Sign of hope

Is it just me, or did Peter Gelb, the incoming general director of the Metropolitan Opera, just announce the most substantial turnaround plan ever seen from a major classical music institution?

It’s not just me. Peter did exactly that—or at least he announced the most impressive first stages a turnaround plan that I’ve ever seen. And yet some noticeable portion of the press doesn’t seem to get it. More on the press later, though. (My colleagues weren’t having their best day, I fear.) First let’s see what Peter announced, first in stories from the Associated Press and The New York Times, and then at a press conference on February 13. (I was very friendly with him when he ran Sony Classical, but I want to stress that I haven’t spoken to him since he got the Met job, and had no advance word about anything I’m writing about here, except for all the usual rumors dashing around in the underbrush.)

Here are Peter’s public plans:

  • He’s going to bring in major conductors, and announced two of them. In future seasons, Muti will conduct Verdi’s Attila, and Salonen will conduct Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. For decades we’ve all complained about the lack of major conductors at the Met, apart from James Levine. So immediately Peter has addressed one of the bigger problems serious opera fans have had with the house.
  • He’s going to do many more new productions, eventually, he says, one each month. That’ll help create interest and excitement. (It will also be expensive, which means he must think that he can find the money—and, what’s most important, that he knows he has to spend money to get the Met where it needs to be, despite the current financial troubles.)
  • He’s going to reposition ticket prices, lowering the cheapest seats from $26 to $15, while raising the price of the most expensive ones. This is brilliant. With one stroke, he addresses the problem of ticket prices, which everyone knows are one of many factors keeping people away. (The mere perception, correct or not, that tickets are expensive plays a part here, too. Peter’s move—with all the publicity it’ll get—addresses both perception and reality.) And he does this, he can hope, without losing money, which ticket-price reductions typically do. As he said at the press conference, he wants the wealthy patrons to subsidize the poorer ones. We’ll have to see how this plays out in practice, especially on the balance sheet, but it’s a terrific step to take.
  • He’s going to collaborate with the Lincoln Center Theater. Apart from some uncomfortable joint efforts some years ago by the Lincoln Center Festival and the New York Philharmonic, there hasn’t been any collaboration that anyone can remember among Lincoln Center’s constituents. Not even cross-promotion of related events. This is ridiculous. With one stroke, Peter shows that collaboration can be possible.
  • The collaboration involves development of new works, with nine composers. Some of these composers aren’t classical, which already has caused some furrowed brows. Doesn’t matter. Tony Tommasini, chief critic of the Times, wrote a piece wondering if the composer choice was truly artistic, but the message I think he mostly conveyed was something different: The Met is doing something we have to talk about. Besides, nine composers! The house has been justly criticized for not doing enough new music. Getting nine composers—not one, not two, but nine—to work there can’t be bad.
  • He’s going to produce a 90-minute version of last season’s Magic Flute production, which was a hit with ticket-buyers. Of course this is aimed at families who might not otherwise attend. Again a very good idea, since the Met—with ticket sales really low—needs to find a new audience.
  • He scrapped the plans for next season’s opening, which was going to be—as so often in recent years—a gala. Instead he’s going to bring in a Butterfly production from Britain, one that caused a sensation. Very likely this was only possible because Butterfly was already on the schedule for next fall, but this change is major news. First, it potentially starts next season—Peter’s first in full command—with a bang. But even more than that, it shows that Peter is a strong, decisive manager. Opera seasons, as everybody knows, are planned years in advance. Anyone would have said, “No, you can’t possibly change next year’s opening. It’s far too late.” But it wasn’t, and by bucking the inertia of conventional wisdom here, Peter shows he’s firmly in charge, and willing to go against the grain if he has to, to do what needs to be done.

One thing that these initiatives accomplish—both separately and (most of all) together—is create some buzz. And look at who’ll be buzzing. The lower ticket prices and the 90-minute Magic Flute speak to the new audience the Met needs to attract. The new productions and the top conductors all speak to opera fans, and to people in the music business (who’ll also be impressed by the nine composers). The change in next year’s opening and the theater collaboration speak to insiders, and also to the Met’s own staff, who can see the difference a decisive leader makes. (Not that everything else won’t send that message, too.)

Add it all together, and it’s tremendously impressive. A first step, maybe (or a collection of first steps), but more than I’ve seen any other major classical music institution do.

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