New book: The Met’s heading the way of City Opera

New book: The Met’s heading the way of City Opera


norman lebrecht

April 29, 2015

We have been speed-reading an early copy of the tell-all book by the former head of the Lincoln Center.

In They Told Me Not to Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy praises Peter Gelb’s initial courage and vision in renewing the Met repertoire and pushing its movie drive. But he depicts Gelb as financially reckless and his board as unwieldy and irresponsible.

‘Was anyone pressing Gelb for a major course correction?’ he demands, after spending soared from $215 million to $330 million in ten years. It was, reports the Lincoln Center chief, ‘frustrating to run the risk of being be held accountable for the travails of resident organisations like…. the Metropolitan Opera’.

Wagners Das Rheingold Metropolitan Opera 2010

He pinpoints Gelb’s nemesis to the moment in March 2014 when he told the UK Guardian – not any of the New York press pack who might have challenged him – that the Met faced an ‘existential’ battle. It stood, in fact ‘on the edge of a precipice.’ The calamitous warning was designed to bring the unions to heel under threat of closure and job losses. Instead, it provoked forensic scrutiny of Gelb’s retreat and a management retreat on an epic scale.

Levy asked Gelb in a private meeting what would happen if his schemes did not bring in enough money, or if his strategy failed. ‘It has to work,’ said Gelb. ‘There is no Plan B.’

Levy goes on to say: ‘I know of no successful CEO without a backup plan in the event of failures or shortfalls.’



On the same page, Levy charts the ten-year decline and demise of City Opera on a path the Met now seems to be taking. ‘Why didn’t the Met’s board of trustees demand early on the development of an economic model that held promise of a viable financial future?’ he laments.

They Told Me Not to Take That Job will make grim reading for Peter Gelb and essential reading for all who need to know how not to sail a ship into a storm.




  • william osborne says:

    In a country that ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita, and behind every European country except Portugal, Gelb is one of the problems, but by no means the largest. The Met’s budget is twice as large as comparable European houses. It’s wealthy donors spare themselves no luxury, while neglecting the rest of the country, and even the rest of the city. Our plutocratic system of arts support is the central problem with the Met and with opera in America. Issues like the Met will not change until our funding system changes.

    • NYMike says:

      William: In our country of bible and gun culture, I’m not optimistic on funding system changes anytime soon.

      • PaulD says:

        I prefer to maintain the so-called “plutocratic” system of funding to one that would force cultural institutions to justify how their hiring and artistic decisions comport to political mandates. That is clearly what would happen once the government hooks these institutions on the crack of taxpayer money.

        • Musicologyman says:

          Yes. Paul, the fact that Joseph II ever gave Mozart a red cent is one of the most disgraceful things ever to happen in the history of music. And then there’s Monteverdi and the Mantuan court! Don’t get me started!

        • SDReader says:

          That is not what would happen.

      • Greg Hlatky says:

        Comments like this are why there’s no significant public funding of the arts in the US.

      • JBBaldwin says:

        What does this mean? I love the Bible (and believe it to be the inerrant word of God, no less); I like to shoot and I enjoy opera. What have the Bible and guns to do with arts funding? Do you mean to imply that the “ignorant rednecks” (among which I must surely be grouped) won’t pay for opera? C’mon, tell us another one…

        • NYMike says:

          “Ignorant rednecks” are led around by the nose through their regressive theocracy beliefs, by arms-manufactoring and fossil-fuel plutocrats, lining their pockets while arts and arts-education funding lies in the ditch. War-mongering is much more profitable than the average citizen’s needs in this land.

          • Greg Hlatky says:

            Most businesses I’m familiar with don’t go out of their way to show their contempt for their potential customers, but as a combination of parasitism, hauteur and obtuseness artists can scarcely be equalled.

            If an attitude like this is common among musicians, the best thing would be for all of your institutions to go out of business as soon as possible.

            The US spends more money on education per student than almost every country in the world. If we can’t afford arts education in schools, you might ask where all that money is going.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Any time New York City wants to have a full-time, publically-funded opera company (or more), it is perfectly free to do so without having to coordinate or consult with any other place. A single successful example would be a model for other US cities.

      However, not only is this not being debated at the moment, it isn’t even being discussed. No proposals have been laid before the City Council to have a full-time, publically-funded opera company. If advocates for a full-time, publically-funded opera company can’t make not only a compelling argument for doing so but no argument at all, why should the rest of us vulgar herd care?

      When you do get off your duffs and petition the New York City government to fund a full-time, publically-supported opera company, don’t forget to say that all the European kids have one, that Americans are just a bunch of mouth-breathing philistines and that New York City will never rise to the level of, say, Bielefeld without one or more full-time, publically-funded opera companies.

      The City Council site is Get going. A journey of a million miles starts with a single step.

      • william osborne says:

        Even if your polemic were true, the point remains that the problems the arts face in America will not be solved until we have an effective funding system. This understanding is the first step.

      • Stuart Goldstein says:

        Sorry to rain on your parade, but Fiorello La Guardia died a long time ago. If you think New York’s City Council is going to fund an opera company I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

        • william osborne says:

          You completely miss the point. The arts cannot function as they should without public funding system, a fact that is not changed even if we will never have one.

          And of course, its the Fox News crowd that is happiest to proclaim a barren public arts funding future for all of eternity. The same types once said we’d never have a black President…

          • William Safford says:

            I think *you* miss the point. The trend is *away* from public funding of the arts in the U.S. and its fifty states, alas, not towards it. Many of us may agree with you that public funding would be a good thing, but merely agreeing is not going to make it happen. Even a city such as New York is parsimonious in its support of the arts, at least when compared with many cities in Europe. Other cities, especially in the South? It’s basically not going to happen. Political forces opposed to it are too strong and prevalent.

      • News Junkie says:

        Great suggestion. And to the naysayers what is your alternative?

  • Robin Worth says:

    Maybe so.

    But the sheer quality of what the Met does puts all the other houses in the shade. Is there a better orchestra anywhere? Or chorus? And the principals are regularly the best in the world. All at a price which is kept to a reasonable level ($160 for the stalls to see Macbeth last October with Netrebko/Calleja/Pape)

    Add to this productions which avoid the extremes of Regietheater without, in the main, being dully conventional and you have to admit that Gelb and the rest are doing something right when standards are so high. And if the Met no longer tours, this is more than compensated by the worldwide cinema broadcasts : how can one say that they neglect the rest of the country?

  • Daniel Farber says:

    And all this will change when the US economy becomes socialist. I hope the always-on-top-of-reality Mr. Osborne lives long enough to see that happen and, along with it, the well-run Metropolitan Opera of his dreams! “Read my lips: it’s the Gelb, s….d.”

    • william osborne says:

      Here in Europe where I live, I am surrounded by “Socialist” countries. There are 9 well-run, full time opera houses within a two hour drive. The USA is basically a socialist country too. The government spends about 38% of the GDP, but it doesn’t spend it on the arts.

  • Milka says:

    Before embarking on the million mile journey perhaps questions that should be addressed are
    “do we need an opera house ” , what good does it do, does it serve any purpose other
    than a cultural pretense , should we care that Bielefeld has an opera house ….why
    should Americans care about opera….

  • Nick says:

    It is perfectly obvious that the Met is run by Ann Ziff and her acolyte Peter Gelb. To all intents and purposes the NYCO was run by its powerful Chairwoman Susan Baker – run into the ground, that is.

    How is it that there seems to have been little movement to reform the structure of the Boards of Performing Arts organisations in the US? Why is it that one powerful mega-rich individual is still able to boss and intimidate large groups that include at least some intelligent, supposedly knowledgeable and experienced experts in managing big corporations to the point where they crumble rather than fight when they see things going wrong?

    If money ‘buys’ you a position with that depth of authority, why does a Chairperson not have a contract making it incumbent on them to be legally responsible for making good an organisation’s losses? If Ann Ziff and Gelb fail in their soon-to-be-launched hugely ambitious fund raising drive, will Mrs. Ziff ante up as she and Gelb retire into the sunset? Rhetorical question!

  • News Junkie says:

    You and NYMike should realize that stereotyping any group of people (so far we have Christians, Republicans, gun owners… so why not Jews, Blacks, and homosexuals?) is assinine when you want to rally the public for a shared cause. The further the two of you stay away from the cause of opera the better.

  • Frankster says:

    Mr. Osborne hinted(?) at the socialist nature of America as far as military spending goes. The US has twelve aircraft carriers. (The next guy has just one.) Whenever they travel, an impressive flotilla of sister ships is deployed to protect this gigantic moving target and no aircraft carrier has fired a shot in anger since 1945. But the armaments industry and its stratosperic spending (F-35 anyone?) is untouchable. If they decided not to build one of the several destroyers that follow one of the aircraft carriers, funding could double or triple for every opera house and symphony orchestra in the country.