La Cieca’s favorite couple of sentences from that Vanity Fair piece, and why
“Volpe, who is 69, wants to set the record straight, now that Peter Gelb is being held up as the architect of a new, dynamic Met: with enough money, he too could have been creative. ‘Peter spends money in ways I never could,’ Volpe told me. ‘If I had Mercedes Bass and I could have spent money upon money in those days, it would have been a lot different. But I couldn’t. You know, I couldn’t’.”
See, this is funny because Uncle Joe is acting like Gelb looked under the floorboards and found a treasure chest with gazillions of dollars in it, and because of that utter and complete chance windfall, he gets to actually produce opera whereas all Volpe could do was scrimp and save by hiring that noted minimalist Franco Zeffirelli do direct everything, sometimes twice.
The point is, one (you might say, the most important one) of the General Manager’s duties is to get unearned income flowing into the organization from wealthy benefactors. In other words,”Bassfinder” is in the job description. What a general manager does with his days is winning the company “money upon money” so that it can be spent (in small part) on the kind of activity that Volpe so obviously wishes he had had the wit to do.
And it is only a small part of the budget that can be spent on “creative” stuff, because “more than three-quarters of the Met’s budget” is earmarked for labor costs. And who, let us think for a moment, negotiated those contracts that currently cost the Met over $200 million a year?
Hint: it’s someone who is famous for his good relationship with the unions.
Yes, it’s Joe Volpe who made all those promised that Peter Gelb is currently keeping. So, in a sense, Gelb gets to be “creative” only after he pays for Volpe’s guarantees of (e.g.) “$175,000 [in salary, plus] benefits that include nine weeks of paid vacation, a defined-benefit pension plan, and health insurance underwritten entirely by the Met” per chorister.
Not to say Gelb is blameless; in fact, as the season rolls by he sounds more and more nearly clueless. It’s a laudable ideal to say to your artists, “I’m not going to second-guess every decision you make, so please won’t you reconsider working at the Met?” But it’s fuzzy-minded or lazy not to have someone in authority who can take a look at, say, the Bartlett Sher Hoffmann and say, “Sorry, this is just not working. What else do you have?”
It’s a wonderful thing that nowadays at the Met the buck stops at the General Manager’s desk instead of, as it did before, somewhere between the Breslin office and CAMI. But La Cieca, taking a page from her colleague Anthony Tommasini’s book, is worried: why aren’t there experts on hand advising Gelb about dramatury and musical values. Or, if there are experts, why isn’t he listening to them?