006
    *France honored him as an “Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” in 2011. He received the “Diplomacy Award of the Foreign Policy Association” in 2012. Also he received the “Sanford Prize” from the Yale School of Music and was named “Chevalier de la Légion d’honneu”r by the French President in 2013. All of them given after MET Opera Appoinment !

    • Nick says:

      As Herbert Breslin, Pavarotti’s Manager, said of Sony’s Three Tenors Christmas album in his account of his life with Pavarotti (page 223): “it didn’t sell particularly well, so Sony suffered terribly on that one.”

      Another “terrible” Gelb marketing masterstroke!

    • NYMike says:

      VIOLINIST Vladimir Horowitz????

      • Nick says:

        I guess he may have sounded like a pretty bad violinist during his 1983 Gelb-organised tours around America and in Japan!!! He was taking anti-depressants and allegedly also drinking. His printed biography on his various Naxos releases describes these tours as “disastrous. Horowitz, who was on drugs prescribed by his psychiatrist since 1975, played badly, with memory lapses and many wrong notes. It was a tragedy that he ever performed in this debilitated state. Another retirement from the stage abruptly followed.”

        He redeemed himself with great pianistic success on a return to Tokyo and also to Moscow and other cities in 1986.

  • Toshiro Ogawa says:

    Sorry about my mistake – he is a pianist

  • joshg says:

    – Dept. of Understatement 🙂