Maureen Dowd: A night at the opera?

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 30, 2014 - 9:00 am

Peter Gelb still recalls the sting. “In second grade, my report card said I couldn’t take criticism, and I remember being devastated by that,” he said.

So it’s easy to believe the 60-year-old general manager of the Metropolitan Opera when he says that this is the most stressful week of his life, with his career and the Met’s future “at stake.” Hurtling toward a lockout, Gelb sees a fresh vitriolic insult from a union negotiator every time he checks the news on his phone. And with the planned production of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” Gelb is also attracting protesters and even some death threats.

“They come by email – the convenient modern delivery system for death threats,” he said, taking a break from marathon negotiations to have a pork chop dinner at a Lincoln Center restaurant. Gelb refused to cancel the production. But after speaking with Jewish leaders, including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who hasn’t seen the opera but worried it could fuel anti-Semitism abroad, he called off the Live in HD broadcast.

“I had no idea four years ago when I set this up that it would suddenly be juxtaposed with the events in the Middle East,” he said, denying that he un-Solomonically split the baby of artistic freedom. “I think what I did was protect the baby.”

I never expected to get any closer to the Met than reading about opera in Edith Wharton’s Belle Epoch, club boxes filled with “these chosen specimens of old New York gentility.”

But Gelb’s late father, Arthur, was my editor and mentor at The New York Times. And when Peter threw open the doors to the musty, fusty institution – “an isolated island, disconnected from the mainland,” he called it – trying to lure younger patrons and beaming the hugely successful Live in HD productions around the world, I ventured into the Met and was instantly enchanted.

So it makes me sad, seeing the magical Met family tear itself apart.

Gelb, a Yale dropout who worked as a teenage usher at the Met and an office boy for the impresario Sol Hurok, comes across as smooth, tailored and cerebral. But he admits he’s made mistakes and tried to develop a tougher skin. Now, he says, he tries to figure out if he’s hurt and right, or hurt and wrong. “You know, I’m a neurotic Jew,” he said. “I’m constantly thinking did I screw this thing up or what could I have done differently or better.”

Criticized by Met workers for having too many productions, he cut back for the last season and for the next from seven to six. He has also toned down the hype.

The fortissimo battle between Met management and workers – full of acrimony, jealousy and demonizing – seems like opera. But Gelb says it’s more like “lurid melodrama” or “chaos.”

The unions have personalized the fight, sniping at Gelb and expensive productions that have not panned out, while Gelb is sticking to the bottom line of unsustainable labor costs. His job has been compared to that of a lion tamer, but now he says, with a rueful smile, “I’m the lion tamer who may be eaten. But I have to not flinch. As one union leader told me years ago, the employees only believe the employer’s telling the truth when he goes out of business.”

The workers say he needs to take some of his grandiosity out of grand opera. He says they have “gold leaf syndrome.”

“They’re surrounded by too much gold leaf,” Gelb says of the 15 unions - from wigs and makeup to a union consisting of one house painter. “It’s delusional. Economically, they’ve been calling the shots for decades. And I have to break that up for the Met to survive. We have to go big, but do it in a way that’s economically small. Even in the Met, you can see the gold leaf’s chipping off the ceiling.”

Doubtless, the Met workers have Nibelungen fatigue. The two central symbols of their argument that Gelb is a spendthrift are the 45-ton machine of movable planks in a $19 million “Ring” production (a million had to be spent simply reinforcing the stage) and the $169,000 poppy field in “Prince Igor.”

“We’re being told that our livelihoods and our lives are not as important as the machine and the poppies,” said Jessica Phillips Rieske, a clarinetist and negotiator for the orchestra union who objects to Gelb presenting himself as the savior of “a dinosaur” art form. “We’re saying, let’s all trim our belts.”

Gelb says he regrets that the “Ring” machine was “creaky” but isn’t sorry about “pushing the envelope,” and he says he was “naïve about understanding the risk of replacing Zeffirelli’s ‘Tosca.’”

Anthony Tommasini, The Times’ chief classical music critic, says there have been mistakes on both sides.

“The union heads have made Gelb seem so incompetent, even artistically, that if the talks are resolved, then what is the public to think? ‘Great, another season courtesy of that know-nothing,'” he said. “Gelb has made some bad calls, especially by giving us Robert Lepage’s ‘Ring,' which is a show about a set. But he has had some milestone productions as well, most recently the new ‘Falstaff' and the revelatory ‘Prince Igor.’ The union heads have to stop complaining about silk poppy fields. That’s not the cause of the Met’s budget woes.”

Read more articles by Maureen Dowd



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