Peter Gelb ‘can’t understand why visitor numbers are down’

Peter Gelb ‘can’t understand why visitor numbers are down’


norman lebrecht

February 29, 2016

Dominique Meyer, director of the Vienna State Opera, has been reflecting on his record 99.02 percent box-office and contrasting it to the declining returns at the Met.

Gelb, whom he met recently, is, he says, ‘pretty desperate’ about the situation:

Ich war vor ein paar Tagen in New York. Peter Gelb, der Generaldirektor, ist ziemlich verzweifelt. Auch deshalb, weil er nicht wirklich nachvollziehen kann, warum die Besucherzahlen derart zurückgegangen sind.

He goes to quote Gelb saying he is actually getting more people to go to the Met, but they are coming less often than before. In Vienna, he notes, people go to the opera two or three times a week if they like what they see:

Ich möchte die Beziehung zum Wiener Publikum keinesfalls gefährden. Es gibt viele Besucher aus Wien, die zwei- oder dreimal pro Woche kommen. Peter Gelb hat festgestellt, dass er zwar mehr Besucher hat, aber sie kommen seltener. Das möchte ich nicht. Daher muss man bei der Preisgestaltung wirklich aufpassen. 


Full interview here.


  • Olassus says:

    Subscriber base. Subscriber base. Subscriber base.

    This is not an option or some passing, trendy business model.

    Gelb has to make the Met part of people’s routines. It’s not about selling this or that show. And clearly he doesn’t know where to begin with this.

    • weedkiller says:

      A lot of that is just playing popular standards that people ALREADY KNOW that they like to see/hear. It’s not about taking chances with new productions/new operas where audiences are put in a position where they may despise the music, the production, be bored for 4 hours, and be $200 lighter in the pocket.
      Perhaps certain critics from the NY TIMES would have us think otherwise.

    • MWnyc says:

      In terms of attending two to three times a week –

      – how do tickets prices at the Vienna State Opera compare to those at the Met?

      • Olassus says:

        I think Herr Meyer was referring to situations such as when you catch a great cast and then go back to hear the next performance(s) with that cast in the same run, meaning typically 3 and 6 days later, hence his 2 or 3 times a week. People do do that in New York sometimes. It is more common, perhaps, to take in multiple perfs in an orchestral run, Thu-Fri-Sat, when the program and artists really work. I’m sure most readers here have done this.

        By routine I mean recurring, say, once a month or once every six weeks, as in a normal subscription, i.e. the Met or the Phil becoming part of your life.

        • Lesley Heller says:

          The comparison is ridiculous and unfair : Met Opera, 3800 seats; Staatsoper, 1709 seats.
          The Met could easily fill a hall less than half its size!

          • norman lebrecht says:

            Fact: If it barely fills one-third of its own size, it cannot fill a hall half its size.

          • Christopher says:

            NYC has ten times the inhabitants of Vienna, and five times the number of tourists – and only one opera house, that plays two thirds of the number of performances of Vienna State Opera, and about one third of the opera performances to be seen on Vienna stages. More comparisons needed?

      • Olassus says:

        Prices at the Wiener Staatsoper and the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich) — the 2 biggest companies, almost perfectly equal to each other — start at 10 € or 12 €, depending on the age of the staging, seated, with train fare into and out of town included.

  • Robert says:

    Well there you are – people go two or three times a week if they like what they see.
    Gelb’s own fault – disposed with the superb productions and replaced them with crap modern productions that no one likes and will not go to see again.

  • Jess says:

    Saw Aida at the Met in 2914. It was crap. Wouldn’t go again to this overblown, pompous, self important company.

  • Martin Bernheimer says:

    Note that the Vienna Opera accomodates 1,709. The Met seating capacity is 3,800.

  • Leo says:

    Houses like the Met and ENO for that matter need to start spending money on the sets and costumes. You can get away with some coloured lighting and an isolated piece of furniture with the classic operas but it doesn’t work with less well known operas that have very little tunes to remember and cause reason to return to the opera.

    PS. Norman, the movie adverts on the side strap of the page are driving me mad as they cause my computer to stop and start. I am unable to switch them off!! Do your readers have the same problem.

  • La Verita says:

    How many can afford to pay Met ticket prices 3 times per week??? I assume Vienna State Opera tickets are cheaper?

    • Cubs Fan says:

      That’s the problem: ticket prices are too high. And when you’re taking the family to NY, the kids (and wife) would rather see The Lion King or other Broadway productions.

  • alvaro says:


    Be real people, and nurture your senior attendants. They have the time and money to do recurring visits.

    Oh, but I forgot…..its all about the ‘kids’ these days….

    • Bruce says:

      There are lots of older audience members who would love to see something new. Unfortunately for Gelb, they are (as Alvaro pointed out) the ones with the time and money to spend two long evenings and $400 per week at the opera… AND they have enough life experience and (gasp!) intelligence to understand the difference between “an interesting new interpretation” vs merely stupid and self-indulgent.

  • Erich says:

    Meyer’s bid as Gelb’s successor? Although one should be told what the real percentage is once all the free tickets, press tickets, reduced-price tickets and artist tickefs are taken into account. One should also read the not very friendly remarks about Meyer in the current Austrian magazine Profil by Meyer’s retiring boss Mr. Rhomberg!

  • Janis says:

    I consider myself a lover of opera, especially Baroque. I love the music, know it well, have arranged it a million ways on my piano at home, watch it online, listen to it constantly, and own several DVDs that I love. I’ve gone to the Live in HD broadcasts several times. I’m nowhere near an obsessive fan compared to some, but I’m far ahead of just about everyone else I’ve ever encountered in terms of my love for the art form.

    And there is no way in hell I would EVER go see it live three times a week. No way in hell. Hardcore fans of all sorts of live experiences do not go see their favorites THREE TIMES A WEEK. Sports team fans go see them live maybe a few times in their lives. Rock band fans when I was younger would see their favorite mega-band live maybe twice and count them as prized experiences for the rest of their lives.

    THREE TIMES A WEEK?! Not in this universe.

    If that’s what this art form requires, then it’s dead already. Personally, I’d rather not see it die because as I stated above, I love it. But … three times a week?! Is he kidding me?

    • Bil says:

      I am sorry Janis but I have to disagree with you. Of all the opera goers I know, if their favourite singers are appearing they will go to every performance, or as many as possible. At Covent Garden in the 1980s there was a new production of Le nozze di Figaro. One of my favourite sopranos was Susanna. I went to all 25 performances over 3 seasons.

    • SoCal Dan says:

      Janis, I also respectfully disagree with your comment.

      In the past fortnight, I attended four operas in six days here in Southern California – Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (semi-staged by LA Philharmonic) on a Friday evening, Puccini’s Tosca (San Diego Opera) on Sunday afternoon, Puccini’s Turandot (semi-staged by Pacific Symphony) on Tuesday evening, and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (LA Opera) on Wednesday evening.

      Certainly, everyone who attends Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (and many do) will have seen three operas in a week’s time.

      • Sarah says:

        But that’s not on a regular basis. I don’t believe any of the four organizations you mention run productions six days a week for months. This is also a “high season” for artistic events and there appears to be an embarrassment of riches right now. You probably don’t do this every week for months.

  • Webster Young says:

    Everybody I know in the opera world understands that there has been a price/audience numbers/ and audience composition problem at the Met for a long time under Gelb. The audience composition problem is maybe the worst: it is frequently, I have heard, made up of a high percent of people who are not big opera fans, given tickets by companies that are donors to the Met. I have been told that opera lovers are not the main audience component. Ticket price is cited as a major problem, too. My main beef is Gelb’s attitude towards new productions vs the quality of old productions.

  • Michael B. says:

    The real problem for the Met is not Peter Gelb, modern productions, high ticket prices, or even the size of the house. The real problem is that classical music, including opera, has not ever really become part of American culture and the indifference and hostility to classical music have only increased as America has become more and more anti-intellectual and conformist. In America, classical music has always been the music of immigrants. The immigrant groups have varied: Germans, Bohemians (Czechs), Italians, Eastern European Jews, and most recently various Asian ethnicities, but, as these groups assimilate to the broader American culture, their allegiance to classical music gradually falls away. Anyone in America who lived through the Cold War can recall stories that included comments like the following: “I always knew that Johnnie was going to turn out to be a spy for the Commies. He didn’t like baseball and he was always reading and listening to Tchaikovsky.” Can anyone imagine an American politician taking a serious interest in classical music to the level of actual performance in public like Sir Edward Heath or Helmut Schmidt? Any such politician would be slammed as an elitist and ridiculed out of politics. This is going to be extremely difficult to overcome.

    • Daniel F. says:

      Yours is one of the most astute interpretations I have ever read on this blog!

      I do think, however, that in more recent years people who might have traveled, say, between 100 and 200 miles to attend Met Opera productions now remain in their home towns, content to pay a lot less to see “Live-in-HD” productions in which one is at the mercy of sound “mixers” and video directors.

      • Don Ciccio says:

        Actually this analysis is total crap. Politicians like Rudy Giuliani, Richard Nixon (yes, Nixon), Harry Truman and even Ronald Reagan have taken interest in classical music. It is true that there was lots of disgraceful anti-intellectual rhetoric, but this mostly aimed at lower classes, which sadly do not attend opera (most cases, anyway). Opera is, indeed, not part of the American fabric, but there was enough interest to sustain some of the finest houses in the world. For what I believe the problem, I will talk in a different post.

        • Daniel F. says:

          It’s not “total crap”, Don, and as a matter of fact you seem to agree with most of it. He never mentioned US politicians and their support or non-support of classical music, but you spend a lot of time taking issue with what is not in his analysis. As far as that much of it goes, I completely agree with you: all the Presidents you name, as well as Giulliani (who was only a Mayor) did support classical music. Of course the current office-holder has no interest in classical music, and on some level that does make a difference.

          • Don Ciccio says:

            I wanted to give a large reply for the original topic. Sadly, I lost all my comments and they are too large to type them again.

        • John Kelly says:

          Well they sure as hell kept VERY QUIET about it! Jimmy Carter too.

          • Frankster says:

            I saw Carter once at the Kennedy Center for Salome. Headline next day in the Post: “First Baptist watches beheading of first Baptist.”

    • Brian B says:

      In the last two decades of the 19th century there were more first generation Germans in NYC than there were in Berlin. All that has completely changed. In U.S. culture ‘classical music’ has become a dirty word and in the university and general pedagogical class, it’s become an article of faith that teaching Western European classics is elitist and even racist as the recent affaire Polenzetti proves. To even suggest that Mozart or Mahler are in any way superior to and more rewarding than Tupac Shakur or Beyonce is anathema.

  • Robin Worth says:

    You can’t compare them : they are both great houses, but one is big and the other isn’t. How would you compare War and Peace at the Met with Capriccio at the Staatsoper? Two great shows, but not right for both houses. But at it’s best the Met reaches heights you seldom find in Europe.

    Maybe the Met has a problem that is all it’s own : the changing demographics of NYC. The affluent WASP and Jewish, upper middle class is just not so visible in the audience. And that audience has become somewhat boorish (look around you at a matinee and you will see people on their tablets/iphones even as the curtain falls) With such a huge house you just cannot hope to fill the place with the cognoscenti.

    Vienna is a compact city with wonderful access : you do not have to be rich to get to the Staatsoper. Ticket prices are not the issue – there’s plenty of good value seats in both houses (although visitors to Vienna need to be prepared to buy the more expensive seats to productions in demand) But if you don’t have the money to live in Manhattan, then it’s not so easy to be a regular at the Met.

    But do not disparage Gelb : he says his mission is to nurture the best orchestra and best chorus in the world and invite the best soloists and conductors to perform with them. Maybe he does not always succeed, but who else could make that claim?

  • Richard says:

    Peter Gelb is very much “the problem.” He’s a snob, disdainful of the core subscribers from the get-go, a terrible manager, and more. He’s lucky he’s got a Board as disengaged and uniformed as he is. He should have been pink-slipped years ago.

    • Lynn says:

      Somebody has an axe to grind! Sorry you feel this way. Personally, I’ve always found Mr. Gelb very accommodating, with an understated sense of humour and anything but a ‘snob’. He is dedicated, hard working, and is doing all possible to keep the high standards of this fine opera house .

    • Nick says:

      Absolutely agree! The Met has had problems in the past and overcome them. Gelb has massive problems and has had well over a decade to solve them. They just continue to get worse. Gelb is indeed the problem, along with his Board of sycophants who have seen the writing on the wall for quite some years yet refuse to get rid of their “problem”.

      To increase your budget by over 50% at a time of disastrous recession, to buy in some pretty awful productions from elsewhere along with the good, and to alienate some of the older guard on whom the Met absolutely depends to sell its high-priced tickets and receive its on-going donations, to dilute your existing and potential new audiences by cinema screenings of Met performances all over the greater New York area – al that contributes to what has happened at the Met. Gelb is indeed the problem!

      Yes, subscription is a solution. I realise it is the traditional system of getting bums on seats regularly that in today’s times no longer works as before. And yes, Vienna sells out not only because of subscription, the culture of the city and the country and the fact that it has less than half the number of seats. But Vienna has a population of just 1.8 million. I am certain a reasonable number of its seats are sold to the tourist market. Greater New York has a population close to 20 million. It had 56 million tourists in 2014. How many of these visitors even consider going to the Met – or can afford to do so? I’ll take a bet that a very sizeable number take in a Broadway show. And these are not cheap. My tickets last summer purchased in advance on the internet were in the $150 range.

      And the citizenry of New York boasts some of the richest in the USA. The Met used to get by reasonably well with lots of huge and not-so-huge donations. Now it doesn’t. Whose fault? Start with Gelb! The man had zero experience of running an opera company – or any major company – prior to his appointment. He was a disaster waiting to happen! He is the problem!

      • Robin Worth says:

        If you want to go to the Staatsoper and be sure of your seat first you must go online (well in advance) and put in a request. Then you will be told you are on “Standby” Next you will get a message to say “Wir haben gute Nachrichten fuer Sie” and you get your tickets. This works for the two top price categories, and they are every bit as expensive as the Met

        Admittedly, I’ve never bought a cheap seat there, but if you want to get one at the last moment your only hope is one of the shops near the Augustinerkeller (same applies to the VPO at the Musikverein) And you will pay a hefty mark-up

        Contrast this with the Met, where you can get what you want online without difficulty

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    It all boils down to education, culture and habbit. Europeans go to the opera at an early age whether they are from Muenster of Munich orGraz or Vienna, and opera is a routine part of their life. They LIKE it and they go. Ever see the crowd at the Komische Oper in Berlin? Young, educated, sophisticated and as excited about opera as they are about wurst.

    • Will Duffay says:

      Europeans…except the English. Here we struggle to maintain two opera houses in a capital city of 8.5m people, and the assumption is that opera is a ‘posh’ night out for the wealthy requiring black tie (an error which the media are happy to perpetuate with photos of toffs at Glyndebourne). I’m guessing NY is similar. The contrast with Berlin, for example, is depressing. But I suspect Germany and Austria are the exceptions.

    • Posa26 says:

      *This* is the real issue when comparing the Met and Vienna. Whereas in the USA the only chance you have of seeing multiple operas within a week is in NYC at the Met, in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Czech Republic etc etc you could live in any number of small, medium to large centres and consume any number of hugely varying repertoire in all sorts of interesting productions multiple times per week. Will you always hear Renee Fleming? Probably not but you will hear extremely well accomplished singers, orchestras and choruses and be able to familiarize yourself with a huge range of the repertoire for not much more than it costs to see a Hollywood film at the multiplex. So, Viennese audiences, some of whom no doubt originate from smaller European centres are simply more habituated. In North America the system is soooo different. Even in larger cities by European standards (L.A., Chicago, Toronto and so on) opera cannot be an everyday thing. There may be 6 shows a year if you’re lucky and even the cheapest seats sometimes cost as much as the most expensive if some of these larger European cities.

  • Richard Bonforte says:

    Thank you, Nick

    No axe to grind on my part, other than to hold someone accountable. Gelb is amply remunerated and the Board fiscally responsible. What has transpired in recent years is disgraceful. I still attend regularly, but it is often an artistic chore b

    Gelb alienated lots is subscribers from the start. He was annoyed that people wanted to exchange tickets, deigned not to respond politely to letters, etc. Look what happened to New York City Opera — another clear example of management and board incompetence.

  • Nick says:

    For those asking about ticket prices, Vienna’s highest price was €273 = $300. The Met’s is $480.

  • Margot Can says:

    I lived in New York from 1998- 2006 during the Volpe administration. I have to say, I was regularly attending the Met 2-3 times a week. Whenever I found myself at a loose end in mid town, I’d head up to the Met to see what show was on that evening. It was very possible to do back then because the rep was mostly Italian populars, so it was like seeing your favourite classic movie at the picture house. Rush tickets were a bargain and casting was sensational. I think it was much more easy and enjoyable to do because you knew if the cast was shoddy, you’d be wowed by a Zeffirelli or Del Monaco extravaganza. It was all about that performance of Borodina you saw/missed, that beautiful Aria Alagna soared through or the new European super star who sang well/ badly that you wished you seen. It was just about going regularly and enjoying and learning about the singing. Today I find It’s less about the singing and more about the production, director and novelty interpretation. I don’t find this emphasis quite as interesting, so I don’t go to anything as often. This is the first season in twenty years in which I haven’t wanted to see anything. Audiences in Vienna and New York are very different and I think Gelb has been too quick to over intellectualise the classics. If he wanted to do something new, he should be commissioning new works. I still go to the though, that hasn’t changed and I know what I’m going to get.

    • Virginia Longo says:

      I believe that Mr. Gelb knows exactly what he is doing. There has been many rumors that the Met needs to shut down for a couple of years to revamp the building and backstage area to keep up with the times. In fact they have a 60 million dollar + budget to do just that. I believe that the ultimate goal is to bankrupt the current business model rip up the current contracts close the doors for a few years and start over with a clean slate. This will allow the Met to move ahead with the planned renovations without having to pay the backstage employees during this process. The truth of the matter is that the Orchestra and Chorus have two years left under the current contracts and the Stagehands have three. It has been stated by several Met employees that the Met has been trying to reinterpret the current contracts with all of the unions. A day does not go by without some new argument of how the current contracts are worded and should be paid. In fact the Met hired a lawyer for several thousand dollars a day to do just that. The new normal is to argue the wording of the contracts and pay wages the way they interpret them not the way they are written and have been paid since the begining of inception. The next step involves filing a grievence and calling a meeting between the Met and the concerned Unions and of course the Met’s high priced lawyer. This process can take up to three consecutive meetings with no solution causing tension between employees and management. I strongly believe that in two years when the Orchestra and Chorus’s contracts are up there will be a repeat of the labor dispute of two years ago and a lockout will happen. This will allow the Met to move forward with the planned renovations without having to pay the current backstage employees.

      • MWnyc says:


        Well, we all know how well that gambit worked out for Michael Henson at the Minnesota Orchestra.

      • Janet Lee D says:

        Virginia , if that is your real name !
        I have just seen your letter a long time after you first wrote it. You seem to have an awful lot of important information ?!
        Do you work at the Met ? Are you a lawyers wife or co-worker? Thank you for an informative read I would love to meet you for coffee ?

      • Janet Lee D says:

        Virginia , if that is your real name !
        I have just seen your letter a long time after you first wrote it. You seem to have an awful lot of important information ?!
        Do you work at the Met ? Are you a lawyers wife or co-worker? Thank you for an informative read I would love to meet you for coffee ?

  • Joe Volpe says:

    Mr. Lebrecht,

    Are you aware of Peters newest brainstorm to get people to walk thru the doors of the Met? He has opened the front of house to the general public during the day so they can walk thru and enjoy all of the ambiance for free. This is another example of Peters stupid business decisions. Let me explain my point. A 75 foot gate had to be fabricated to keep the public from getting to far into the house at a cost of a few thousand dollars. This gate is put up in the morning and is taken down sometime in the afternoon. Extra security and staff had to be added to accomplish this new daily routine. Let me remind you that this new idea is generating ZERO income and is only costing the Met money.
    If Peter is looking to get more people to pass thru the doors of the Met I suggest that he builds a Seven Eleven.