Peter Gelb’s ‘business plan continues to fail, and the board continues to support it’

The quote above is from one of several resignation letters by board members of the Metropolitan Opera, published in an exhaustive article on the Met’s troubles by James B. Stewart in the New Yorker. Read the full article here.

The article, by a business journalist who knows his numbers, is familiar with the ways of extreme wealth and is a regular Met-goer, had been anticipated with great anxiety at Fortress Gelb. In the event, it earns more sympathy for Gelb than for anyone else in the organisation – as a lone ranger, committed to a strategic plan and confronted with abrasive, self-gratifying, plutocratic egotists who occupy his boardroom.

In an early paragraph, Stewart overstates Gelb’s achievements prior to the Met: He took the Boston Symphony to China after the Cultural Revolution (actually, credit for arranging the tout belonged to Seiji Ozawa and the BSO management, not its publicist), arranged Vladimir Horowitz’s widely publicized return to the former Soviet Union (he assisted but did not initiate the visit), and, as president of Sony Classical, produced a series of film soundtracks and crossover hits (the soundtracks were imposed on him and few of his crossover titles were hits).

Tribeca Talks After the Movie: "Wagner's Dream" - 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Stewart presents Gelb’s past without much fact checking. However, once inside the boardroom he lays bare the complexity of his job:

At the top of the board’s pyramid were the eleven members of the executive committee, who include Ann Ziff, the chairman; Mercedes T. Bass, the vice-chairman; Morris, the chairman of the executive committee; and Kevin W. Kennedy, the president and chief executive officer.

There are forty-three voting members, known as managing directors, followed by nine honorary directors, who attend meetings but don’t vote; forty-nine advisory directors; thirty-three members (directors); and twenty-one young associate directors—a hundred and fifty-five people in all.

That’s unmanageable. It is also irreconcilable. This is a board structure that cannot readily reach agreement on anything. Gelb’s survival over nine years is founded in part on his own jungle skills but mostly on his board’s sclerotic structure.

This bodes ill for the Met. Stewart demonstrates that the company is way behind all financial targets for the present season. The next crisis is just around the corner. The Met needs to look urgently at how it is run, not just at who is running it.

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  • If a writer is so sloppy with facts on Gelb’s past (and I noticed that in the article), why should he be trusted on his facts about the MET’s management? I no Gelb fan, but don’t like having fun about Gelb’s troubles.

    • A fair question, but Mr. Stewart’s expertise is finance and business management, not classical music “inside baseball.”

  • Essentially everything I’ve heard about the Metropolitan Opera Board, from Board members is confirmed in this story. The honorary members who will not lose their title, but do not vote are the ones who are willing to stick their necks out and make ripples in the water. The wealthiest donors for whatever reason support Gelb, though most are socially upward dowager widows who did not earn their money and do not have a head for business. So you are left with the hard working albeit wealthy members of the Board who want Gelb replaced, but do not wish to make ripples, let alone waves.

    So, as I see it, you have a drunk at the wheel who refuses to attend AA meetings and claims he will no longer drink; yeah, right. It is time to fire Gelb and remove the problem. He should be replaced by two executives, one business/marketing and one artistic. James Levine should also be made emeritus and the Board should start afresh with new leadership.

    • I don’t get how your first paragraph leads to your second, Save the Met. The non-voting members of the board don’t like Gelb, so he should be replaced…but who would do that? The non-voting members presumably can’t vote.

      • There are over 100 voting members on the MET Board, some of a higher level than others. Many hold the same viewpoint as the honorary members and have not made their mindsrt known. You really need to read the article cover to cover, as your comment leads me to believe you have not.

        • You’re incorrect. Only the approximately 40 “Managing Directors” get to vote, and they are the only ones present when the Board goes into “executive session.”

    • Oh good: make James Levine emeritus and begin with new leadership. That will solve everything. Do you have any idea how many people support the Met BECAUSE of Levine? Not to mention the fact that the he remains, far and way, the best conductor at the Met, and that because of his track record in working with singers over many years he is able to count on their loyalty and the loyalty of their management. “Save the Met” indeed! The Met needs to be “saved” from people with understanding and foresight insufficient to get them through even a week, let alone a season–to say nothing of a decade.

      • The best conductor on the Met’s present roster on the basis of lifetime accomplishment, or on the basis of the conducting he has done there since about 2008? I’ve heard my share of Met performances in those years, his and others’, and he is clearly compromised by his circumstances, and it’s been a while since the results matched the reputation (not the case when one heard Muti’s Attila, Nezet-Seguin’s Carmen and Rusalka, Noseda’s Prince Igor, Gatti’s Parsifal). This is unfortunate, but we cannot pretend it is otherwise; not even his staunchest admirers in the critical community are doing so in their reviews. I approach the operas he conducts with lowered expectations now.

        On that point, I thought Save The Met’s suggestion was sensible.

        • I agree with you: Save The Met’s suggestion is sensible. With all due respect to James Levine: the Met is lucky to have him for the decades he is music director. There is no one -not a single one! – who, like Levine, has accumulated such vast experience and wisdom related to the art of singing, singers, opera, you name it. No one will be able to replace this unique situation, and anyone who will succeed Levine will have a pair of very huge shoes to fill. The Met must, obviously, either change or die. Now would be the time to find someone who is capable and willing to assume the responsibility of music director: a person capable and willing to embark on paths untrodden thus far, and inspiring in a way that will support the artistic forces in facing the challenge of big changes. If this will not happen, we might witness James Levine collapsing and dying in the pit. But with Levine gone, the Met will go, too, if there is, as I suspect, these is “no Plan B”.

          Maybe the Met has simply become too large for the present time. How can it be possible to fill all 3,800 seats in that cavernous house night after night? This thought isn’t new. Maybe it is time to say goodbye to the old Met, which is more and more becoming a monument to its former glory.

          Why not gut the building, and construct a smaller house inside, making room for an experimental opera studio,while upgrading dressing rooms etc.? Will New York be capable of radical thinking outside the box? Time will tell.

          Meanwhile, there are still other, smaller, but no less relevant companies in the country to enjoy a very rewarding opera experience.

          • The Met’s SIZE is not a COST problem – reducing the size of the possible audience won’t cut costs, only lower potential revenue. While popular shows DO sell out the house, money is needed to pay international, world-renowned singers, the orchestra, chorus, costumes/ers… – decreasing the size of the house won’t help, it could only hurt. Plus the Met’s history is what attracts people to it – your comment is truly not something to put into practice!

  • I’m kind of perplexed on other sites people are acting like this article is a ‘snooze’ since its not salacious. It is the type of article that will make mid-level donors (e.g. those who gives $10,000 for example) potentially withhold funds. This article is going to end up doing a lot of damage, and hopefully lead to the changes that are needed. I haven’t always agreed with everything ‘save the met’ has posted in the past here, but they are spot on in their comments on this article.

    • Well, here’s the thing about that. It’s a snooze to people who have followed the story closely and argued about it every day for years, because there’s very little in it that’s new information. There’s a little, but not much.

      The damage potential is that it puts all of this information in one place where it might be widely read (at least more than the dribs and drabs in daily papers and on blogs), and someone with a more casual interest in the Met will read it and think, “Wow, that place is a mess.”

  • Keep your ears and mind open and take those critics with a grain of salt: you’ll hear better. Everybody wrote Klemperer off too until it became fashionable to praise him again. But he never moved, at least until the very late 1960’s, and Levine hasn’t moved either.

  • “Levine far and away the best conductor at the Met?” Not any more, if one is to take seriously a number of players who have been in the orchestra for years and years. It’s sad to say, but he apparently really ISN’T who he once was. The Met owes him a huge debt of gratitude, but really, there HAVE been some notable talents in the pit in the last few years (and I’m NOT talking about the questionable Mr. Gergiev).

  • Agreed, Andrew. And I don’t even need to ask around — I heard one of those leaden Falstaffs for myself. Still a great evening, because it is a glorious orchestra, and I loved the cast and the stage production…but what he contributed it to it was not the Met at its recent best, not Falstaff at its best, and not up to Levine’s own past standards. Nor were the two Mozart operas. I did not hear Wozzeck (love the opera, and he used to do it well).

    For me, the best of the Met orchestra in recent years has included Muti’s Attila, everything Nezet-Seguin has done (Carmen, Don Carlo, Rusalka), Noseda’s Igor, Altinoglu’s very piquant and idiomatic Werther, Luisotti’s gorgeous Fanciulla (I wanted to blot out the singing!), Jurowski’s Frau ohne Schatten and Hansel and Gretel. I never know what I’m going to get with Fabio Luisi, and there have been some regrettable lowlights, but Cenerentola and Macbeth were excellent. I’m not among those lauding Michele Mariotti, and I never was convinced by Gergiev.

  • The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible. Why doesn’t the board just pay the freight for a season of performances and turn the Met into a private, members-only club?

    Is it that they need the other 3400 plebs in the building to satisfy their egos?

    • Maybe you should try loving opera – opera lovers of all financial backgrounds are grateful in extremis to the Met – the number of operas, with world-class talent, each and every year, is not available elsewhere in the USA, and to the extent it needs funding beyond the means of ticket sales, it is fantastic that it is funded and remains for each generation’s opera lovers to discover and enjoy.

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