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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How the Met was fixed

By Norman Lebrecht / November 11, 2004


The Metropolitan Opera House in New York regards itself, with some justice, as the world’s greatest. In America, it has no close competitor: the Met’s annual deficit can exceed the entire operating budget of its nearest rival.

As the sole gateway to US fame, the Met has a monopoly on singing talent. Renee Fleming, Magdalena Kozena, Anne-Sofie von Otter — divas beyond the reach of Covent Garden — appear several times each season at the Met. Everything the Met does is massive. With 3,800 seats to sell, programmes are familiar and stagings spectacular. The archtepyal Met show involves a gold curtain, several zoo animals and Franco Zeffirelli. When the Met sneezes, the rest of the opera world catches pneumonia.

So when the Met replaces its manager, the implications are felt sooner or later by everyone who sings, plays or attends opera in any setting larger than a church hall. And when the new boss is picked in a backroom deal, beyond artistic or public scrutiny, that's cause for alarm. And when I tell you that the new man has done more than anyone in the past decade to remove classical music and opera from public consumption, you will understand that the simmering scandal at the Met has the gelignite to blow a hole in opera far larger than all the petty mishaps of English, Scottish and French national operas put together.

Here's what happened - and you are reading it here first because the New York Times has exempted the meeting place of Manhattan's social elite from investigative reporting. Last February, Joseph Volpe announced his retirement. Volpe, 64, a former stage carpenter, had been hit by three seasons of bad box-office, a slump he blamed on 9/11 though it had more to do with stale productions. It took a new Magic Flute this season by Julie Taymor, director of Disney’s Lion King, to remind Met audiences that opera could still be fun.

A search committee was duly formed by Beverly Sills, New York’s favourite homegrown soprano and now chair of the Met. There were two obvious candidates. Michael Kaiser, who runs the Kennedy Center in Washington, had been a turnaround wizard at Covent Garden; he did not sound too keen on the job. Deborah Borda, on the other hand, was.

Borda revitalised the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s before being lured by sunshine, the new Disney Hall and a $600,000 salary to Los Angeles. In an overwhelmingly male milieu, the diminutive Borda added verve and vigour. She toughed out long nights with trade unions and kept conductors firmly in check. She was ready to take the Met by storm.

Inevitably, she raised hackles. One search committee member muttered after seeing her that no woman could run the Met. Sills grumbled that Borda lacked operatic experience. Still, Borda was looking the best option when Placido Domingo threw his sombrero into the ring. As well as singing around the world and occasionally conducting, Domingo runs the opera companies of Washington and Los Angeles. His candidacy was not treated seriously.

Sills, getting anxious, took a call from an old friend. Ronald Wilford, 77, is president of CAMI, the world's biggest classical artists agency, representing more than 100 conductors, including the Met’s music director, James Levine. He also looks after most big singers.

Wilford confided in Sills that Peter Gelb, president of Sony Classical and his longterm protege, could be about to lose his job in the coming Sony-BMG merger. Would she do him a personal kindness and see Gelb? Sills convened the search committee informally on October 26. They met Gelb and liked him enough to call him back for an interview the next day. Sills’ co-chair, Ben Rosen, warned Borda privately to withdraw her candidacy. But by the time she called the recruitment firm two days later, Volpe was already telling his orchestra that Gelb was his successor and that he had ‘a lot to learn.’ Speed, secrecy and collusion prevailed.

If Gelb’s credentials were convincing, the fix might be condoned. But Gelb is a contentious figure. The son of a New York Times executive, he worked his way up from coat-hanger to Wilford’s maestros to making films about them. Sony in the mid-90s gave him its loss-making classical label to run — and a chance to fulfil his personal dream of making Hollywood movies.

Neither role worked out quite as intended. Gelb’s only feature film, Voices, about the English composer Peter Warlock, was released direct to video. At Sony Classical he stripped out classical music, announcing "I know what good music is, I just don’t want to record it." Another catchphrase of his was: "I’d rather lose a million on a movie score than make $10,000 on a small shit," — meaning a mainstream classical CD.

Gelb set about buying film soundtracks and mining the mongrel seams of crossover. He had the classical cellist Yo Yo Ma play country music and the pop star Billy Joel perform piano suites. The gimmicks worked — Titanic sold 11 million CDs in the US — but the novelty soon wore off. Gelb's job was now on the line. He was 51 and, as they say, ready for a new challenge.

He is, however, spectacularly unqualified to run an opera house. He has no experience of unions, of fund-raising, or of meeting and greeting customers. Aloof and unphysical, he is the antipode of the ebullient Volpe, who once threatened to throw Gelb across the Met Plaza and may feel the urge to again while they share an office in the coming year.

The qualities that Gelb brings are an acute commercial eye and an alliance with Levine (whom he hired to conduct Disney’s Fantasia 2000). Gelb can also spot talent. He gave Taymor an early break in 1992 for shooting Oedipus Rex in Japan. he has recently backed the British movie composer Rachel Portman to make a televised opera, The Little Prince.

But unless Gelb has undergone a Damascene conversion this past week, his contempt for artistic values and his adulation of mass entertainment point to an historic shift in Met priorities — and hence in the agendas of opera singers and opera houses the world over. Gelb boasts that ‘art can be both commercially successful and artistically successful’ — in that order. Divas will have to learn to change their tune. This is the dawning of a new age of Popera.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001