Who Will Give Peter Gelb $2 Billion to Guarantee the Met Opera’s Future?

Who Will Give Peter Gelb $2 Billion to Guarantee the Met Opera’s Future?

Dressed head to toe in black Armani, Peter Gelb is white-knuckling the railing on the sixth floor of the Metropolitan Opera House. “I haven’t been up here in 16 months,” he says dazedly. It’s opening night at the Met, one of the most sacred evenings in the cultural and civic life of the city. This hasn’t happened since 2019. He’s looking down on something thrilling, if slightly terrifying.

During the months of the pandemic inside the darkened opera house, pieces of the dormant machinery that powers the mammoth sets began to rust, break, and fall apart. The Met furloughed 1,000 people; the orchestra and chorus went unpaid.

Gelb waived his own salary for nine months. That time in which the hall sat empty, its innards decaying, cost the Met $150 million in revenue and threw its problems into relief. The audience? Old. The big donors? Older and fewer. The financial picture? Bleak. The art form? Intimidating. In its 138-year history, the institution had never been so imperiled. After all, the 70-year-old New York City Opera, with which it shared Lincoln Center, ran aground in 2013. Could it happen to the Met, too?

But there is no time to think about that tonight. Far below, beyond the constellation of Austrian-crystal chandeliers, the canti-levered plush red staircases, and the swirly 36-foot-tall Marc Chagall murals, the tuxedoed and begowned are arriving to celebrate the premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s memoir. Scored by Terence Blanchard, the trumpeter and jazz maestro best known for his work on Spike Lee’s films, Fire is, notably — you might say appallingly — the Met’s first opera, ever, by a Black composer. Hey, look, there’s Spike now. Isn’t that Mark Ronson with Grace Gummer? Check out Don Lemon’s velvet cape. And there’s the executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, and his presumptive successor, Joe Kahn. Even from up here, the canary yellow of Laverne Cox’s gown really pops.

“Pretty amazing,” observes Gelb, who turns 68 this month. Ordinarily, he’s dry, a little sardonic, but tonight he’s practically vibrating with nervous energy. In his 16 years as the Met’s general manager, he has always opened the season with a new production, but they don’t always go over so well. Fire Shut Up in My Bones was a risk. Critics can be brutal. And opera may be the last critic-dependent art form in America.

He turns; we’re late. Now we’re jogging along carpeted hallways. Caterers, assistants, and various people wearing headsets pop out of doorways to shout “Good luck, Peter!” He jams his finger on an elevator button a couple of times and says out of the corner of his mouth, “I feel like I’m in a Frank Capra movie.”

Down, down, down, deeper into the bowels of the opera house we go. Concrete floors and fluorescent lighting. Locker rooms, supply closets, and freight elevators. My patent-leather shoes pinch as I scamper to keep up with Gelb. There are possibly more tuxedos darting around the corridors of this place than on the deck of the Titanic. “Thanks for your note, Peter,” one shouts as we rip past. “No, thank you for your note,” Peter yells back. He skids to a stop in front of a door, turns to me, and says, “Maybe you’d better stay here for a minute.” He knocks thrice and enters. This is the lair of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director and second-most-important person at the Met after Gelb. I flatten myself against a wall as more tuxedos and a woman carrying a violin fly past. Another door flings open, and a voice yells, seemingly to no one, “Thirty seconds!

Gelb reemerges. “We were just discussing where in the score to have the blackout at the end of the show,” he says, jogging again. “One of the problems with the Met audience is they’re sort of like lemmings. When they see curtains starting to come in, even when the music is playing, they immediately start applauding.”

We’re backstage. There are dials and gadgets and screens all over the place. Gelb, a self-confessed “control freak,” leans over and starts saying things like “Three minutes, tops.” A stagehand claps him on the back and says, “Into the mouth of the wolf, Peter.” That’s apparently operaspeak for “Break a leg.”

We hustle around a few more corners and into Gelb’s palatial office on the ground floor. Gordon Gekko’s office might have had lower ceilings and less modern art than this place. Gelb’s wife, Keri-Lynn Wilson, is inside. Wilson is a conductor of renown. She has just flown in from Bulgaria and will be in Russia a few nights from now. Lissome and blonde, tonight she’s wrapped in a pink-and-tangerine dress by the designer Rubin Singer. (He dressed Beyoncé for the Super Bowl in 2013.)

Gelb plops down at his desk and suddenly looks alarmed. “I left my cell phone in the sixth-floor radio-control room,” he says, picking up a desk phone and punching in an extension. He instructs an assistant how to get up there — it involves making many lefts — looks up at his wife, and exhales. She pours him a flute of Lanson Champagne. The assistant appears with Gelb’s iPhone. “Oh shit,” he says, looking down at it and swiping. “Hey, Wynton, it’s Peter. Did you get in? I can come out and get you.” Wynton Marsalis is at the wrong entrance.

That resolved, we leave the office and take our seats in Gelb’s box. The Sputnik chandeliers ascend. Gelb is masked, but the corners of his face, around his eyes, begin to crease. He’s smiling under there, big time. Even more so three hours later, when the audience rises for a standing ovation.

The party afterward in Damrosch Park is glittery and diverse. The mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves glints in a kelly-green gown and a bejeweled mask. “Tonight was historic,” Spike Lee, whose Louis Vuitton tux sports orange buttons, tells me, “and I found out Peter’s a Yankee fan tonight. He talked about us kicking Boston in the arse.” Lee takes Walter Russell III, the 13-year-old who plays a young Charles, aside, telling him, “Don’t get souped up by tonight; still keep your Jordans on the ground. What size Jordans you wear? I’m gonna send you a pair, signed.” Renée Fleming’s sparkly pumps refract light around the party. At another table, Ronson, in a velvety green tux, says, “That was some unforgettable New York shit.” (When was the last time anyone described La Traviata that way?)

In the coming days, the critics would concur. It was a rave. This magazine’s critic, Justin Davidson, praised the “bracing and humane story shot through with wit, tenderness, and melodrama”; the Times’ Anthony Tommasini declared it “a fresh, affecting work.” Even the starchy and conservative Washington Examiner couldn’t help but dig it, confessing in a headline: “The Met’s Woke Charles Blow Opera Is Actually Pretty Good.”

But Gelb, and the Met, needs more than one pretty good night.

Opening night at the Met in September.
Photo: Landon Nordeman

Everything about the Met must be understood through the prism of its enormity. The big European houses seat about 2,000; the Met, 3,800. The topmost seats, or “the gods,” sit 85 feet above the orchestra. (In 1988, a man leaped to his death from a top balcony during the intermission of Macbeth.) The problems that bedevil other arts institutions and opera companies are amplified tenfold when it comes to the Met, and so is the drama. It’s home to the greatest singers, best costume designers, and most elaborate sets; its productions encompass all the art forms. They don’t come small, and they don’t come cheap.

One look at the Met’s financial state might make any businessperson want to jump from a top balcony. “I would say the Met is one of the worst business propositions around,” says Tod S. Johnson, a marketing executive and board member. The Met’s operating budget — what it costs to pay the nearly 3,000 people who work there and to stage the extravagant productions — is always more than it can garner in earned revenue. According to the Met’s audited financial statement for 2019, the year before the pandemic, its expenses totaled more than $312 million. (Gelb’s salary was just under $1.4 million.) Its total income was nearly $311 million. Ticket sales and other revenue streams accounted for only about half of that — the rest depends on philanthropic goodwill.

To sit on the Met’s board of directors means you are willing to be generous and to believe in the Met’s mission. “It’s not an easy situation, but if the country — if the world — wants grand opera on the scale that the Met puts it on, we’re not going to cut costs in half and be able to do that,” says Johnson, who is 77. As chair of the executive committee, he is on a weekly call with Gelb. Johnson believes Gelb is the right man for the job — which has never been held by a woman — because he possesses the ideal blend of “the business acumen and the promoter impresario.”

Not every board member has been so supportive. When Gelb came in, the Met’s budget was far smaller, but with an aging and shrinking audience, some worried the organization was just managing its decline. But Gelb, who spent his early professional life as a publicist, took that as a challenge: The Met must expand its reach. When he ran the Sony Classical record label, he occasionally made what purists regarded as artistically questionable decisions that nonetheless sold very well, like the Titanic soundtrack. That success subsidized the rest of the less-populist operation.

And so when he arrived at the Met, he bet big. The budget ballooned by tens of millions of dollars. He put on more operas. People who worked there became exhausted. The 2008 financial collapse didn’t help things. Gelb decided to take aim at labor expenses, which account for two-thirds of the budget. That didn’t go over so well with the opera’s powerful unions.

In 2014, Gelb warned ominously in interviews that bankruptcy was around the corner. Those Chagall murals in the lobby were put up as part of the collateral for a bank loan. Moody’s downgraded the Met’s credit rating. He played hardball with the unions in order to wrest pay cuts. Union leaders and some board members-complained to James B. Stewart for an article in The New Yorker in 2015. Later that year, Glen W. Bowersock, then an advisory director on the board, sent a letter of resignation that summed up the mood of some at the Met. “In my lifetime I have seen apparently entrenched businesses collapse under financial mismanagement,” it read in part. “I am seriously afraid that this may be the fate in store for the Met, and I do not want to be a part of it.”

There were other troubles as well: In 2018, the Met’s longtime, much-celebrated music director, James Levine, was forced out over accusations of sexual abuse; conductor Plácido Domingo severed ties with the opera the next year over accusations of sexual harassment (which he has denied).

But Gelb survived, and the Met survived, and today the organization is very much his creation and he its master. In 2019, his contract was extended through at least the summer of 2027. When asked about grooming a successor, he says he doesn’t yet have anyone in mind. Nobody seems to.

These days, Gelb appears to enjoy the near-total confidence of the board. “Peter has done wonders for the Met,” says Mercedes Bass, another top board member, “but I think right now I feel sorry for him because he’s in a very difficult position.” Bass is a 77-year-old socialite who speaks in a creamy Persian drawl with a mid-Atlantic inflection that sounds like money. Her first opera was Madama Butterfly, seen in London at age 14. She has been hooked ever since and says the music of grand opera is “the essence of life,” like “eating or drinking water.” In 2006, Gelb’s first year in charge, she wrote a check for $25 million, the single-largest individual gift in the history of the Met up to that point. (She was bested in 2010, when someone ponied up $30 million anonymously.)

But unlike the boards of the city’s art museums, there’s not much upside, besides its considerable social prestige, to being a member of the board at the opera. Art, especially modern and contemporary art, is, in the end, an asset class. David Patrick Columbia, the founder of New York Social Diary, describes the Met Opera board as “opera fiends. They’re just devoted to it in a way that I can’t even comprehend.” Meanwhile, the newest new money, the tech zillionaires, haven’t so far been shown to be opera fiends.

That’s not the only difference between the Met and the city’s other arts institutions. The Met’s endowment is just $380 million — not much more than a year’s worth of operating funds. That is paltry compared with the $4.4 billion nest egg held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s neighbor at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic, is smaller than the opera and thus qualified for federal Paycheck Protection Program funds the Met couldn’t get.

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Gelb’s Hits: Akhnaten (2019) and Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2021). Photo: Karen Almond/Met Opera (Akhnaten); Ken Howard/Met Opera (Fire Shut Up in My Bones).

Gelb’s Hits: Akhnaten (2019) and Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2021). Photo: Karen Almond/Met Opera (Akhnaten); Ken Howard/Met Opera (Fire Shut Up in My B…
Gelb’s Hits: Akhnaten (2019) and Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2021). Photo: Karen Almond/Met Opera (Akhnaten); Ken Howard/Met Opera (Fire Shut Up in My Bones).

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Gelb’s Fails: Tosca (2009) and Götterdämmerung (2012). Photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times (Tosca); Sarah Krulwich/The New York Times (Götterdämmerung).

Gelb’s Fails: Tosca (2009) and Götterdämmerung (2012). Photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times (Tosca); Sarah Krulwich/The New York Times (Götterdämmer…
Gelb’s Fails: Tosca (2009) and Götterdämmerung (2012). Photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times (Tosca); Sarah Krulwich/The New York Times (Götterdämmerung).

It’s a week after the Fire premiere, and I meet Gelb at his home, a duplex on the Upper West Side. He pulls out a bottle of white Burgundy and pours us two glasses. Many mementos from his past lives hang on the walls. He points to a framed photo showing the living room of Vladimir Horowitz, the classical pianist Gelb managed for nine years. “That was his fierce wife, Wanda, who’s the daughter of Toscanini,” he says. There’s a picture of Gelb at the Vatican, presenting a gold record to Pope John Paul II. “That’s this record I made of the pope’s homilies.” What about this one, when Gelb still had hair? “That was ’78,” he says, “literally when the Gang of Four was going down, and I engineered this tour by the Boston Symphony to China. Here’s a picture of me in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution.”

Wilson is his second wife. He has two sons from a previous marriage; both live in Los Angeles and work in film. (One, David, directed Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) He’s flying to L.A. the morning after our interview to see them. “I just acquired a second grandchild two days ago,” he says happily.

He shares his home office with Wilson, who has her heroes’ framed portraits and handwritten letters: Giuseppe Verdi, Gustav Mahler, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Gelb first met Wilson when he was producing a televised New Year’s Eve concert by the Berlin Philharmonic and she was a Juilliard student. They didn’t get together until the next year, when he was producing the same show and she was there again. “Our relationship is incredibly romantic because we don’t get to see each other that often,” says Gelb.

His father was Arthur Gelb, the legendary Times editor and culture czar who helped nurture the careers of Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand. His mother, Barbara, was a writer and niece of the famed violinist Jascha Heifetz. She and Arthur co-wrote a well-respected three-volume biography of Eugene O’Neill. For many years, the family lived in a rent-stabilized apartment in the Apthorp.

“I was somewhat of a teenage juvenile delinquent,” says Gelb with a grin. “I used to love going up to the roof and smoking pot.” Later, he dropped out of Yale to work full time as a music publicist. He says he has “a very strong sense of right and wrong, I believe, which I think I got from my parents, particularly my father.”

Shortly after arriving at the Met, Gelb pioneered live HD streaming to cinemas around the world. “When he launched the HDs, everybody thought he was out of his mind,” recalls Heidi Waleson, the longtime opera critic for The Wall Street Journal and author of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias. “Who is going to go to a movie theater to see opera?” It was a smashing success, and it set the Met up for its Opera on Demand service, which, at $14.99 a month, came in handy during the pandemic.

Gelb’s next mandate was to refresh the repertoire. He recruited talent from Hollywood and Broadway and ditched or updated a few of the warhorses. Some new productions were hailed. Others, quite literally, booed. Gelb skeptics still cite Alex Ross’s withering 2012 review of Götterdämmerung in The New Yorker, in which Ross declared, “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”

Herein lies an existential paradox: If Gelb doesn’t gamble on updated works — or new ones, like Fire — the Met begins to vanish from the culture. It can’t subsist only for the purists. You need to take risks. But unlike the edgier opera houses of Europe, the Met does not enjoy a lavish state subsidy. As Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who held Gelb’s job from 1908 to 1935, wrote in his memoir, “It is always the same story — that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — the idealist and the realist. I must be both.”

One recent night, I attended the opening of Turandot. This is Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the Puccini opera, which is to say it’s as warhorsey as they come. Campy as hell and financed by a geyser of Texas oil money, it has been in the rotation since 1987 and is like crack for old-school Met heads. It’s an eye-popping spectacle, if, by contemporary appropriationist readings, a bit problematic to watch Ping, Pang, and Pong twirling around the stage.

I paid $49.50 and sat in the cheapest seats at the very top of the house, or what is known as the “family circle” section. Gelb well knows these seats and the diehards who inhabit them. That’s because he worked as an usher up here when he was a teenager. “My job was to keep the peace among all the crazy fanatics who would literally come every single night to the opera,” he recalls fondly. “They were always getting into fights with each other. There were all these different characters.”

No one was fighting up there now. There was only one other person in my row. Ticket sales have yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. Between the first two acts, I ask around about Gelb. “Oh, he’s done an excellent job,” says Charlie Pignatello, a 72-year-old retiree from Queens who says he sees every production the Met puts on. He was there by himself and lamented all the empty seats. A few rows back, Marian Wade, a therapist who lives in Manhattan, says Gelb “has done a good job of mixing old and new.” A man behind her who says he has seen Turandot 40 times began contrasting Gelb with his predecessors going back to Rudolf Bing. (The most illustrious of the Met’s stewards, Bing oversaw the Met’s move to Lincoln Center, when it was new in 1966, and was friendly with Gelb’s father.) “In New York, where everybody has their knife out, it’s not as easy to be as successful as he’s been,” the man notes.

The word on the street was not so sweet. Working on this story, I happened to be at a tavern near the Met. A barfly and I started talking about the opera, and he offered his very strong opinion. “Peter Gelb? I’m so not impressed,” declared the man, who gave only his first name, Paul. Paul wears a pocket square and works in “fih-nance.” Paul didn’t like the Don Giovanni Gelb brought to the Met. And don’t get Paul started on the way Gelb gutted Tosca. Gelb’s fashion sense, salary, and artistic taste— Paul criticized it all. Gelb, Paul concluded, “is always whoring after the Zeitgeist.”

“Well,” says Gelb, laughing after I tell him this, that Tosca “was a mistake.” Still, he says, “it’s riskier not to take risks.” (He’s a Scorpio.) He says when he arrived at the Met, “a number of leading directors” wouldn’t even consider mounting a production there because “they felt the Met was an operatic factory that was so conservative that they wouldn’t be able to be creative.” He says some told him “their experience used to be really unpleasant when they did work at the Met because they were overruled artistically.” He went on a world tour, wooing them and making connections.

Gelb entered into resourceful and creative partnerships with foreign opera houses, something that rarely used to happen at the haughty Met. “That made it possible for him to bring productions and pieces to the Met that otherwise, if he had to do them by himself, they probably wouldn’t have happened,” says Waleson.

A pair of new productions of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and Akhnaten are considered among the most successful of Gelb’s tenure. More recently, he engineered a partnership with Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre for the first time. Vladimir Urin, who runs that house, says he finds Gelb to be “a man of his word. He keeps his promises. Once we have an agreement, he is acting speedily and correctly.” Fleming says of Gelb, “I don’t know anybody else who sleeps less and works more.”

When critics or fans turn on him, he says he tries to “not get thrown off by hysterics. Opera, it tends to — things amp up in a really big way.” He recalls the furor surrounding a 2014 production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, which dealt with Israel and Palestine and was seen by some as anti-Semitic. “I had like every Jew in New York ready to kill me,” he says, “including contingents of rabbis that would come to my office and one who would sit outside in Lincoln Center saying that the Met was the new Auschwitz.”

One suspects that Gelb feels a little controversy isn’t a bad thing for something with such an aloof reputation as the opera. And while many credit his spine of steel, others say his management style is more like being rubbed with steel wool. His recurring battles with the unions have left scar tissue. One musician tells me 80 percent of his orchestra dislikes Gelb. Another says, “If I ran a survey of the orchestra and the chorus and it was a simple survey of ‘Yes or no, do you like Peter?,’ you would get 100 percent ‘no.’ The tone with which he approaches people and the tone with which he employs his attorneys to approach us is so negative. It just shows a complete disregard and disrespect for the work that we do.”

David Frye, a 30-year chorus member and union leader, describes Gelb as having a “sort of undertaker quality.” Frye, who left the Met after the pay stoppage months into the pandemic, continued, “I would agree that 90 to 100 percent would say, ‘No, I don’t think much of him.’ And the lawyers were just uninformed and nasty.” Adds another chorus member, “Everybody is scared of him.”

Call around enough about Gelb and one hears certain words. Dictatorial. Technocratic. Micromanager. Cool to the point of being cold. I tell him this, and he says, “I can understand why, in such a large company, with so many different groups of performers, that I would be subject to criticism. But I would not describe it as cool — although I have to be coolheaded in order to deal with all the moving parts of the Met.” A few days later, he emails me: “I was thinking about my being dissed as a ‘cool technocrat’ and acknowledge that is one of the hats I must wear, along with calculated-risk taker, staff psychiatrist, artistic marriage broker, programmer-in-chief, cheerleader, and beggar of alms from the wealthy.”

Union members like to contrast Gelb with his immediate predecessor, Joseph Volpe, who started as a carpenter at the Met and climbed the ranks. Volpe had a Vesuvian temper, but, as several Met employees told me, he had better relations overall with the rank and file. “He was one of us,” says a chorus member. Pro-Gelb factions point out that’s what makes it an unfair comparison, that Volpe was something of a “fifth column” acting on behalf of the unions while in management. Interestingly, Reynold Levy, the former president of Lincoln Center who worked with both men, wrote in his 2015 book, They Told Me Not to Take That Job, that the two are more alike than not: “They both behave as if they are one-man shows. In discussing the Met, they do not just personify the institution; they personalize it. They seem to conflate themselves and their views with its interests.” On his desk, Gelb has the gavel that another of his predecessors, Bing, used to end meetings. Its purpose now is purely ornamental.

Gelb insists he has only done what’s necessary to keep the place alive. “I took such strong actions,” he says, “to make sure it wasn’t the end. But they were very controversial among the company and the members who were furloughed, because they were naturally very unhappy about that, understandably.”

He continues: “A certain question people always say to me is ‘How do you get people who are so angry to come back and work again?’ The answer, to me, is people want to work. Once they start working, and I’m sure there are people who are angry still, but I think the vast majority of the company is just thrilled to be working and excited. That scene on the stage, on opening night, of the singers crying tears of joy? That was pretty cool.”

He says one of his favorite parts of the job is nurturing talent. He lights up talking about Ryan Speedo Green, a six-foot-five bass-baritone who overcame the steepest of odds, rising from poverty, juvenile lockup, and solitary confinement to eventually perform in La Bohème. “He will become one of the major stars of the Met in the coming years,” says Gelb. “The same thing is true with someone like Angel Blue, who I first heard a few years ago,” he says, referring to the soprano, who also starred in Fire. “Now I’m pushing her forward in all these major roles,” he says, telling me Blue will sing the role of Aida in a new production. “That’s a big deal. It will be somewhat controversial when we put on a new production because it’s a very opulent production that old-time opera fans love.” It will still be luxuriant, he’s quick to add. “I’ve learned my lessons about operatic opulence when it comes to the classics.”

Meanwhile, for the older operas that violate a contemporary sense of political decorum — not a hard thing to do for a medium designed to entertain aristocrats hundreds of years ago — “we’ve added some trigger warnings, if that’s what they’re called, on our catalogue of Metropolitan Opera on Demand,” Gelb says. “I felt obliged to do it. Basically, they point out that these are historical pieces that depict people in a way that would not be acceptable today.”

A labor protest on Lincoln Center Plaza in May.
Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

One thing everyone agrees on is that Gelb’s job is harder than ever. “I couldn’t do that job in my wildest dreams,” says Eugene Keilin, the respected financial analyst who was brought to the Met in 2014 to review its finances and act as an independent go-between for Gelb and the unions. “In the best of times economically and in the best of times in the life of the city and in the history of the art form, that is an incredibly difficult job,” says F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News. “And Peter has had that job in what is, in my experience, the worst of times at the Met.”

Today’s board is still plenty generous, but what happens when those reservoirs run dry? “There’s a limit to how much you can expect people of goodwill to give you,” says James Kinnear, a 93-year-old oilman and opera fanatic who has sat on the board for 33 years. “I’m not saying the Met is at that limit, but I am saying you’ve got to be careful.” And then there’s the fact that, even though the Met was founded by new money, for new money, today’s new money doesn’t give a damn about a parterre box.

“You’ve put your finger on a serious problem,” Gelb tells me. “The new class of billionaires has no interest in opera, which doesn’t stop us from trying. My wife will — sometimes she’ll hear me on the phone, like during the pandemic, and she’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re dialing for dollars.’ ” With a wry smile, he adds, “But I don’t feel like Max Bialystock.” (Which is just as well because Bialystock did more than dial.)

Bass says the Met “needs to have a guardian angel come in and take it out of its debt, give it, I would say, about $2 billion over a period of time and get the Met back on its feet.” Holy Zeffirelli, that’s a lot of dough! “It’s a lot of money,” she allows, “but when you think Bill Gates is worth $42 billion, what is $2 billion? Bezos, the same thing. The Waltons, the same thing.” (Gates is, in fact, worth more than $138 billion, even after his divorce, but mostly devotes his philanthropy to global health. Bezos, worth an estimated $200 billion after his divorce, seems mostly interested in playing with rocket ships and the Washington Post. At least Alice Walton has her art museum, Crystal Bridges.)

Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival, says, “There are many older patrons who have supported opera, but many of their children could care less what their parents cared about, and if they’re inheriting that money, they just don’t care.” As for the philistines from Silicon Valley? “Everyone has had trouble raising money with that side of things,” she says, “because philanthropy, unless it’s Bill Gates, is not inherent in a lot of their way of thinking.”

Or maybe it’s just the opera that isn’t inherent. “Occasionally, they say yes,” says Gelb, “but the majority don’t have the time. Opera is a big commitment. Operas are long.” Who can sit through Richard Wagner in the age of Addison Rae? “I think there’s a place, as there is in popular culture, for epics,” says Gelb. He has a point. Dune, a space opera, is currently at the top of the box office. Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars — all of which, come to think of it, can also be called operatic — have proved the ravenous popular appetite for epics. “I don’t think the Ring cycle should be shorter. I think there is a certain thrill in experiencing something that is overwhelmingly large; it’s like climbing Mount Everest,” he says. As if to test those limits, on October 26 the Met brought back a nearly six-hour production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. There were many empty seats.

But wait! Why should anyone, with all that’s going on in the world today — climate change! Income inequality! The opioid crisis! — donate as much as one cent, let alone $30 million, so a bunch of glossolalic divas can run around in rococo getups for the viewing pleasure of the ruling class? “First of all,” says Gelb, “if you look at it from a purely economic point of view, opera is an economic driver of New York City. We employ 3,000 people; we support the restaurant infrastructure around Lincoln Center.” Is he stressed out 24/7? “If I was,” he says, “I wouldn’t be able to raise a million dollars a day. Donors don’t like giving money to people who are stressed out.”

Gelb says he wears many hats. Which one contains the rabbit he will need to pull out in order to keep this thing going? He selects the producer’s hat: “Rather than retrenching artistically, we have to be bigger and bolder than ever before and offer more new experiences, not fewer — the old axiom of you have to spend money to make money. Of course, with the Met,” he says, laughing, “everything loses money.”



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