Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, is not a man given to self-revealing gestures. In interviews he comes across as studiously bland—undramatic and unconfessional. He is soft-spoken, and while he is by all accounts an exacting, detail-oriented boss, he’s not a performer, nor does he wear his heart on his sleeve.
He’s not the kind of guy, in other words, who would give The New York Times interviews detailing his insecurities about his working-class background. He’s not the kind of guy who would also tell The Times that to get things done in an opera house, you sometimes have to act operatically. Both of those insights came from his predecessor, Joseph Volpe, who started at the Met as a carpenter, rose over the course of three decades to the house’s leadership and left in 2006; and whom Mr. Gelb hired last week to lead upcoming contract negotiations with the company’s three major unions. The hire, an uncharacteristic and surprising move, reveals more about Mr. Gelb, and about the state of his company, than any other moment since he came to the Met.
It seems to be the very opposite of what Peter Gelb would do. He may be quiet and unprepossessing, but he clearly revels in exercising his power, and he has an inflexible, almost messianic sense of his mission, telling the New York Post last November, regarding opera fans displeased with the Met’s offerings, “If they still hate what we’re doing, I’m going to be trying my hardest to continue to do what I am doing, because I believe it’s the only way to go.”
Power-sharing wouldn’t seem to come easily to him, particularly not when Mr. Volpe is involved. The transition from one administration to the other, in 2005 and 2006, was a rocky one. Mr. Volpe bristled when Mr. Gelb described the Met he was inheriting as “coasting,” and Mr. Gelb, then and since, has seemed uninterested in reaching out to Mr. Volpe for advice.
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