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Peter's Principles

Peter Gelb hopes an influx of theatrical artists will bring new life and new audiences to the Metropolitan Opera.

By New York City
Peter Gelb
(© Dario Acosta)
Peter Gelb
(© Dario Acosta)
When you flip through the "New Productions" pages of The Metropolitan Opera's 2006-2007 Season brochure, you'll think you're seeing stars. They're actually asterisks, almost a galaxy of them. They're there because, as is customary, they denote Met debuts. What's particularly noticeable is that some of the asterisks signal the debuts of such artists as Anthony Minghella, Jack O'Brien, Zhang Yimou, and Bartlett Sher -- directors who are better known for their work in theater and film than in opera.

"Opera is theater," says Peter Gelb, who officially became the Met's new general manager on August 1, succeeding longtime head honcho Joseph Volpe. And Gelb's penchant for theater was made clear when, earlier this year, he announced his plan to modernize the Met by bringing in not only the directors noted above but also Mark Morris, Mary Zimmerman, George C. Wolfe, Richard Eyre, Matthew Bourne, Nicholas Hytner, and Robert Lepage over the next few seasons.

Although the 2009-10 season is the first for which Gelb takes full responsibility, it was his idea to import Minghella's acclaimed Madama Butterfly to open the current season on September 25. He's also the one who's bringing Sher and the Tony Award-winning design team of Michael Yeargan, Catherine Zuber, and Christopher Akerlind to the Met for a new production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville, set to premiere on November 10.

Gelb mentions that one of the most striking features of Yeargan's proposed set is a passerelle -- a bridge stretching from the stage to the front row of the orchestra. The Met has never done that before, he says. What he doesn't say is that it's probably not a bad idea to view that tradition-breaking passerelle as a metaphor for the bridge he's intent on building between opera at the Met and today's audiences.

The season continues in December with Zimou's production of The First Emperor, a world premiere by Tan Dun and Ha Jin, to star Placido Domingo and Elizabeth Futral. Meanwhile, O'Brien will helm Puccini's Il Trittico in April, working with Broadway designers Douglas W. Schmidt, Jess Goldstein, Jules Fischer, and Peggy Eisenhauer. For the 2007-28 season, Gelb has signed Zimmerman to direct a new Lucia di Lammermoor, and Lepage will helm The Damnation of Faust in the 2008-2009 season.

Then, during the first season fully programmed by Gelb, Wolfe will direct a new production of Tosca with Karita Mattila; French director Patrice Chereau will introduce a new version of Leos Janacek's From the House of the Dead; and Eyre and Matthew Bourne, who most recently shepherded Mary Poppins to the stage, will work together on a new Carmen that's set to star real-life married couple Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. Somewhere in all this mix, Hytner will direct Don Carlo, and classically trained Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth will also make her Met debut.

Julie Taymor's production of The Magic Flute
(© Ken Howard)
Julie Taymor's production of The Magic Flute
(© Ken Howard)
In addition, Gelb -- in tandem with Lincoln Center Theater's Andre Bishop -- has invited a number of prestigious musical theater composers and librettists to craft new works that could eventually show up either on the vast Met stage or in the smaller Vivian Beaumont or Mitzi E. Newhouse spaces. The idea is to allow time for the sort of development that's common in musical theater but rare in the opera world. Those tapped are Wynton Marsalis and John Guare, Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, Adam Guettel, Jake Heggie, Michael John LaChiusa, Rachel Portman and Nicholas Wright, Michael Torke and Craig Lucas, Scott Wheeler and Rufus Wainwright. Stephen Sondheim, an obvious crossover candidate, isn't on the roster because he has repeatedly said that he isn't interested in writing an opera.

The notion of using musical theater composers for opera shouldn't be shocking. "I believe that the composers who represent the majority of the standard repertoire regarded opera as theater when they wrote it," says Gelb. "They were teaming up with librettists and creating musical theatrical works meant to please the audience for their musicality as well as their theatricality."

But Gelb has more than mere art on his mind in bringing these notables to the met. "Faced with a declining box office, an art form that is aging, and an institution that has never reached out in any kind of strategic or planned way to the public -- because it didn't have to -- my mandate, which is a self-created mandate and which the board has thoroughly endorsed, is to work on the area where the Met needs improvement," he says. "The Met has been weak in the consistency of its theatrical productions in recent years. There have been the brilliant ones, like [Lion King director] Julie Taymor's Magic Flute, and there have been less successful ones. I think part of the reason why the results have been inconsistent is because the track records of the directors who have worked here have been inconsistent. "

And how is he planning to change that precedent? "What is common amongst all of the people I've hired is that each one has a unique vision and storytelling ability and a willingness to be creatively stimulated by the underlying story of the opera in a way that will positively reinforce the story, but not dismiss or destroy it," he says. "And that's one of the great fears I'm dealing with this audience at the Met, which is an older audience. I think they'll be reassured once they see the results of some of these directorial choices."

In his new position, Gelb is drawing on a professional past that includes stints as a publicist, a stage and video producer for Seiji Ozawa's Saito Kinen Festival, president of Columbia Artists Management's CAMI Video division, executive producer of The Metropolitan Opera Presents, and president of Sony Classical. His personal past also has to have had an immeasurable influence on his non-operatic theatrical instincts: He's the son of Arthur and Barbara Gelb, arguably the world's leading Eugene O'Neill experts and authors of the comprehensive biography O'Neill. "I feel like I grew up with O'Neill," he says. "I was a kid when [my parents] were doing all that research. In my childhood, I felt O'Neill was related to me somehow. According to my parents, I used to run around the house yelling 'Eugene O'Neill underground' in reference to his not being alive."

But his parents exposed him to a variety of theater. "I remember going to my first Hamlet when I was five," Gelb recalls. "I saw Taming of the Shrew in Central Park with Joe Papp when I was seven. In fact, I came to opera later; the first opera production I saw was when I was 12 or so." So, is he now going to commission an operatic version of Long Day's Journey into Night? "My parents don't sit around telling me what operas to do," he says.


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