Cher Public

Peter’s principles

gelb_poster_thumbOnce again it takes an out-of-towner to write sensibly about Peter Gelb and the Met, though the “out of town” here refers only to geography: Anne Midgette is at heart and soul a New York newshen. [The Classical Beat]

  • Constantine A. Papas

    What I like about Gelb, whether you agree with him or not, he is a sraight guy and does not play the blame game. Like a man, he assumes total responsibility for all his actions.

  • gnome

    “Straight guy,” “like a man”--I thought this was a gay site?

    • Henry Holland

      Well, *I’m* “a man” and I’ve sucked more dick than you’ve had hot dinners most likely, so what’s the problem?

      • Wait, I thought “hot dinner” meant “sucking dick.” Or is my slang outdated?

        • mrmyster

          Wait! Does all this mean Gelb sucks dick?
          Golly, Terry McEwan got fired at SFO for that,
          well for doing it during working hours in his
          office when the Madam board member walked
          in unannounced! :)

        • ianw2

          I don’t do hot dinners but I know a guy who will… its gonna cost ya.

        • lorenzo.venezia

          according to the Urban Dictionary, your slang is outdated…

        • Harry

          That SFO incident, mymyster mentions : proves it does not pay, to mix work and play!

  • Henry Holland

    From the link to her article about commissioning/performing new operas:

    “Sometimes,” Domingo says, “you find yourself with something that was not that good. How can you, when you commission a composer, say, ‘You know what? I don’t like it.’ ”

    You form the words in your brain, then say it, pay their commission fee have them go away and take their score with them. Domingo has wasted at least $10 million (if we’re going to go by the $3.5 mil per new production figure in the article) on three shitty operas and at least two of them should have never made it to the rehearsal stage.

    I think I’m going to be very sick of the phrase “cultural conversation of this country” very soon.

    • CruzSF

      It seems to me that this does, in fact, happen. Just not by Placido. Didn’t the Met balk at Wainwright’s opera well after composition had started? Placido should draw strength from that precedent and tell composers who turned in work after an all-nighter: thank you, but no.

      • ianw2

        And admit to a board member or foundation that you’ve just poured their money down the drain on a non-existent commission? No way.

        Its a delicate line in making sure you’re getting a quality piece and being an interfering administrator.


          Gee, that would be like admitting to your stockholders that you had installed a faulty cap system and to fix it would cost millions. Better to take your chances that no methane burp would ever cause an explosion. No capable manager would ever do that.

      • Yes, and what a brilliant move that was. I recently saw Prima Donna in Toronto and was not prepared what a dreadful piece of crap it was — an childish insult to the artform. I could not believe my eyes and ears.

        Having to say no to new commissions that did not work out so well is one of the tough decisions a company has to make. I think the even harder part is conveying to the media that you’ve cancelled a new commission. I think the Met did a very good job of making the Wainright cancellation appear to be about the French language and the fact that Wainright didn’t want to wait until 13-14 (or whenever it was) to see the work performed.

        • I recently saw Prima Donna in Toronto and was not prepared what a dreadful piece of crap it was

          Now, be fair. La Cieca did her best to warn you.

        • LOL. You’re right. I shoudda been prepared.

          Joking aside, despite everything that I had heard and read about the work, I went in optimstically, not expecting something great, but hoping to find some potential. I was hoping to see a kernel of something that might show future promise (after all, who gets their first opera right?). And I’m usually not one for hyperbole but it was complete shit. It was like some child’s idea of what opera is with cliches of cliches being paraded on the stage.

          In the middle of the second act, the title character puts on the recording from her last performance. Here, the tenor walks on and the two of them recreate the grand duet from that performance.

          The two characters proceed to sing about their “passionate love” amid the “splendour” of their surrounding and importantly repeat the word “sadness”. In fact “sadness” is the final word of the duet, accompanied by an almost heroic orchestra flourish. First off, characters don’t refer to their love as “passionate”; that’s for the audience to decide. As I watched the scene, I came to horrible realisation that this is really Wainright’s idea of what opera is.

          Aside from the parade of endless cliches, there was the puzzling vocal writing. The vocal lines were the same whether the character was asking for a cup of coffee (literally) or making a painful confession.

          I was prepared for it to be derivative. It wasn’t a surprise that the music sounded like bad imitations of only the lush parts of Manon Lescaut and Adriana Lecouvreur (and a bunch 50s Hollywood melodramas).

          What I wasn’t prepared for was Wainright’s idea of what opera is. He calls it a “love song” to the artform. Hate mail was more like it.

  • CruzSF

    Kudos to Midgette, for asking Gelb directly about his fascination with theater directors, and for reminding him that Dexter, Zeff, and Schenk directed beyond the opera stage.

    As for Gelb, whether I agree with his every decision or not, I appreciate that he owns his decisions. He also clearly reads the rumor mills because he directly addresses the “just marketing” tag that some have applied to him. I don’t sense that this is a man who hates opera.

    • NYCOQ

      Ask John Doyle if Gelb “owns” his decisions. Gelb has the uncanny marketing ability to turn a bad production in a “controversial” production and thus increase box office, BUT if the production is a true dog (see: Peter Grimes, etc.) he leaves the production team twisting in the wind and is very savvy about avoiding the stink. What’s wrong with being brilliant at marketing? There are people on Madison Avenue who get paid hefty salaries marketing things that we don’t need. He is doing his job and despite my displeasure at a lot of the casting choices that have ocurred under his reign he certainly keeps the Met in the spotlight. There doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without an article in a major media publication about the Met. Thank the Goddess he fessed up to how “new” productions work and he has stopped grabbing the glory for that rather mediocre First Emperor. A production that began in the Volpe regime. Does that mean that Volpe was a visionary? HELL NO, it was just another Placido Domingo vehicle that probably wouldn’t have happened with PD’s participation/promotion.

      • The question here, though, is whether that Grimes was Gelb’s production. Wasn’t it already well into the pipeline when he came on board?

        • Signor Bruschino

          It was Gelb’s production- The Volpe team had planned to use the Trevor Nunn / Salzburg Grimes- which was a failure, and then Gelb, new on board, quickly went to Doyle, fresh off the duo ‘play your instrument’ hits, and prior to his dreadful ‘Mahagonny’ and ‘Catered Affair’

        • Ah, I didn’t know that. Don’t think we’ll be seeing that Grimes or John Doyle in the theater any time soon.

        • NYCOQ

          Doyle was part of his let get “real theatre” directors into the opera house marketing plan. I am not knocking Gelb, but it seems that most of his successes have played “out of town” first. I use that as an example because the marketing juggernaut was bearing down all over town and the reviews came out and it was like crickets…no word from Gelb and Doyle slinking back to Cincinnati or wherever. No general manager can be held responsible for everything, but you just couldn’t get past the marketing until the drab-and-dreary Laugh-In style windows and that rather unfortunate homage to “gays” at the end of the opera. BTW wasn’t that the same set of risers that they used for the Orfeo?

        • operacat

          John Doyle isnt slinking back anywhere . . after his SWEENEY TODD, COMPANY and A CATERED AFFAIR on Broadway, his KISS ME KATE just opened at Stratford in Canada and he opens Second Stage’s season next year directing Arthur Kopit’s WINGS (too bad the musical version of WINGS isnt getting revived . . .that is a great show)

      • mifune

        Wait. That Grimes was a true dog? I never saw it in the house -- something I greatly regret -- but I remember the reviews of the production as not being remarkably negative. Or do you mean that it sold abysmally?

        (I think the production looked great on DVD, by the way, although I can see how it might have worked on DVD but not as well in the house.)

        • Pelleas

          I don’t think it was critically roasted anywhere near what it deserved--in the house it was, IMHO, an unmitigated disaster: boring, sloppy, unfocused, and profoundly UNtheatrical.

    • Gelb didn’t do a very good job of dispelling the notion that he thinks that theatre directors are better than opera directors. And a point I would have like to see him make is that while opera is theatre, it is a different animal to direct. Sometimes, theatre directors (no matter how good) just don’t understand how opera works on stage. I’m all for bringing in variety of directors to the Met but I get very upset at the suggestion that opera directors are somehow inferior to theatre directors.

      • I think it’s worth examining where that “notion” or “sugggestion” comes from, which I don’t believe is any statement of Gelb’s. Remember the couple of years when the meme was “Gelb hates opera; he said so often,” until nobody could in fact produce anything like such a quote?

        • Absolutely. These “notions” or “narratives” can take on lives of their own, like the tedious “Gelb hates opera” notion that is still alive and well in the commentary section of this site. But, however it came to be, that notion is now out there and Gelb had a chance to disspell it. And I don’t think he made much of an attempt to do so.

        • Well, on the other hand, let’s look at the directors for the upcoming season: Peter Stein, Willy Decker, Nicholas Hytner, Peter Sellars, Robert Lepage, Bart Sher. That’s a pretty “operatic” group — obviously, Sher excepted.

          La Cieca has a bit of experience with the negative meme thing (i.e., “Renee Fleming wouldn’t give parterre an interview [etc.]”) and, honestly, her experience is that it’s rather tilting with windmills to address this kind of stuff because it’s not based on anything real anyway; it’s just a way of verbalizing some kind of irrational prejudice, the sort of non-thinking that’s never going to respond to logic or proof anyway.


          If we’re going to “except,” I’d add LePage to the list not on the list. On the basis of Damnation, he’s an excellent director of acrobats, but his opera skills elude me.

        • Alto

          A pernicious invention like “Renee Fleming wouldn’t give parterre an interview [etc.]“ is, to be fair, not comparable with “Peter Gelb doesn’t like opera.” By the nature of things, anyone who has heard him express his feelings on the subject is likely to be a former employee (1) whose ethics don’t allow quotes from private encounters for which he/she was paid or (2) has enough sense of self-preservation not to report things that could be traced back to the quoter.

          This, I realize, is neither here nor there on the question of the man’s affection or otherwise for opera, but that question is not on the same level as ridiculous inventions like the Renée example. One does hear, however, that a authoritative tell-all book is almost finished that purports to deal with the subject via chapter and verse. (I have nothing at all to do with that work, by the way — he said defensively.)

        • messa di voce

          But it is a fact, isn’t it, that Gelb will not hire fat singers? Please, please, tell me that’s true.

        • Let’s keep our memes straight here. Not “Peter Gelb doesn’t like opera,” but rather “Peter Gelb has said, on the record [or, sometimes, “repeatedly”], that he hates opera.”

          The second statement has never been corroborated. The first is more of a judgment call, but La Cieca has to say this: there are plenty of people who do a very good job at something for which they have no particular passion, and there are plenty of opera queens who couldn’t run an opera company for a day. There are plenty of opera performers, for example, who love to sing and love the excitement of performance, but they don’t care all that much for opera in the abstract, e.g., they don’t attend other singers’ performances for any but professional or social reasons. So the point is, one can have a passion for the job if not necessarily for the thing the job creates.

          Again, all this is if the “Peter Gelb doesn’t like opera” meme is true, for which, again, I haven’t heard a convincing argument. (“He’s trying to destroy opera by hiring Mary Zimmerman” is a tempting argument, but to me it smacks of the early 1950s notion that the Reds were going to conquer us by turning American youth homosexual via comic books.)

        • Alto

          My goodness. You’ve certainly got me there. I had no idea that that’s what you were referring to. I’ve certainly never heard this one: “Peter Gelb has said, on the record [or, sometimes, “repeatedly”], that he hates opera,” and I can’t imagine who would think Peter Gelb stupid enough to do such a thing. Possibly his chief characteristic is strict custody of his public words — as befits a marketing adept. And are you seriously suggesting that people actually say that he deploys such as Zimmerman specifically to destroy opera? Where are you hearing such stuff?

        • scifisci

          La cieca, gelb did in fact, in print say something to the effect of, “often times, director’s from outside the genre who know nothing about opera are able to produce brilliant results” If brunch wasn’t beckoning I would find the quotation immediately.

  • mrmyster

    I find it rather sadly amusing that Gelb claims to be
    the “artistic director” of the Met. Maybe THAT’S what
    is wrong over there.
    Mr Gelb needs artistic reinforcement for certain, but he
    will have to change his attitude before that can happen.
    Don’t hold your breath.

    • messa di voce

      What does Mr. Gelb need to change about his attitude?

      • Alto

        THIS is simply breathtaking if you have any history with Gelb pre-Met:

        “I am the artistic director of the Met. I think people like to think I’m just a marketing person, but the fact is these artistic decisions, whether you like them or not, are coming from me. They’re not coming from any board members. I made it very clear when I was hired that I am making all artistic decisions here. I work very closely with Jimmy, certainly, but, you know, it is not unheard of in the past for productions to have come here sometimes for reasons that were beyond the artistic desires or plans of any of the people charged with the artistic supervision of this place. That will not happen with me. I’m not saying that I’m totally in command at every moment, but I am driving this ungainly ship.”


        It doesn’t seem to me that attitude is what needs changing, but an acknowledgement that there are three different personality types required and the only place you can find those three personalities in one person is a psychiatric ward. “Thank you, Peter Black. May I speak to Peter White now, please. And could you locate Peter Green somewhere.”

        First you have to have an Alpha Male, an entrepreneur, an organizational wizard, very macro-managerial. Second, you must have a visionary, an idealist, micro-managerial, with a complete grasp of what opera is, must be, can be, and should be. Third is the artist who stands outside classification but is most involved with communicating emotionally and intellectually with the audience/consumer. From what I have observed, Gelb is superb as Number One, but a complete failure as Number Two. Levine was superb as Number Three, but was loathe to involve himself as Number Two. This fellow Holander is being brought in to fill the Number Two slot but there is a real problem on the horizon.

        Number Ones have no respect for what they perceive as the wishy-washy, nit-picky Number Twos they are endemically unable to see that anyone has value except themselves. Number Threes feel that nobody understands artists and that Number Twos are just in the way; they are endemically incapable of taking authority except within their own (artistic) bailiwick. The ideal Number Two is a grimy little sweathog who must never, under any circumstances be put on public display. No Board Member would ever consider giving authority to such a creature. So I would say that unless some real effort is made on everyone’s part that more than one personality type is needed, we are more than likely going to witness a blood bath of epic proportions.

        • Alto

          Very thoughtful.

  • iltenoredigrazia

    The only thing that strikes me as new here is Gelb’s claim that he’s involved in artistic matters such as cooperating with the directors and working with the singers about their interpretations. Does he have any sort of background in the arts? (I don’t mean selling or promoting the arts.)

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Being straight myself, I’d like to clarify the word “straight” I used for Gelp. It has nothing to do about sexuality. It meant that he can take the heat like a man. BTW, in my lifetime, I have met many gays that can take heat better than staight guys. This may be a gay site, but for civility and mutual respect, we don’t have to sexualize every comment.


      Perhaps because it is a heavily gay site, the posters here are more aware of just how sexual our discourse can be. You sexualized your comment yourself, and I doubt that you were aware of it. To wit, your first sentence stands very well on its own without the defensive disclaimer which begins it. And it is indeed a defensive disclaimer, one which all of us have used from time to time during our closet days.

      “Like a man” I put in the same category as “mighty white of you” or “jewed him down,” remnants of bygone days when such bigotry was not only accepted but expected.

      • OpinionatedNeophyte

        I’m kind of falling in love with you….


          . . . and I with you, ON. You reason very nicely and express yourself very clearly.

          But don’t take this personally; I’d spread my legs for anybody with a quarter and a thesaurus.

      • Jack Jikes

        Betsy- doesn’t “mighty white of you” have enough of a tone of deprecation to allow it to fly on the wings of irony?


          It may now, but it didn’t when I was growing up and certainly not in my part of “The West’ where it was a definite slur on Native Americans.

          Would it be irony or sarcasm? I always get those two mixed up.


          Oh yes, now I remember. If you have an income of less than $50 grand per annum, it’s sarcasm.

        • Jack Jikes

          Betsy -- nice!

      • Well said, Betsy.

        As a lady, I apparently have no imperative to take complete or perhaps any responsibility for my actions. WHEEEE!!!

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      To be fair to Constantine, I’m sure he meant straight as in straight forward, direct, uncomplicated, and his assertion that it was not in the least connected with sexuality is perfectly fair.

      • Harry

        Cocky Kurwenal I readily appreciate where you, B-A -B and Constantine are coming from.

        Still, I am amused whenever I hear some fellow say something like “You know I am really straight” . To a gay, it always brings a smile.
        Our mental retort….’Sure…????!!’ Have we not heard THAT a million times too many, before.

        Would a gay say “I’m really gay, you know?” to anyone.

    • Alto

      No, he’s not “taking the heat.” He is strutting. His grandiosity knows no bounds, and when he has driven the Met into a ditch, he will move on to some other huge paycheck and be as uninterested in opera as he was before he was hired by the Met.

      • Yes, into a ditch, as opposed to the summit of integrity the company enjoyed in the 1990s, when every season was built around a last-minute substitution of recycled Zeffirelli to patch over the latest round of production team buyouts, a dozen Pavarotti cancellations, and the remainder of the artistic administration dictated by Zemsky/Green?

        • Alto

          Hmm. I said nothing at all about previous administrations.

        • My implication is that it is impossible to drive into a ditch a vehicle that is already in a trench.


    @operacat -- I am a huge fan of John Doyle and I have seen all of his NYC productions. I think an earlier poster deirded his productions. I adored A Catered Affair and described it to my friends as a “chamber musical”. I use as an example of just because a person is a brilliantly successful theatre director that doesn’t necessarily translate to a great opera director. Also, it was when Gelb was engaging the lastest Tony nominated directors to come to the Met. He may not have slunk back anywhere, but he was left to twist in the wind; which was my point to begin with.

    • I guess I wasn’t following very closely, but I don’t understand what you mean by “twist in the wind.” What was it that might have been expected from Gelb, and what did he do?


    By “twist in the wind” I meant that after all of the hype attached to Mr. Doyle’s “new piece of the theatre at the moribund Met” -- there was nothing said in defense of the director after the horrible reviews. It seems that unless bad-to-mixed reviews cannot be marketed as “controversial” then the p.r. machine is at a loss.

    • Harry

      Further Subtitled: ‘Left swinging in the breeze’ -- ‘hung out to dry’ -- ‘left to one’s own devices’ or ‘left carrying the s…t CAN’.

      Meaning desertion or no support, by higher authority.

      • prunier

        I don’t think any artist or management should be expected to comment on a review, positive or negative, for any reason. In fact, it’s better not to.

        • That depends. If the GM makes himself available for questioning, and the question is asked, then he really has an obligation to answer somehow, even if that answer is “we don’t run our opera company based on reviews.”

          There are two schools of thought about defending a production that the GM honestly sees as a failure: he can take the director’s part or he can be silent. (Well, three schools: Volpe used to openly badmouth directors’ work in meetings with the Met patrons group; he never took questions from the press.) I can see two reasons for taking the director’s part: a) the altruistic, i.e., he really believes in the director’s work and thinks it was misunderstood or unfairly judged, and b) the practical, i.e., the director has another production or two to go on her current contract, and there is nothing to be gained by turning audiences and critics against the future product.

        • ianw2

          Academically, the last time it came up Parterre was fairly evenly split on whether an artist has the right to go public with their negative opinion on a production. Does management have the same right?

        • The distinction should be drawn between a production currently in process and one that is in the past. Artists are miserable enough when they’re performing in a lousy production without adding to their grief by breaking ranks.

          The other point is that in general artists don’t have much direct control over the production or musical direction, whereas those elements are exactly what management is supposed to be managing. So management’s criticism of a production is implicitly self-criticism.

  • Arianna a Nasso

    7.3.1 Zeffirelli last minute replacements happened in two of Volpe’s 16 seasons Carmen and Traviata, not “every season” of the 1990s. Also, I don’t see a significant decrease in the number of Zemsky/Green artists employed; some were good, some were not -- same as today. “what management is supposed to be managing so management’s criticism of a production is implicitly self-criticism”

    Haven’t we discussed before that management should let directors create work and not be so involved (Joe Volpe) to the extent that it could be responsible for work enough that it would be “self-criticism”?

    • I should have said “a typical season,” not “every season,” though, to be fair, those lousy Zeffirelli productions showed up in revival practically every year, and I didn’t even address the wild repertoire swings caused by the Pav’s dithering and the Met’s lazy artistic administration (e.g., a revival of Lombardi for Pavarotti and Mescheriakova that morphed eventually into Vespri with Casanova and Radvanosky.)

      The bigger question is about where the buck stops, and, yes, I think the point of being a general manager is that you can both delegate authority and yet accept final responsibility. That is, to manage without micromanaging.

      • Harry

        La Cieca; That example you give of a proposed I Lombardi with Pavarotti and its final eventual result touches upon a point faced by many companies.’When some company get so besotted /flattered with some artists that then gives their attention: it is not long before the artist is ‘in control’ wagging the stupid tail of the opera company over the choices of repertiore, to be performed. Richard and Joannie did it in Australia at the Sydney Opera with their infliction of a bel canto plague. Now presently, its ‘Antics Angie’ G…..doing it somewhere else. Let’s start naming and adding other ‘tail-waggers club’ names!

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Gelb = schmuck | sh m?k| (also shmuck)
    noun informal
    a foolish or contemptible person.
    ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Yiddish shmok ‘penis.’

  • I think we need more Doyle, not less. How about a Puritani in which Trebs not only hangs her head into the pit, but plays the instruments, too?

  • CruzSF

    FYI: Midgette has published more of her Gelb interview at her blog. This part of the interview focuses on new operas.