Exclusive: Met musicians claim Peter Gelb operas sell less than pre-Gelb shows

Exclusive: Met musicians claim Peter Gelb operas sell less than pre-Gelb shows


norman lebrecht

June 20, 2014

Musicians in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra have been conducting a box-office study, which they have shared with slippedisc.com.

Key finding? Gelb’s gloom about the future of opera is rooted in his own failings.

Key paragraph: Peter Gelb’s mantra as of late is, “Opera is dying.” However, the Met’s box office returns for recent revivals of productions which pre-date Peter Gelb, like Norma (which sold last season at 90% of capacity), La Bohème (87%), Così fan tutte (93%), and the English version of The Magic Flute (100%) tell a different story. The Zeffirelli Bohème, premiering in 1981, cost $2.8M, but over the past 30 years, the production has paid for itself over and over at the box office. These grand productions are a Met trademark, and the box office shows that they are what people are most interested in seeing. Recent box office returns show Peter Gelb revivals sell less well than Pre-Gelb productions. Would it be more correct to say: “Peter Gelb’s productions are dying”?

Day by day, Gelb is losing public opinion and media support. He goes into the contract negotiations friendless and without solutions.

Full musicians’ paper follows.

zeffirelli tribute met
It is truly disheartening to see articles in the media that accept Peter Gelb’s claims that
there is a sudden and dire state of financial affairs at the Metropolitan Opera. In giving
these interviews, Peter Gelb’s primary goal seems to be to obfuscate the truth about his
own managerial shortcomings, even going as far as to disparage the art form he is tasked
to promote, and insult the public he has been entrusted to attract. Moving forward, it is
important that those of us who care about the Metropolitan Opera ask hard questions and
seek a deeper understanding.

Peter Gelb’s mantra as of late is, “Opera is dying.” However, the Met’s box office returns
for recent revivals of productions which pre-date Peter Gelb, like Norma (which sold last
season at 90% of capacity), La Bohème (87%), Così fan tutte (93%), and the English
version of The Magic Flute (100%) tell a different story. The Zefferelli Bohème,
premiering in 1981, cost $2.8M, but over the past 30 years, the production has paid for
itself over and over at the box office. These grand productions are a Met trademark, and
the box office shows that they are what people are most interested in seeing. Recent box
office returns show Peter Gelb revivals sell less well than Pre-Gelb productions. Would it
be more correct to say: “Peter Gelb’s productions are dying”?

In the recent Wall Street Journal article about Prince Igor, the Met asserts that the
production budget is the result of a careful negotiation between management and
directors, “to keep costs in line.” The numbers tell a different story. According to the
Met’s financial statements, in Joseph Volpe’s last season as general manager (2005-06),
the cost of new productions was $7.6M. By 2011-12, under Peter Gelb, that cost was up
to $24.3M. Is Peter Gelb’s idea of keeping costs in line a 220% increase in spending on
new productions? If revivals of Peter Gelb productions routinely suffer at the box office,
is it in the Met’s best interest to continue investing in his expensive artistic vision?

That same Wall Street Journal article notes, “Some nights, when there was no room to
store [Prince Igor’s $169,000 poppy field] in the wings, the poppies had to be trucked to
off-site storage. They filled eight trucks. The Met didn’t disclose the cost of that storage,
saying it wasn’t part of the production budget.” Logically, if the nature of a production
necessitates certain expenses, those must be considered production expenses. What other
“non-expenses” are being hidden behind this nonsensical pretext? Are there other ways
the Met has chosen to shuffle the numbers in an effort to downplay its wasteful spending
practices under Peter Gelb?

This question brings to mind the recent Robert LePage Ring Cycle debacle. Critics
overwhelmingly panned it. Audiences quickly tired of it and attendance dropped
precipitously. The audience didn’t literally die off, as Peter Gelb would have us believe;
they just didn’t like it. The final run of Otto Schenk’s Götterdämmerung (2008-09),
which premiered in 1986, sold at 100% of capacity. The LePage production premiered at
88% and the revival sold at 67%. Did 33% of the audience for the Ring die off after just a
few years? Is it possible that a well-educated base of opera fans were turned off, and
following more and more dismal critical reviews, the audiences stopped coming? In light
of all of this, Gelb insists on standing by this production, referred to by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross as “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”

Peter Gelb regularly states that 2/3 of the Met budget being spent on labor is problematic.
Labor, however, is the artistic product audiences pay to experience when they come to
the Met. People attend performances at the Met to see first-rate singers and chorus, the
world-class MET Orchestra, dancers, performers wearing costumes built by the best in
the business and prepped for the stage by the great make-up artists. Basically, everything
you see when you attend the Met is labor (security guards, ushers, etc), and the wages of
these laborers has barely kept up with inflation over the past ten years. In fact, the cost of
Union payroll and benefits (which includes solo artists) as a percentage of the Met’s
budget has actually declined between the years 2006 – 2013, from 69.4%, to 65.6%.
Clearly, reducing the percentage of labor costs does not coincide with increasing box
office returns. The more relevant question is: “Where is the other $100M+ in increased
costs going?” How vital are those lavish expenditures to bringing the Met’s audience a
world-class artistic product? Should there be a deeper look into those costs and the return
on that investment?

Another question regarding these claims of crisis is: “Why now?” The Met presented a
rosy picture of its financial status for fiscal year 2012. It would be truly remarkable for an
organization to so quickly go from multiple years in the black and surpluses to the
precipice of bankruptcy. Is it a mere coincidence that Peter Gelb insists the sky is falling
right around the time that labor contracts are expiring? Without full disclosure of its
financial records, can we trust the Met’s motivations in asking for drastic cuts to musician
salaries, health care and other benefits? All we have been asking for is transparency. We
have had over 30 years of peaceful and fruitful labor relations. Rest assured, no one is
more concerned with the future of the Met than the artists who comprise its backbone and
have worked their whole lives to be part of its tradition of excellence.

Finally, why are Peter Gelb’s claims that opera and its audience are dying finding so little
support among his peers? Why haven’t leaders of the world’s other leading opera houses
jumped on Peter Gelb’s bandwagon into the abyss? There is little doubt that the major
reasons for the Met’s current situation are a failed artistic vision and excessive spending
which has failed to bring any positive return. Chicago Lyric Opera and Houston Grand
Opera are thriving. The leading European opera houses have box offices that are selling
well over 90%. Surrounded by examples of success, why would an institution retain a
general manager whose sole mantra seems to be that his product is declining in
relevancy? Is this the tone the leader of the Met should have, or does the Met deserve a
positive, innovative visionary at its helm who can celebrate and mirror the
accomplishments of his peers? Is the Met truly poor, or is it just poorly managed?

Disclosure: All these numbers and figures are based on the Met’s information. Please see
our full presentation on the Local 802 website at http://www.local802afm.org/metorchestra/.


  • Robert Garbolinski says:

    Absolutely what I said before – you go to the MET to see wonderful productions like the Zeffirelli’s, Ponelle, Siemmsson and all that idiot has done is to ditch the lot! How pathetic – to hear the applause as the curtains rose was to be stunned and know that the audience greeted a favourite that would be visited time and time again. For example they had the most beautifully perfect of Manon by Ponelle. The Royal Opera House did one in London with fluorescent tubes, rubbish sets and I implored the MET not to take it but it fell on stupidly deaf ears and now they end up with the Royal Operas rubbish which they will have to ditch. It’s Gelb’s fault entirely listen to your PAYING PUNTERS who vote with their feet!!! No good him blaming everyone else, he is entirely at fault for ditching the superlative productions. If he was paid on results he wouldn’t be getting much would he?
    Get him out of there and bring back the proper productions!

    • Abramovic says:

      Couldn’t agree more. And between the famous spectacles and set pieces you could always fidget or chat to pass the time and alleviate the boredom.

    • sdReader says:

      They, the board, cannot “get him out of there” because they have signed a 10-year, $18-million employment contract with him for 2013 thru 2022, according to the WSJ the other day:

      Peter Gelb = the Met

      • william osborne says:

        They can’t fire him, but they could better define his role. His basic goals have been correct, but he needs better advice, and most specifically, from a good, experienced Artistic Director. The salary for one might be a bit high, but she would save the Met millions through her experience, like knowing to avoid things like the Ring Machine boon-doggle. A good Artistic Director could also move the Met at least partially away from its exorbitantly expensive star system and move it a little more toward an ensemble house — which generally have higher artistic standards anyway. She could also define over-all programming in a way that would bring the ridiculous choir costs under control. In short, it’s time for the Met to begin behaving a little more professionally.

        • william osborne says:

          I think a team of Peter Gelb as Business Manager and Pamela Rosenberg as Artistic Director might work. Rosenberg’s vision in SF was very good, but she didn’t understand how to work with America’s private and anachronistic funding system. Under her direction the Stuttgart Opera was considered the best and most innovative house in Europe. Especially important in SF were her efforts to create a second, studio format venue – something the American opera world desperately needs. She has exactly the expertise needed to continue the efforts to lead the Met out of its provincialism.

          It’s always a good idea to separate the financial and artistic leadership, with the financial person generally having the last say. The idealism of art always needs a practical grounding which is missing when one person occupies both positions. A Gelb/Rosenberg tug-of-war would work well and spur creativity at the Met on all levels, especially since Rosenberg also has a great deal of experience with financial issues as well.

          • sdReader says:

            You may well be right. I’m sort of Gelb-neutral, lacking real knowledge of how he works.

      • Edward says:

        A contract may be withdrawn. Perhaps a loophole. Or the truth – misrepresentation to the board and public, as well as lack of fiduciary responsibility to a non-profit organization.

  • Dennis Marks says:

    Far be it from me to come to Gelb’s defence – he can look after himself. But if we are talking about Met audiences, the blame really lies with the stolid and reactionary tastes of the New York public. I was a regular visitor twenty years ago, when the Met was trying to get the BBC to buy its live transmissions. The Schenk Ring was soporific, the Parsifal brainless and the Zefirelli productions fifty years out of date. Gelb did his best with partnerships(many with ENO) and the cinema initiative. He may have conducted business in a pretty imperialistic manner but his artistic ambitions were (in New York terms) to be applauded. If the shows didn’t sell then the fault may lie with US music education and the threadbare state of American Theatre. There is an audience out there but it’s probably in Brooklyn, which these days is preferable to Manhattan.

    • Jonas says:

      The composer was “brainy enough”, the production only follows him. Want something “imaginative”? Write your own opera.

      • william osborne says:

        The typical naive ignorance of what I at least hope is another know-it-all SD amateur. Any form of music theater, even in traditional productions, requires a great deal of directorial creativity.

        • Jonas says:

          Almost every european opera house is regie nowadays. The public has the right to watch something different in at least one opera house. Just one, Mr. Osborne. And I’m not talking about Zeffirelli. David McVicar is good enough. Or Peter Stein. Even Girard’s Parsifal or Chéreau’s From The House of the Dead.

    • Carlos G. says:

      Maybe Peter Gelb should elect a new public.

  • Robert Garbolinski says:

    You may think so but the nights those productions were playing the MET was packed.
    Doesn’t matter if you feel they were out of date, the fact remains it is what the public (like me) likes and want to see and you seem to forget it is the sponsors and the audience who actually pay and they should get something they LIKE!

    • Edward says:

      Some of these co-productions are viewed initially in European opera houses, some of which are a half or third the physical size of the Met. What looks interesting on a very small scale does not always translate to such a huge space as the Met. It doesn’t have the same effect for the audience, personally and ultimately at the box office. This approach to scouring Europe for works to bring to the Met needs to be reevaluated.

  • william osborne says:

    The union made similar criticisms of George Steele and the NYCO. I’m all for valid cultural criticism, and I strongly support unions, but we should remember that the statements of unions are often more about money then art. This leads to an inherent conservatism in programming, if not pandering to the public.

    Gelb has made some noble if not always successful attempts to bring the Met out of its provincialism and raise it to international standards of creativity. People should read the union’s narrow and rather crude perspectives for what they are. And Gelb, for his part, should realize that he lacks the qualifications to be the Met’s Artistic Director — a situation that evolved in part out of James Levine’s poor health. The Met is already the highest paid orchestra in America. A fair balance and changes will need to be found on both sides.

    A pity that American arts institutions are ultimately managed by Board members who are rank amateurs instead of professionals. Being rich doesn’t qualify people to run arts organizations.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    I agree with each of William Osborne’s posts here. The MET’s Lepage RING: epic failure as it completely lacks intellect, imagination, affect. This RING debacle is emblematic for the current crisis. I’d welcome Pamela Rosenberg as Artistic Director, with Peter Gelb running the business side – I hope it is not too late for such a change. As I said in an earlier post a few days ago, Anthony Tommassini of the NYTimes suggested exactly such a constellation of Artistic Director and General Manager. But Gelb was quick to say loud and clear that HE is the artistic director. (Which, please allow me to say this, reminds me somehow of Pope Pius IX, who, after having been gently critiqued by one of his cardinals about the pope’s disrespect for certain traditions: “La tradizione sono io!!!” – “I am the tradition!” ) This self understanding, I think, now comes back to haunt Peter Gelb in the contract negotiations with the unions at his house, who play they money interests to their advantage. Add to this a board with illustrious billionaire names, but not names of well respected professionals in the field. There will have to be, as William Osborne says, a fair balance and changes found on both sides. Absent such balance and fair mindedness on both sides, there can only be losers. And, yes, being rich does not protect one from doing foolish things: “Reichtum schuetzt vor Torheit nicht”…. “Weisst du, wie das wird?…”

  • Carlos G. says:

    Of course, who the hell is interested in going out to see Peter Gelb’s trash! I’m 32 and I do not go to the Opera to see productions stupid production of Rigoleto set in Las Vegas or Macbeth in World War two with a soprano on a bed singing and moving as if she was Madonna in 1990. Does it improve our understanding of the oeuvre? Does it give us new insight? NOOO. It doesn’t even prove good for a nice scandal, because WHO CARES!!! Do you think this is modernizing opera? No, he’s simply making it obsolete. If I’m interested in having a taste of Las Vegas I’ll go to the local strip club and have some beers, not to the MET. Peter Gelb is the stupidest general manager to have directed the MET and he’s simply crated a poisonous atmosphere where Opera Lovers will never ever trust him! Peter Gelb has to GOOO!!!

  • MacroV says:

    The musicians union piece is highly reactionary, and basically says that Gelb is at fault for not giving the MET audience what it wants – more of 30 year old Zefirelli. Gelb said from the outset that he’s trying to make the MET more modern and relevant; that entails risks, some of which work out, others of which don’t. He’s brought in important operas like Janacek’s From the House of the Dead and several John Adams operas (pity about the Klinghofer HD presentation). I wasn’t a fan of the pre-MET Gelb, but I can’t really fault his vision.

  • Nick says:

    WIlliam Osborne hits the nail on the head – Peter Gelb lacks the qualifications to be the Artistic Director. Is that title really in his contract, I wonder?

    In any event, in a house the size of the present Met with its humungous budget, it is ludicrous to expect that the jobs of General Manager and Artistic Director can be filled by the same person. In the highly complex world of producing opera, there are far too many potential conflicts of interest, often financial – and never enough time to resolve them all amicably. One of the two has to make the difficult decisions. With all the financial information we now have, it seems clear he has for too often been abdicating his GM role in favour of the AD role.

  • Contrarian says:

    If the board wants to support Gelb’s vision than it should assume the financial risk, and not expect the Met’s workers to carry that burden.

  • Sandrine Vinouse says:

    Tickets are too expensive. Do you want to attract music lovers from the middle class? Offer them what they can afford! (and there are many people waiting in line, because going to the movies is not like going to the opera).

    • william osborne says:

      The average ticket price at the Met is about $160. For a couple $320. That’s about 3 to 4 times higher than the average prices in Europe’s. The Met’s prices are clearly out of middle class range except for relatively rare occasions. Prices should allow for middle class people to attend on a regular basis.

      The Met can’t have a yearly budget of $325 million and expect to be affordable. That’s over twice the average sum for major European houses. The Met can’t pay stage hands $450,000 a year and be affordable. There’s isn’t a house in Europe that pays its Director 1.3 million like Gelb receives. In Europe, Directorships are civil service jobs — well paid, but not excessive. Labor and management will need to work together to solve these cost problems.
      On the other hand, the 200k the musicians make isn’t a particularly high salary for New York City, so its all a really difficult problem.