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One On 1 Profile: Met Opera GM Peter Gelb Uses Many Musical Experiences To Usher Opera Into Modernity

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This month, the Metropolitan Opera is unveiling its latest production of Wagner's famed "Ring Cycle," and the man behind the mega-production, Met General Manager Peter Gelb, was once an usher at the New York institution who then managed concert tours around the world. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

Peter Gelb doesn't need to know how to sing to run the Metropolitan Opera. But he needs to know just about everything else, like how to say good luck in Italian.

"In cula ala balena, which means 'into the rear end of a whale,'" says Gelb. "That's a polite translation."

Peter Gelb's job as general manager of one of New York's most historic institutions is a balancing act. He brings fresh ideas and new fans to the Met without alienating its core constituency, the people who might know every last line of "Carmen."

Gelb took over as general manager in 2006 and learned quickly that opera is a full-contact sport. Its fans are passionate and the same goes for the media coverage and reviews. A thick skin is a requirement.

"I have to have a certain amount of amnesia about doubt and failure and have to approach things as, not stupidly, but with a sense of optimism. Because if I did believe that my ideas wouldn’t work, I would be lost before I started," says Gelb.

One of Gelb's ideas has seemingly been met with almost universal approval — HD broadcasts shown in more than 1,600 venues in 53 countries.

With plenty of television experience, Gelb is comfortable in the hubbub of the production truck. He says the model is the world of sports, where games are distributed on television and radio, luring the fan to the live experience.

"Fixed number of seats, 3,800 in this case, rising costs that can never go down, only rising — for all the obvious reasons and inability to match those rising costs with ticket prices. So what we’ve done is increase the capacity of the theater on Saturdays with HD transmission, so instead of having 3,800 people, we now have 300,000 people," says Gelb.

It seems unlikely, but much about an opera house is similar to a race track, in that there are many different types of people working together — stage crew, television personnel, donors and of course, singers.

"Because singers are constantly in fear of being sick, they end up being sick more often than other people," says Gelb. "So they are constantly in a state of either recovering from a cold, coming down with a cold, having a cold."

Gelb initially rejected the opera tradition of coming out on stage and saying that a particular performer was not feeling well. An explanation from some of the greatest singers in the world changed his mind.

"If you allow a singer to have an announcement made for them, that they then are liberated from whatever concerns them and often give a better performance than they would otherwise," says Gelb. "And the public, rather than feeling like they're experiencing something that's bad, sort like Willis Reed going out with an injured knee, the public actually feels like they are witnessing an act of heroism."

Gelb's worked at the Met before. In high school, he was an usher, all the way up top, trying to keep standing-room fans in line.

"They would get into fights with each other. Every opera standing-room fan, or truly fanatics, and they would sometimes voice their opinions too loudly to the annoyance of their neighbors," he says.

Gelb says he had a privileged upbringing in the world of arts. His mother, Barbara Gelb, is a writer and his father, Arthur Gelb, was the one-time managing editor of the New York Times.

Years ago, his father was also a drama critic, going to nightclubs, reviewing newcomers like Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand.

"He had correspondence with [comedian] Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce thought my father was one of the critics who really understood his art," says Gelb. "And I remember as a teenager reading letters from Lenny Bruce sent to my father before he died."

Gelb had what he calls "a nefarious high school experience," so college was not for him.

"They supported my decision and they knew I was probably too immature to go to college," says Gelb. "I was just a wild kid the way kids are wild in New York City."

Gelb went to work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, managing its historic trip to China in 1979. He eventually returned to New York and became the manager of the virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz in his final years.

Horowitz had his eccentricities, having his nightly dinner of Dover sole flown in from England during a return concert tour of his native Russia in the 1980s. But Gelb says Horowitz had a practical side too.

"When I asked him about a particular concert hall, I said, 'I didn’t know how the acoustics were, how the sound was in the hall.' He said, 'You know, Peter, if the check is good, the acoustics is good,'” Gelb says.

Gelb co-produced several classical music documentaries, winning several Emmy and Peabody Awards.

He came to his job at the Met in 2006 after a lifetime in classical music as an executive, producer and manager.

His predecessor, Joseph Volpe, came up through the ranks of the Met, starting as a carpenter. There were obvious differences in background and personality, and inevitably, there were going to be changes.

"That might have created some friction, which the press likes to observe, but the fact of the matter is that it was a smooth transition," says Gelb. "Because I admire and respect his knowledge and ability so much, that’s the reason I approached him about becoming chief labor negotiator."

His wife is the conductor Keri Lynn Wilson. Gelb says her travels mean they are apart about half the time. He has two grown children from a previous marriage.

Gelb describes a day that starts with emails from Europe at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, and often doesn't end until the curtain comes down at night.

He says there is no divide between his personal and professional lives. In a sense, the opera is his life.

"Not everything is going to be successful but I think our track record is pretty good," says Gelb. "I can't live by what one critic or many critics say. That's their job, to say what they believe. But I do have to live by what the public says, because this is a public institution and if I lose the public, then I would be in trouble."

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