How Met musicians are leaving Gelb for dead

How Met musicians are leaving Gelb for dead


norman lebrecht

June 24, 2014

The current pay negotiations between the Metropolitan Opera and its musicians are like no previous round.

What in the past was a mud-wrestling bout between professional union officials and opera house management with occasional nods to print media, is now a social media war which the musicians are winning hands down.

Some months ago the musicians set up their own website – not the usual grievance-laden page but a genuinely active and reflective site that gives video insight into their lives, art and work. The site and its blogs have drawn global attention because the content is genuinely interesting.

In addition, the musicians themselves – not local 802 – have set up a rapid response operation to rebut arguments and misinformation going out from Gelb’s office to the mass media. The unit is quick, slick and to the point.

Nothing the Met issues gets past its eagle eye. Every Gelb attempt to seize the public initiative is thwarted by musicians who are more clued up to the mechanics of the modern world. Not unlike events in Iraq, this is an uneven fight which is being won by light-footed combatants against a big, bogged-down machine. Gelb’s Met looks like yesterday’s army.

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  • Nick says:

    Like many, I find Gelb’s arguments and their historic context feeble whilst those of the musicians are more plausible. It appears to me that Gelb as an administrator lacks one word in his dictionary: “NO!” This is particularly true on production costs which he claims are paid for separately by donors. Presumably such income covers only the physical costs of producing the scenery and costumes. What if he were to reduce physical production budgets but also factor in more of the real costs of producing the opera? He would get the same amount in donations but have more for general running of the House.

    Simplistic perhaps, but I am reminded of a former Director of the Edinburgh Festival, Peter Diamand. For 1977 he planned to mount a Festival production of Carmen with Berganza, Domingo, Krause, Freni, Abbado with the LSO. Production was handed to the team of Piero Faggioni and Ezio Frigerio, regulars at many of the major opera houses.

    The set originally designed by Frigerio was massive, using every square inch of the small King’s Theatre stage. Over-bloated and over-budget from the outset, as the weeks went by Frigerio, always a very determined personality, changed and added elements thereby increasing the estimates very considerably. Soon Diamand was tackled by his Production Manager and asked what he was going to do about the physical production. The answer was simple: “Either Sr. Frigerio gives me a new design within the next two weeks that is within budget or I will fire him.” A new design duly arrived, starkly simpler, far cheaper, yet spectacularly effective. In his book “Conducted Tour” the late Bernard Levin states it was not only the finest production of the opera that any of the audience had ever seen or heard, it may well have been the best the work had received since it was written.

    Thinking of the technical monster of the Lepage Ring with its requirement for structural changes to the stage, additional rehearsals and massive overtime bill, a field of poppies costing $169,000 to construct etc., it’s surely high time Mr. Gelb learnt that word “NO!”

    • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

      I beg to differ. Janacek “From a House of the Dead” (Chereau) and “The Nose” (Kentridge) were splendid productions, far beyond the massive dullery (except for a few visually striking moments) of Lepage’s RING machine. But, of course, de gustibus non disputandum est.

  • John Porter says:

    I am not so sure the Met Orchestra is winning anything but the kudos from its friends. At the end of the day, its going to be the Met Board and major donors who determine the winner. These boards are notoriously anti union. While Gelb will be damaged by all sorts of things brought into daylight, I worry that Gelb’s approach is actually being directed by his major board members, who would like to kill off the union. Ultimately, I can’t imagine any of this helping anyone who loves opera.

  • Comment Correction says:

    No, it’s not up to the Board. This is a contract negotiation. The Union has walked before and a former Supreme Court Justice and Labor Secretary, Arthur Goldberg was brought in at a Presidential level to help settle the matter. There have been walk-outs since that time as well.,210301

  • Nancy says:

    As one who has worked with Peter Gelb in his previous incarnations, this is the same scenario, different venue. Peter Gelb is notorious for pushing his “creative” ideas, which are always the same, by the way, not caring a wit about cost. He promises the moon with his inventive ideas to reinvigorate an older audience, and does so at any expense. The musicians have pegged him perfectly. His own expenses are shamelessly exhorbitant. Face it – a cut in pay for him for a show of support does not have the same emphasis or impact as a cut does for others – it is practically, farcical. The institution will suffer as did his other posts, leaving a mess to clean up.

    • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

      Thanks, Nancy, for offering some insight from your experience. And I agree with your assessment that the MET musicians have pegged Gelb perfectly. That said, I do not look forward to the mess you predict. Whatever is going to happen, I suspect that there will be many instances that can serve other opera managers as examples of how NOT to wage a media war (better: none at all). One issue for me is that the orchestra members, according to their statement in response to the wishywashy NYTimes Editorial from June 23, have no exact information about the actual numbers in the books and in the projected budgets for the years ahead. These numbers are kept “secret” – only to be published in the press. They are the basis of a whole range of important decisions. Why, then, can’t the musicians have access to these numbers, so they, too, know where the organization is, and what can be done together to succeed? A similar scenario was at play in here San Francisco, which led to a two week work stoppage in March 2013 (resulting in Cernegie Hall concerts with Mahler 9 being cancelled). Maybe a “Twilight of the MET” needs to happen, like a brush fire cleaning up the forest and allowing the seqoias to thrive (and their cones to open, allowing the seeds to germinate)….

  • Super says:

    Can’t deny that the musicians are winning the social media war (I’ve not seen a single shared item in support of Gelb’s position.) That said, what are the spoils of this victory over a defunct house on the brink of insolvency? Where I come from we have a saying “you can’t get blood from a stone.”

  • Comment Correction says:

    Keep in mind, virtually everyone in that house with a managerial position, as well as the chorus, the soloists and the musicians possess at least a college, or conservatory degree. Gelb has a few honorary ones through favors of his board. His qualifications were following von Karajan around the World with a film camera and holding Horowitz’s coat. His experience at Sony was a disaster, the only recording that hit big was Titanic and he turned it down several times until he was told by his bosses to do it. He was let go during the Sony-BMG merger, so when you get down to it, his lack of experience running an opera house, let alone an organization of this size has been a disaster. The fact that the Metropolitan Opera Board gave him the artistic director title as well has been nothing but a joke. As they say, with his very few successes, even a blind squirrel stumbles upon an acorn now and then.

  • piero faggioni says:

    I had just today the possibiity to see your note of 24 June 2014 and your version of what happened in 1977 about the scenery final solution for the Carmen production in Edimburgh. The real story is quite different from the one you had been told…and I wonder who was your “wrong” source…I hope that someday I will have the chance to meet you and tell you the real story that is quite more interesting ..
    Piero Faggioni