Has New York’s Metropolitan Opera, led by manager Peter Gelb since 2006 and probably at once the most beloved and most hated institution in all of classical music, been going through an astonishing rough patch? Or has its visibility simply made it a lightning rod for systemic issues facing the entire field? The last seven years of its history read like a summary of the entrenched problems facing classical music as a whole. In 2015, the New Yorker published an account of labor issues, board-member backroom dealmaking, and conflict between advocates of operatic tradition and innovation. In December 2017, the New York Post reported on allegations of sexual abuse against the Met’s (now late) music director James Levine, leading to a flood of revelations that confirmed longtime rumors. In the spring of 2020, with COVID ravaging New York and the world, Gelb suspended paychecks for the opera’s orchestra musicians, chorus, and stagehands, forcing some players to exhaust their savings, take early retirement or move back in with their parents. Most recently, Gelb fired Anna Netrebko, the house’s most bankable diva, over her affinity for Vladimir Putin.
I met Gelb one sunny afternoon at his office at the Met, right after his recent back surgery. Gelb was warm and affable. After our 45 minutes were up, I looked back over my notes and realized I had at least ten questions I still wanted to ask.
VAN: Let’s start by taking stock of the past season. It’s been a pretty exceptional one.
Peter Gelb: In some ways for the whole company, not just me, this has been the most exceptional season of our lives—maybe not for all the right reasons. I think there was a company-wide sense of pride that we somehow met the challenges of the pandemic and that we survived that without missing a single performance.
Also, this season marked a significant programming shift. We premiered three new contemporary operas at the Met. That was the most since the ’30s, which was a conscious effort to reinvigorate the opera audience here. Also, a direct result of Black Lives Matter and the obvious need, which I had been nibbling away at for years. Obviously, more assertive action needed to be taken to emphasize new and diverse work. I really believe this is a mission, and I’ve been on a mission since I first arrived here: to keep opera alive in New York.
I felt when we came back from the shutdown, we had to come back with a bigger message. I think the gut instinct, probably, for a company like ours with such a huge financial challenge every year would have been to play it safe and retrench and do things more cautiously. My instinct is that’s a recipe for imminent disaster and failure. I believe that the right approach is to be bold. I’m sure the Met is thought of as a conservative institution in some quarters, [but] I believe this is no time to be conservative. I don’t think we are thought of as conservative any longer. I think over the period of time that I’ve been here, things have changed dramatically.
This season represents—I wouldn’t say a sea change—but somewhat of a title change in terms of ramping up the effort to make opera at the Met more diverse and more accessible [while] still maintaining high artistic standards. Also, the other big factor of the season was Ukraine, which became a rallying cry for the entire company. I think [we are] leading the way for other companies in terms of the positive actions we’ve taken to defend Ukraine and [the actions we’ve taken] against Putin and his oppressive forces.
Considering diversity and Ukraine: Why now? Diversity in opera has been a problem for a long time; this was the first season that ever had a premiere of a work by a Black composer. Also, people like Anna Netrebko have been in Putin’s orbit for years. Valery Gergiev has been close with Putin for a long time. What about this moment specifically made you take action?
I think I have clear answers for both of those. I’ll tackle the second one first. I was in Moscow on February 23  for a coproduction [between the Met and] the Bolshoi of “Lohengrin.” Nobody really believed [the invasion] would happen, even the night before—at least the artistic people didn’t believe it. Apparently, the only people who knew were Putin and the U.S. government. The difference is that before February 24, Putin was a rising menace but he was being dealt with politically. I understand [Russian forces] did invade Georgia [in 2008].
The Russian government also criminalized the “promotion” of homosexuality in 2013.
Absolutely, there’s no question. [Russia] annexed Crimea. We weren’t at war with them.
Are we at war with them now?
The Met is, and indirectly, the U.S. is, obviously. We may not say we’re at war with them, but we are at war with them. This is more than a straw. It’s an action to annihilate a civilization, the whole people of Ukraine. What Putin is determined to do is unlike anything that has ever happened before to my knowledge or experience. It seemed to me there was no way that we could do business with Russia, and in this case the Bolshoi, although I have respect for the guy who runs the Bolshoi, Vladimir Urin. But the fact is because they’re a state-sponsored organization and because Netrebko is a close personal ally of Putin, both in deed and in mindset—which I know from personal experience, having spoken to her and known her for many, many years—what I was willing to tolerate seemed no longer tolerable.
Anna made her debut before I came to the Met, but I pursued her and made the Met her home company in many ways. I told her back in 2006 that if she committed to performing two operas a year at the Met, I would give her new productions, and I would feature her in our HD transmissions. At the same time, I was very aware all along… You’re actually right [about] her personal political leanings towards authoritarianism and Putinism. Putin, 10 years ago, even when he was outlawing homosexuality, which was horrendous, he wasn’t acting upon it [a series of hate crimes were perpetrated against LBGTQ Russians after a federal law was passed panning homosexual “propaganda” in January 2013, though the perpetrators have often been described as “vigilantes” not directly affiliated with Putin’s government.—Ed.] The Bolshoi was performing the recent ballet about Nureyev’s life and doing all kinds of other things.
I’m not saying it’s right in any way, I’m just saying that there was a difference between doing business with companies which are in a country that is of more than questionable morality [and] doing business with a country that is trying to annihilate a people. You may disagree, but for me, that was a dividing line."What I was willing to tolerate seemed no longer tolerable." Peter Gelb on firing Anna Netrebko, and the Met's war with Russia. @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
Does the dividing line have to be a genocidal war, or can there be a point earlier on?
Maybe there should have been a point earlier on, but that certainly was the point that smacked me in the face and made me say, “What the fuck is going on here? We can’t tolerate this. We have to change.” I get criticized for everything, and I’m willing to be criticized for acting when I did, but at least I acted. I’ve acted decisively, and not like some of my colleagues who are waffling all over the place.
The examples are obvious. I feel very strongly that we took action, and we’re not going to budge from that position.
What about diversity at the Met—why now?
When I first came here… I’m not suggesting I’m naïve, nor do I want to sound defensive, and nor do I want to sound offensive, [but] the fact is the Met was wrong not promoting Black artists’ work. I personally have worked with many of the greatest Black artists, and I’m very proud of the number of Black artists [we’ve worked with who are] so great that there’s no question they belong on our stage.
There’s no question that Black composers’ work should have been performed earlier. We were doing much less new work when I first got here; we’re doing much more now. I’m not making any excuses, I’m just saying, better to have done it than not to have done it. Now we have a pipeline of many Black composers’ work. We have three composers in our commissioning program. We’re producing Terence Blanchard’s “Champion” next season. We’re producing Anthony Davis’s “X.”
We have a number of other works as well, not just [by] Black composers, [but also by] composers of color. It’s not even a question of whether it’s right or wrong. Clearly, it’s right, but it’s also a question of opera’s survival. If we don’t open the world of opera up to a broader audience, it will not survive. We must do this.
You said some people think of the Met as a conservative institution…
I don’t think we’re conservative.
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From Europe the Met definitely looks like a conservative institution.
I think the fundamental difference has to do with public versus government funding. The Met is a larger house by 1,000 or more seats than most European houses. I feel very strongly that my job as the Intendant [artistic director] of the Met is not to pander to the audiences because it doesn’t work. There’s no formula for success. I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what will stimulate and excite an audience.
My responsibility is to the audience. I think the difference in some European houses, which are government subsidized, is the responsibility: Is the cultural minder in the government, or not even? The point is that there is not necessarily an accountability to the public. Ultimately, there is. I’m sure if people stopped going to the Staatsoper [Unter den Linden, in Berlin], or the Deutsche Oper, or the Komische Oper something would happen. I think the fear in Europe right now in the cultural sector is that these elite opera houses which have very small capacities and oversized funding: What is their role? Why is the government spending as much money as they do on them?
I believe that I have an obligation to the public, which does not mean that everything we put on here is going to be successful. It does mean that part of my responsibility is hiring directors who honor the narratives of the operas that they’re producing.
My personal aesthetic is not bound to any one particular style. It’s an overall aesthetic that the audience has to understand what they’re seeing. The story has to be clearly told. I do not believe that is necessarily the first priority of some opera productions in Europe. That’s an aesthetic difference.
For me, it’s a failure when the story is not told clearly. Simon Stone produced “Lucia” for us recently, which was his Met debut, and the public got it. Even though it was set in the present, in this rust belt town in Michigan and with a population of miscreants and opiate addicts, it was the story of “Lucia.” It was not a metaphor for the story of “Lucia.” It was “Lucia.” She was there front and center. The characters were the characters. They all had basic motivations that were true to the libretto. It was told in a totally modern, compelling way that made it much more immediate for the audience.
Isn’t that narrative approach a big limitation to place on the director?
It’s not a limitation I place on the director. I hire directors who are interested in telling a story. It’s a limitation on who I hire.
But isn’t that a pretty big limitation on who you hire? Art without a clear story can be powerful.
Look, the production of “Akhnaten” that Phelim McDermott put on is abstract, but he’s responding to the opera that Glass wrote, which is an abstraction to begin with. If there’s a clear story at the heart of the libretto, I believe it should be told. There are plenty of theaters that can do otherwise. We have a 3,800-seat house. I think I have a responsibility to storytelling, and that can have a very wide range. Believe me, within that construct…
I’d rather say construct. Within that construct, there are so many bold, talented directors who want to work here.
I don’t want people to go to the opera, at a time when we’re trying to win new audiences, and [have them] leave the theater scratching their heads about what they just saw. My pet bugaboo is that you have to read an essay to figure out what the fuck you just saw. To me, that is not good director’s work.
In visual art, there are plenty of exhibitions that people go to with enthusiasm and then leave and still argue about what they mean.
That’s different. Visual art is… I wouldn’t say it’s one-dimensional, but it’s much less dimensional than a multi-faceted [opera]. It’s not meant to tell a story. Visual artists want people to get different things from their work, and I think visual art is different on its own.
I also want to go back to the European versus American, subsidy versus private donor model. Reading interviews with you, especially during the pandemic, I got the sense that you were a little jealous of opera companies that had public funding.
It’s more of a wistful feeling. It would be great if there was money available from the state to pay salaries. I know that it was very controversial what I did [furloughing the Met’s orchestra, choir, and stagehands—Ed.]. My goal was to keep the Met alive. It was a very difficult time for sure. We tried. I’m not suggesting the system here is perfect, it isn’t. I wish we had government funding, but we don’t.
Is it so impossible? Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin wrote a letter to Joe Biden asking him to create a cabinet-level position responsible for the arts. When I read about the effort that the Met makes to get private donations, I wonder, why not try with the government too?
We try all the time. I meet with congressmen. We’re constantly trying.
So it’s never worked out at all so far, or only in small amounts?
Only in very small amounts. The entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts equals one-half of our annual budget. How do you turn that one around? It’s not going to happen, particularly with the government that is so deadlocked ideologically. In Europe, the conservative elements of the government probably are much more pro-art than they are in America.
Ultimately, in order to do my job I have to be an optimist. To persuade people to give money to the Met, I have to make them believe the Met will not only survive but succeed. I just can’t waste my time fighting battles that I know will not succeed. I do talk to government leaders , [including] Rosa DeLauro, who’s a very powerful member of the House, she’s the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and an opera lover. I had lunch with her recently. We talked about special appropriations for the arts, for the opera. She’s enthusiastic, but she has the conservative side of Congress to deal with.
I want to ask this question with all due respect for the presumption of innocence and the complexity of the issues at stake. When I was a teenager in a youth orchestra in Boston, the rumors that James Levine allegedly preyed on young boys were everywhere. Help me understand how that rumor was so widespread and so omnipresent that even a kid like myself who had no family or connections in classical music could know about it, and Levine could still be here at the Met. That doesn’t add up for me.
All I can tell you on the record is he’s not here. I have to be forward-looking in what I’m doing.
Do you have a burner social media account that you use to follow what people are saying about the Met on Twitter?
No. I don’t have a burner account. But I have access to follow the Met’s accounts.
Do you read the comments?
I have thick skin. It goes with the territory. My spine surgery left me with a refortified spine. ¶