Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, slipped into his theatre’s darkened auditorium just as Natalie Dessay, the French soprano, was losing her mind. It was a Friday afternoon in early September, with less than three weeks to go before opening night, and the company was rehearsing Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The day’s business was the so-called “mad scene,” a milestone in the careers of divas from Maria Callas to Joan Sutherland, in which the heroine, having just stabbed to death the bridegroom to whom she has unwillingly been married, performs a demanding eighteen-minute aria. The title role in the new “Lucia,” directed by Mary Zimmerman, was taken by Dessay, whose gaunt, wild-eyed visage had for the previous few days graced the sides of buses all over town, accompanied by the tagline “You’d be mad to miss it.” Dessay whirled about the stage in a leotard and a long flounced skirt—a bloodied wedding gown was being readied for her in the costume shop—shying violently away from a massing horde of choristers and flinging herself against the bannister of a sweeping staircase, all the while delivering a frenzy of coloratura trills.
Gelb took the seat behind mine, and whispered, “Mary says that all Natalie’s instincts are absolutely right. She’s just a great actress.” Director and singer were trying to decide how Lucia—who, in Zimmerman’s production, receives a shot in the arm from a doctor halfway through the scene, and dissolves at high pitch into an opiate haze—should sing her final notes. They were experimenting with having her pass out as the scene ended, so that Dessay, who is as slight as a ballerina, would conclude the aria while being lifted in the arms of a chorus member. “It’s a good thing Natalie’s so light,” Gelb said, as Dessay hit her concluding high E-flat while being borne aloft, her head thrown back and her arms and legs dangling. “It’s a good thing it’s not Joan Sutherland up there.”
Gelb excused himself and went to the back of the house, to greet another star who had just made an appearance: Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis player, who, the previous evening, had triumphed in the men’s semifinals at the U.S. Open. Dessay had been in the stands, and when she and Djokovic were introduced, after the match, he sang her the opening of “Don Giovanni.” The Met’s press office had arranged for Djokovic to attend the rehearsal, and when Dessay stopped singing Gelb led Djokovic onto the stage. Dessay shook his hand warmly, encouraged him to experiment with the acoustics of the house by delivering a few whoops, and prodded him to sing a few bars of Mozart, which he did enthusiastically and tunelessly. Over the next few days, photographs of Dessay and Djokovic appeared in all kinds of outlets that do not target the natural constituency of the Met, from the Los Angeles Times’ sports pages to ESPN.com. By the eve of the opening night of “Lucia,” a YouTube video of the encounter had been viewed more than thirty-five hundred times—almost enough to fill the opera house’s thirty-eight hundred red velvet seats.
Gelb, who assumed the post of general manager in August, 2006, has sought to define his stewardship of the Met with two words: theatricality and openness. In his view, the Met, while still an institution of great glory, had in recent years become culturally irrelevant. His goal is to maintain its superlative musical values—he has told James Levine, the Met’s musical director, that he would like him to remain in his post for the rest of his life—while reinvigorating its theatrical values, thereby building a broader audience.
Gelb’s emphasis upon opera as theatre rather than as recital was immediately apparent. His first season opened with a stark, stylized “Madama Butterfly,” directed by Anthony Minghella, in which Cio-Cio-San’s son—typically played by a towheaded child—was instead incarnated by a Bunraku puppet. There was also a much praised “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” directed by Bartlett Sher, in which Count Almaviva made his first entrance from among the audience, as if he were a season-ticket holder struck with sudden inspiration, before strutting on a walkway built around the orchestra pit—a sundering of the fourth wall that amounts to daring innovation at the Met.
Meanwhile, Gelb has made extensive efforts at operatic outreach: inviting the public to “open house” dress rehearsals, complete with box lunches; broadcasting opening night onto the plaza at Lincoln Center and into Times Square; beaming several performances by satellite into movie theatres throughout the country, as well as to theatres in Canada, Europe, and Japan. He has established a rushtickets program, with two hundred heavily discounted seats available at every weekday performance. In an attempt to forge links with the world of contemporary art, Gelb has opened a small gallery in a corner of the opera house’s lobby, in which opera-related works, by artists including Chuck Close and Guillermo Kuitca, have been displayed. Gelb’s innovations are not exactly transforming the core audience of the Met: this season, a quarter of the rush tickets have been set aside for senior citizens, since last year’s marketing research indicated that many of those standing in line were retirees who used to pay full price at the Met but could no longer afford it. Nevertheless, his efforts are paying off at the box office, where revenue is up by seven per cent, after six years of decline. Through a combination of carefully cultivated artistic relations, and with a thoroughgoing comprehension of public relations, Gelb has achieved what two years ago seemed unimaginable: the Met—recently described by the Times as “perhaps the most exciting cultural institution in New York”—is hot. Gelb has been embraced as opera’s most energetic champion and modernizer, a populist with class. “I’ve never seen anything like what he’s done—to take something this large and rethink the institution,” says Sher, who usually works in theatre (he directed “The Light in the Piazza”), and made his Met début with “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.” “Peter has the rebel in him. He gets inside the clockwork enough, and is visionary enough, that he overthrows the Bastille in a quiet, effective way.”
Gelb is, of necessity, more Mirabeau than Robespierre. The Met, which was founded in 1883 by aspiring social grandees for whom there was no room at the Academy of Music—Astors, Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Roosevelts—is an inherently aristocratic domain. Like all institutions of high culture in America, the Met depends upon the patronage of donors and private endowments for its survival: box-office receipts count for about half of its annual budget, which last year was two hundred and fifty million dollars. Two years ago, Sid Bass, the Texas billionaire industrialist, and his wife, Mercedes, gave the Met twenty-five million dollars; Mercedes Bass, for whom the opera house’s Grand Tier was renamed, has since begun a five-year quest to raise a hundred and forty-five million dollars from her peers. Gelb’s success has depended not only on persuading the social élite who support the Met to permit the opening of their hitherto well-guarded preserve but also on persuading them to enjoy it. Among the less obvious accomplishments of Gelb’s first year as general manager has been his ability to balance his much heralded innovations with a less often acknowledged conservatism. In this, he may be the perfect impresario for this modern gilded age: He has convinced partygoers that they are attending a revolution, and has invited would-be revolutionaries to attend a party.
At the Villa Gallici, a four-star hotel in Aix-en-Provence, a maid spritzes the flagstones and rugs in the lobby with essence of lavender each morning, to insure the appropriate ambience. This is where Gelb stayed for two nights in July, in order to attend a production of Janácek’s “From the House of the Dead,” for which the Met is a co-producer; the production will come to New York in 2009. Another of Gelb’s innovations as general manager has been to mount co-productions with other opera companies, giving the Met, in effect, the advantage of an out-of-town tryout. The director of “From the House of the Dead,” Patrice Chéreau, is a well-known theatre and opera director in Europe who has never worked at the Met; joining forces with other companies was Gelb’s way of bringing him to New York. “A gift I have is perspective,” Gelb said, as he sat on the terrace under the shade of plane trees. “I don’t have a lot of preconceived ideas about how you do things. To be successful as a producer—which is what I consider myself to be—you have to be able to think about lots of different aspects. Most people in the arts are either businesspeople or they are artistic people. Rarely are they both.”
Before going to Aix, Gelb stopped in Basel to meet with the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, best known for their conversion of the Bankside power station, in London, into the Tate Modern. In 2006, Herzog and de Meuron designed a production of “Tristan und Isolde” for the Berlin Staatsoper. “By their own admission, it had mixed artistic results, but I was really fascinated by what they did,” Gelb said. “ ‘Tristan’ is an opera that delves deep into the subconscious, and they used this material that could look either completely opaque or translucent. As the opera progressed, poles and other objects started pushing through and piercing the surface.” Herzog and de Meuron will create the set design for a production of Verdi’s “Attila” in the 2009 season.
Gelb lacks the ostentation usually expected of the impresario. He has a confidential, understated manner, and his sense of humor is dry to the point of aridity. He is tall, but more likely to bend to an interlocutor’s ear than he is to boom from a point of elevation. His only concession to flamboyance is a preference, when he attends the opening night of the Met’s season, for a velvet tuxedo paired with a black shirt and a knotted tie. He has great charm without an excess of charisma. “He is one of these people who have the ability to be warm and cold at the same time,” says André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theatre, with whom Gelb has initiated a program to commission new works from artists outside classical music, including Wynton Marsalis and Rufus Wainwright.
In temperament, Gelb could not be more different from his predecessor as general manager, Joseph Volpe, who started out as a stagehand at the Met and spent forty-two years there before his retirement, last year. Volpe’s volatility was a well-practiced art. Once, the raven-haired soprano Angela Gheorghiu protested at the last minute the blond wig she was supposed to wear in a production of “Carmen”; Volpe told her, “The wig goes on, with or without you.” (It did, on the head of an understudy.) Gelb, under similar circumstances, would probably have listened sympathetically to Gheorghiu’s objections, drafted the Met’s wig-master to bring the tresses down a tone or two, and persuaded Gheorghiu that playing a blonde had been her idea all along. Gelb believes in the power of the well-timed phone call, the intimate lunch date, the intercontinental flight. Dessay told me, “When he was hired, we had a lovely lunch in Trump Tower, and we talked about what roles I might play. With the Met, it was not like that before.” A few days later, Gelb said, “Did she tell you that I also flew to Paris to take her out to lunch? I flew to Vienna to take Anna Netrebko out to lunch, too.”
The composer Osvaldo Golijov, whom Gelb, in his first official commission, invited to collaborate on a new opera with Minghella, says, “One of the things I proposed was an opera of ‘The Kingdom of This World,’ by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier. The next day, Peter had already read the book and understood it better than I did.” (The idea of a Carpentier adaptation has since been dropped.) In June, Gelb flew Golijov to Botswana to discuss alternative concepts with Minghella, who was on location making a movie. “I said to Peter, ‘Look, I don’t know if anything will happen,’ and he said, ‘If nothing happens, at least you had a good time in Botswana,’ ” Golijov recalls. (For inspiration, Golijov and Minghella watched Henri-Georges Clouzot’s movie “The Mystery of Picasso,” which shows the painter at work. “We are not going to do an opera of Picasso,” Golijov says. “We were looking for a deep emotion that has very little to do with the nineteenth-century emotion that is at the core of opera.”)
Gelb is notorious among colleagues for his work habits, which involve pre-dawn e-mail sessions and a ruthless efficiency with time. “When you live in London, you have to wait for New York to wake up, but I think Peter is waiting for London to wake up,” Minghella says. Bishop told me that, during the recent Lincoln Center production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia,” Gelb, a regular theatregoer, had his assistant call “to find out the exact times of the intermissions, so that he could spend that twelve and three-quarters minutes profitably.”
Gelb was an unlikely candidate for the Met’s top job. He had never run an opera house; his background in classical music is largely in marketing, public relations, and artist management. He came to the Met from Sony, where he ran the classical-record division, and where his most often noted accomplishment had been releasing the soundtrack to “Titanic.” He did have a long association with the Met—he had ushered there as a teen-ager and spent six years producing its telecasts, an arrangement that came to an end in 1993, after a clash with Volpe, who threatened to throw him across Lincoln Center plaza.
Gelb’s return to the Met was just as precipitate as had been his ejection: Beverly Sills, who knew Gelb from his telecast days, suggested to the board that they meet with him; within forty-eight hours, he had signed a contract. “There were two areas in which we had a particular interest,” William Morris, the president of the Met’s board, says. “We wanted someone with a knowledge of marketing and promotion; and we wanted someone with a youthful vigor.” (Gelb is fifty-three, a stripling by comparison with most Met board members.)
The relationship today between Gelb and his predecessor is publicly cordial, if circumspect. “Peter is a great salesman, a great P.R. guy,” Volpe told me. “Music is eighty per cent of the opera, in my opinion, so in the years when I was general manager we put the emphasis on that. Now Peter comes in and he says, ‘I have got to figure out how to attract new people, so I will look at the production side.’ Anthony Minghella’s ‘Butterfly’—they did a heavy sell job on that, and it sold quite well, and I would say that right there the formula changed a bit between the music and the production. So for the old-time opera lovers who listen to the radio broadcasts, and listen to the music, it could be that they won’t like the emphasis being changed, but maybe that is a necessity to attract new audiences. Time will tell.”
Before becoming general manager, Gelb spent a year observing Volpe’s management of the company’s fifteen hundred employees, and laying plans for his own administration. With Volpe’s help, he negotiated new-media agreements with the Met’s three largest unions. Essentially, Gelb asked for, and was granted, the right to redistribute the Met’s artistic productions—via high-definition transmissions, the Internet, satellite radio, CDs and DVDs, and any other digital medium—with the unions receiving a share of any future profits. Rob Maher, who was the chairman of the chorus committee during the union negotiations, says, “We were all skeptical at first. But he made it very clear: if you are not getting your product out there, you are destined to fail. And he sold us. We all knew something had to be done. There is nothing quite as clear as being onstage and seeing a house that is not full.”
Much of Gelb’s time that year was spent attracting fresh talent to the Met, such as Mary Zimmerman, who is making her début with “Lucia,” and whose Broadway hit in 2002, “Metamorphoses”—in which the tales of Ovid were enacted in and around a wading pool—was just the kind of high-culture-based popular success that Gelb seeks to generate at the Met. (When Zimmerman expressed concerns about leaving her dog, Beary, alone in a rental apartment all day, Gelb granted her pet a free pass to the theatre.) He persuaded the Canadian director Robert LePage, whose productions have ranged from Shakespeare plays to a Cirque du Soleil show, to direct a new “Ring” cycle for the 2010 season. (One day in his office, Gelb showed me a computer simulation depicting part of LePage’s proposed concept: when he pressed a button, the flat stage of the Met levitated and spun in parts on an axis, like a snippet of a strand of DNA.) He hired Richard Jones, the British director, to bring his macabre English-language version of “Hansel and Gretel” to play over the Christmas and New Year holiday period. (Gelb told me that Jones refers to the time-honored practice among opera singers merely to stand still and sing as “park and bark.”) And when Pierre Boulez, the octogenarian French conductor, with whom Patrice Chéreau had been working on “From the House of the Dead,” told Gelb that he would be too old to come to the Met in 2009, Gelb secured instead the Met début of the Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Not every problem has been so deftly solved. One of Gelb’s plans was to bring to the Met “Doctor Atomic,” John Adams’s opera about the Manhattan Project, in 2008. Adams would be paired with Peter Sellars, the celebrated American opera director, who wrote the libretto for “Doctor Atomic,” and who conceived the original production, in 2005, at San Francisco Opera. “I wanted to put on a John Adams opera within the first couple of seasons of being here, and my intention was to put on ‘Nixon in China,’ but Peter and John persuaded me that I should look at ‘Doctor Atomic,’ which was still being written, and that it was John’s newest, greatest work,” Gelb recalls. “I saw the text, they sent me the score, and I listened to the music, and I thought it was very moving, very powerful. Then I went to San Francisco and I saw the production, and I was very disappointed. The music, I thought, was brilliant, but the production was undramatic. They had this bomb hanging on the stage in the second act. The whole thing was not realizing its potential.” He says, “It wasn’t presented in a way that would move people. I don’t think anyone was moved by it.” Gelb asked for revisions from Sellars, who ultimately withdrew, citing a scheduling conflict. “It is ironic, and sad in a way, because one of my goals when I came to the Met was to get Peter Sellars to direct here,” Gelb says. “Doctor Atomic” will now be directed at the Met by Penny Woolcock, a British director who, in 2003, made a visceral film adaptation of Adams’s opera “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
In another rare misstep, Gelb’s press office last April arranged for Ruth Ann Swenson, the soprano who had been a standby of Met productions, to be interviewed by the Times in advance of her appearance in “Giulio Cesare.” Swenson told the paper that she had been sidelined by Gelb—in part, for being insufficiently photogenic. “I think I’m not skinny enough for him,” she said. The interview seemed to confirm the suspicions of those who thought Gelb’s enthusiasm for bringing opera into movie houses might lead to the Met hiring only those singers who would look good on the side of a bus, not those who might visually evoke the back of one. In August, before an audience at the Chautauqua Institution, in upstate New York, Gelb clarified his position without shifting it. “She’s a very fine singer, but there are also many, many new singers coming up,” he said. Of the Times piece, he said, “What may have been somewhat falsely conveyed in that was that I wanted only to populate the stage of the Met in the future with beautiful, svelte singers. . . . What I’m interested in is finding great artists. Great artists are those who have in their vocal delivery and in their stage presence and in their acting the combination of all those elements.” Swenson told me via e-mail, “I was very happy at the Met and look forward to performing there again in the near future.”
In Aix, Gelb described himself as “a sort of artistic marriage broker.” His preference is to hire directors he trusts and relinquish control to them. He does give notes, though. For “Lucia,” he suggested that the lighting designer, T. J. Gerckens, was too often tracking the performers with a spotlight—a technique that Gelb finds “old-fashioned.” And he urged Marcello Giordani, the tenor who played Lucia’s beloved Edgardo, to “avoid the too big, silent-film gestures that opera singers sometimes fall victim to on the big stage of the Met.”
There are risks in brokering marriages between theatre directors who have little experience with opera and singers who expect that directors will be familiar with the demands of their art. Dessay, who initially trained as a stage actress, says that theatre directors who step into opera sometimes have an inadequate understanding of the music’s imperative over the unfolding of the action. “The director has to treat the time as it is in the music, not as we would like it to be,” she says. “We have to follow the music, and fill the time honestly and believably.” When, on the first day of rehearsals for “Lucia,” Zimmerman showed models of the sets, Giordani expressed surprise that the set of a parlor, where the marriage-contract-signing scene would take place, had no ceiling—an acoustical tool. “Are you concerned about that?” Zimmerman asked. “Is he a singer?” a cast member said.
In 2009, Gerard Mortier, the director of the Paris National Opera, will leave France to run the New York City Opera. Mortier is known for his support of Regietheater, in which operas are often interpreted through the lens of contemporary culture and politics. (As the head of the Salzburg Festival, which he ran from 1991 to 2001, Mortier notoriously produced a “Fledermaus” that depicted the rise of neoNazism in Austria.) His appointment, last spring, seemed to augur a kind of operatic-hipness face-off, with Gelb and Mortier vying to appear the more vital and relevant. So far, Mortier’s plans are promising: a production of Olivier Messiaen’s “St. Francis of Assisi,” designed by the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, is scheduled to be performed at the Park Avenue Armory; this much admired but mammoth work has never been staged in New York.
Mortier, whom I visited in Paris this summer, said that the smaller size and budget of the City Opera, relative to that of the Met, would permit him to be more experimental, and that his artistic approach would be quite different from that adopted by Gelb. “As a European, I believe enormously in opera as an actor of our contemporary society,” he said. “In New York, and in America, opera is seen only as entertainment.” Mortier said that, while he admired what Gelb had been doing to open up the Met, “he works very much on the package—how you present what you are doing.” (The City Opera has, however, started working on its own package: a recent ad in the Times implicitly took on the Met, boasting, “Our casts are younger singers who are great actors and who look the role. Both for opera veterans and opera newcomers, our ‘Bohème’ is the one to see.”)
In Aix, Gelb said of Mortier, “He is a different kind of producer than I am. He is the opera-intendant version of Christo—he likes to create this canvas of controversy.” He noted that Mortier had been responsible for some admirable productions, and said that he saw no threat to the Met’s preëminence. “People have different ideas of what is exciting,” he said. “I am very confident about the long-range plans of what is coming to the Met, and I think Gerard probably wishes some of them were his.”
Even as Gelb develops more adventurous productions, he has taken care to reassure conservative patrons whose idea of a good night at the opera includes a massive set teeming with choristers and animals, of the sort so often conjured there by Franco Zeffirelli and Otto Schenk. (Bruce Crawford, a former general manager of the Met, who now heads the board’s executive committee, jokes that there are “people who are afraid that maybe there won’t be helmets in ‘Siegfried.’ ”) Gelb has taken to referring to Jack O’Brien, the theatre director who made his Met début last season with an amiably overstuffed production of “Il Trittico,” as “the American Zeffirelli.” And he issues frequent reminders that his pursuit of Hollywood and Broadway directors echoes the strategy of Rudolf Bing, the Met’s general manager in the fifties and sixties. (Bing was the institution’s great modernizer, overseeing the move to Lincoln Center and pioneering the telecasts, as well as bringing Placido Domingo, Birgit Nilsson, and Renata Tebaldi to its stage. For the manager of an opera house to claim that he is merely stepping in the footsteps of Bing is rather like a Presidential candidate suggesting that he is only doing what John F. Kennedy might have done.)
As for those much loved productions, Gelb has his own plans. “I promised the Met subscribers when I first came on board—well, I didn’t promise anything, but I did say that there were two iconic Zeffirelli productions, ‘Bohème’ and ‘ Turandot,’ and that the other Zeffirelli productions are going to be replaced,” he says. “A lot of these things are just sitting there like lead weights, so there is a lot of catching up to do.” The first to go will be “Tosca,” which is being replaced by a new production by Luc Bondy, the Swiss theatre and opera director. “Everyone loves the Zeffirelli ‘ Tosca,’ ” Gelb says, carefully. “There are three acts in ‘Tosca,’ and the set for each one is based on a real location in Rome. It’s a tourist wonder.”
Even Gelb’s mothballing of Zeffirelli has been executed with finesse. After leaving Aix, Gelb went to visit the director, who is now eighty-four. “It was fantastic,” Gelb says. “He lives in this huge villa complex on the outskirts of Rome, with this pack of about ten dogs that have free rein, and various assistants.” Gelb’s house call was a follow-up to a phone conversation six months earlier, in which he asked Zeffirelli if he would be willing to be honored at the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s annual luncheon at the WaldorfAstoria. “He would also be here for the revival, in the same period, of ‘Bohème,’ which is the quintessential Zeffirelli production, and I said that he could supervise, and we would honor him onstage,” Gelb says. Naturally, Zeffirelli was charmed at the suggestion. “I was there for about an hour,” Gelb says. “He had wonderful pictures, and we talked about his various knighthoods, and so on. It was funny. We reminisced about the good old days.”
The first time Peter Gelb went to the Metropolitan Opera was in 1967, a year after the company had moved from its old theatre, on Thirty-ninth Street, to Lincoln Center. The production was “Carmen,” and Gelb witnessed it from the box of Rudolf Bing. Bing had invited as his guest Arthur Gelb, Peter’s father, who was then the metropolitan and cultural editor of the Times, and who went on to become the newspaper’s managing editor. “While we were applauding, two men started booing someone’s performance, and Bing went down and had them removed,” Arthur Gelb recalls. “Peter was so impressed, and he said, ‘ That’s a job I’d like to have someday.’ ” (Gelb’s version of the anecdote is slightly less honed, though he does allow that Bing’s actions were far more interesting to him than was the singing.)
Gelb was the child of cultural privilege: not only was his father a highly placed editor; his mother, Barbara Gelb, a writer, was the niece of Jascha Heifetz, the violinist, and the stepdaughter of S. N. Behrman, the author and playwright. During Gelb’s elementary-school years, the family lived on the Upper East Side, and Gelb was a witness to his parents’ vivid social life. “I remember seeing ‘Hamlet’ when I was about five years old, and seeing Joe Papp’s production of ‘ The Taming of the Shrew ’ in Central Park before the Delacorte Theatre was built,” Gelb says. “My father was at one point a night-club critic, and he and my mother would come home late at night with all these great stories about comics and chanteuses, and bring me swizzle sticks from all the night clubs.” After a four-year sojourn in the suburbs during the middle-school years of Peter and his older brother, Michael, the Gelbs moved in 1967 to the storied Apthorp Building, on the Upper West Side. Here, Arthur and Barbara held parties at which guests included Mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. (The senior Gelbs still live in the apartment, which contains a rocking horse that their younger son used to ride on while declaring himself “Peter Gelb, young cowboy,” and a photograph taken shortly after his ascension to general manager, which Gelb has inscribed, “With all my love & gratitude for the DNA and for teaching me to think big.”)
“Access was more important than wealth, and I had a sense of that,” Gelb says. “I met all these important people, and could go and see any show that I wanted to see. In the days when giftgiving was acceptable among journalists, my father was showered with perks that he would share with me and my brother.” (Michael Gelb, who renovates houses for a living and is also an artist, lives in Massachusetts.) “I remember he had a pass to the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, which enabled me to go and have free drinks there when I was seventeen.”
To his parents’ dismay, Gelb refused to go to college. Instead, he got a job, at his father’s intercession, as a mailroom clerk for Sol Hurok, the classical-music impresario. “Hurok was a total showman,” Gelb says. “He used to carry a silver-tipped cane and wear a fedora hat and an opera cape. He kept an eye out for me because of my father. I used to watch him pinch his secretary’s bottom when she would remove his opera cape when he arrived at work.” Gelb was working in Hurok’s office when, in 1972, a bomb exploded there; it was believed to have been planted by the Jewish Defense League to protest Hurok’s work with Soviet artists. A secretary was killed in the attack. Arthur Gelb recalls, “I was in a page-one meeting and someone came in and said, ‘You have to come out, it involves your son.’ I told Peter he should come right over and I would assign someone to the story, and he could draw a diagram of the office layout. So he came over, reeking of smoke, and drew this diagram.” After spending a year at Hurok’s, Gelb went to work for the artist-management firm Gurtman & Murtha; then, in 1973, he finally started college, at Yale, where, in addition to being a student, he was the director of information for the Yale School of Music. He spent a single semester at college, and says that he would have left sooner had it not been for obligations to the music school.
He returned to Gurtman & Murtha, and forged the professional bond that defined his career for the next fifteen years. “In 1974, there was a small announcement in the paper about Vladimir Horowitz making one of his comebacks—he was always retiring and returning—in Cleveland,” Gelb says. “I called up Harold Shaw, his then manager, and said, ‘If I were Horowitz, I wouldn’t be happy about making a comeback and having just a paragraph in the newspaper. I would want it to be a great story.’ Shaw said that Horowitz would never consider paying a press agent, but he also said that he would consider paying for me himself. So I met Horowitz and his wife, Wanda, and they liked me, because of my pedigree, with Heifetz, and they weren’t paying for me anyway, so they were perfectly happy to see how I did.”
Horowitz was planning to play a recital at the Met—the first and only pianist ever to make a solo appearance there—and Gelb’s first publicity gambit was to hold a press conference in the East Side town house of the supposedly reclusive pianist. (“It was sort of like the Met; nobody thought they could have access to him, but nobody ever asked,” Gelb says.) He followed that up by offering Harold Schonberg, the classical-music critic of the Times, exclusive access to a visit by Horowitz to the Met in advance of the concert. “Horowitz checked out the Met to see if he approved the acoustics, but he knew ahead of time he was going to do it—he was just being coy,” Gelb says. Such coyness landed Horowitz on the Times’ front page.
As Gelb steered the career of Horowitz, becoming his manager, he received an education in the handling of the artistic personality. “He was the greatest artist I had ever encountered, and I realized it was O.K., and appropriate, to do what I could to help make him function as a performer,” Gelb says. “I also understood that he was not eccentric, he was crazy. He genuinely needed to be treated in a kind of clinical way, and that is how I won his trust, because I took his fears about his well-being very seriously.” When Horowitz insisted that he would go overseas to play in England only if invited by the Prince of Wales, Gelb procured a meeting for himself at Buckingham Palace with the Prince’s equerry, who informed him that it would be against protocol for the Prince to issue such an invitation but that he would be delighted to attend a concert, should Horowitz give one. “Horowitz told everyone that he had been invited,” Gelb recalls.
In 1986, Gelb persuaded Horowitz to agree to tour in Russia, which he had left in 1925, by assuring him that all the comforts of home would be provided. “He was completely obsessed with his diet, and he had to have exactly the same food for every meal,” Gelb says. “I literally promised him that I would re-create his diet and the ambience of his New York town house in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. The American Ambassador was a great music lover, and he and his wife moved into a back room and gave the Horowitzes their bedroom. At the time, Horowitz ate only Dover sole, and so I organized these various ambassadors to supply his food needs. The British Ambassador was assigned Dover-sole responsibilities; the Italian Ambassador was responsible for his fresh-asparagus needs.” The tour was a triumph, and Horowitz was so delighted by the rapturous reaction of audiences that he took to speaking only in Russian, even to his monolingual manager. It took the Russian tour to reveal the limits of Gelb’s solicitude: when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded while the Horowitz caravan was in Leningrad, Gelb, who had brought his then wife, Donna, and their two-year-old son along on the trip, implored an unwilling Horowitz to leave the country. After failing to persuade the pianist, Gelb, having already dispatched his family to Western Europe, got on a plane himself, leaving Horowitz to his own devices. “He was an old man,” Gelb says. “And he was very cheerful about it. He didn’t care.”
An important part of Gelb’s role was to reinforce, through exaggerated deference, the fragile self-absorption of Horowitz and Wanda, the daughter of Arturo Toscanini. “I had dinner with them once a week,” Gelb says. “Part of my duties was to talk to them and take them out. I had always called him Mr. Horowitz, but his friends called him Volodya. At one point, shortly before Horowitz died, he was in a very expansive, affectionate mood, and he said to me, ‘You know, you’re like a member of our family. I don’t think you should call me Mr. Horowitz anymore. You should call me Maestro.’ ” After Horowitz died, in 1989, Gelb’s last managerial act was to insure that the pianist was buried in the Toscanini family tomb, in a Catholic cemetery in Milan, by claiming that Horowitz, although Jewish, had been on the verge of conversion.
While managing Horowitz’s career, Gelb was also developing his own: in 1978, he became the publicity director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa, who is of Japanese descent, was born in China, and, in 1979, he and Gelb planned a tour of China by the orchestra, the first visit by an American performing-arts group since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Gelb persuaded Pan Am to provide a 747, the first ever to fly into China. (A staircase for disembarking had to be brought from Hong Kong.) Gelb made good use of the seats not filled by members of the orchestra. He recalls, “I had gone to China and said innocently to the Foreign Minister, ‘Do you mind if we bring a few journalists?’ and he said, ‘Sure, China is open to everybody.’ No Western journalists had been in China for years, and they gave me these stacks of red press credentials.”
Gelb struck a deal with CBS News whereby a documentary team would make a film about the orchestra. Howard Stringer, who was then a producer at CBS and is now the head of Sony, says, “It was his idea—he said they were going to tour China, and that we could see it as a keyhole into the Cultural Revolution.” (Gelb’s success in drumming up publicity in New York for an out-of-town orchestra did not go without notice, or without the suggestion that his family tie at the newspaper of record was helpful. Peter J. Davis, the classical-music critic, who worked at the Times in the seventies, says, “There was a big joke at the paper when he was doing publicity for the Boston Symphony Orchestra that a missile could fall out of the sky and the headline would read ‘RUSSIAN MISSILE FALLS TO GROUND; MISSES TANGLEWOOD.’ ”)
In 1982, Gelb joined Columbia Artists Management Inc., and began producing television shows and film documentaries, among them “Karajan in Salzburg,” a chronicle of the Austrian conductor at work. He featured artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Kathleen Battle, who in 1994 was publicly dispatched from the Met by Volpe after being accused of unprofessional behavior. Battle’s allegiance to Gelb is such that she sang at his second wedding, to Keri-Lynn Wilson, a conductor, which took place in Sardinia four years ago. (After being appointed general manager, Gelb invited Battle to a party at his home, and suggested that she might return to the Met. Battle declined the suggestion. “She told me that for ten years, every time she walked down Broadway, she crossed to the other side of the street rather than set foot on Lincoln Center property,” he says.)
In 1993, Gelb helped arrange for Norio Ohga, the president of Sony, who was also an amateur conductor, to make his début in New York. With Gelb’s assistance, Sony secured Avery Fisher Hall for a private concert, and engaged off-duty members of the Met and Philharmonic orchestras. (Gelb says that he urged Sony not to seek the attention of the press for this endeavor; when the company nonetheless did so, the critical reception was disparaging, with the Associated Press comparing the concert to “a baseball fantasy camp for someone who once had aspirations of becoming a classical musician.”) Within a week, Gelb was invited to work for Sony’s classical label.
He joined the company, having been assured that he would also be able to produce movies for Sony Pictures in Hollywood. This proved to be no less of a fantasy than Ohga’s appearance at Lincoln Center. “I went out to Hollywood to meet with Peter Guber, then the head of Sony Pictures, who was obviously reluctant to meet me because he felt he was being pressured into it,” Gelb says. “I told him I wanted to produce films that had classical music as a central theme. He asked me if I had taken a stupid pill. ” (Guber says that he does not recall ever meeting Gelb.)
Instead, Gelb focussed on remaking the classical division, which, like other classical labels, was dwindling in significance and revenues. Originally, Gelb was hired to generate new projects for Sony in America, while Günther Breest, the head of Sony’s classical-music division, would continue to run the label from Hamburg. But, Breest says, “there was a dispute between the U.S. way of running a classical-record company and the way that I was thinking it should be run.” By 1995, the Hamburg offices had been shuttered, and Gelb had replaced Breest.
Under Gelb, Sony Classical sought to reach a wider audience through crossover projects, among them “Voice of an Angel,” a 1998 album by Charlotte Church, a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl from Wales. Gelb commissioned classical composers to write film scores, including John Corigliano, who wrote the music for the 1998 film “The Red Violin.” For the release of “Fantasia 2000,” he hired James Levine to conduct the soundtrack. In the move that was to define his tenure at Sony, Gelb bought James Horner’s soundtrack to “Titanic,” which sold twenty-nine million copies worldwide.
In 1997, the year that “Titanic” was released, Gelb gave a speech at an industry conference in Hamburg, entitled “Hope for the Future of Classical Records.” The closing of Sony’s Hamburg office, he said, “marked the end of making classical recordings without attention to the public’s desires.” Gelb attacked a “cabal of atonal composers, academics, and classical-music critics” whose tastes, he asserted, were being imposed on a public hungry for more melodic fare. “For far too long, classical-music audiences had been subjected to—and sometimes suffered through—an almost exclusive diet of new music that was atonal and difficult to enjoy,” he said, and announced that “a programming revolution must take place in the concert hall, in the orchestras, in the opera houses. For the first time in years, serialism is going to have to start sharing space on concert halls with new music of broader appeal.”
The speech was seen by some in the classical-music establishment as evidence of Gelb’s commercially driven lunge for the middlebrow. (Writing in the Times, the composer Matthias Kriesberg said that when Gelb addressed a group in Salzburg in similar terms “he was asked incredulously which composers were supposed to step aside.”) Even on Gelb’s terms, his efforts at Sony Classical were only partly successful—the label continued to founder even as Gelb signed Joe Jackson to record his “Symphony No. 1”—but his philosophy, he says, remains consistent. “What irked me at the time was that there were many critics and leaders of orchestras who actually believed that this music was popular, in spite of the fact that the audience wasn’t there,” he says. “I felt it was my duty to point that out, much to their dismay and disagreement. What I am saying today is not that much different. There is a danger, whether you are running a record label or an orchestra or an opera house, of not understanding who the public is. It doesn’t mean you should pander to the public, but you should understand that there is a public. You can’t operate an opera house in a vacuum, and I think more often than not that is how opera houses operate.”
Gelb’s apartment is in a landmarked building a few blocks from Lincoln Center, and is handsomely appointed with antique furniture and an ornate chandelier that Gelb commissioned from a glassblower in Murano; a sliver of Central Park is visible from one window. There are also various mementos. On a side table, near Keri-Lynn Wilson’s baby-grand piano, there is a framed letter from Horowitz: “My dear manager, or Peter Gelb, or friend—Till now we did well. Now let’s make more money!” In Gelb’s study, there is a poster for “Fantasia 2000,” signed by Roy Disney, and a sheet of music signed by John Williams and headed “The Gelb Version”—an iteration of the music Gelb commissioned from Williams for “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” In a framed photograph, Gelb is pictured alongside Pope John Paul II, a recording of whose homilies, accompanied by a New Age soundtrack, Sony released in 1999. Another relic of Gelb’s tenure at Sony is a well-stocked wine cabinet. “Since I’ve been working at the Met, I have a different financial outlook, so I don’t buy fancy wine anymore,” he said. There are no tokens of “Titanic,” which paid for a lot of that wine. “That was just luck, commercial luck, but it has nothing to do with who I am,” Gelb said. “Well, it does have something to do with who I am—it was appropriate for what I was charged to do at the time. But there is a reason why I left the record business.”
One afternoon at the Met, Gelb led me up the sweeping staircase from the lobby to the recently renamed Mercedes T. Bass Grand Tier. “Can’t miss it,” he said, nodding at the brass lettering above the windows facing Lincoln Center plaza.
While Gelb’s public efforts have been directed toward updating the Met’s cultural profile and attracting new audiences, a significant portion of his private efforts have involved attending to the ideas and opinions of Mrs. Bass. “This form of art has always relied upon patronage,” he said. “For the Met to break even purely at the box office, we would have to more than double our ticket prices, which are already astronomical. A one-hundred-and-seventy-five-dollar ticket in the orchestra would have to be four hundred dollars.” Courting the Met’s wealthy board members is thus as important a part of Gelb’s job as visiting directors and lunching sopranos. “Mercedes has been very outspoken,” Gelb said. “She gives me opinions about everything, but she understands that she is not running the Met. Although she has said—somewhat jokingly, although I think she may partly mean it—that she sometimes does wish she was running the Met.”
“Peter is quite unique, and unexpectedly unique,” Mercedes Bass told me one day last summer, at lunch in Aspen. “Without doubt he is an intelligent man, but running an opera house like that—it is not easy.” She ordered a hamburger, and two different brands of mineral water, one flat and one sparkling, which she blended in one glass to achieve the desired degree of effervescence. “You have got to be creative, plus you have got to be a diplomat, plus you have to be a manager. But I admire his mind. He knows the need of the public, and that, I think, is fascinating.” She said that she had been taken aback when Gelb’s name was first put to the board. “I thought, Oh, there’s a man who doesn’t have a clue about how to run an opera company!” she said. “But then Beverly Sills, bless her heart, said, ‘Mercedes, don’t worry, you will love him.’ And I must say she was right. And I think we all love him on the board. The first impression was that he had so much vision, and we were not used to so much vision.”
The twenty-five-million-dollar donation was, Bass said, in part a farewell present to Joe Volpe, and in part a welcome gift to Gelb. “I was worried about where the future of the Met would go,” Bass said. “I said to Sid, ‘Sooner or later we are going to do something for the Met,’ and he said, ‘Well, what’s your thinking?’ I said, ‘Well, if you really want to give me a great Christmas present, this is what I would like to do.’ The whole decision took about five minutes. I said to him, ‘Let’s make it Christmas, Valentine, birthday.’ He said, ‘You’ve already cashed in until you’re ninety.’ ”