Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb feels the heat

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Read the recent stories about Peter Gelb in the New York media and you’ll get the unmistakable impression that the Metropolitan Opera’s head honcho is currently going through a trial by fire.

Last week, the country’s largest opera company said that it was bringing back its former general manager, Joseph Volpe, to assist with union negotiations. Gelb took over from Volpe in 2006 and the two are reported to have a distant relationship.

The specifics of the union talks remain unclear but Gelb has been wrestling with budget deficits for months and has instituted pay cuts in parts of the company.

The current season at the Met is shaping up to be perhaps the roughest that Gelb has seen since assuming the role of general manager. In September, the season got off to a rocky start with a widely panned new production of ‘Tosca,’ starring soprano Karita Mattila. The production was criticized for its abstract and anti-dramatic interpretation of the Puccini opera.


In early 2009, Gelb spelled out a dire financial situation for the Met. At the time, the company’s endowment had fallen by a third, to a point that it could not be drawn from, according to a report in the New York Times. Donations were down by $10 million in that season.

A commentary this week in the New York Observer stated that Gelb’s decision to bring back Volpe ‘looks like a cry for help, an admission that he can’t do something that his predecessor could.’

‘Coming from someone with surpassing confidence in his own abilities, it is a deeply unexpected decision, and that Mr. Gelb even considered it shows how profound the company’s financial worries must be.’

The Observer article suggests that the Met’s labor problems have to do with the stagehands union, which rejected a proposed pay cut last year and has protested the possible use of non-union workers on the Met’s new production of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, which is expected to begin next season.

A profile of Gelb that ran in November in the New York Post quoted a former colleague who describes Gelb’s managerial style ‘as that of ‘a 1940s Hollywood mogul’ -- demanding and abrasive.’ Gelb was the head of Sony Classical before coming to the Met.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the return of Volpe, a Met board member has expressed ‘concern that the appointment showed a lack of confidence in Mr. Gelb’s ability to manage labor relations.’

Union discussions are expected to take place in the coming months, according to the Journal.

Gelb’s first seasons at the Met were widely lauded for re-energizing the company with audacious theatrical talent. Productions of ‘Madama Butterfly,’ directed by Anthony Minghella, and ‘The Barber of Seville,’ directed by Bartlett Sher, were critical and box-office hits.

Gelb also helped to spearhead the company’s ‘Live in HD’ broadcasts to cinemas across the country.

But like many cultural institutions, the Met has been badly hit by the recession. Donations have fallen and so have ticket sales. The budget deficit for next season is expected to be around $4 million.

The Met’s current woes aren’t confined to the spheres of finance and labor. This season, the company has been hit by some unlucky cancellations.

James Levine, the company’s music director, withdrew from performances in the fall because of back surgery. This week, soprano Angela Gheorghiu announced that she is pulling out entirely of the Met’s new staging of ‘Carmen,’ a production that was created specifically for her by the company.

-- David Ng

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