Reading Between the Lines in Dowd’s Interview with Gelb

Interesting. As the Metropolitan Opera careens toward a management-led lockout of its orchestra musicians, singers, and workers, we have some fresh words from the man at the center of the dispute: the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. Recently, Mr. Gelb sat down with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to share his thoughts on where the dispute stands, and what he’s hoping the end result would be.

Dowd’s piece is warm and sympathetic (Norman Lebrecht called it “maternal”)—this is not unexpected, as she used to work for Gelb’s father. What strikes me as notable about the column is that since Gelb is in a relaxed, comfortable setting, he let slips some thoughts and ideas that he might not have otherwise.

And frankly, these ideas terrify me.

Allow me to share some thoughts about the interview.

* * *

“Hurtling toward a lockout, Gelb sees a fresh vitriolic insult from a union negotiator every time he checks the news on his phone.”

I can only imagine the stress he’s going through, and I agree it must be tough. However—and I can only speak for myself here—I would have more sympathy for him if he wasn’t making daily digs at his workers, as he has done in many recent interviews. And frankly, as he does in this very interview. Imagine how his workers feel when he repeatedly insults and demeans them, and blames them unilaterally for all the Met’s problems.

This is a point that bears repeating. He keeps dehumanizing his workers as some faceless, sinister “union.” This is wrong. Again, they are his workers. And since putting on operas is the Met’s business, these workers are his product. They should receive their due respect.

Over the last eight seasons, the musicians, singers, and workers at the Met did all Mr. Gelb asked them to, and more. But now, he calls them overpaid (for work he asked them to do) and greedy (for expecting to be paid for the amount of work he asked them to do), and tells them they’re part of a dying industry that has no future.

This is as absurd as Éric Ripert badmouthing the chefs at his restaurant Le Bernardin… and further going off about how seafood tastes terrible anyway.

Please Mr. Gelb, consider how your workers feel every time they check their phones.

But another point. Labor disputes are inherently ugly… the ugliness is unavoidable. A lockout will fray friendships, turn people against each other, and severely damage any institution that experiences one. This is why it’s so disheartening to see Mr. Gelb actively pushing a lockout, as if it’s an easy solution. I saw how a similar line of thinking played out with the Minnesota Orchestra, and the results were terrible. Things are much, much better now in Minneapolis, but it has taken a great deal of effort to heal the damage. From my vantage point, Gelb is unleashing a whirlwind that he cannot control, and things can get much worse.

So I’m sorry that you’re feeling the heat Mr. Gelb… but you are not an innocent bystander in this.

“Gelb, a Yale dropout who worked as a teenage usher at the Met and an office boy for the impresario Sol Hurok, comes across as smooth, tailored and cerebral.”

This is an interesting tidbit, that helps humanize Peter Gelb—it shows a long-standing connection with the Met in a way that many can relate to.

What this sentence also suggests is a superficiality to his understanding of the Met and all that goes on there. Reading this sentence, Mr. Gelb has just as much qualification to run Yale University. In either case, he would bring a generalized business sense to the job, and a modicum of institutional memory. But based on his experiences, would he be able to run one of the nation’s most prestigious intuitions of higher learning? Would he be able to effectively and efficiently manage the competing demands of students, parents, instructors, researchers, adjunct faculty, maintenance staff, administration, donors, alumni and local townspeople?

So why does a short stint ushering at the Met give him any special insight into juggling all the unique demands of the nation’s premier opera house?

And why does he continue to act is if he alone is able to understand the problem?

Look, I get it… a man’s background is hardly his destiny. And sometimes an outside perspective is necessary, or even desirable in an organization; a shake-up can sometimes be just what an institution needs.

But sometimes it flops—because the outsider is not fully prepared for the challenge, or doesn’t have the necessary skills.

“The unions have personalized the fight, sniping at Gelb and expensive productions that have not panned out, while Gelb is sticking to the bottom line of unsustainable labor costs.”

This is debatable. It’s not a simple case where the musicians, singers, and backstage workers are attacking Gelb as a person—they’re doing so because of his role as the person who has authorized the work schedules, approved the overtime, greenlighted productions, monitored spending, and ultimately has been tasked with running the organization. They are saying that he has not completed these tasks adequately, and therefore is ultimately the person responsible for the Met’s current financial problems. For example, if overtime costs are too high, he is the person who approved it; ergo, we should not blame the workers for working the hours he asked—and required—them to work.

And remember, right from the start of Gelb’s interview with Paula Zahn, he put 100% of the blame for the current financial problems squarely on “the unions,” and accused union workers of being unable to understand budget cuts. He has made a whole series of inflammatory statements about unions in the press over the last two weeks. He is most certainly not blaming impersonal “labor costs,” but specifically calling his union workers greedy, financially ignorant, and a drain on the institution.

For example, moments later in this interview he makes the following statement:

“They’re surrounded by too much gold leaf,” Gelb says of the 15 unions — from wigs and makeup to a union consisting of one house painter. “It’s delusional.”

Isn’t that personalizing the fight?

“Economically, they’ve been calling the shots for decades. And I have to break that up for the Met to survive. We have to go big, but do it in a way that’s economically small. Even in the Met, you can see the gold leaf’s chipping off the ceiling.”

For me, this is the clearest statement of Gelb’s principles, priorities and intentions. And completely demolishes the notion that he is doing this for any other reason than to bust the unions. Note that he isn’t looking for minimizing any potential damage to the institution. He’s not concerned with his artistic mission or product. He isn’t exploring any other cost savings, including those that he has direct control over.

He only wants to break the unions.

He doesn’t even articulate specific reasons for how specifically this will help the Met’s current problems—it just seems that once he breaks the unions, a new golden era of prosperity will dawn for the Met. As I said before, this is essentially arguing that by making choristers work overtime for free, his poorly-attended revivals will suddenly begin playing at more than 50% capacity.

As a result, it is hard to see “breaking the union” as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself.

“Anthony Tommasini, The Times’s chief classical music critic, says there have been mistakes on both sides. ‘The union heads have made Gelb seem so incompetent, even artistically, that if the talks are resolved, then what is the public to think? “Great, another season courtesy of that know-nothing.” ’ ”

This gets back to an earlier point. Gelb is threatening to go nuclear. He should not be surprised that his workers are pushing back. That’s why he should be working with the union workforce to defuse the situation before it gets any worse.

And I have to say, the fact that so many of the Gelb-produced shows are selling so poorly in revivals suggest that many in the public are already thinking, “Great, another season courtesy of that know-nothing.” I hardly think the unions bear all the blame there….

* * *

There’s a great deal going on in this interview, but for me the most important aspect is how clearly Mr. Gelb’s intentions come through.  And not necessarily to his benefit.  In the end, my impression is that this interview doesn’t necessarily help Gelb’s cause, however much it may humanize him.




2 thoughts on “Reading Between the Lines in Dowd’s Interview with Gelb

  1. Oh YES MR. GELB! We are all “delusional and surrounded by too much gold leaf”, ESPECIALLY the wig and makeup dept.(thanks for the mention;) That must be why I work in a corner with horrible lighting, have to set up 2 heaters in winter just so my hands will thaw out, breathing air and hairspray from 1902, with a mousetrap under my station and coming in to find all my work supplies soaked through (including your HD wig that is the “product” you keep referring to, yet clearly don’t want to pay me for) because of leaky windows and walls that cry when it rains. We ARE so clearly spoiled and accustomed to working in glamorous conditions. I would just like to be warm and dry. Thanks!


  2. Pingback: Reflections on Anthony Tommasini’s Piece in the Times | Mask of the Flower Prince

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