Watching Gelb, I was reminded of something he had told me during our first meeting: ‘I’m accused often of being a micro-manager, which I am.’

The Met’s Grand Gamble

Since Peter Gelb took the reins at the Metropolitan Opera, in 2006, he’s relentlessly picked up the pace—more new productions, more aggressive marketing, live high-def broadcasts—until everyone from chorus members to major donors has felt the strain. But is Gelb presiding over a leap into the 21st century, or the slow decline of the world’s greatest (and most extravagant) opera house? Examining the Met’s $47 million deficit, the horrendous economics of opera, and the effort to sell high culture to the masses, the author reveals what a huge risk the controversial impresario is taking.

One Saturday afternoon in early November 2009, I joined Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, inside a satellite truck parked behind Lincoln Center. A matinee performance of Puccini’s Turandot was about to be transmitted, live, from the Met in New York City to 1,014 movie theaters across the country and around the globe.

Inside the opera house, 13 cameras captured every detail in high definition; the feeds were relayed to us in the truck. We could see the Ukrainian soprano Maria Guleghina backstage, getting ready to play the sadistic Chinese princess – the title role. Up front, the ushers handed out programs and guided people to their seats. “Guys,” the video director said, speaking through a headset to his cameramen, “I need audience shots. Young people. Is there anyone under 40? Find young people!”

The Met’s famous “Sputnik” chandeliers, huge glittering spheres of crystals, were now going up. It was curtain time, and the soaring pagodas of Act I were coming into view. Ever since Franco Zeffirelli designed it, in 1987, critics have scorned this production of Turandot, calling it “gaudy,” “a veritable symbol of operatic excess,” and “Cecil B. DeMille meets P. T. Barnum.” Yet despite its gaudiness, or because of it, Turandot, with its cast of 237 singers, dancers, and extras, remains one of the most popular of the Met’s productions. At the matinee performance in November, all 3,800 seats were sold.

“Here we go, guys,” said the director. “Standing by. Ready. Dissolve!” Frantically, the technicians in the satellite truck faded one shot into another. “Ready, Eight?” yelled the director, “Ready? Go! Five? Ready? Go Five! Three? Three! Two? Two! Ten seconds on this shot! Cut!”

It was hot and cramped inside the truck, though no one else seemed to notice. Gelb, perched on a stool right behind the director and wearing a headset, was leaning forward, tracking every fast-paced command. “The backlight is too high,” I heard him say. “It’s casting a shadow.” Watching Gelb, I was reminded of something he had told me during our first meeting: “I’m accused often of being a micro-manager, which I am.”

Gelb is proud of the Met’s live transmissions, and not only because they were his idea. This season, more than 1,000 movie theaters in 44 countries will screen live performances from the Met. With about two million people expected to watch one or more Met operas on the big screen this season, Gelb’s new initiative is as close to populism as opera can get. For $20 a ticket, more or less, the greatest operas in the world are now accessible to everyone, from Mobile, Alabama, to Topeka, Kansas, from Osaka, Japan, to Lima, Peru. Some of these viewers have never seen an opera. Who can foretell what kind of impact the Met’s high-definition broadcasts will have?

Opera-lovers of an earlier generation learned to appreciate the art form by listening to the Met’s live public-radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. One day some of the people watching Turandot in movie theaters might be subscribers to the Met—or, better yet, donors. “We’ve had thousands of new donors through our high-definition transmissions,” Gelb told me. “Did I mention that to you? That’s where the future million-dollar donors are going to come from.” In other words, the transmission from the satellite truck in New York City to the far reaches of the planet wasn’t about just the democratization of opera—it was an essential component of Peter Gelb’s long-term plan to save the Metropolitan Opera.