Peter Gelb: Bringing opera back from the dead

December 6, 2011, 2:33 PM UTC

Interview by Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb

FORTUNE — Just about every executive has to deal with conflicting demands, attracting talent, and reaching a new audience. Peter Gelb is no different, except that his “new audience” is literally people who fill seats at an opera house or theater.

Gelb started as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in 2006. At that point, the organization had considerable debt and a diminishing turnout. Since joining, Gelb has prioritized new productions and launched the Met’s HD performance series, which earned the organization $11 million in profit last year. It looks like the organization is now on surer footing: the Met announced in October that it raised an impressive $182 million in donations in the fiscal year that ended in July, a 50% increase from the previous year.

Gelb talks to Fortune about the price of real change, the pervasive need to bring new life to an old art form, and when it’s worth paying $15 for a fresh tomato on the Russian black market.

Fortune: How do you make opera a viable business?

Peter Gelb: I would never pretend that running an opera house is any kind of a satisfactory business model, but we have a model for how to survive. The Met historically has had an endowment. It also relies on annual giving, which comes from donors who are huge, opinionated opera fans.

What’s the trick to asserting yourself with such powerful donors?

When I came to the Met, I explained to them that unlike in previous administrations, I, as the general manager, have to have the sole artistic voice. That even if some donor who has $20 million likes a particular opera, that doesn’t mean that opera is going to be produced.

Were they worried?

I think that the donor population was more concerned when I was first appointed than they are now. The Met historically has been this conservative, artistic, monolithic kind of organization, and there was some concern that change would be artistically disruptive for the bigger donors and ticket-holders. I had to convince them through my actions that it was going to be okay.

How do you think opera at the Met came to find itself in that sort of change-resistant bubble?

I think there was kind of a general feeling that it didn’t need to move and progress along with the rest of the arts because audiences were coming. Opera at the Met became a very important part of the social framework of New York. It became sort of a specialized art form where great singing was enough.

But times have changed, so how do you keep opera alive ?

What fuels me is the fear of the art form not surviving. To think that an art form or an institution like this is immune to the possibility of extinction would be a big mistake.

I have to do everything in my power to make it interesting in an environment in which arts education is virtually nonexistent. How can we possibly keep this thing going when the audience at the Met was literally dying of old age? I’ve had to take a lot of calculated risks. And the risks I’ve taken have, for the most part, in the short term, paid off.

What specific changes did you make?

I’ve accelerated the number of new productions. That’s one of my initiatives here, to take an art form that has been, to a certain extent, coasting theatrically, and to revitalize it and give it a kind of injection of artistic vitamins. There’s no one particular style we’re adapting, it’s executing the wishes of the directors that I’m bringing in.

Are those new directors on board?

I had to convince directors that I was going to protect them and make it actually work in this factory-like environment. And they went along with it. Even though they know it’s much more challenging and difficult, they also see this as an incredible grand stage to show their work, it’s cool.

It seems like you have to manage a lot of strong, artistic personalities. How do you pull that off?

My training for this job is working with some of the most interesting and complex personalities of recent decades. I was the manager of Vladimir Horowitz, who was notorious for cancelling concerts. He never cancelled a concert when I was his manager.

The secret is to understand what it is that makes them tick and try to not treat it as insanity but treat it as understandable concerns. Horowitz was concerned about his physical well-being to a degree that bordered on psychotic. I realized that the reason why he would cancel is that he was afraid about how he would feel when the concert would come around.

Because he had no trouble selling out any concert he wanted to give, I worked out this deal with him where he would only announce his concerts one month before they were going to take place. So he felt that the chances of him being in good physical condition were likely if the decision was only made a month ahead of time.

I also made sure to recreate his diet when I brought him back to Russia. That was crazy. You know, when he played in Russia, it was at the height of the Cold War. With the help of the American ambassador and various other diplomats in Russia, we recreated his New York City apartment environment, down to every single food item. This was at a time when you couldn’t get any food in Russia. If you wanted a fresh tomato, you had to pay $15 on the black market.

So we don’t have anybody who’s quite that eccentric working at the Met.