Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Upcoming Peter Gelb Revolution

From the tone of today's article by Daniel J. Wakin in the New York Times, the upcoming tenure of Peter Gelb as General Manager at the Metropolitan Opera will feature new operas, new productions, new broadcasts, and everything you can imagine that could possibly be called new. Needless to say, it appears that Mr. Gelb feels that the Metropolitan Opera is wearing knickers and that it needs to be catapulted into modern times with daring productions, HD-TV broadcasts, and iPod downloads. While all of this, personally, sounds very exciting to me, I really don't know where he is going to get the money without totally pricing the MET out of the reach of the fans who are the backbone of the house. Further, although I would love to see at the MET more of the kind of daring productions that are now old hat in Europe (the new Ring better be Eurotrashy -- we've been due for about twenty years!) without major bucks from government subsidy it is not going to happen. And if the MET's new Ring happens to take place inside a Russian submarine, or fifty-three miles west of Venus, will the old-guard, accustomed to Günther Schneider-Siemssen's Teutonic peaks accept this kind of radicalism and continue to patronize this institution? Clearly there are changes in the horizon for the Metropolitan Opera, but if Peter Gelb can make this house once again relevant in the New York art scene, then he will have accomplished his job.

Here is Mr. Wakin's article from today's Times:

"As Audience Shrinks, the MET gets Daring" by Daniel J. Wakin

Revolution is afoot at the Metropolitan Opera, the world's largest opera house, which has been plagued in recent years by declining attendance and budget woes.

Peter Gelb, who takes over in August as the Met's first new general manager in 16 years, has laid out broad-ranging plans to remake the venerable house, sharply increasing the number of new productions, commissioning more and different kinds of new works, bringing in a wave of high-profile theater and film directors and striding into the world of digital transmission.

This attempt to reconceive the Met as an institution more open to popular influences and more attractive to a wider public may well alarm opera traditionalists, who are the heart of the Met's audience. It is also a response to the long reign of the current general manager, Joseph Volpe, who has worked at the Met for 42 years.

"I told the board at the time of my choice that I wanted to take this great institution that had grown somewhat isolated artistically and reconnect it to the world," Mr. Gelb said.

Mr. Gelb's program calls for a collaboration with Lincoln Center Theater that will engage Hollywood directors like Anthony Minghella and Broadway directors like George C. Wolfe, as well as musical figures like the theater composers Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel and the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Major conductors who have never appeared at the Met will make debuts, including Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The Met will install a gallery for works by contemporary painters, extending its reach into the visual arts. The artists include John Currin, Richard Prince and Sophie von Hellerman.

Mr. Gelb said he wanted to embrace new technology. Performances will be broadcast nationwide in high-definition movie theaters and made available through downloading, if agreements can be reached with the house's unions. CD's and DVD's could follow.

In a two-hour interview on Thursday, Mr. Gelb sketched out plans that could radically remake the house and influence opera houses around the world, given its size and influence. "My work at the Met is going to involve everything," he said, "even subtitles."

A former record company executive who produced Met telecasts in the late 1980's and early 90's, Mr. Gelb formally takes over on Aug. 1. But since January 2005 he has been working alongside the strong-willed Mr. Volpe.

Mr. Gelb, who is a son of Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of The New York Times, said his plans were not meant as a criticism of the Volpe era. He noted that a sharp drop in opera attendance since 9/11 afflicted many institutions.

But he went on to say that the house had been "coasting" and that the old formula — counting on dedicated operagoers to fill the house for standard productions — no longer worked. He also took note of criticism that the Met has not attracted enough world-class conductors. Regarding singers, he said, it has "waited too long to jump on talent."

Mr. Volpe said his successor's approach might ruffle feathers. "Our audience loves standard opera done in a traditional way," he said. "But if it's very theatrical and well done they will be very happy with it. I think it's a good direction."

Mr. Volpe said he did not consider Mr. Gelb's plans a repudiation of his stewardship. "What I did, in my opinion, worked," he said. "If the new direction is successful, then you could say that the way the Met operated in the last decade should have been changed." If the audiences do not accept the new productions, he added, "then that's another result."

Martin Bernheimer, the New York-based music critic of The Financial Times, said Mr. Gelb appeared to be "desperately looking for a new audience and a new kind of opera."

"I think that's fine," he said. "But the question is, what will he do with the core audience while he's courting this new audience?"

Mr. Gelb said he wanted to create a "constant kind of excitement" by staging a new production every month, raising the average from four a year to seven. He will immediately scrap the tradition of an opening-night gala of big stars performing acts from several different operas.

"The idea that the Met has not opened a season with a new production in 20 years I find remarkable," he said. Hence, a new "Madama Butterfly," directed by Mr. Minghella and produced in cooperation with the English National Opera, will open the next Met season. It was a hit in London last fall.

Making such changes in the opera world, in which seasons are planned many years in advance, is unusual. But the Met had already scheduled an old "Butterfly" production for October, so that puzzle piece was replaced with a new one.

Mr. Gelb said that his goal with all the changes was to create bridges to a broader public. But the strategy also carries the risk of alienating traditional opera lovers and serious-minded critics. It remains questionable how congenial iTunes opera downloads would be to the typical Met attendee, whom the house has identified as a 62-year-old college graduate earning about $120,000.

Mr. Gelb acknowledged the need to keep traditionalists in the fold.

"My plans are not intended to frighten them," he said. "What I'm trying to do is to honor the aesthetic traditions of the Met while at the same time moving forward. If I were to function purely as a curator, then the Met would not continue to function and thrive."

The Met has cut its budget in midseason three years in a row, and in December it reported an expected box-office shortfall of $4.3 million. After selling more than 90 percent of its tickets in the 1990's, it is selling about 85 percent now, and a much larger proportion of them are discounted.

Mr. Gelb said he would change ticket prices next season to increase revenue. The highest-priced seats would rise from $320 to $375, and costs would go up for 60,000 seats out of the 857,000 total capacity next year. But the lowest ticket price would drop from $26 to $15, and 90,000 seats would decline in price.

The next three seasons have already been mostly planned, but Mr. Gelb said he had some influence, adding two new productions each season in 2007-8 and in 2008-9.

The first season fully planned by Mr. Gelb will be 2009-10. It will have seven new productions.

The season will open with a new "Tosca," possibly directed by George C. Wolfe, the former producer of the Public Theater. Karita Mattila will sing the title role for the first time. Angela Gheorghiu, a high soprano, will sing Carmen, a mezzo role. Matthew Bourne, a choreographer, and Richard Eyre will direct. The two collaborated on the musical "Mary Poppins," now playing in London.

The elusive Mr. Muti will make his Met debut with the early Verdi work "Attila," one of his signature operas. Mr. Salonen will conduct Janacek's "From the House of the Dead," directed by Patrice Chéreau. Renée Fleming will star in the early Rossini opera "Armida," directed by Mary Zimmerman. The next season, 2010-11, the Met will begin presenting a Wagner "Ring" cycle directed by Robert Lepage, a master of theatrical spectacle and technology who recently created the Cirque du Soleil extravaganza "KA" in Las Vegas. It will also present a commissioned work by the currently prominent Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Notably absent from Mr. Gelb's outline of his plans was a discussion of the repertory's more challenging works, like Berg's "Wozzeck" and "Lulu," which are close to the heart of James Levine, the music director and longtime artistic soul of the Met. When asked, Mr. Gelb said both would continue to have short runs in coming years.

"We have to balance the season," he said. "And Jimmy insists on that, and he's right."

Mr. Levine said he fully supported Mr. Gelb's plans. "What I think he wants to do is produce a noticeable change right away," Mr. Levine said, "where he will have a way in front of him to evaluate what works."

But he cautioned that financing was not a given and the Met's plans depended on whether guest artists do in fact appear. He cited the fragility of voices during winter and the whims of conductors.

"If all those conductors to whom Peter spoke really come and do what they've agreed to do," Mr. Levine said, "that will be really exciting."

One of the biggest and perhaps most controversial departures is the collaboration with Lincoln Center Theater, which Mr. Gelb said was designed to produce operas with better dramatic flow from unexpected composers and to give them a chance for improvement before hitting the stage.

The Met and the theater have commissioned works from a range of composers and playwrights, some of them outside the classical tradition. The pieces will be workshopped and then guided toward either the Vivian Beaumont Theater or the Met stage. The Met is holding open a spot during the 2011-12 season for the first product of this collaboration. The artists include the team of Jeannine Tesori and Tony Kushner, as well as Rufus Wainwright, Scott Wheeler and Michael Torke.

Mr. Gelb said that if a revenue-sharing agreement with the house's unions could be reached, he hoped to start movie house broadcasts next year. The Met would begin with six Saturday performances in its radio broadcast season, relayed to theaters outfitted with high-definition systems, for about $20 a ticket. Two movie chains are interested, he said.

"The idea is to really conceive of it as an event," he said, "because that's what's exciting about opera."

1 comment:

Canadian Basso said...

Mr. Gelb has some excellent ideas to shake new life into the Met. I am one of those conservatives though, who worries about the incorporation of musical theatre - it smacks too much of crossover for my taste, especially given Mr. Gelb's historical use of the classical label at Sony. It will be interesting to see these new workshop productions, and I am happy that he is experimenting with the compositional process as well as the musical influences of the composers... everybody loves Rufus Wainwright!

I am most excited about the new technological measures Gelb has spoken about. I would love to pay $15 to see the Met broadcast at the movie theatre! I have been saying for years that the audio broadcasts needed to be podcast/streamed, too. A good part of the Met's loss of relevance has been its' failure to keep up with the new broadcast media that have emerged. Radio for instance, is useless if you are trying for a younger-than-30 demographic with a broadcast time that is not rush hour.

Overall I'm excited about the changes underway at the Met. It's wonderful to see signs of life in that house that seemed so dead.