The man trying to reinvigorate opera at its American temple in New York, says it's a battle he wages every day to keep the centuries-old art form from dying a bloody death like so many of its famous characters. Peter Gelb, general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera and the innovator making some of the biggest changes in opera's history, takes Bob Simon backstage to watch him re-invent the art form he loves. Simon's story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
"I go in every day to the Met, knowing that...there is a battle to be...fought for the survival of this art form," he tells Simon backstage at the Met's space at Lincoln Center. He took over one of the world's largest opera houses in 2006, when it was troubled by falling attendance and stifling debt. He knew why. "[The Met] was way behind the times...mired in images of elitism...unless that changed, unless it was prepared to become accessible, as opera had once been, it was going to be very difficult for the Met to survive," says Gelb.
He began by utilizing the Met's tools. With the one of the largest budgets and the biggest space, he could create spectacles with special effects of movement and light. Singers who used to stand on stage now swing from harnesses or ride moving horses.
Another innovation was to make the Met more accessible, not just to New York, but the world. "There's no opera company in the world today that has a global audience." He did it by starting an HD feed of his live performances to theaters around the world, where paying audiences have brought a much-needed new revenue stream. In New York, he opened up rehearsals so fans and potential fans could sample a trip to the opera for free. He also put the live performances on giant screens in Time Square and Lincoln Center to further generate interest among the city sidewalk throngs.
That was the easy part for Gelb. He knew he had to go even further to save his beloved art form, which a century ago was as popular with audiences as movies are today. So he took one of opera's classics, Rigoletto, a story of lust and vengeance set in 16th century Italy, and updated it by adapting it to a 1960s Las Vegas milieu.
What worried him the most? "That I was heading for a disaster, but it's a risk worth taking," he responds to Simon. "The risk of doing nothing is the greatest risk of all."