Editorial: Is Peter Gelb Ready to Run the Met Opera Renewal All on His Own?

The Met’s Ticket Sales & Questions about Its Maestro Surface

By Polina Lyapustina
(Credit: Brigitte Lacombe)

While the Metropolitan Opera is finishing its season with 72 percent of tickets sold, increasing consistently and showing a growth of six percent compared to the 2022-23 season, a lot of questions remain as Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb and the company head into the off-season.

When Peter Gelb and Yannick Nezet-Seguin were answering questions for the New York Times in April 2023, the difference in their perspectives was obvious. But the truth is born in arguments, isn’t it? And back then, audience members and critics, inspired by the success of the first modern premieres at the Met, might not have much reason to worry about how these two people, so different in every conceivable way, led the same ship (a ship that many saw sinking during the pandemic).

It was evident that Gelb (with his presumed understanding of the Met’s audience) had some doubts about the priority of modern operas in the repertory. In the interview, he noted: “They may have been works of great artistic merit, but by composers who were appealing more to the intellect than hearts of listeners. To find the right balance, we have to experiment. It’s safe to say that by the end of this five-year period, we will know the answer.”

Nezet-Seguin had a greater and more ambitious plan — to achieve high performance for modern operas in the short term of two to three seasons andto keep the Met as the mother ship of great opera in the world, and therefore great new opera.”

Gelb sounded cautious. Nézet-Séguin sounded not only optimistic but assertive that it was a fait accompli – the Met was and continues to be the standard bearer of all opera, modern opera included.

The title for The New York Times article, “The Met Is Planning a Big Bet on Contemporary Opera,” seemed to be splitting the middle.

That management agreed to play this card so openly was the result of the strategy working to perfection during the first two seasons following the pandemic (this article coincided with the new production of “Champion” months after the success of “The Hours” which sold 86 percent of its tickets during that initial run with an average ticket buy age of 44). New scores and new plots led to sold-out performances, new (younger!) audience, high press coverage, great reviews, and the opening of new social horizons for opera criticism, too.

A new facet of the Met’s identity was revealed. But was it a living creature or a mask? This last season disclosed the weak aspects of this big bet.

A Flawed Plan

When an opera house prepares a production, no matter if it is a new opera or a revival of an old masterwork, it plans the particular financial coverage of costs and profit over a few seasons. The Met never had enough experience with modern operas to create the right formula of income from the revivals of those.

The 2023-24 season showed that the income from the revivals was apparently way lower already in the second season (“The Hours” sold just 61 percent of its tickets, down from 86 percent ticket sales during its initial run, and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” had 65 percent audience), while (let’s sadly but rightfully note) old masterpieces like “Turandot” (selling 82 percent of its tickets), “The Magic Flute (87 percent), and “Carmen” (81 percent, albeit in contemporary guise), keep up their side of the bargain.

The reason is not that difficult to explain. Modern stories and plots are the subjects of our current concerns and struggles, they are connected to our lives very directly, and the viewer becomes a part of a dialogue. Therefore, modern operas cannot be perceived, even rarely, for their musical beauty only. The premiere performances brought much attention to open the conversation on the topic and to provoke certain thinking, but would you, as an opera attendant, allow the opera house to decide when (what season, what time of the year) you will be subjected to this mental dialogue again?

People love to catch related topics in the arts. Books, movies, TV shows, music. Some topics and some pieces become favorites, but it is us, who decide when we will take this emotional journey again — to listen to the song again tomorrow or re-watch the film the next year. Opera performances deprive us of this opportunity, and the proposed time can hardly match the current emotional or mental state of a person who has already seen the performance.

Thus, it is problematic to foretell who will attend the revivals of modern operas. New York visitors? Somebody who missed it the first season? The opera house cannot rely on that. This simple fact is that modern operas are not an optimal financial base for the house repertory the size of the Met Opera. The first season rarely pays off the full new production (and even less the brand-new commission).

I believe this is exactly what Gelb wanted to find out in a five-year period and then decide how he would move forward from there. It didn’t take long for the results to become evident. Of the six contemporary operas showcased in 2023-24, only one topped the 72 percent average ticket sales for the season (“X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X”) and the ensemble of modern works averaged just 65 percent audience attendance.

The income of the theater grew, but not fast enough, and for the donors, a strong strategy of development is one of the most important aspects. Surely, Gelb would not pivot right away? Well, he already did, taking out a massive bit of the endowment when the season wasn’t even half-way finished. In a corresponding New York Times article, Gelb revealed some major changes to the upcoming seasons including cutting down the contemporary operas from six per season to four next year as well as other cutbacks to ensure financial sustenance for the Met.  

Question Marks at the Podium?

And speaking of The New York Times, arguably the most important newspaper on the planet and the one that is always the first to report breaking news from the Met and Gelb himself almost exclusively, added an interesting wrinkle to the dialogue over the Met’s upcoming direction.

The context: a series of performances at Carnegie Hall for the Met Orchestra under Nézet-Séguin. Recently, the star conductor, overloaded with his responsibilities at his numerous major positions in Montréal and Philadelphia, gave many reasons to doubt thathis signature styleandoriginal readingactually serve the orchestra or enrich its musical identity. His concerts at Carnegie Hall were described by NY Times’s assistant classical music and dance editor Joshua Barone  asdifficult to assess.” Barone’s NY Times review wasn’t the only one critical of the conductor (OperaWire’s own noted that the reading was “extremely hard to follow as the dynamics didn’t quite have a pronounced range … and, coupled with lethargic tempi, the piece lacked a sense of ebb and flow“), but it is notable. 

When Nézet-Séguin took over as the General Director at the Met, the NY Times was always loud and proud in its praise of the conductor. Throughout his tenure, the publication not only declared Nézet-Séguin to be “New York’s Conductor Now” following the pandemic, but did numerous interviews with the maestro on his attire and the importance of his being gay. Few other classical musicians get that kind of media attention, which is often reserved for cultural icons.

But this latest article was not so much a common critique but featured a full-blown assessment of Nézet-Séguin’s tenure to date. Everything was put on trial – from his commitment to the orchestra, his involvement (or lack thereof) in the labor dispute, how many musicians he has hired. There was even a jab at the conductor’s  Twitter account description of himself as the “father” of several organizations he leads. Here is the relevant excerpt:

“This group’s specialties can seem indistinct; its quality, inconsistent. And, in general, it has been difficult to assess these players under Nézet-Séguin, who took over in 2018. A music director needs to be present to shape the sound of an ensemble, and he has been chronically overscheduled, juggling the Met with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, not to mention his post as the head of conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music.

“On a practical level, a music director also needs to build an orchestra, and the Met’s is still regrouping from a wave of retirements during the pandemic. For reasons perhaps beyond his control, though, Nézet-Séguin has hired a mere 13 instrumentalists since he started.

“He has exuded contemporary cool, proudly displaying his painted fingernails on Met posters; yet he has also, in a reinforcement of maestro mythology, referred to himself as the ‘father’ of the company. In 2021, he broke convention by speaking out in favor of the orchestra’s musicians during a labor dispute, but only when it mattered least: nearly a year after they had been furloughed during the pandemic, and after they had already reached a deal for partial pay.

This is the first time that any writer at the New York Times picks at the conductor in that manner. Even on the occasions when he has been critiqued for his performances, the NY Times has never questioned his role. This passage undeniably brings up the question of – should Nézet-Séguin, who, per the Wall Street Journal signed a four-year contract that started in 2020-21 and thus should be up for renewal soon, continue at the helm (that said, Nézet-Séguin is already set for some projects with the Met up to 2028)?

Meanwhile, Nézet-Séguin just joined the Rolex family and has garnered critical acclaim for his performances at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the orchestra has agreed to its leader’s contract extension at least through the 2029-30 season. The maestro is also alifelongartistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montréal.

The recent criticism, along with mixed results of modern opera revivals, the lack of improvements to the orchestra, and no mention of a contract extension, might point out that Gelb wants to think hard about whether he should take control entirely into his own hands. His moves are likely to be more conservative, but this year’s data suggests that the Met is not yet (or ever) ready to become the “mother ship” of new opera as seen by its star conductor.

There’s undoubtedly still a lot to do at the Met in this direction in the next few years. Maybe it doesn’t become a “mother ship,” but instead reveals something else about what it means to be The Met Opera.