Pricking Peter Gelb’s fantasy bubble

Pricking Peter Gelb’s fantasy bubble


norman lebrecht

May 29, 2016

The self-congratulating 10-year speech given by the Metropolitan Opera’s manager at the Opera America convention has gone down like cement trainers at the company he manages. Insiders at the Met have analysed the speech and one of them compiled the following factual and perceptual contradictions.

You can watch the full speech here.


Peter Gelb’s Opera America address was an embarrassing mishmash of defensiveness, insecurity, and pablum. Slippedisc readers deserve to have the record set straight on some key points:

– (~6:50) Frayda Lindemann, a member of the Met Board’s executive committee, states that the board “is universally in support of our general manager.” Well-placed sources have hinted to me this is far from true, and that even the executive committee is beginning to splinter.

– (~17:20) Gelb says “I spent many months trying to convince our unions that the cost structure of the Met had to be reduced in order to create a more sustainable business model.” Aside from this being a gauche subject two years after a contentions negotiation, it bears repeating that the musicians’ contention all along was that the Met’s budget had exploded due to bloated management spending, and that is where the cuts needed to occur. The Met’s FY15 budget proved exactly that: of the total $18m savings, $11.25m came from “management expenses,” with only $6.75m coming from labor, all of which I have been told has been confirmed by the contractually mandated independent financial analyst (Eugene Keilin).

– (~20:38) Gelb begins a defense of spending on and quantity of new productions in order to attract new audiences. I have yet to see this proven with box office data. Does it not make more intuitive sense that new opera audiences are enticed to the Met the classic ABC’s – the Aidas, Bohemes, and Carmens? Gelb then tries to defend the notorious LePage Ring and insults all critics by invoking Eugene O’Neill, “God bless every bone in their heads.” He refuses to acknowledge the direct correlation between the quality of reviews and ticket sales, implying that Gelb’s is the only opinion that matters.  Basically put, the evidence suggests that poorly reviewed operas on average don’t sell well, and Gelb’s productions are on average poorly reviewed.

– (~37:18) Gelb feebly scapegoats an aging audience and the broken subscription model for the Met’s box office woes. Gelb personally takes  credit for broadening the audience base, yet at the same time accepts no responsibility for the steady decline of their box office. It’s worth noting that the average age of opera goers stays basically the same over time. They get replenished. And they’re currently being  replenished by the largest 50-70 year old population in history (i.e., boomers). And yet Gelb cannot answer “Why is your core audience abandoning you?”  Are these the actions of a good leader?

– (~52:44) It’s suggested that the Met’s pricing structure is ineffective, and Gelb is asked “Opera has to have certain level of ticket price; is there a sweet spot yet to be discovered at Met?” Gelb replies “we’re looking for it, but nobody really knows.” This is an astonishing abdication of managerial responsibility which ignores the Met’s own data showing that 1) their average prices are still too high, and 2) dynamic pricing schemes are driving away their ardent fans.

Even addressing a sympathetic audience of his peers, Peter Gelb cannot explain away his profound failings. There are plenty of smaller innovative performing arts institutions that are doing just fine in the U.S.

All evidence suggests that maybe it’s time for change at the Met, and I don’t mean in the Music Director position. When will the Met Opera Board wake up and realize that the supposedly “hip and cool” Peter Gelb — who proclaims “this job is impossible,” and denigrates his own audience base on a wearying basis — is a sorely lacking General Manager for America’s greatest musical cultural institution.



  • Milka says:

    Why Mr. Lebrecht persists in this hatchet job is puzzling. Yes Gelb is floundering and
    seems to have little inkling how to run this mess,but one suspects so would any other
    manager. As noted before , a man with Mr. Lebrecht’s experience knows the
    true problem which unfortunately he declines to address . It is much more fun
    to attack an individual who has little control over what is happening than face
    an obvious truth .

    • Nick says:

      Me. Lebrecht is 100% spot on – as many others have noted in recent years. It would be far better to attack Peter Gelb’s total lack of prior experience at managing anything in opera and indeed any performing company, let alone a leviathan like the Met. The Board made a monstrous mistake. To suggest that Gelb has “little control over what is happening” is so laughably ridiculous it hardly merits comment – other than this: who is the General Manager and who increased the expenditure budget by 50% during the worst recession in 80 years? No experienced management chief would dream of such idiotic profligacy! Now the chickens have come home to roost and an attempt to suggest it is not poor Gelb’s fault is itself both idiotic and pathetic!

      • Steven Holloway says:

        You must surely mean that a Met insider who analyzed the speech, and whose criticisms are those listed here, is “100% spot on”, not NL, though here, as so often when a post is actually meaty stuff, the presentation often misleads on this point. I made the same mistake as you on first reading this, but then halfway through that these were hardly likely to be the bloggers insights.

    • John Russell says:

      Milka, Mr. Gelb has had almost total control. You seem to have fallen for his hyperbole! He came in and DID WHAT HE WANTED TO DO; he was/is the boss and gets his way, whether it’s a helpful way or not. Very rarely was he stymied. The obvious truth you mention is not to be swallowed hook, line and sinker–merely because it’s oft repeated!!

  • Hilary says:

    I watched portions of the Gelb speech. The American style isn’t as self effacing as the UK. It’s a culture clash.

  • AMetFan says:

    I shouldn’t even bother to comment on this article. Many more eloquent and knowledgeable than I have already weighed in on previous entries concerning the Met.

    However, Ms. Lindemann’s introduction for Peter Gelb at the Opera America conference was nausea inducing. Her use of certain words–including “hip” and “cool” as important qualifications for a general manager of the Met–will follow her and her fellow board members, much like those of Susan Baker about Gerard Mortier not all that long ago. It is more than heart breaking to watch the self-delusion.

    I had to laugh when Peter began to show videos of his accomplishments (yes, they should be the Met’s achievements, but, much like Donald Trump, any triumphs–and never failures–are merely reflections of Peter’s glory, not that of the thousands of dedicated and talented musicians, craftspeople, and crew. To Peter, they are hired hands. To the public, they are the company.

    These are exactly the same videos shown ad nauseam at nearly every Met board meeting (“Look, there’s Haley’s comet!!”), to deflect any difficult questions. Heaven forbid that the board should be bothered with the minutiae of budgets, strategy, etc. The caliber of board member able to bring either corporate knowledge or a true understanding of the art form is long gone. But they do throw themselves lovely (if slightly retrograde) parties.

    And to think, ten years ago the board search committee for a new General Manager could have had (and by many accounts, actually initially chose) Deborah Borda. What a lost opportunity.

    Most Met-watchers have simply become bored with the Gelb show, especially after the long summer of contentious labor negotiations. However–for those who care–listen to Mr. Lebrecht. He is more prescient than the nay-sayers will give him credit.

  • Jennifer Butrous says:

    Mr. Gelb, who in his commissioning / new works program, turned down the opportunity to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Why isn’t the New York times talking about that?

    • Mark says:

      Miranda at the Met? How about commissioning an opera from Dr. Dre ? Justin Bieber might be interested, too …

      • Jennifer Butrous says:

        Sorry, but if you’ve seen Hamilton, you would realize that it is an incredibly operatic work, being very influenced by leitmotif’s. It has brought new audiences into the theatre and the Met would be very lucky to have a show that is of quality and fresh. Drop the snobbery, because it is actually snobbery what caused Gelb to pass on Miranda

  • John Russell says:

    Thank you, Mr Lebrecht! I only wish you had written this sooner! an awful lot of people saw this coming! The mistakes were mountainous including not working harder within the audience demographic, instead of discarding them.

  • Sandy McCourt says:

    While Lebrecht is doing a very logical & sane take down of Gelb, LaCieca is having a fight with anyone on her site that dares to criticize Gelb. It’s quite intriguing to watch.

  • Joann says:

    Everyone is assuming that NL wrote the refutation of Gelb. If you read the intro, it says a Met “insider” has compiled a mix of “factual” and “perceptual contradictions. I nteresting. Why no identification of this individual?? And what are the sources for the facts?? Which of these “facts” are factual and which perceptual? One is objective, the other subjective.

    Why does NL care so much?????

  • Yes Addison says:

    “Gelb begins a defense of spending on and quantity of new productions in order to attract new audiences. I have yet to see this proven with box office data. Does it not make more intuitive sense that new opera audiences are enticed to the Met the classic ABC’s – the Aidas, Bohemes, and Carmens?”

    I have no idea what that means. The Carmen is a new production, and a generally successful one, that debuted during Gelb’s time. The other two mentioned are pushing or pulling 30 years old. One of them will be replaced soon and the other will have to be, because it’s literally coming apart after much heavy use. Yes, those operas have name recognition, but what is the “insider” suggesting, that the entire schedule be taken up with those three operas? Or that the new productions not be commissioned, and that entire seasons be orgies of Reagan-era nostalgia?

    • Met Insider says:

      I totally agree with you 100 percent. A good example of this was the new Robert Lepage Ring Cycle. This production cost the Met at least 60 million dollars to produce. According to a Met spokesfolk it only cost 17 million dollars. If you believe this I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.
      I work at the Met and can honestly tell you this is what really happened. I will not be giving you my name in fear of being fired.

      Fact #1. The 45 ton, two tower set was built in Montreal by Ex Machina, the production company of Robert Lepage. This decision was in direct violation of the collective bargaining agreement between Local ONE IATSE and The Metropolitan Opera. Since there was no turning back due to the production deadline an agreement was made. This was the agreement as followed. Several Met Local One Stagehands at a time would take turns going to Montreal and observe the construction of the set. These employees would spend at least two weeks at a time OBSERVING ONLY. This went on for months the expense was astonishing: hotels, meals, airfare, time and a half salary, etc… Some of the employees were not even qualified but were sent to satisfy the agreement. I am not blaming Local One for there action I am blaming Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera for thinking they can violate a contract that has been in place for over a hundred years.

      Fact #2 The Stage had to be reinforced with 65 foot girders to support the set (AKA) La Machine. This process entailed hundreds of man hours including many time and a half and double hours even working thru the night, Saturday’s and Sunday’s. According to a Met rep the job cost less than a Million Dollars. Hogwash… I would add at least a Million more to the cost.

      Fact #3 When the Machine finally arrived on stage at the Met it was a big disappointment to say the least. It also resembled the Play School bowling game for kids. This production was not even close to the magical one presented by Peter Gelb at the Metropolitan Opera’s summer preview that year. You can Youtube the Robert Lepage video and judge for yourself.

      The design of the Machine was flawed from the beginning let me explain.
      It was designed to go in one direction only if you wanted to go back a cue or two you would have to run thru a sequence of many cues to get to where you wanted to go. This procedure could take up to 30 minutes if you could only imagine the havoc this caused during tech and actual orchestra rehearsal times. There were many days and nights that the crew and orchestra worked up until Midnight just to get thru the rehearsal including Saturday and Sunday TIME = MONEY

      Besides the actual mechanical portion of the set there was a stagehand assigned to each plank pulling a rope to create the effect. I’m not sure how many but you can count the planks and figure this out yourself. This is a perfect example of the gross waste of money associated with this production.
      It was and still is an embarrassment that this grossly expensive production still needed over one hundred stagehands to run the show.
      This set was also very hazardes I can remember one of the planks breaking loose almost hitting one of the performers. This action could have seriously injured or even killed the person.

      Fact #4 I strongly believe when they produced Gotterdammerung the Ring Cycle budget was exhausted. It is very telling at the end of the show when a few fireworks ignited and a couple of busts collapsed signifying the end of the word.

      I can remember spending countless hours during tech times trying to make this part of the show appealing to the audience.

      This is why The Metropolitan Opera House is broke the only way it can be fixed is by firing Peter Gelb and hiring someone with a real track record. Unlike Mr. Gelb a former usher and the man who destroyed Sony Classical.

      • Jeff Mace says:

        I was the head of the automation department of the Met during this time. I Bull Sh*%$# ited everyone in the technical department into believing that I could do the job. I spent almost one year in Canada living large on the Mets dime. When I got back to the states I was on 24 hour call if someone called me I would automatically get paid $ 500 dollars to answer a few questions. I was so good at it that a couple of years later PJ Volpe promoted me to Head of Productions at the Met. LIFE IS GOOD

  • says:

    Mr. Gelb has to leave the technical magicians that are on the Met Payroll do their thing…
    And stick to fund raising…
    He is not in the league of past General managers (Joe Volpe) comes to mind…
    Beg borrow steal to get “Hamilton” to play (road show) only on Sunday’s…
    It would sell out… For years….

    Lin-Manuel Miranda To write a rap opera
    Move into the 21st century…

    Sure it sounds wacky but I’ve seen Mr. Gelb
    Destroy his money makers…

  • Bruce says:

    From the 4th-to-last paragraph:

    It’s worth noting that the average age of opera goers stays basically the same over time. They get replenished. And they’re currently being replenished by the largest 50-70 year old population in history (i.e., boomers).

    Also I was rather astonished to find out that the Met doesn’t do Sunday matinees. I’m not sure what their schedule is, but it seems like it would make a lot of sense to get rid of one of the sparsely-attended weeknight performances and shift it to Sunday afternoon.

    • MWnyc says:

      Bruce, that option has been discussed for quite a few years now.

      The big problem is that the unions’ contracts have always specified that (except for a few special occasions) there will be no Sunday shows; most union members see Sunday as the one day of the week they can spend with their families (because most other people have the day off, too).

      I personally am not sure that’s a good enough reason to give up what should be a time slot for which there’s big audience demand. But the unions are attached to their Sundays off and will fight very hard to keep them.

      (By the way, the Met’s normal weekly schedule is Monday through Friday evenings, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening.)

      • Bruce says:

        As a professional musician (not on the level of the Met orchestra) who performs on a lot of Sundays, I can sympathize. HOWEVER. We are in a business where our work happens during regular people’s leisure time. IMHO we need to stay aware of that, even while we value our own work and treat ourselves with respect.

        If I remember correctly, the Philadelphia Orchestra only started Sunday matinees after the orchestra entered bankruptcy.

        • 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.

          • Save The MET says:

            Utter balderdash, shutting the Metropolitan Opera down for a few years is business suicide. Look what happened to the New York City Opera after they tried that stunt, the donors go away and they don’t return. The point here is the self congratulatory Gelb runs a crappy show and his business model is anemic at best. The proof is in the pudding and the sooner he’s shown the door, the better the company will be for it.