Peter Gelb and the missing strategy

Much has been written, and rightly so, about Peter Gelb’s folly — his moves to censor writing that strongly critiques his reign at the Met. As I’m sure most of us know, Peter got so much protest that he had to reverse himself.

And there’s much to discuss here. My take — beyond all the strong points my wife made in her blog post (where my first link takes you) — goes beyond the perils of suppressing discussion. What I’m wondering is whether, despite all his famous innovations, Peter really has a strategy for moving the Met into the future. The connection here? If he did have a strategy — and if it was working — he wouldn’t need to worry about what anyone wrote.

What would a strategy be? A coherent plan for survival. And, beyond that, growth. What makes a plan coherent? First, a clear and measurable goal. For instance, not just to sell more tickets, but to develop a new audience. And, second, rigorous work to make sure that all your innovations contribute to your goal, and that each of them supports the others.

Does Peter have a coherent plan? I’m speculating here, I should quickly say. I haven’t discussed any of this with Peter, or with anyone else at the Met. And I’m not privy to backstage information. I’m just looking at what I see. And would be happy to be wrong!

Behind this, I should say, lies my strong, strong belief that classical music needs to reach out proactively. It’s not enough to change our ways, and hope a new audience comes to us. There’s too much competition (as there is for every form of art or entertainment). And people won’t rush to us, because they’re not, as yet, committed to classical music. We have to go to them, inhabit their cultural space, enter their lives, and entice them.

With that in mind, here’s what I see when I look at the Met:

The HD streams to movie theaters

Clearly a success, at least in some ways. A substantial audience. Income (after some years of losses, perfectly natural when you’re investing in something new). And buzz: So much talk about the Met’s success, and even the notion — often repeated — that the success of the movie showings proves that opera is popular. Or even that classical music isn’t in trouble.

But what’s the reality? The audience is large, but limited. According to figures the Met released some time ago, 95% of people attending had seen an opera live on stage. So this isn’t a new audience for opera. And it seems to be elderly. (I haven’t seen stats, but I and others, going to theaters outside New York, can confirm this anecdotally.)

So the buzz, while helpful to the Met’s image, isn’t altogether accurate. The streamings work wonderfully now, but won’t work in the future, unless there’s a new audience. And what’s the Met doing to find that new audience? Not much, as far as I can see. So the screenings — from what I see — don’t have a strategy. They have short-term success (sell tickets, make the company  look good), but may not, as yet, do much for the Met’s future.

Bus ads

One striking move the Met made in New York was to take out ads on city buses. The ads, which hype the new production that debuts on opening night, couldn’t be simpler. They feature a striking photo of whoever’s singing the lead, and no words at all, other than Met Opera.

And when I say the photos are striking, that’s an understatement. The best of them rank with the best fashion photography, or with the photos you’d see in Vanity Fair. So they enter mainstream cultural space. And the lack of fine print — the name of the star, the name of the opera, dates of performances, words like “Buy tickets now!” — gives the ads impact. “We’re the Met,” they say. “Things are happening here!”

Which all is terrific. But now what? People see the ads. Do they rush to buy tickets? Maybe not! Again, I don’t see a coherent strategy. What else is the Met doing, to enter the mainstream cultural space? The ads talk to people at a distance. In my idea of a coherent strategy, they’d reinforce other efforts, which would be made more directly.

For instance, the Met could start groups at colleges, or in neighborhoods (the upper west side, let’s say, or Tribeca, or Park Slope or Williamsburg). These groups would reach out to people around them, the way orchestral musicians at the University of Maryland reached out to students in their classes, and in their living spaces.

So now you’d have people being reached more directly, and the bus ads, all over the city, would reinforce that more powerful work.

But the Met, from what I see, doesn’t think that way. It puts out the bus ads, and then lets them sit there. Yes, they look great, and they help to generate fabulous buzz. But, by themselves, they might be too passive to pull people in. And especially might not pull in that crucial new audience.

I could say much the same about billboards I’ve seen in Times Square, on which the Met advertises itself to tourists, who buy a noticeable percentage of the Met’s tickets. Are there more direct tourist appeals that these Billboards might reinforce?

Maybe the Met ads I’ve seen in Broadway program books would count. The ones I saw didn’t use the word “opera.” The appeal, quite clearly, was to theater fans, or out of town visitors making a Broadway stop. The message? If you like what you’re seeing, you’ll like us, too.

But this, too, seems passive. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. Do out of town visitors find a Met brochure — or even a packet — in their hotel rooms? Has the Met made arrangements with hotel concierges, as restaurants do, to encourage hotel guests to think a Met evening will confound their current thoughts about opera?

Maybe they do these things. They did something like these things once, when they produced Satyagraha, the Philip Glass opera about Gandhi. When tickets at first didn’t sell, they reached out to people interested in Eastern religion and meditation. ADDED LATER: And placed targeted ads in downtown NYC neighborhoods, where they might expect Philip Glass fans to live. All these things, I’ve heard, got terrific results.

But I’d think they need to do things like these — or some equivalent — all the time, for every opera they do.

One more example. Opening nights, at the start of Peter’s reign, were glamorous. Celebrities. Gowns. A buzz of excitement. Now they seem more drab, more predictable. Less glamorous. Less buzzy.

After Peter’s first opening, the page in New York magazine that reports on parties had a fetching item about the Met’s opening night. They talked to a model, a woman in her 20s. She’d never been to the Met before. Why not? Because no one she knew talked about the Met. Now, though, she’d be going. Because now the Met was on everyone’s lips.

How that happened that night — how much of the buzz the Met deliberately fed, and how much simply happened, because the Met, for the moment, was in the news and seemed glamorous — I don’t know. But I do know that buzz like this won’t continue unless it’s fed.

And to feed it, it’s not enough to do the same things year after year. You have to find new things to do, things that show that there’s always a reason to pay more attention. And — returning to my overall point, about classical music’s future — you need to get into people’s life and entertainment and art space, not just hover above it, flashing your message. If you want to keep reaching the model New York  magazine talked to, you have to create Met events in her world. And even recruit people in that world to talk about what you’re doing.

If the Met had these strategies — and if they were reaching people, keeping them interested, filling the house with them — then who cares what critics write? The Met would be a success.

Though there’s one more dimension. The productions have to be good. And, too often, they haven’t been. So the strategy, no matter how well implemented, might not work. You can get people coming once. But if they don’t love what they see and hear, they won’t come back. And they’ll tell their friends to stay away. 


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  1. says

    >> Less glamorous. Less buzzy. <<

    Y'mean they're about the music, instead of the socialites in the audience?

    I like this Peter Gelb more and more as I hear about him.

    • says

      Neil, there haven’t been socialites in the audience, not for years. They came only in past generations, in the 1940s.

      And their presence, no matter what you think of them, was a sign that the Met was healthy. They reliably bought tickets, some of them to every performance. That was one reason that the Met actually made a profit from its operations in the 1920s. The socialites also gave money, when that was required. The Met had no endowment before 1966, and didn’t engage in systematic fundraising until around that time, but when money was needed, the socialites were there to give it.

      If you look at the history of opera, socialites (and in Europe, the aristocracy) were always a big part of the audience. Read Edith Wharton, and see who’s at the Met. Read Balzac, and find scenes set at the Opéra in Paris, with Balzac’s aristocratic characters paying no attention to the music. That’s how opera worked when it was a central part of social and cultural life — when, in other words, nobody had to be concerned about its future.

      And that was a sign that the music was important! This may seem like a paradox to you, but if you look at the history of virtually anything else where tickets are sold to the public, you’ll see the same thing in operation. The proof that something has artistic and cultural importance, on any large scale, is the presence of people who don’t centrally care about the event in question, but think it’s important to be there. Despise them, if you like, but their presence proves that the event has cultural resonance. And therefore that it can finance itself. I mean, I think of myself, and football (the American kind). I’m not particularly a fan, but I watch the Superbowl. Shows that football has a big enough cultural footprint to lure me in, when something big happens.

      I said, in the last paragraph, cultural importance “on a large scale.” Nothing the size of the Met — with 4000 seats to sell, and gigantic expenses — can survive with the support only of those with a serious interest in music. It has to get support from absolutely anyone it can reach. Without that support, the institution dies. So the more broadly it can reach — the more people it draws in because of perceived glamour, perceived excitement, perceived social importance — the better it does.

      And you know what? Here’s a lesson I learned when I was a pop music critic. The larger the market, the larger its fringes are. Or, more specifically, the more people we have selling 10,000,000 records, the more space opens up for those of great artistic force, who have a small audience. The small audience, in a really large market, becomes — comparatively speaking — quite large.

      So it’s in our artistic interest for the Met to have support from celebrities. That helps make room for connoisseurs, who right now make up a really small percentage of the people who go. In 1950, the Met still had socialites supporting it. And, at the other end (speaking very crudely) of the artistic spectrum, there existed in New York a large audience of people with serious interest in art, who’d come only to certain classical music events — the truly artistic events. Virgil Thomson very famously wrote about these people in his 1950 essay “The Intellectual Audience.” It’s an eye-opener, to read his descriptions of who these people were, and what interested them. There’s nothing like this today. No audience of that kind, existing in large enough numbers to make any difference.

      So that’s one more piece of evidence, suggesting a connection between an audience that includes some reasonably large proportion of perhaps frivolous operagoers, and the presence of a really serious audience.

      Today, as I said, we don’t see socialites at the Met. The equivalent would be celebrities, prominent artists, and, maybe more than anything else, the presence of the kind of interesting people you see when you go around New York, people with brains and style, many of them artists or creators of other kinds. At the start of the Peter Gelb years, you’d start to see these people. Their presence showed that opera was starting to spark interest beyond its core audience — an audience that was aging, shrinking, and had no deep knowledge of opera as an art.

      And now that seems to be going away. And, Neil, if you think that leaves the house free to concentrate on music, you’d be sadly disappointed, I imagine, if you went to performances. This year’s opening was blah in every way. No sign of interest or excitement in the audience, no presence of the kind of people who make NYC an exciting place — and no excitement coming from the stage or pit, either. It was about as blah a big-time opera performance as I’ve ever seen. With tepid applause, a phenomenon that’s been really noticeable at the Met in recent years. Even when, a few years ago, they opened the season with a gala in which Renee Fleming, one of opera’s biggest stars, did one act from three of her signature operas (wearing gowns designed for her by famous designers), the reaction in the house was tepid. When the evening was over, we heard “clap clap clap clap clap,” for 20 seconds or so, and then everyone got up to go home. I’m sure the people in the audience though that they’d liked it. But they showed no enthusiasm. This was nothing like the ovations I remember from many years past, when the audience really was excited. And socialites came. And — I remember this vividly from one opening night decades ago — some of us spotted Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband Eddie Fisher going up the grand staircase, and were totally wowed.

      Those were the days when performances were truly something to see (and to hear). We’ll know those days are back when the glamour returns.

  2. RedBear says

    Who is responsible? The Board of Directors. Period. They hired a marketing exec. All the other major opera houses in the world hire experienced opera managers who have an artistic vision and plans for the future. Gelb’s marketing skills have been a valuable Met addition but it reminds me of an old ad man story about a terrific, creative campaign for a new dog food with a great slogan, “A bark in every bite!” The one problem: the dogs didn’t eat it. Gelb is also responsible for the “product” and this is where the problem has been from the start.