“The best part of my job,” Peter Gelb tells me, “is dealing with the great singers and artists who appear on our stage. I live in constant admiration of the extraordinary artistic courage that they exhibit on a nightly and daily basis.” It’s not a sentiment one can argue with: as General Manager at the Metropolitan Opera, Gelb gets to choose from the world’s finest. “20 or 30 years ago, when I worked for Sony, an exclusive recording contract was part of the measure of stardom of an opera singer. Today, it's singing on the Met stage in an HD Saturday matinee and being seen by an audience of 300,000 people around the world.”

Peter Gelb
© Brigitte Lacombe

Notwithstanding its allure to singers, operating the Met’s star system requires planning. Work on the 2019/20 season started around four years ago, with the first step being to ink in the key singers. The sheer size of the house makes this process hard, Gelb argues: “A season at the Met has to include great voices: that’s what our audience demands and expects. Some singers who have great careers in Europe have voices that are not large enough for the Met, so the actual pool of talent that we have to choose from is smaller.”

He talks enthusiastically about the famous singers of the moment, considering it a “great casting coup” to have Peter Mattei in Wozzeck next season, as well as the “stellar” Christine Goerke in Turandot, Diana Damrau in Maria Stuarda, not to mention Lisette Oropesa, whom he regards as a kind of prodigal daughter: “in her youth, she had not yet become a star, she sang a number of roles here and then went off to Europe and really made a name for herself. Now, she's coming back as a star.” I ask him about younger singers, the big stars of tomorrow: two at the top of his mind are the (already established) Sonya Yoncheva and mezzo Emily D’Angelo, a member of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Program who swept up no less than four prizes at last year’s Operalia competition.

Anna Netrebko in the title role of Tosca, April 2018
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

But there’s no doubting who is the hottest property of the moment: Gelb considered Anna Netrebko’s role debut in Tosca last season to be such a stunning success that he was compelled to open up a slot in the 2019/20 season for a repeat: “here is a case where it wasn't something that was planned four years ahead of time: in spite of the difficulty of flexibility, we are flexible when we have to be. And when it comes to Anna Netrebko, we're happy to be flexible to make things happen with her.”

Once the top singers have been chosen, the attention shifts to the new productions and “key revivals”. In spite of Gelb’s assurance that “the Met is thematically is committed to very broad repertoire variety”, when viewed from Europe, the New York audience and donor base has the reputation of being somewhat conservative, especially in their tastes for directorial style. Gelb, however, doesn’t see it in terms of a dichotomy between conservative and progressive. “My goal as the overall artistic leader of the Met is to think in terms of thoughtful productions. I have a responsibility to foster and encourage new audiences, and therefore I hire directors who I believe are committed to good narrative storytelling. That doesn't mean they can't be shocking, but it has to be shocking with a purpose, and it has to be in pursuit and in honor of the story that they're telling. So I am less a fan of directors whose work is deconstructionist. I'm not saying that deconstructionist productions shouldn't happen, I'm just not interested in those happening on the stage at the Met, and if that paints me as conservative, so be it. It may sound simple or basic, but the audience has to understand what they're watching and hearing: you can't assume that the audience already knows the work so well that you can just take it apart, deconstruct it, and expect new audiences (or old audiences, in some cases) to appreciate that.”

Emily D'Angelo as Annio in La Clemenza di Tito, March 2019
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

While Gelb demands that productions focus on telling the story, he is not restrictive about the choice of stories to be told. For next season, he enthuses about operas as different as François Girard’s Flying Dutchman – “a very visually interesting and thoughtful approach to telling the story in which the action is very much framed by the portrait of the Dutchman, that envelops Senta” – and Agrippina, which is being staged at the Met for the first time: “David McVicar's idea is that it’s a political statement representing a world of deceit and political chaos (as he puts it, it's as if the Roman Empire continued to this day). It's an interesting idea and will have meaning to our audiences in terms of the world's personalities and events that take place today.”

Operas by two American composers stand large in the 2019/20 season. Porgy and Bess, which opens the season, is a production instigated by the Met, although it has already been seen at English National Opera in London and Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. This turns out to be a deliberate ploy: “One of my philosophies in general is trying things out elsewhere to see how they play and how we might even improve upon them, so for example in the case of Porgy and Bess, Camille Brown, who is one of the leading young African-American choreographers, has joined our team and she's creating new choreography. The production will also have a somewhat more weather-beaten look to it than it did in London and Amsterdam.” Phelim McDermott’s staging of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten has also previously been seen at ENO, but that’s a different case: “it’s a production that originally I didn't intend to bring to New York. But when I saw it, I fell in love with it. We're simply renting the production because it's so good: part of my job is to be a curator, and if I see something that's extraordinary, I have no qualms about bringing it. I don't need the pride of authorship in everything we do.”

The auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera House
© Jonathan Tichler | Metropolitan Opera

I observe that in spite of the rush of talented young American composers currently writing operas, none of them feature in the Met’s 2019/20 season. That’s a temporary blip, according to Gelb. “Composing operas is not an assembly line operation. We have many many works in our compositional pipeline and it appeared a couple of years ago that none of them was going to be ready for this season. So it really is a hiatus but not in any way a long term one. We've already announced some of the works in the pipeline for the next five or six years: Matt Aucoin's Eurydice – he's a brilliant young American composer – will be on the agenda for 2021/22, Missy Mazzoli is writing an opera for us, Mason Bates is writing an opera for us, Jeanine Tesori is writing an opera for us. It's not just enough to present new work that has never been performed, but it's also important for the Met as a leading American opera house to showcase major opera talents that have for whatever reason never got to the stage of the Met. So certainly, Jake Heggie is a composer whose work belongs on the stage of the Met, and will be showcased in the future, [Australian] Brett Dean's Hamlet is coming here.”

Gelb is hopeful for repertoire diversity to be increased further with the arrival of the Met’s new Music Director Yannick Nézét-Séguin. “With Yannick, we have a very ambitious programme with many new works in the future, new composers whose works have never been heard before on the stage at the Met and also working on ideas that bring performances outside of the Met to the community. This is a very exciting period, particularly for me to have a partner like Yannick who is so interested in exploring new avenues.”

Peter Gelb monitors a taping in the Met's HD truck
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The last block of the season to be set in place is the schedule for HD opera in cinema. For this, the house’s 24-26 operas are whittled down to just ten, which generally includes all the new productions, albeit with a notable exception in 2013 in the shape of Nico Muhly's Two Boys, “because the libretto was laced with obscenities, which is not a problem for presenting inside the opera house but would put us in violation of movie rating systems. The interesting thing about the Two Boys libretto is that you wouldn't notice that they're obscenities because they're so sweetly sung in the choral sections, but if you read the libretto, you would be quite shocked.”

What, I ask, is the toughest part of Gelb’s job? “The cost structure of the Met is somewhat daunting. I’m running the most expensive opera house in the world, and the difficult part of my job is meeting the economic challenges and trying to persuade donors that this art form is important not only to the Met's self interest but to the interests of a civilised society that needs the performing arts and opera to thrive and sustain itself. I make the point that we are a major player, it's a civic and artistic duty to keep us strong.”

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