Reinventing opera at the Met

Bob Simon reports on the Metropolitan Opera's mission: to make opera as popular -- and populist -- as it once was

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The following script is from "The Greatest Show on Earth" which aired on Oct. 27, 2013. The correspondent is Bob Simon. Ruth Streeter, producer.

The phrase "the greatest show on Earth" usually refers to the circus but a man named Peter Gelb, who runs the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, is doing everything he can to change that. He is reinventing opera, making it accessible to more people -- even those who always thought they would hate it. Gelb wants opera to become as popular and populist as it was a hundred years ago. He believes people would come out in droves for opera if they just had a chance to see it.

Director Michael Mayer adds Broadway flair to... 04:54

There's no other place where you can see such monumental staging, elaborate sets and a cast of hundreds.

And raw emotion, beautiful women -- defiant and doomed -- and special effects that you might expect to find in a Hollywood movie.

But it's not just about the magic. The Met is above all about extraordinary voices -- some of the very best voices in the world. Beginning with rehearsals, we followed a new production, a reimagining of Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece Rigoletto.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala belts out one of Verdi's greatest hits.

Bob Simon: What's the difference between singing at the Met and singing in the smaller European houses?

Piotr Beczala: It's the most important opera house in the world.

Bob Simon: Do you get more nervous before Met performance than at other performances?

Piotr Beczala: Maybe a little. Maybe a little because I know how important it is here.

First chance at the Met 00:48

Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic sings the role of Rigoletto.

Zeljko Lucic: This is the-- kind of crown of our business, coming to New York and Metropolitan. Because I know what kind of people, what singers sang here and stood at the same place where I am.

Bob Simon: In fact, when you sing the first time at the Met, is it a very big deal?

Zeljko Lucic: Yes because that's your chance to prove yourself. And if you are, you know, if you-- how-- how can I say, blew it out?

Bob Simon: If you blow it?

Zeljko Lucic: If you blow it, you're done. That's it.

"This is the-- kind of crown of our business, coming to New York and Metropolitan. Because I know what kind of people, what singers sang here and stood at the same place where I am."

Unlike divas of the past German soprano Diana Damrau is a working mom, nursing a two-month-old baby and a cold. She has a lot to contend with.

Bob Simon: You were quite sick last week?

Diana Damrau: Yes. I'm still a bit. But I tried not to sing all the time, and reduce a little bit.

Bob Simon: Just a little bit, I mean-- you were belting it out.

Diana Damrau: Oh, no, only at the end.

Rigoletto is far from the only thing going on here today. There can be as many as 10 operas in production at once. Right now, the Met stage is being set up for a new version of Richard Wagner's Parsifal, a sacred opera that's never been done like this before. Dozens of raven-haired maidens sloshing around in a river of blood -- 1,600 gallons of the stuff -- heated so the singers don't get cold.

Overseeing all this is that worried looking man, Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager. He says opera is a blood sport.

Opera singers also acrobats? 00:46

Peter Gelb: I go in every day to the Met knowing that this is-- there is a battle to be waged and fought for the survival of this art form. And so I'm here to do that.

Bob Simon: This is your seventh year at the Met.

Peter Gelb: Yes. Still here.

Seven years micro-managing one of the biggest theaters in the world and one of the most expensive to run. The Met employs over 3,000 people. It spends more than a million dollars a day on its productions.

"I go in every day to the Met knowing that this is-- there is a battle to be waged and fought for the survival of this art form. And so I'm here to do that."

Peter Gelb: We are the closest thing to an opera factory that one could possibly imagine, except the difference is that all of our factory workers are the greatest artists in the world.

[Stagehands: Right now. We got it.

Singers: Wahoo!]

Peter Gelb: We're doing seven performances a week. Constantly going from opera to opera which is why our stage is busier than any other opera house in the world. It's like a giant self-sufficient ocean liner.

But that liner was in danger of sinking when Gelb took over in 2006. It was awash in debt with falling attendance and an audience which might not be around much longer.

Peter Gelb: It was way behind the times. And it had become so mired in images of elitism that unless that changed, unless it was prepared to become accessible-- as opera once had been-- it was going to be very difficult for the Met to survive.

To make opera more accessible, Gelb opened up dress rehearsals to the public for free and put up huge screens in Lincoln Center and Times Square. And he did something which has never been done before. He began transmitting live performances in HD to movie theaters around the world, now in 64 countries. Those broadcasts are money-makers - this year they grossed nearly $60 million, more than three-quarters of total tickets sold.

Peter Gelb: There's no opera company in the world today that has a global audience that the Met has because of these live HD transmissions.

Bob Simon: But you're still a hundred million dollars in debt. How does that relate to everything you've done?

Peter Gelb: Opera's always in debt from a business point of view, opera shouldn't exist. I mean, it only exists because there are enough people who love opera and my job is to try to persuade them that it is necessary to change in order to keep the art form alive. Otherwise it will die with them.

Opening night for "Rigoletto" 01:30

One of Gelb's strategies to keep opera alive is to update the classics, like Rigoletto. After four weeks of rehearsals it's opening night. Rigoletto has been performed over 800 times here but this audience, almost 4,000 here and another 350,000 watching in HD as far away as Tokyo, is about to see a radically different version -- 10 minutes before curtain, you can cut the tension with an A-flat.

Piotr Beczala: OK. I'm ready.

Zeljko Lucic: It seems that I'm not nervous. But--yea of course I am. This is a big thing. So I'm kind of, you know, cooking somewhere here-- you have this feeling that everything's-- that you are going to throw up.

[Stage manager: Gilda to stage right. Ms.Damrau to stage right.

Stage manager: Please.

Stage manager: Maestro to the pit, please. Maestro to the orchestra pit please.]

Giuseppe Verdi set his tale of debauchery, lust, and vengeance in a corrupt court in 16th century Italy. This one plays out in its modern equivalent: Las Vegas in the 1960s.

The heartthrob, the duke, is now a big shot singer and casino owner with an eye for the ladies.

The Met provides subtitles for its HD broadcasts and those have been revamped too.

[Countess: Take it easy fella.

Duke: My hearts on fire.

Countess: Cool it, mister!

Duke: You hooked me, baby.]

A 1987 60 Minutes report on opera composer Gi... 11:07

It's a big role of the dice for Peter Gelb. Will the old guard be ready for show girls, a pole dancer? Even a sharp dressed hit man? His name is of the longest names in opera.

Bob Simon: When you decided to put on Rigoletto in Las Vegas, what worried you the most?

Peter Gelb: That I was heading for a disaster, but it's a risk worth taking. The risk of doing nothing is the greatest risk of all.

In the last act the mood changes. Rigoletto will not have a happy ending, very few operas do.

[Diana Damrau: Let's go and die.

Zeljko Lucic: Yea, but peacefully.]

The plot is much too complicated to explain but we'll just tell you Rigoletto's daughter sacrifices herself to save the duke.

It will be a spectacular death scene with the Met pulling out all its stops. From the chorus back stage, to the lighting team, to the HD crew sending it out live around the world.

The hit man offs the daughter and stuffs her into the trunk of a 1960 Cadillac Coupe Deville. She breathes her last in her father's arms.

[Matthew Diamond: Wait for it.]

At the final curtain the audience jumps to its feet, even the orchestra applauds. That doesn't happen every day.

For Gelb, it was a good night. But in opera, as in so many other things, you're only as good as your next night.

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    Bob Simon is among a handful of elite journalists who have covered most major overseas conflicts and news stories from the late sixties to the present. He has contributed to 60 Minutes since 1996.