David Rockwell in conversation with Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
Rockwell and Gelb photo by Jeffrey Mosler
DR: I wanted to talk about transformation, which, in the world of architecture and restaurants and hotels, is more of a subtext, but my contention is equally relevant. I thought focusing on transformation was interesting—particularly in a world where software matters more and things change quickly. My earliest memories of New York were theater and restaurants, places that create a deep experience.
PG: You certainly have been responsible for transforming the restaurant experience in a huge way.
DR: I think architects place such a premium on permanence, but in fact, nothing is really permanent. In hospitality, there’s an overlap. I’m wondering, as someone who is acknowledged for bringing transformation to the Met, do you think that’s critical to keeping the Met relevant?
PG: Well, any business, and any art form that’s been around a long time, has to go through an ever-changing process. It has to be constantly transforming itself if it wants to survive. And even businesses that think that everything is okay, find out in a very unexpected and unpleasant way, that it’s not. So, coasting doesn’t work in any form of life. Unless it’s downhill skiing. I was appointed to run the Met partly because I had not run another opera house, and because the members of the board who chose me realized a change was absolutely necessary. They didn’t quite understand what kind of transformation it would be, but they knew they were losing their audience.
DR: As long as you don’t change what people don’t want changed.
PG: People don’t always know what they want or don’t want changed. There’s a kind of knee-jerk [reaction] amongst an older audience that change is something to be very afraid of. But, numbers don’t lie, and the Met is losing its audience. It’s getting older and smaller. The question is whether it would be a change that would be successful or not. And part of the problem in that phase is that, because it had been successfully coasting, at least theatrically, for so many years, change then seems more dramatic and potentially more damaging to those who don’t want change.
DR: I hadn’t really thought of this before, but I know a little bit about how far ahead it takes to put on a production. So, change or transformation at the Met has to, by definition, happen over a very extended period of time, just because of the time it takes to get things into production.
PG: Absolutely. I knew that I couldn’t wait three or four years. Operas, as you point out, are planned so far ahead, I did not have the luxury to wait until the cycle that had been planned to play out. So I immediately jumpstarted a number of productions, in a way that typically is not done in the opera world. My first opening night as general manager was [film director] Anthony Minghella’s Madame Butterfly. And that sent a signal that the Met was looking at things differently, aesthetically.
The final scene from Act I of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, designed by Michael Yeargan. (Photo by Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera)
DR: And it happened to be a huge win.
PG: It was a huge win, and as a producer, you know and I know, things can always look great on paper. But you never know until the curtain goes up and then comes down at the end of an evening whether you really have a success or not. So, we were very fortunate in that most of the new productions that were put on the stage in the first couple of years of my tenure were successful, and did make an impression on the public in a positive way. At the same time, we were changing things by inviting top stage directors who had never worked here before because opera is one of the most complicated, if not the most complicated, performing art forms. It’s not just a huge theater and a stage that has to be filled with scenery. It has to work with an orchestra and a cast of very fragile opera singers.
DR: Many of whom, I assume, resist any kind of transformation.
PG: What’s fortunate is that there’s a whole new generation of opera singers who believe that acting is important and that full representation of your characters, through the singing and the acting of a role, is what makes the performance. They are also very fragile. They have to get on the stage in front of 4,000 people and not crack their high notes.
DR: So it’s artist and athlete.
PG: It’s the most athletic and exciting and thrilling of the performing arts for that reason. Because the public comes to hear these singers. Not just for the interpretation, but also to see if they’ve made it.
DR: Someone else who’s contributing to this issue is Richard Wurman, who founded the TED conference. The first time I was invited to speak at TED, Richard made it clear that he wanted people who were talking about things they were amateurs at, in the best sense—things you were passionate about. Do you feel like part of the benefit you’ve had in creating a transformation at the Met is coming to it with an outsider’s eye?
PG: Yes and no. I think I have an outsider’s eye in the sense that I’m not an East Side opera nut. A lot of the people who end up in administrative positions in opera houses are former musicians or singers. And, very often they are so fanatical themselves that they don’t have a proper sense of perspective. On the other hand, I’ve worked with opera singers, and even though I haven’t run an opera house, I’ve worked as a producer, worked with talent in this field, and loved opera all my life. I’m coming to it with a healthy sense of perspective, I think, but certainly, a very developed sense of what to do as a producer. Because of my background in the media, I have been able to emphasize the theatrical side of opera, which is essential for it to continue, but also the ability to bring opera to a larger public and to strip away all the layers of dust.
DR: To see [movie] marquees that feature operas in the Met is just thrilling.
PG: Yes. We just added Russia, China, and Israel. We have 50 countries that are taking our live, high-definition transmissions into movie theaters; 1,600 movie theaters on six continents. And that has created a whole new surge of interest in the opera experience. What’s remarkable is the Met is one of the biggest opera audiences in the house itself—about 850,000 people a year. That only represents 20 percent of our paying audience. Eighty percent of our audience is seeing the Met in arts centers and theaters in other countries.
The Act 3 finale of Wagner’s Die Walküre, directed and designed by Robert Lepage. (Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
DR: Same with the NFL. That’s something like 93 percent.
PG: This process began sort of using sports as a model. Because I wanted to kind of strengthen the bond between the opera fanatics and the opera house, by making the content available all the time, in every possible platform. We started a Sirius/XM radio station. We have our own channel, where we have live audio feeds three or four times a week, plus we archive operas the rest of the time; we have them streaming on our website. We have every live show we do at the movie theaters, that has a secondary life in television, and, on a subscription opera channel service, we have a pay service. It’s transformed the relationship between our company and our public. It also changed the relationship between the performers and the public. And it helped in our casting, because I’m able to get all the top stars who want to sing here more often than ever before, because of the visibility. Anna Netrebko, the reigning Russian soprano star who opens our season in Anna Bolena, knows that two weeks later, she’s going to be in a matinee and open our high-definition season. And she’ll be seen by a quarter of a million people, everywhere from Moscow to Morocco to Miami, in a giant movie screen, live.
DR: You mentioned that you’ve always loved the performing arts. When you were young, were there experiences you had that fostered your interest?
PG: Sure. I had great experiences because my parents were very swept up in the cultural scene in New York. My father, at the time I was a little boy, was the No. 2 drama critic at the [New York] Times. He went on to become the managing editor. He and my mother used to take me to the theater all the time. I remember seeing Hamlet when I was five years old. And when I was a teenager, I actually worked here as an usher.
DR: Do you remember who played Hamlet?
PG: Donald Madden, who died a couple of years ago. That’s a performance I remember, as well as some performances I’ve seen just a few months ago. My father was very good friends with [Public Theater Founder] Joe Papp, and I remember being taken to the early versions of Shakespeare in the Park, even before they built the Delacorte Theater. So I have great memories of the theater.
DR: There’s a lot of interesting work done in technology and architecture. And you’ve really embraced technology. Are there pros and cons?
PG: Any artist [knows that] technology is only as good as the service in which you place it. And there are some directors and designers now who have figured out how to use modern technology in their visual vocabulary and in the service of their storytelling. A perfect example of that is Robert Lepage [director and designer of the Met’s current Ring Cycle], who thinks in terms of visual effects going back to the 16th century, as well as the most modern ones. So he’s interested in the whole range of everything that’s ever been accomplished technologically, from the earliest days of theater and pre-theater, to what has not yet been seen. For example, in the next installment of the Ring, “Siegfried,” that opens in October, there is a technology that actually simulates a real 3-D experience. Those planks [the basis of LePage’s set], when they’re in the right position, with the right projection on them, are meant to represent the underbelly of the forest where Siegfried grew up, which is the opening image of the opera. It’s going to blow the audience away, because you actually see the snakes slithering and branches moving, and it looks like you’re in a very real theatrical place that is unlike any place anybody in this opera has ever seen before.
DR: I’m struck by the mammoth size of your productions and the fact that there’s a different one every day. Any thoughts about how you create a system that embraces transformation?
PG: The system that we’ve tried to set up is one in which we have multiple goals. So, theatrically, it’s a question of breaking new ground in the service of storytelling. For me, the best told story is one that works on multiple levels, so that the older opera audience who knows, say Don Giovanni well, will appreciate a new telling of it.
DR: With very little technology in that case, right?
PG: In the case of our new one, it’s fairly straightforward, but with a very modern aesthetic sensibility. The way we’re achieving transformation is through a combination of theatrical innovation, which embraces technology, and opening the art form up to the widest possible public. Everything that we do sort of tries to address those goals.
DR: You make all your sets yourselves, right?
PG: Not always. Sometimes they’re made elsewhere. But the Met is a remarkable center of artisans. You know, we have some of the greatest scenic painters in the world working here.
DR: I’m impressed by the fact that one day you’ll see this amazingly crafted, big physical presence, and the next a very sleek thing.
PG: When the Met was built in 1966, it was the most modern and technically advanced opera house. Now, 40 years later, it’s in need of major upgrades. And so we’ve been doing it in a patchwork fashion. In the period when the Met was built, the acoustical science of building concert halls and opera houses was not very advanced. And the attempt to create great acoustical halls, to match the great acoustics of the halls of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when building materials were different, resulted in some of the worst acoustically efficient concert halls and opera houses. The Met, miraculously, somehow escaped this problem. The difference between an opera house and a concert hall, of course, is that there’s a fourth acoustical wall, which is the scenery. So, the scenery has to be built properly in order to complete the acoustics of an opera house.
DR: Do you have any ability to computer model that for scenic designers?
PG: No. But we just give intuitive advice. We know that scenery is built out of hard substances, and that singers who are placed in front of the scenery that fill up a large part of the stage, and who are in the right position downstage usually sound pretty good. And we know that not to have wide, open spaces into the wings and upstage. Avoiding those kinds of things results in better acoustics. This set of the Ring is acoustically superior. I mean, Jimmy Levine, our music director, when he first heard the singers on this set, was ecstatic. Because it’s what every conductor dreams of— having a set which is going to propel the sound out into the audience.
DR: Any thoughts about transformation at the performer level? I think it’s fascinating to think about knowing the singers, and then seeing them take on the role in the physical environment, where the transformation’s happening from their point of view.
PG: It’s really hard to underestimate how difficult it is for a singer on the stage of a huge opera house like the Met, where they have to have a voice that’s big enough to command the space. And the biggest challenge from a theatrical point of view is to give a dramatic performance that makes the audience believe the singer is not simply worrying about their vocal production. So, it’s very rare that you can find [that kind of] a singer—although, increasingly less so, because of what singers understand today, and the directors with whom they’re working. I remember when Minghella worked with the cast of Madame Butterfly on his first day of rehearsal. He wouldn’t let them sing, which was unheard of. He had them read the libretto because he wanted them to do something that singers very rarely do, which is to listen to each other. The best singers are learning that they have to be able to give a complete theatrical performance. Deborah Voigt took on the role of Brünnhilde here in our Ring Cycle. If you were sitting here in the front rows of the audience, or in the back of the house, you had the sense of, here is somebody. She was Brünnhilde.
DR: Do you have a desk in the orchestra?
PG: Because I spend a lot of time there, making sure that the directors I’ve hired feel good about working here, I’ve sort of moved my headquarters. It’s not really a desk. The way the Met is set up in rehearsal modes, we have lots of tech desks. They’re sort of tabletops that are laid on top of chairs. And we have benches that we put on top of the arms of chairs so we can raise up. And I have a laptop, a phone, and I do my business there. At the same time, I can keep an eye on what’s going on on the stage, and put my two cents in if necessary.
DR: It’s an interesting analogy, though, to other worlds of technology where there’s a strong curator at the center of the experience. And being right there allows artists to feel like they can collaborate in perhaps a different way, and that they’re supported. What are the parts of the transformation of the Met that haven’t happened yet that you look forward to, if those exist?
PG: I think there are some parts of the transformation that will never happen. It will never be possible to replace a large part of the older musical repertoire with new pieces.
DR: Because of volume or because of love for the old productions?
PG: Because of love and because of the talent. I think that the great, timeless pieces have not been surpassed.
DR: Didn’t you refer to opera as the pop music of its day?
PG: It wasn’t exactly the pop music of its day. But it was much more popular, that’s for sure. And it certainly had the support of the entire intellectual creative community in any one country.
DR: Although, who knows? I would imagine, as we look 20, 30 years out, some of the things you’re doing here will create momentum for new works.
PG: We’re pushing for new works all the time.
DR: And is the dining experience ever going to mirror what’s happening with the opera?
PG: Well, most interesting restaurants vary their repertoire all the time, don’t they?
DR: Do you feel like the transformation of Lincoln Center has given new energy to the Met?
PG: I’m actually a believer that the energy at Lincoln Center comes from within the buildings, not the exterior. What gives a theater or a cultural center like Lincoln Center, or a city like New York, its sense of dynamism is the individual efforts that go on within the confines of each institution. It’s like every great restaurant in New York.
DR: Nothing makes a restaurant design look better than a great chef.
DR: Well, here’s looking forward to my opportunity to work on this incredible stage.
PG: I look forward to that.