New G.M. wants to dust off graying institution

On a recent Friday evening, in a windowless office tucked off of the Metropolitan Opera’s gilded main hall, Peter Gelb sits scrutinizing a loose-leaf sheet scribbled with attendance figures.

Outside, dusk is settling on Lincoln Center and the wide plaza begins buzzing with smartly dressed sexagenarians — the stately opera house’s loyal patrons. But at the moment, Gelb, who arrived as the Met’s new general manager last summer with a mandate to dust off the graying institution, has his mind on another audience, and a very different type of theater.

He rattles off numbers from the loose-leaf sheet that tallies advance ticket sales for the next day’s live, high-definition broadcast of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” which will beam via satellite from the Met’s stage to 275 screens around the U.S. and Canada, as well as to far-flung places that include an old moviehouse above the Arctic Circle in Norway and a Japanese theater normally reserved for samurai shows. For an early 19th-century opera competing against the likes of “300” and “Ghost Rider,” the “Barber’s” box office numbers look surprisingly good.

“We’re going to be well within the top 20 weekend grossing films,” Gelb notes with a dry sense of wonder.

So far, the Met’s six live high-def movie transmissions — which Gelb likens to “broadcasting a live NFL game” — have been a success, playing at often sold-out multiplexes to tens of thousands of moviegoers who pay $18 for the surround-sound, popcorn and opera experience.

In small and not always subtle ways, the broadcasts have the Met dabbling on Hollywood’s turf, from experimenting with camera angles and soft lighting for close-ups to producing backstage documentary-style shows that feature interviews with divas and play exclusively for the multiplex crowd during intermission.

“My plans here are not to dumb down opera,” says Gelb, anticipating one criticism lobbed at him since he launched a general offensive last fall of attention-grabbing reforms. Under Gelb, the Met has sent singers to perform on David Letterman, encouraged opera stars to blog on the Met’s revamped Web site and broadcast the season’s opener and celebrity-studded red-carpet-style gala on giant screens in Times Square and Lincoln Center.

Gelb is taking aim at a younger audience and striving to repackage the Met’s hallowed halls, once graced by performers like Enrico Caruso and Leontyne Price, as hip and happening.

The opera house has been facing a shrinking audience and a demographic slow burn. Gelb frequently cites one survey putting the Met’s current audience at 65 years old. Unless something is done, he says, “Opera will ride off into the sunset and oblivion. … That’s why I feel justified to mount the campaign I’ve mounted to jumpstart the younger audience.”

Gelb says he hopes to snare “the intellectually curious arts consumer” — people in their 30s or 40s who, for example, like art-house cinema.

Gelb, son of Arthur Gelb, a former New York Times drama critic, and of writer Barbara Gelb, previously headed the Sony Classical record label, where he earned a mixed reputation. One news magazine breezily described Gelb as a former “record-label hatchet man.”

At the Met, Gelb has garnered wide approval while steadily wooing notable theater directors who otherwise might have eschewed the opera house for fear of a “conservative aesthetic that would suck them up.”

He also is freshening up the Met’s roster. The 2007-2008 season boasts seven new productions — the most since it arrived at Lincoln Center in 1966. Gelb, who believes that the best opera directors are theater directors, has focused on turning Met performances into compelling dramas and comedies that “entice a new audience without alienating the older audience that is interested in the music.”

In his first season, Gelb tapped Tony Award-winning directors Bartlett Sher for “Barber” and Julie Taymor, creator of “The Lion King,” for an abbreviated, English-language version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

He also brought in film director Anthony Minghella for Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” a production both praised by the New Yorker for its ability to “steer clear of the big-budget theatrical amateurism” and faulted by New York Magazine for failing to hear “just how powerfully the music defines the characters.”

Future productions under Gelb include Verdi’s “Macbeth,” directed by Adrian Noble of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” directed by Tony winner Mary Zimmerman. Gelb has commissioned new works, imported others and brought in co-productions that, as often happens in the theater, are tested in other cities before arriving in New York.

Attendance at the Met is up, and, in another encouraging sign, Gelb says the crowds at the multiplex appear to be younger than the average Met fans. He estimates the Met’s potential movie audience at between 100,000 and 200,000 people per showing. The broadcasts are limited to theaters with high-def capability.

The idea for the movie broadcasts is not new. Films of opera and live feeds have been tried before, while radio simulcasts of Saturday matinee performances have been a Met staple since 1931. Gelb says the Met also is exploring possible pay-per-view and video-on-demand options. He says the opera movie broadcasts potentially can help the donor-dependent Met make ends meet while generating buzz and helping fill the Met’s 3,800 seats.

Even as the Met continues to flirt with pop culture and cinema, Gelb insists the lensing of operas will not “become intrusive for the audience in the theater.”

Still, at a recent performance of “Barber” that served as a dry run for the live broadcast, the showbiz-influenced, tongue-in-cheek tweaks were hard to miss, starting with two robotic cameras, which were attached to vertical dollies on either side of the stage and stood out like a pair of skinny aliens. At the start of the second act, with the curtain still down, a character walked onstage and began waving and mugging for the camera. Gelb says performers turned to sing into the cameras 10 times during “Barber.”

The Met’s new spirit can be felt in other ways. Sher’s set called for a passerelle, or runway, that — for the first time in Met history — extended over the orchestra pit and into the audience. It lent the hall a touch of Blue Man Group as Figaro walked into the crowd and applauded himself at the end of an aria.

In the audience, Tony Dalileo, who’s been attending the Met for 25 years, fretted that the new era and flurry of productions would spell an end to the kind of grand and elaborate sets once captured at Lincoln Center in the operas of Franco Zeffirelli.

“Those times have come and gone,” he says. “Now all you’re going to see are props and a platform. Nothing else.”

Gelb smiles and shakes his head when told of the loyal fan’s lament.

“There’s no rule,” he says. “It’s just got to be great.”

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