The Metropolitan Opera House at New York’s Lincoln Center

Everything about the Metropolitan Opera in New York is on a big scale. It has an annual turnover of $308m. The payroll runs to 3,000 full-time and part-time staff. The current theatre, opened in 1966 at New York’s Lincoln Center, seats 3,800, making it the largest opera house in the world.

Among music industry organisations it is a giant, like an all-American footballer, towering over the opposition and thundering down the pitch. Any singer will tell you that a success or failure at the Met can seal their career. The annals, going back to the 1880s, are a roll-call of opera’s greats.

It follows that, when the Met catches a cold, the rest of the opera world shudders. And the coronavirus pandemic has been more lethal than any other crisis in recent memory — “the most difficult and challenging of all”, says Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager.

In Europe, opera companies are busy negotiating with governments to see how far the state will cover their losses, and how much more might be coming their way soon. At the Met, there is no safety net. The entire operation is privately financed, half from box office and cinema admissions to the Met’s live relays, half from donations.

Peter Gelb during a production of Aida. ‘We do not expect full audiences for some time and that is very significant’ © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

“We have raised $60m in funding over the past few months,” says Gelb. “This has solved the immediate problem of the cancellation of the last weeks of the 2019-20 season and the loss of ticket revenue for this fall season, but it does not address the long-term economic challenge. We do not expect full audiences for some time and that is very significant.”

To maintain its financial viability the Met has battened down the hatches. The orchestra and chorus have been furloughed since April 1. The Met is continuing to pay their health insurance. Beyond that, they receive unemployment benefit plus the standard $600 per week provided under the federal government package, which runs out at the end of July. Gelb has waived his own salary since March (though he does not volunteer that information himself).

“Personally, I feel terrible about the cut to the orchestra and chorus,” says Gelb. “This is an awful situation, but there is no way the Met could survive institutionally without furloughing those full-time employees. The cost of keeping the Met [functioning] is very expensive, around $100m per year even while we are not performing. A significant part of that is the cost of the pension programme. From the first moment that this happened [we were operating] triage and tried to be generous as we could.”

Peter Gelb (standing) monitors a recording of the Met’s production of ‘Salome’ from the control room © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera | 2008

One of Gelb’s initiatives has come good at the right moment. In his first year as general manager in 2006 Gelb launched the Met’s Live in HD series, pioneering live relays to cinemas worldwide. Everybody from London’s National Theatre to the Salzburg Festival has jumped on the bandwagon since, but the Met’s archive of past video broadcasts is second to none, 135 digital transmissions plus 100 analogue from earlier, some of them produced by Gelb himself in his time as media producer at the Met. Interestingly, the Met’s famed radio broadcasts, started in the 1930s, were a direct result of the economic crisis at that time and a desire to reach a broader audience across the US.

Since the early days of the coronavirus lockdown the company has been offering a different streamed opera every night. Viewers round the world have been tuning in to this nightly, free opera in large numbers, enhancing the Met’s profile and helping to boost its bank balance.

“We are delighted at the cultural enrichment the Met has been able to provide,” says Gelb. “How to put a value on that investment? This is not the way I would have wanted to find out, but it has demonstrated the power of the Met’s catalogue, and our strategy has expanded the number and value of donations. We have added close to 30,000 donors and received $3m directly from the At-Home Gala [streamed live in April], half from small contributions, half in the form of large amounts from existing donors.”

It is a lifetime since Gelb first drew a pay cheque at the Met. He was an usher as a teenager. Since then a career in music has taken him through arts management, the period at CAMI Video, which he founded, when he produced the Met’s televised opera broadcasts, and a ten-year stint as president of Sony Classical.

The lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

If he thought his return to the Met as general manager would be an easy ride, he was mistaken. There have been more hot potatoes than the usual run of union battles and unsuccessful productions. The company’s longstanding music director James Levine was accused of sexually abusive conduct over many years and his association with the Met was terminated, leading to a lengthy legal battle. Then two tenors valuable to the Met — the veteran Plácido Domingo and young tyro Vittorio Grigolo — were brought down by the #MeToo movement.

“I have learned to live with stress for my entire adult life,” says Gelb. “Either I am a glutton for punishment or I am just attracted to stressful situations. I found stress first when I managed the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s tour to China at the end of the cultural revolution. Then I took Vladimir Horowitz [the celebrated Russian pianist] back to Moscow for the first time since 1925 and we had KGB agents ready to shoot us if they did not like what we were doing.”

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz at the Moscow airport on April 14, 1986 with manager Peter Gelb © AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko

The Met years have only turned up the heat further. “I have had my fair share of stressful situations here,” he says. “This one is the most difficult, but we are not alone. All cultural organisations are facing the same. When things get so tough, that is when those of us who lead have to do what we do. I am not saying I have all the answers. I know that if the Met is to survive, it is not only up to me but to everybody at the Met to see us through this challenge.”

One big question remains. The Met’s reopening is currently scheduled for a gala on New Year’s Eve, but will that happen? Given the need to schedule rehearsals and fly in international singers, the clock is already ticking for spring 2021. The Met is fortunate to have built in a mid-February break for the first time, so the company could start then. Cancellation of the whole 2020/21 season cannot be ruled out.

Gelb says the timing of the reopening is out of his control. “Alongside Lincoln Center and the Broadway theatres we are in discussions with the leading health experts, but it is hard to predict what will happen. We look at opera-houses in Europe which are starting performances with small audiences, but that isn’t a way forward for the Met. I applaud everybody for trying. But that is not opera as we know it.”

The announcement will either come in the late summer, or could technically be left until the early autumn. Either way, it is a date the whole opera world will want to put in its diary.

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