26 May 2012

Met-centricities and Free Voices

Peter Gelb

NOTE: This essay has been updated with important factual corrections.

All of Opera World buzzed this week over a report in The New York Times that Metropolitan Opera General Director Peter Gelb had declared that Opera News, a publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, would no longer be welcome to review the company’s performances. Within 24 hours, the Met announced that the decision had been reversed, due to the public outcry, and Opera News will continue to publish reviews of the Met’s work.

Luckily, I was on a business trip when this happened, and I wasn’t able to blog about it. Almost anything I wrote would have been upended within hours, and I’d have looked like a fool. Even now, there are limits to what I can say: I’ve never met Gelb, and despite my three years editing the very section that reportedly incurred his wrath, I’ve spent no time with a Met board member and very little time with any Guild board member. I’m not privy to the decision-making processes, and I never was.

But I do feel it’s appropriate to offer a little background and context now, not least because — as I look over the comments in the Times, the Washington Post, and on Facebook — it’s apparent that the relationship between the Met and the magazine is badly understood, if at all. Moreover, as a lifelong reader of Opera News and as a contributor with an extensive career in mainstream journalism, I take the integrity of the magazine very seriously; this incident has been reported (correctly, I think) as an attempt to stifle the magazine’s free and independent voice, and that upsets me.

It all comes back to Beverly.
But this isn’t the way she’d handle the press.

The basics: Opera News is not a publication of the Metropolitan Opera. The magazine is and always has been a branch of the Guild. With paid subscription figures at about 100,000, Opera News has a greater circulation than all the other leading opera magazines combined. Moreover, the readership is educated, affluent, and highly cultivated, more so than that of such prestige publications as The New Yorker. This should be attractive to potential advertisers. But Opera News is not a for-profit enterprise, and any money it might generate through advertising goes directly back to the Guild — which in turn makes important financial contributions to the Met each year. To the extent that anyone was “biting the hand that feeds,” it was the Met that bit the magazine’s hand, or tried to.

The Guild’s mission is to support the Met and to encourage the appreciation of opera: it says so on the Guild’s homepage. I underscore, that’s the appreciation of opera, in general, and not only the Met. The Guild undertakes all kinds of educational programs, including school programs and lectures, as well as the publication of the magazine. After all, opera is not necessarily the easiest subject to dive into, and Opera News is a remarkably effective educational tool.

I know this firsthand, because as a boy I subscribed to the magazine, which in those days was published weekly during the radio broadcast season, when the Met’s legendary Saturday afternoon programs aired. Each issue would provide pictures of the production, biographies of the principal artists, plot synopses, and articles with background on the composers, the works themselves, the source material and performance history, and the time and place each opera was written.

So when Beverly Sills sang Massenet’s Thaïs, for example, I learned not only about Sills and Massenet and Thaïs, I also learned about ancient Alexandria, where the opera is set, and about Anatole France, who wrote the novel on which the opera is based.

In short, Opera News was a passport to Western culture, and at least as important to me as any textbook I read in school. Every week, my horizons grew broader. Left to my own devices, I might have stuck to my Sills fandom, attending only her performances, buying only her recordings, and learning only her repertory. (In support of that theory, I observe that my interest in Star Trek, around the same time, didn’t inspire me to seek out other science fiction.) Because of Opera News, I grew interested in other singers and other works, and I sought them out: an interview with Leonie Rysanek, for example, led me to Strauss’ Salome, and later, when the opera was televised, I fell in love with the star of that performance, Teresa Stratas. She, in turn, led me to Berg’s Lulu. And so on — a long way from a steady diet of Sills and Donizetti.

In order to function effectively, Opera News, like any other publication, must retain a high degree of editorial independence. You don’t read it for propaganda, you read it for truth, through a kind of benevolent objectivity. The magazine is necessarily “Met-centric,” as we say, and a great part of its editorial content is tied to the programming at the Met: it is virtually guaranteed that a new production in the house will be accorded a cover story in the magazine. During the Met season, in fact, even revivals at the house take editorial precedence over most of the rest of the world. This isn’t exactly a hardship, editorially, because the Met is the world’s biggest and most important company, and it attracts most of the world’s brightest stars: readers are certain to be interested in what goes on there. It’s great subject matter.

But Opera News is not a house organ, no matter how outsiders may view it. It is supposed to take into consideration other companies, other operas, and other artists — such as the great Ewa Podles´, something of an obsession among my former colleagues and me, even though she’s seldom sung at the Met. And if the magazine doesn’t speak up when things go awry, then readers won’t trust it when it reports the good news, any more than Russians under the Soviets trusted Pravda.

While much of the commentary surrounding the kerfuffle presumes that Gelb himself is thin-skinned and reacting to criticism directed at some of his recent, less-than-successful productions, it must also be remembered that even big-name artists don’t fully understand the distance that lies between the Met and Opera News. If a soprano or stage director gets a bad review, then, she may run to Gelb’s office and complain about what was written in “his” magazine. This would put any general director in a delicate position at best, and it helps to explain why Gelb probably yearns, as at least a few of his predecessors did, to “solve the problem” by taking over Opera News altogether. To do so would be to compromise the magazine’s integrity, but I’m sure there are days when, to some people, that doesn’t seem like much of a potential loss.

What’s surprising in all of this is that Gelb’s parents were journalists, and so you really do think he ought to know better than to oppose a free press. (He also used to work as a publicist, so you’d also think he’d know better than to treat journalists this way — as a practical matter!) His connection to The New York Times is surely one reason that Beverly Sills, chairman of the Met’s board at the time and one of the most press-savvy people ever to walk the earth, pushed for Gelb’s appointment to the general directorship.

In my view, the Times has gone easy on Gelb, by and large, giving him a pass on some ill-conceived productions (Count Ory) and a mere slap on the wrist for others (Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle); until a few days ago, Times writers regularly over-praised Gelb’s HD transmissions of Met performances, and despite a recent, rather mild reproach, I expect to be reading once again and soon that the simulcasts are the greatest innovation in opera since the Victrola.

I’m reminded of the way that, for many years, the newspaper ardently promoted the work of playwright Eugene O’Neill — who just happened to be the subject of a book by the Gelbs. The Times effectively helped to sustain demand for the book, which was used as a textbook in many college classrooms, because O’Neill deserved study and was such an important writer, wasn’t he? After all, the Times said so!

You can’t expect such generosity from every publication. And yet, while it may come as a shock to wounded artists and to Gelb himself, Opera News strives to maintain a dignified, objective tone in its criticism. As editor of the performance reviews, I did not permit nastiness or personal attacks: that was the magazine’s policy before I got there, and it remains in place today.* If you get a bad review in Opera News, it’s still just one critic’s opinion, no more and no less, just as always. But you may want to keep in mind that another critic would have phrased that opinion less gently, and you’d do well not to read reviews in any other publication, especially the German ones. (Horst Koegler was one of a kind.)

Gelb had no prior experience as a theatrical producer, and it would be unreasonable for him or anyone else to expect his every effort to be a smash hit — especially when, relatively speaking, he hasn’t been on the job very long. Bad press is the inevitable result. But what tests a person’s character is the response to negative criticism, and here it appears that Gelb has failed rather badly.

He, like his predecessors, is minutely concerned with controlling the public image of the institution he runs; that’s one reason that so much of the Met’s business has indeed always been shrouded in Kremlinesque secrecy, and one reason that Gelb squelched the blogger who made remarkably accurate predictions about the Met’s future programming. Such announcements the Met would prefer to make for itself, amid the greatest possible surprise and fanfare. I guess we have to accept this attitude as normal, since it’s so widespread in every kind of business.

But especially after Alex Ross of The New Yorker attacked not only the Lepage Ring but other new productions and the Met’s overall and upcoming programming, as well, it does appear that Gelb, frustrated in his attempts to persuade people that the Ring staging is worthy and fed up with the criticism, tried to limit the damage by silencing dissent wherever he could: at the WQXR website, for example, and at Opera News, where my friend Brian Kellow made the daring choice to quote Ross and to write an entire essay (not a review) in harmony if not lockstep with him.

The result of this week’s controversy is that Gelb’s own public image has suffered even more. My friend Anne Midgette went so far as to speculate in the Washington Post that Gelb is having some sort of breakdown. This can’t be what he intended, and for his sake, I hope he stays out of the opera chat rooms, where the fans’ comments are sure to be vicious.

What’s clear to me is that the Met is best served by free voices, whether those of its singing artists or those of its critics. I hope I’m not alone in understanding that lesson.

*NOTE: Even here, I’m more likely to omit mention of a singer’s performance that displeases me than to attack it — though it’s unclear that Danielle De Niese’s fans recognize that fact.


Lloyd Paguia Arriola said...

Bravo, Mr. Madison! This is so engaging and objective--thank you very much. I look forward to reading your forthcoming biography of Madeline Kahn, who really could have been a dramatic coloratura in the manner of Sutherland!

William V. Madison said...

Thank you for all these kind words! But Madeline would be the first to turn back your compliment: her voice was never as big as Sutherland's, and in the estimation of well-informed friends (such as Thomas Pasatieri, who once played through Salome with her) and her voice teachers (including Marlena Malas), Susanna in Marriage of Figaro is probably the heftiest role in which she'd have made a mark. She'd have made a killer Adele in Fledermaus, I think. (Yes, sometimes I do sit around dreaming up vocal repertory for her.)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Nice! I made the point on my own blog that the Met and Met Guild are separate legal entities, so how on earth could Gelb tell ON what to review? By refusing to provide press tickets?? That question remains open.

My experience has been that you get a subscription to Opera News if you make a donation over some smallish limit to the Met, whether you buy tickets or not. My last subscription was after I made a donation a couple of years back to get priority ticketing to the HD broadcasts.

I disagree that new productions are virtually guaranteed a cover. ON is a monthly; the Met usually has six or seven new productions annually; cover stories are much more likely to be about singers than productions. Also, the annual Summer Opera issue always has a cover; there's the annual diva issue; the annual Met Guild awards issue. I can think of a number of high-profile new productions that I believe did not get cover stories. Of course, there've probably been four covers related to the Lepage Ring (sigh).

Re the Times going easy on the Met, you mean Anthony Tommasini. The other reviewers are more likely to be more, well, critical.

I have no particular memory of the Times "ardently promoting" O'Neill, but he was a Nobel laureate and his works are widely performed. It'd be hard to disentangle his genuine importance from the Times's coverage, I rather suspect.

Yohalem said...

Splendid piece, Bill. Sets a lot of things in proper perspective, with happy clarity.

I get the impression that Gelb sees things from a "corporate" perspective and dislikes having to answer to the public on more occasions than a single annual stockholders' meeting. There is, of course, no reason he has to, but (like many an impresario before him), he does like to take on the imaginary dragon of the press in an entirely public setting. But to do this well would require him not to know what fear was.

It does seem strange that someone from a publicity background should not anticipate the attitude among the press to his freak for total control - in the case of the "Met futures" web site, Gelb reminds me of the limerick about the prude "who pulled down the blind/ when changing her mind/ lest curious eyes should intrude." Casting and, indeed, repertory often change as circumstances develop; Gelb would rather be thought omniscient. Not going to happen.

The Internet changes many ballgames - curious that Gelb, the modern media obsessive, should have ignored that. Opera, indeed the theater, have always been very public arts; if the public was not eager to analyze everything and comment on everything, from viewpoints knowing or ignorant but in any case responsive, either they or the work on view would be dead.

Happily, that has proved not to be true. Yet.

William V. Madison said...

I'm honored by your attention, Ms. Hirsch! Your blog is a marvel, and if I were more self-confident, I'd have posted a link to it here much sooner. But here it is now, for those readers who don't know it already:


Now, to take up the points you raise: Most professional publications insist on press tickets to performances under review, in part because of ethical considerations regarding the purchase of a ticket. There's also the matter of whether the producing organization wants to be reviewed, and in some cases, which I'll be discreet and not specify here, OPERA NEWS does not review performances precisely because of an agreement with the producer. You're right, nobody was preventing OPERA NEWS critics from attending and writing about Met performances, but to do so without the Met's cooperation would not be considered kosher.

Moreover, the entire (minuscule, overworked, badly underpaid) ON staff needs to see Met performances in order to oversee and often to provide content for the other departments in the magazine beyond the reviews section. The Met in its magnanimity provides the magazine staff two tickets to every performance (opening-night tickets are usually reserved for the critics). It's possible that the Met intended to cut off all the magazine's press tickets, which would have posed a wide array of financial and other difficulties as a result. The salaries aren't sufficient for staff to pay their own way to the Met, and there's barely any budget for tickets, travel, and other necessary expenses. (When I flew to Houston or Minneapolis or San Francisco or Seattle to see an opera during my tenure at the magazine, I did so at my own expense — though in each case the opera company's press office provided me with tickets to the performance.)

Regarding the OPERA NEWS cover stories, during the Met season those profiles you mention typically focus on a singer, director, or conductor involved in whatever the editors consider to be the biggest production of the month -- that is to say, a new production, when there is one.

SPY Magazine used to chase the Times around the block for its Gelb-influenced coverage of Eugene O'Neill. I wasn't making it up: those guys documented it. And it's true that plenty of other perfectly good playwrights weren't accorded nearly as much space in the Paper of Record.

You're absolutely right about Met donors receiving complimentary subscriptions to OPERA NEWS.

And did I mention that your blog can be found here? http://irontongue.blogspot.com/

William V. Madison said...

Following up on my reply to Ms. Hirsch, I have an example of playwrights ignored: Maxwell Anderson, who in his day was universally considered the heir to O'Neill himself, a serious, ambitious, successful Broadway writer who nowadays is mentioned only in connection with his collaborations with Kurt Weill (Knickerbocker Holiday and Lost in the Stars). Granted, tastes change, and even I find it difficult to get through any of Anderson's non-Weill plays. But frequent mention in the Times might have kept him trendy.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, John Yohalem. I agree that Gelb's attitude seems "corporate," and his image control is often excessive. The intermission features are an excellent example, and I think, too, of the heavily scripted remarks made by the hosts of the HD simulcasts -- a tremendous pity, since all of the hosts I've seen are clever, engaging people with terrific personalities that might actually do more to promote the Met's image than those stuffy scripts ever will.

Mark Thomas Ketterson said...

Fabulous post Bill. You da bomb.

Anonymous said...

May I say, slightly off topic, that I recently read O'Neill's Strange Interlude, uncut, and I found it difficult to get through? I'm trying to give him props for being ahead of his time in frankness about sexual behavior, but, golly, it was cheesy melodrama. By contrast, one can still read Shaw without the sense that time has passed this playwright by.

I subscribe to Opera News directly, which puts me in a third category of readers, those who actually want to read the magazine for its many educative aspects. I am glad Kellow called a spade a spade. Gelb trying to stifle public criticism is ham-handed folly.



William V. Madison said...

Lily, my favorite critique of Strange Interlude comes from Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers, in which Capt. Spaulding launches repeatedly into rambling, poetic monologues, parodying O'Neill. "You're lucky the Theatre Guild isn't putting this on," Groucho observes, then adds, "and so is the Guild!" I've never gotten all the way through Strange Interlude, neither on the page nor on the stage.

Dr.B said...

I would be curious to know if his efforts have any effect. Is the public image of the Met, and therefore its ticket sales positively enhanced because his efforts to control other people's opinions? Luckily my own blog is so obscure no one gets upset over it.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding editorial essay! I would add two things which I deem of importance in addition to what you have said.

1. This is the first job Peter Gelb has ever had where he did not have a boss looking over his shoulder and managing him, whether it be Ronald Wilford and or the higher ups at Sony, or the GM of the BSO. The Board of the MET have been hands off and that is part of his problem, as he continues to make unfortunate elemenatary business mistakes. Having a man with a high school diploma, who was not an entepreneur and no experience running an opera company where the employees by and large are well educated was not the best of business calls by the Metropolitan Opera Board; but it does speak to the power of Ronald Wilford and Bubbles. The vast majority of long term dedicated employees there, with the exception of his personal hires have been fed up for some time. (His first huge business mistake was to take a huge pay increase, instate austerity and drop the employees salaries by 10% and still net an increase for himself after netting off 10%, a really smooth move which created more animosity than he ever realized. He should have led by example and taken a reduction which would have netted himself 10% less than his pre-raise salary.)

2. You can only go around saying you are misunderstood and doing something different for so long. At a certain point, when you are swimming in a pool of debt, increasing your costs and less people are buying your product, you need to stop and recalculate. At this point it may be too late for him, as the MET works so far out and he has had many more bombs than he has had hits. I'll spare you the list. If "the buck stops" with PG and he were in a business which had to turn a profit, he would have been shown the door by the shareholders.

William V. Madison said...

Very interesting points, Anonymous. Your assessment may be a bit harsh, which makes me wish you'd signed your comment -- I feel better, ethically, when names are attached to any strong statements. But there's so much value in what you say that I've posted your remarks just the same. You've given us a lot to mull over.

Man About Wine said...

I am a bit off topic. When I saw you are a fan of Teresa Stratas, I jumped to keyboard. I am a big fan of her recordings of songs of Kurt Weil. I know of 2 LPs, I don't know if more is avail. on CD. I love these 2 LPs. And now that I know there is an opera blog, I need to sign on. And thanks for the piece on the flap about reviews. Similar heat occurs in the wine industry. Reviews sell magazines. Magazines sell advertising. But it is the retailer and the restauranter who actually sell wine to the public.

William V. Madison said...

Alas, Man About Wine, if only there were as many outlets for opera as there are for wine! I take your point, though.

Teresa's commercial recordings on CD are limited to the two solo albums of Weill songs and several complete operas. A pirate album entitled The Unknown Teresa Stratas was compiled, largely using audio clips from Canadian television appearances, back in the 1980s (after the release of The Unknown Kurt Weill) and has shown up (I'm told) on download sites on the Internet. Most of those video clips can be seen on YouTube, as well. Other pirate CDs, taken either from radio broadcasts or who knows where, include such treasures as her Met Trittico and a Butterfly from San Francisco; they're well worth scouting out.

Teresa once calculated that she'd made 17 opera films, but even putting our heads together we couldn't list them all, and that was before she stopped making them. Who knows how many there are now? But several DVDs of her performances are still available for commercial purchase, and a few Lehár operettas, kitschily orchestrated and filmed for German television, have been put on DVD and released commercially, too.

Anonymous said...

I was concerned that your post did not make it clear that Arthur Gelb, the father of Peter, was a masthead editor at the New York Times for many years. I worked with him on many projects, where his mile a minute energy took the Times on many successful stories.

However, the post did not clearly make the family relationships clear, and sweepingly alluded to the Eugene O'Neill book that appeared to make Arthur Gelb appear to be unethical.

I believe that was both artless and unfortunate. Not to mention that it was all confusing to readers.

William V. Madison said...

Favorable coverage accorded by the Times to Gelb projects is a matter of record; as I say, it's been documented in detail by other writers. This favoritism does not in itself diminish the worth of projects undertaken by the Gelbs, neither does it necessarily reflect on their ethics -- nor, in so far as their projects are in fact worthy, does it reflect on the ethics of the Times reporters who give those projects favorable coverage. But I do believe quite sincerely that it's one of the reasons that Beverly Sills promoted Peter Gelb's appointment, and I do believe that it explains the generosity of much of the criticism (and attendant feature coverage) that his productions have received in the Paper of Record. I'm sorry if you disagree.

William V. Madison said...

Afterthought: I've always construed the Gelb/Times relationship to be comparable to the "Old Boy Network" that ostensibly grows up around certain schools. (It's never done me any good that I could discern, but maybe Brown simply didn't have enough Old Boys in my fields of endeavor.)