Venerable house expands into new arias

The most powerful man in opera is looking unexpectedly fragile. Three hours after arriving in London on an overnight flight from New York, Peter Gelb seems disoriented and turns down the offer of a coffee. The general manager of the Metropolitan Opera is renowned for his hands-on style, but his jet-lagged memory has failed him: he can’t remember which opera the Met was performing the night before.

Gelb has more important things on his mind. His plan to roll out live Met performances to cinemas around the world has made another bold advance with yesterday’s announcement that Wagner’s Ring, the most ambitious and expensive undertaking in any opera house’s remit, will be transmitted to more than 1,700 cinemas in 54 countries on two consecutive weekends this summer.

The Met’s “Live in HD” venture bids to democratise an experience hitherto regarded as the preserve of a lucky few. Seated in the comfort of your local cinema, with surround-sound and close-ups of the singers, you can now enjoy the four Ring operas for an all-in price of £60 – compared with the £860-plus that many patrons of London’s Royal Opera have had to pay up-front for a seat at one of its Ring cycles in September and October.

Gelb’s mission to popularise opera in the cinema has been the single biggest success – some say the only significant success – of his six years in charge at the Met. Nearly 10m “Live in HD” tickets have been sold, 3m of them this season alone. Each show costs about $1.1m to transmit, but with attendances averaging 250,000 per performance at $22 a ticket (half of which goes to the Met), “Live in HD” is turning into a money-spinner. It now contributes $11m annual profit to the Met. That may be modest for an organisation with a $320m turnover, but there is potential for growth. Russia and China have barely been tapped.

“It was worth doing even before [it became profitable in 2009], just as a tool to create excitement in and around the Met,” says Gelb. He goes on to list his other digital innovations, including a 24-hour radio channel devoted to live relays and archive recordings, and a “Met Opera on Demand” app costing $14.99 a month, which gives unlimited access to Met audio and HD content.

Not for nothing is Gelb, 58, known as a salesman. The son of a culture editor of the New York Times, he started his career as office boy to the legendary impresario Sol Hurok, later working for the Columbia Artists agency and Sony. Quoting Hurok’s axiom that “The most expensive and the least expensive seats sell first”, he says this only works “when you have something people want”.

Gelb persuaded the wealthy individuals who make up the Met board that he could apply Hurok’s axiom to an institution that, a decade ago, had fallen into a rut. Its audience was ageing, production values were old-fashioned. With 4,000 seats to fill seven times a week from September to May, it could not afford to alienate its regular public or upset rich donors. It needed a makeover rather than a revolution.

Gelb’s solution? Creating a worldwide audience was only part of it. He has increased the number of new productions, modernised the repertoire (Thomas Adès’s The Tempest and John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer are promised in the next two seasons) and, in his own words, “refashioned the theatrical side”.

On that score opinion remains divided. Martin Bernheimer, the FT’s New York critic, described the latest revival of the Met’s 28-year-old Ernani as “creaky”. Michael Grandage’s new Don Giovanni disappointed those looking for a modern interpretation, while Robert Lepage’s Ring looks tame by European standards.

Gelb is unapologetic. “If a director is a good storyteller and is telling it honestly, and if it is beautiful when it should be beautiful and horrible when it should be horrible – that’s what I’m interested in. At the end of the day I’m running a theatre for the public, and it’s important to create work that excites them. That doesn’t mean asking them what they want, because I have a feeling they would say ‘Zeffirelli’ [the Italian director whose productions were a mainstay of Gelb’s predecessor, Joe Volpe], and I’m not going to give them Zeffirelli. On the other hand, I’m not going to take away [Zeffirelli’s] La bohème. You only do that if you can do it better.”

Dismissing as a “conspiracy theory” the widely credited notion that new Met productions are created to please the camera, he says stage directors are “too busy for that”. On the other hand, “Live in HD” has made singers act more realistically – a reflection of what Gelb calls “the changing forces of classical music consumerism”. Singers today, he says, “see ‘Live in HD’ as absolutely important for their careers, because they have the possibility of reaching a global audience with one performance”.

Gelb rejects the notion that we have fewer great singers today. Citing Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann, he says “some singers are still capable of driving the box office in the right repertoire.” What we are missing, he argues, is Pavarotti and Domingo at their peak. “They were the Pele of their day, and talent like that doesn’t come along very often. In the 1980s and 1990s the Met wrongly assumed there was always going to be an opera public. It’s an ageing art form, so positive actions have to be taken every day to inject excitement and get a new audience.”

Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ will be screened live from the Met at selected cinemas on June 30 and July 1, 7 and 8

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