Surprises in Store for the Met

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

This weekend, the Metropolitan Opera will host a gala celebration for outgoing general manager Joseph Volpe, who led the august organization for 16 years. His successor, Peter Gelb, takes the reigns for the 2006-2007 season, and the newcomer has wasted no time in setting the Met on a different course. In February, he released plans for nearly six upcoming seasons – and for once it wasn’t just another day at the opera. For the first time in memory, the nation’s premier opera was part of the city’s daily conversation.

To chart his course, Mr. Gelb, turned to his list of contacts – collected during a 20-year career in the entertainment industry as a producer, talent manager, and record executive – and arranged for more than a few unexpected marriages. The list of upcoming performances is full of surprise pairings of conductor and score; singer and director; theatre and opera, and the avant garde and the classical. Barn-burning theatrical auteur Robert Lepage was assigned the entire Ring Cycle (for the 2010-11 season). Mark Morris and Isaac Mizrahi, twin enfants-terribles of the dance and design world, will make their joint Met debut with “Orfeo ed Euridice”(06-07). Myth-bending Mary Zimmerman will enter the opera house for the first time to direct “Lucia di Lamamoor” (07-08). The general take from the Zeffirellinumb press corps: Change is good.

The new face of the Met is a confident, courteous 52-year-old man with a nervous edge – he fairly vibrates with harnessed energy. “My goal is to have change, but not have a revolution,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview with The New York Sun. “[The Met] has this extraordinary musical foundation in its orchestra and its music director, James Levine. It has also earned the reputation of being the home of great voices. That is something I don’t want to tamper with. My plans for raising the consistent level of theatrical achievement here will only enhance and build upon the musical achievements.”

What Mr. Gelb means by “theatrical achievement” is a standard of stage direction and acting that goes beyond pose and gesture. In opera, music reigns not just supreme, but also imperious: Both singers and conductors are the stars, and directors do not enjoy the omnipotence they exploit in the theatre. But it’s clear from the list of directors Mr. Gelb has invited aboard that he intends to shift that balance: LePage, Zimmerman, Bartlett Sher (“The Light in the Piazza”), Jack O’Brien (“Hairspray”), Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”), and Matthew Bourne (“Swan Lake”) and Richard Eyre (“Mary Poppins”), who will team-up on a new staging of “Carmen” during the 2009-10 season, are all talents used to having their way on Broadway and beyond.

Mr. Gelb argues that this approach will attract, not threaten, the opera establishment: “By having more new productions in any given season – of standard repertoire as well as new operas – the Met will become an even more attractive place for the top singers. The greatest artists and conductors want to be stimulated.”

Ah – but do opera audiences? There’s the rub. Mr. Gelb is aware that Met subscribers and opera fans in general are a tetchy, proprietary lot that doesn’t mind that the art form hasn’t changed much in a century or so. He wishes to quell their fears, so, as he revs the motor on his vision, there are spurts in both forward and reverse.

“The audience that we have is naturally concerned about change, and I want to reassure them that the changes will be in their interests,” he said. “There may be a certain fear that suddenly this theatre will be a theatre only of new contemporary works. That is not the case.”

In an average season, the Met puts on approximately 25 operas. Under his guidance, only 7 will be new productions, with one being a contemporary work – John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” due in 2008-09. Still, that’s more fresh blood than is usually seen on this house’s red carpet. And its impact will be felt at the starting gate: the very first opera of the Gelb era will be a new production: film director Anthony Minghella’s spare, Japanese-influenced London staging of “Madame Butterfly.” It will be the first premiere to launch a Met season in two decades. (Talk about your cobweb-kickers.)

Mr. Gelb – who is married to conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson and has two sons – has a long history with the opera. As a teen, he was a part-time usher, and in his 20s, he worked for the opera’s communications office. (Underlings do well at the Met: Mr. Volpe’s first job at the opera company was in the carpentry shop.) In 1982, he joined Columbia Artists management, forming the CAMI video division, which produced “The Metropolitan Opera Presents” television series. Before accepting his new job, he spent a decade as president of Sony Classical.

Now, in Mr. Gelb’s Met, eyebrow-raising news arrives every day. On the day he spoke with the Sun, he was due to meet with Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth and composer John Corigliano to cement the former’s participation in a 2009-10 revival of “The Ghosts of Versailles.” Not many days before, he finagled a new “Boris Godunov” for the 2010-11 season, directed by Peter Stein, and starring Rene Papa in title role. And the other day pop singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright came by with his first compositions for a co-commission he received from the Met and Lincoln Center Theater.

In one of Mr. Gelb’s boldest moves, the two artistic neighbors have teamed up on a program entreating musical theatre composers and librettists to write for the opera. Among the people selected: Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Piazza”), Michael John LaChiusa (“See What I Wanna See”), Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner (“Caroline, or Change”) and jazz man Wynton Marsalis. The resultant compositions will be produced on either the Met stage or at the Vivian Beaumont.

Mr. Gelb hopes the excitement generated by his myriad of enterprises will counteract the declining trend at the box office, which has seen subscription dip to about 78 percent capacity after the terrorist attacks of September 11. “There has been some belt-tightening over recent years,” said Mr. Gelb, who claims all his new ventures will not raise the Met’s annual budget of $220 million more than a percentage point or two. “My intention is to be more active and create the initiatives that I’ve laid out – bridges to the contemporary audience. My belief is by being more active, we will increase the Met’s chances for success and longevity.”

One thing is for sure: it’s already increased the Met’s chances of being discussed outside opera circles.

The New York Sun

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