What Peter Gelb really thinks of singers

What Peter Gelb really thinks of singers


norman lebrecht

December 11, 2019

The New York Post has obtained a transcript of the Met boss’s unsympathetic remarks last week at the National Institute of Social Sciences about the people who keep his house in visitors. Here’s what:

 ‘ I’ve come to realize that there are only three stages of health for singers: catching a cold, recovering from a cold or suffering from a cold,’ said Gelb at the private club in Manhattan. ‘Not long ago, one famous and talented tenor that I tried coaxing from his dressing room back on to the stage — and who had no fever and not even a case of the sniffles — told me that he didn’t think he could go on because he felt cold inside.’

Now was this necessary? Or even true?

Just another reason to love Mr Gelb.



  • Sir Bling says:

    Or as Sir Rudolph Bing once said: “Opera would be great if it weren’t for the singers”

    • BrianB says:

      And Sir Rudi rarely had to deal with the now pervasive instances of singers abrogating contracts simply because they don’t feel like singing or wanting to be “closer to home.”

  • Cantantelirico says:

    The Metropolitan Opera is cursed with an overseer who hates singers and their craft. At greater fault is “The Board”that continually renews his contract. Peter sees opera as cinema, not live theater. If it were up to him he would have famous actors and runway models act the roles on film, while being dubbed by the voices of great singers.

  • Tamino says:

    Snowflakes of this world, unite and get some sense of humour.

    • BrianB says:

      Humor is a trigger now. Something to be feared. And suppressed. My God, Yevtushenko saw it in the USSR over 60 years ago, cf. Mvt 2 of the Shostakovich 13th symphony.

  • Emil says:

    The remarks are presented without context, but it seems to me quite clearly said in jest.
    One more reason to brew a storm in a teacup, though.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      If you knew Peter, you would know that he has no sense of humour (or distinctive personality). His only humorous lines are prepared by “writers” and they always fall flat.

      • Larry D says:

        No personality? No sense of humor? And hates singers? Wants runway models to take over the roles? The anti-Gelb faction carry their gripes to the point of absurdity, and thus undercut any chance of being taken seriously.

  • If a prominent conductor had said that we’d all be chortling and praising his candor.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    Some singers like Franco Corelli never felt that their instrument was in proper shape, and yet once they actually got out on the boards they made the most incredible sounds that the human voice can produce. Others like Joan Sutherland practically never canceled and were able to do the same night after night.

    Gelb probably wouldn’t have had either of them, Corelli for canceling and Sutherland for being too tall for the HD cameras.

    • Nik says:

      I remember an interview with Sutherland where she explained at length her mucous-clearing routine. It was such a lovely thing to share.

  • Yes Addison says:

    That just sounds like good-natured grousing to me. Rudolf Bing was more acid-tongued than that, and he sometimes attached names. Volpe too.

  • Player says:

    Quite funny, though, tbh…

  • Sanity says:

    The ingolato techniques employed by many singers today, especially tenors, is leaving them high and dry. It’s easier to say you have a cold, rather than you have worn your cords raw through bad singing.

    The answer to enourage singers with a stable, Italian technique.

  • Monsoon says:


    I’d think you’d be sympathetic given that you regularly do “sick list” posts and have taken particular aim at Jonas Kaufmann’s frequent cancelations.

    • Diane Valerie says:

      At least Herr Kaufmann gets his name attached to the “sick list” posts. Poor Mariusz Kwiecien is invariable referred to as “Pole” as if there is some connection between cancelations and being Polish!

  • Karl says:

    That’s actually a pretty good joke. We had to hear Shostakovitch’s 13th Symphony in Montreal with no baritone a couple of months ago because the singer was ill.

  • jerry says:

    What is says is actually pretty true.

  • pageturner says:

    The fact that no one has commented yet is perhaps the greatest proof that no one else feels the love for Gelb, and would much rather love the artists.

  • Ms.melody says:

    Obviously, Mr.Gelb doesn’t have a clue what it feels like to sing challenging roles while not feeling 100%.
    This is the only reason i can think of to justify such ignorant, insensitive remarks.Good decision by a tenor not to go on and put his voice in jeopardy.
    Why this inconsiderate, hapless man who continues to ruin what was once a respectable company had his contract extended in one of life’s great mysteries

  • Larry D says:

    Maybe he was being facetious? Just a theory. I know that isn’t allowed anymore.

  • Calvin says:

    Come on now. You know this characterization has a lot of truth to it.

    Frederica von Stade: ,If I am sick, I am sick. Sure, you can make it through one performance, but then be out four to five days after. It’s too dangerous. Nothing is worth hurting your instrument. It is such a fragile instrument and is so much a part of the psyche. What you feel about yourself comes out in your voice.”

    Joan Dornemann, Metropolitan Opera coach: “In my studio, I use Listerine on the phones, give water only in plastic cups and scrub with surgical soap. I never go into the theater if I am ill. I would just as soon give a singer leprosy than a cold.”

    Marilyn Horne, : “I have a humidifier going 24 hours in my New York apartment. I avoid drafts and will move six times in a restaurant to avoid the air-conditioner. I stay out of public transportation and go sparingly to the theater or movies. When I travel I have a complete medicine chest, and in a plane ask to be moved from someone who has a blooming cold. I believe strongly in vitamins and take about 3,000 (units) of C. About 18 months ago I started a physical fitness program and have a personal trainer. This has made such a difference.”

    Simon Estes: “I believe in preventive rather than prescriptive medicine. In hotels, I fill up the tub or leave the shower on and open the door so steam can come into the room. But I go out when the forced-air heating is on because that spews so much bacteria into the room.”

    Dr. Robert Feder, laryngologist, consultant to the Music Center Opera since 1986 and a center board member: “No throat clearing, gargling or whispering. If you must fly, no talking. Suck candy and don’t chew gum; it hurts the jaw. Drink 10 glasses of water every day but no ice–too cold for the throat. Steam five minutes, four times a day. Only steam with hot water, not cold. Take hot showers. No mint or menthol drops, they hurt the throat. . . . And stop blowing your nose: It’s bad for you.”

    The good part of this obsession is that I learned from famous singers frequenting the bizarre apothecaries in NYC’s Chinatown of a wonderful remedy, which is made in Malaysia from a key ingredient that comes from Africa. An out-sized proportion of singers –and only them — know what I am referring to.

  • Bruce says:

    Sounds like humor to me, though I could be wrong.

  • Lydia Wahlberg says:

    I believe Mr Gelb’s story . The singer in question was probably Jonas Kaufmann. Doesn’t he always have a cold.

    • Ines says:

      Except that Kaufmann cancells months in advance at the Met, not on the performance day, after the first act. (Gelb says the tenor was in the theater and refused to go on stage).Try some other tenor…..that is if you want to try at all, which I doubt

  • Has=been says:

    Perhaps you are suffering from the American condition of ‘Irony deficiency’

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Perhaps a good kick up the **se might do some of these precious tenors a world of good. Opera singers (both male and female) have developed a reputation over the years for pulling out at the last moment and leaving the opera company in a quandary.Can you imagine an employee in any other profession going to a manager and saying “I can’t do my work as I feel cold inside”……..I know what the managers short sharp answer would be. He should have named and shamed!

    • Allen says:

      A singer is the only musician who gets one instrument at the start of his/her career and has to hope that it never breaks. If it does, it’s over.

      Being able to sing unamplified in a large hall or theatre is a remarkable achievement. Give a less than perfect performance and you risk being excoriated. You can’t take it easy, it’s all or nothing.

      As for other professions believe me, ‘sickies’ are far from uncommon.

      Unspeakably dim comment.

    • Nardo says:

      There is no quandary. That’s what understudies are for. Many of them have been as good or better than those who they are replacing.

  • Mark says:

    I can’t stand Gelb, but it’s just a bit of (heavy-handed) humor.

  • Hal Sacks says:

    Bravo Tutti.

  • drummerman says:

    Obviously a (feeble) attempt at humor before a non-opera crowd.

  • Robert says:

    Peter Gelb reminds me of Donald Trump. Completely unsuited to the position of General Manager of what used to be, the Greatest Opera House in the World.
    It is utterly baffling to the informed opera going public, that the ever changing board of directors ( like Trumps administration) has seen merit in extending his contract until 2027.
    His business model was a failure 4 years into his tenure.
    His relations with the entire labor force at the theater continue to be on sufferance only ; much more from their side. His salary at well over $2 million at the “not for profit”institution, is well publicized, as are his artsy film projects, presumably to where the income and all his energies go, as he continues to blame the employees for expense and cost, cutting everywhere but where he should.
    One wonders, where are the oversight honchos in New York for “ not for profit” endeavors? Who is investigating this house ?
    His programming, scheduling, choices of productions and casting have continued to wither.
    Neo-Zeffirelli/ Schenk etc are his “ go-to” now.
    It is easy to figure out that, as the only major opera house in the world without a single ARTISTIC CONSULTANT, on the board of directors,
    Mr. Gelb has fooled his supporters.
    There are certainly some people, I know there are, on that board who know better .
    Shame on you .

    • Ms.Melody says:

      Zeffirelli and Schenk are the best there is at the Met now.Their beautiful ,timeless productions can no longer be properly cast, and this is where the failure lies. Most of the new productions that occurred during Gelb’s reign have been dreadful, like the DOA new La Traviata.

      • BrianB says:

        Many thumbs up. Though Gelb managed to come up with an excellent Trovatore production; and it is hard finding directors today who even want to try to be faithful to a work and its intent, but prefer to impose their own blinkered preoccupations, not to mention egotistical wilfullness, on existing masterpieces.

        • Yes Addison says:

          It is a far better Trovatore production than the previous two (1987 and 2000), which both bombed. But, note, it isn’t set in the libretto’s 15th century. “Intent,” to me, isn’t just about trying to recreate whatever the composer saw in the earliest productions. It has to do with locating the themes of the work and dramatizing them.

          The recently deceased Jonathan Miller had a good quote: “Almost everything that happens in a great work is complicated. There are many levels at which you can actually choose to settle in order to deliver what is dramatically interesting. Sometimes that involves changing the period. I don’t do it all the time, but the composers spent all their time backdating. Here were people writing in the nineteenth century about a fourteenth century that they have no knowledge of at all. So you have to decide what is consistent.” (Opera News profile, 2002)

          It’s been a long time since anyone went to the Met and saw the designs of Eugene Berman or Rudolf Heinrich, or recreations of the stage direction of Herbert Graf or Peggy Webster. They had their time, and Schenk and Zeffirelli and others of that era pushed them out. So it’s reasonable to me that there’s now very little Schenk and Zeffirelli remaining, and as years go by, there will be even less. I think someone would _really_ have to be a Zeffirelli fan to miss the last two productions he gave the Met.

  • frank says:

    Gelb’s comment is almost a direct ( and unattributed) quote from Rudolph Bing’s autobiography .

  • margaret koscielny says:

    Singers’ bodies are their instruments. They need tender, loving care and respect…what mere mortals could work through could bring lasting damage to their instrument.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Perhaps a bit exaggerated but there is an element of truth in his comment. I have rarely attended an opera performance without late cast changes. What was much worse were the singers who were unwell, but heroically struggled on to the end. Hardly an evening of pleasure.

    • Ms.Melody says:

      I remember the horror of Don Carlo at the Met a few years ago. The tenor was sick and the replacement lost his voice in the prologue. He continued to sing for 5 agonizing hours( it was the long version).He was hoarse and not audible at all. The only time it was bearable was when the tenor was not on stage.
      I wonder if he ever sang again.
      Much better to cancel than to go on in this condition

      • BrianB says:

        I believe the horror was compounded because it was a broadcast.

      • Yes Addison says:

        Yes, he (the struggling Don Carlo cover) sang again. He was in the Ballo broadcast later that season with Radvanovsky, Hvorostovsky, and Zajick, and he had some Turiddus the season following. He still stays busy, but at smaller theaters.

  • Alexander says:

    I think he said truth on that tenor.
    Sopranos are much better, especially rising young ones , they will never miss a stage until get on the top of the list 😉
    what then ? then they will become stars with all those star’s colds 😉

  • Hmus says:

    To be fair, that really does sound exactly like the kind of thing singers say about one another all the time.

  • kundry says:

    I am no fan of Gelb, but what he said is very true and very mild , compared to all the stuff that singers and their agents pull on the MET and other theaters. The more “indispensable” they feel , the more extravagant their behavior. However, some of it , even when outlandish, can be understood and even excused. Singing is a tough job, you never know how the voice will work ( or not ) in the morning , or at performance and as a singer, you are very vulnerable on stage – your body and soul are fully involved and subject to instant criticism.
    Those who don’t know opera performance first hand , cannot understand the psychology of it.

  • Minnesota private citizen says:

    Early in his career Peter Gelb was Vladimir Horowitz’s manager after others gave up. He heard it all regarding abrupt cancellations and being “difficult” during that experience. In the 1940s Horowitz and Oscar Levant were pals, and Levant famously said that they were “available for a limited number of cancellations.”

  • BrianB says:

    For once I’m on Gelb’s side. Intendants have been dealing with this forever. I remember Met stage manager and former Met baritone Osie Hawkins openly complaining about this on the old Texaco Opera Quiz and he knew it from the inside.

  • Una says:

    I speak as a British singer who has had a good, if unknown career, middle level and stable, somewhat different to today’s American or even a British career path today. I was trained by some very mainstream people – Heather Harper, Josephine Veasey, John Cameron, Alexander Young, Neil Howlett. Look them up! One thing for sure is that they- nor little me in comparison – didn’t had every note and nuisance trapsed over social media by armchair experts. All we had to deal with, if we got up to sing with a cold, was the national newspapers the next day – if you ever read them – and then got onto the next performance. Today’s singers are being intimidated and cancelling more than they ever did. Get up and sing a few croaky notes, and you end up with a post mortem by so-called armchair experts.who expect CD studio-level performance. Cancel and you’re simply damned. I only ever cancelled twice in my career as I had traiachitis.
    Any good singer will know that whenever you go out to sing, you simply don’t know the outcome. You have to then decide:.would you rather be criticised for a duff high note, or cancel as you might be getting a cold, and get less criticism. Reality!

  • Nardo says:

    As a player in the orchestra, no comment.

    • Jeff Mace says:

      The solution to this dilemma is quite simple. Play old recordings of the great singers of the past with the gold curtain in. At the same time raise and lower the Sputniks to the beat of the music. I checked the specs of the new chandelier lifts and they can be modified for a few hundred dollars each. I actually headed up the new design and installation a few years ago. It was really simple Aladdin makes a great lift that any small time electrician can install in a residential application. My crew spent endless hours of research and even more on the installation even though it was clearly written on the instructions that were included in the box. Thank God I have the ability to write long winded emails and bamboozle the people that hired me. I’m so good that I am now the Met’s Head of Production.