The Met and the press

I said I’d write something about the press reaction to Peter Gelb’s announcements, which amount to the most promising first steps toward a turnaround that I’ve ever seen a classical music organization take. Some of the stories, like two in The New York Times, noted or even stressed skepticism about Peter’s plans. People were quoted saying things like, “What will he [Peter Gelb] do with the core audience while he’s courting this new audience?”

Well, he’ll have star conductors, new productions, and also very likely more star singers, since yet another criticism of the past Met administration has been that they haven’t jumped on rising European singing stars fast enough. The normal excuse goes something like this: “Well, he just got famous, but you know we plan many years in advance.” With no thought (apparently) given at all to tearing up your plans, and spending enough money to get the singers to alter theirs. Peter seems willing to do this.

And beyond that, everyone who worries about the core audience (which very likely includes the worriers themselves) should repeat after me: The core audience isn’t buying enough tickets! The Met can’t survive if it caters only to them. Not, by the way, that this is a new story. Classical music institutions everywhere have to do two dances at once, one for their traditional audience, and another for newcomers. Why should the Met be any different, and why does everyone seem so surprised—and concerned—when Peter points the house in that direction?

But there’s more. At the press concert where these initiatives were announced, one press guy got up and asked why the Met had given the story to The New York Times ahead of everybody else, making everybody else third-class citizens. He got a ripple of applause from his colleagues. One of these colleagues, whom I sat next to, murmured something to me about a news conference without any news. Everybody was angry, in other words, because they’d been scooped, and for them, evidently, this insult scooped anything else that could happen. The guy who asked the question actually wrote a story (for Bloomberg News) in which the main event, as he saw it, was the dis to him and the rest of the non-Times press. Forget the opera house, and its new hopes for survival. Who cares about that, when you think you’ve been insulted.

Now, the Times really did get the story first. Or, rather, second. The Associated Press somehow got hold of the substance of Peter Gelb’s announcement in advance, and distributed a story. This got the Times aroused, and the Met may have felt the worst possible thing it could do was get the Times not just aroused, but annoyed. (There was near-war, some years ago, between the Times and the New York Philharmonic, over a not too different issue.) So the Met gave the Times an exclusive interview.

Whether this was right or wrong I can’t say, but it certainly got the rest of the press mad. But now I have to ask: Does that make it right for the press to ignore the real news from the Met, and in effect make itself the news? And I have to dissent from what my colleague murmured to me.

There really was news at the news conference, as follows:

  • Joseph Volpe wasn’t there. Well, OK, maybe that’s gossip, not news. But it certainly shows something about how the power transition is working out. Normally the old guy would go to the new guy’s press conference, or at least issue a statement full of hope for the future. The old guy then would get duly thanked by the new guy, for all he’d done while he held power. So here we have a situation where the old and new guys are both in residence, and the old guy stays away. Talk about a dis — that looks like a major one. And from that moment on, Volpe was obliterated, or so it seems to me. He’s now clearly the past. Peter Gelb is the future — and Volpe wasn’t even present when the future began.
  • James Levine (who spoke at the press conference) talked about the Met’s “major financial problems” (his words) as casually as he might talk about the weather. That the Met has these problems is well known to people in the business, but very little reported in the press (and even what little reporting there’s been came long after the problems were common knowledge). But if these problems were supposed to be some kind of dark secret, nobody told Levine. He didn’t hesitate to mention them.
  • Levine also slipped in something that I, at least, had never heard about — that the Met orchestra needs rebuilding once again. Not because it’s deteriorated, but because it now has many young players who need to learn what the older ones learned the first time through. This happens, as time passes, and orchestras change personnel. But you rarely hear it talked about.
  • The longest part of the press conference was a presentation by the six stage directors of next season’s six new productions, talking (some live, some on video) about what, exactly, they were going to do. Some of them went into quite a bit of detail. So the press conference talked more about art than it talked about anything else! This was quite wonderful to see, and it also registered as a smart political move. Peter has been damned by many critics as the shallow king of crossover, all because he made a speech when he took over Sony Classical in which he was honest about what classical record companies had to do. Critics then assumed that Peter had no taste at all. By letting more of his press conference be about art than about anything else, he gave a quiet signal that art is something he cares about. Very savvy, I thought. (And when he announced that one of his own new productions, in a future season, is going to be Janacek’s From the House of the Dead, conducted by Salonen and directed by Patrice Chereau, who directed the famous Ring at Bayreuth that Boulez conducted…that was yet another quiet sign that Peter knows what art is.) One curiosity, though. All the art talk was about theater.Maybe sometime we’ll have some talk at a press conference about music. Which won’t be easy. Not because music is technical (though talk about it can be), but because normally the technical side of music is all that gets talked about. The stage directors all talked about the artistic meaning of what they wanted to do. I’d love to see a musician get up and talk about music just that way.

On another note, I got a long e-mail from someone prominent in the classical music business, discussing many fascinating money issues involved in Peter’s announcement. Certainly Peter plans to spend a lot of money. I can only assume that either he thinks he can get it, or understands that he can’t transform the house without spending money, whether he knows where it’s coming from or not. Or, most likely, a combination of both these things. I’ll ponder these things, see if there’s anything in the e-mail that can be shared, and maybe post more about this in the future.

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