Met musicians challenge NY Times figures

Met musicians challenge NY Times figures


norman lebrecht

June 23, 2014

In a response to today’s wishy-washy editorial, urging both sides to compromise in forthcoming talks, musicians of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra say the New York Times was quoting salary figures that Peter Gelb had refused to release to them – and which are, therefore, unsubstantiated.

Full statement follows. See also How Met musicians left Gelb for dead.


NEW YORK, NY—Monday, June 23, 2014The MET Orchestra Musicians and Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, are deeply concerned about the future of the Metropolitan Opera.

Regarding today’s editorial in the New York Times, The MET Orchestra would like to clarify a few important points:

    • The Met musicians are paid a competitive contract, a yearly salary that is commensurate with attracting and retaining the best players in the world. The musicians in fact do not have 16 weeks of vacation. Their guaranteed time off is equivalent to that of their peer orchestras (10 weeks), and is in part due to the recognition that they are at the disposal of the Met to perform 6 days a week during the season. Unutilized weeks are due to Peter Gelb’s unpopular and counter-productive decision to end the beloved weeks of free summer concerts in New York City’s parks, which musicians still wish to play (and besides being a wonderful amenity for New Yorkers and visitors are a proven vehicle to expand the opera audience), as well as Gelb’s termination of the practice of touring, which has been a part of the Met season since its inception and also develops tourist audiences for the Met


    • Peter Gelb insists on citing an average salary number for musicians that has not been substantiated. The musicians and their legal team have been asking for months for the Met to provide figures showing where they are getting this average salary number, as well as the amount of stated benefits, but the Met has not provided it. We do not know if the Met provided proof to the Times, and we respectfully request that any press covering these matters ask Gelb for documentation to support this disputed figure. Furthermore, we ask that the press consider citing the median salary for the musicians, as this would more accurately represent what most musicians at the Met are paid – if you can get the data from management!


    • It is true, as the New York Times states, that The Met cannot continue on its present fiscal course. However, it is relevant to note that over Gelb’s tenure the cost of musician labor has risen only modestly (slightly above inflation), while the non-labor budget increased by 50% ($105 Million). As the musicians pointed out in theirreport to the Met Opera Board the revivals of Peter Gelb’s new productions, which have sold dismally, are pulling revenues down. In fact, when other opera houses around the world are thriving, there has been a 13% drop at the Met box office on Peter Gelb’s watch.


  • Given that last year the Met reported a $2.8 Million dollar deficit why does Gelb claim he needs $30 million in cuts (16%) to performers who are already being paid less than musicians in several other U.S. orchestras, in some cases in absolute dollars or, when calculating the cost-of-living to compensation ratio, less than their counterparts at most peer orchestras? Also, importantly, research conducted by the Orchestra indicates that the various cuts that Gelb has proposed actually constitute a reduction in compensation much greater than 16%, but in fact would constitute a 25-37% reduction in compensation.


  • Stay Loose says:

    Will someone please report on the revenue model and profit and loss from the HD broadcasts in movie theaters? Isn’t that income for the Met or does it go to some other corporation? Shouldn’t that be a money maker? Or has it turned into a loss leader? In which case, shouldn’t it be driving people to New York to see the opera live? Or shouldn’t it be attracting new audiences? Does the pay going to the orchestra and chorus reflect income from the broadcasts? In which case, wouldn’t that increase their pay in excess of Met in-house box office?

    Someone help me here.

  • Hasbeen says:

    The Met tour was cancelled in 1986. Not by Peter Gelb. If they are wrong about this simple fact what else are they wrong about ?

  • william osborne says:

    Non-profits are required to make public their financial statements, including the salaries of key employees. These salaries should also be part of the Met’s IRS 990 tax forms. Non-profits are required to disclose any information in their 990 forms. I think it very likely that the salaries of the orchestra musicians are included. Guidestar posts 990 forms for non-profits on-line and the Met is included. Unfortunately the site requires a $125 subscription for that information, but it can be obtained for free by writing to the IRS. And non-profits are obligated to make the information in their 990 forms available for perusal during their business hours.

    It seems odd that the Met only has a 7 month season, while all other major houses work around 11 months a year. The musicians sit at home for four months while being paid their full salaries when they could be working an additional 3 months a year and bringing money into the house. (Less costly summer productions could be presented that might allow for cheaper prices AND some profit.) And why pay all that overtime to cram 200 performances into 7 months when the musicians are being paid for 12 months? Just because the fat cat patrons are all in their summer homes is no reason not to perform for the rest of the city.

    The musicians make a good point about their salaries in relation to the cost of living.

    • Comment Correction says:

      Keep in mind the MET for decades has hosted American Ballet Theatre for nearly 3 months every Summer, so add that to the 10 months. (Keep in mind this rental is pure profit for them.) As far as the MEtropolitan Opera offering up real information, they claimed in 2011 to have had a surplus. The same year they “borrowed” from their pension fund and still have yet to pay it back. I would not count on any numbers the Metropolitan Opera is supplying to the IRS and the State of New York to be real, based upon the publicity and the numbers being bandied about, the FED and the State should be auditing. There are skeletons in the closet.

      • william osborne says:

        Major houses work 11 months a year and manage to work in rehearsals. The Bonn Opera in Germany, for just one of countless examples, works 11 months a year in a city of only 327,000. In June, they will complete about 20 performances. By that time the Met will already have been closed for two months.

        With salary and benefits the Met pays the orchestra about 12 million dollars for the four months when there are no performances. The orchestra should have a generous vacation. Nothing is worse than a burned out orchestra, but a four month pause is a poor way to organize the arts. It’s also not especially good for orchestral cohesiveness.

        The ABT only has a two month season (not three,) even though it has been designated by congress as our “national ballet company.” (Sort of like how the so-called Washington National Opera only does about 15 performances a year – about what major houses do in two weeks.) Why pay for a whole other pickup orchestra for the ABT (assuming they’re not using recorded music) when the Met musicians are sitting at home doing nothing?

        Why not intersperse the ballet season with the opera and spread it out over 11 months, especially when cramming 200 opera performances into 7 months causes huge overtime costs? Why not integrate the ABT with the Met so that the opera company could have a genuine ballet troupe instead of farming the work out? This would create higher standards of artistic integration.

        These are all examples of how irrational the organization and funding of the arts have become in the USA. Major reforms are needed. I would very much like to support the musicians, and I do, but in a system so screwed up (like stage hands being paid 450k a year) it’s difficult to make sense of anything.

        • CB says:

          Negotiations have long been about achieving parity with our counterparts in top American orchestras, not European opera houses. The Met orchestra gig was frankly a pretty mediocre one until labor actions in 1969 and 80, after which a kind of parity was achieved; for example we work far longer hours, but get more vacation in the summer. We’ve been sliding slowly backwards for about 10 years (mostly in he area of pension).
          The orchestra fought hard for a 52 week contract. Management could have the orchestra working 4-6 (I believe) more weeks after the end of the “NY season,” but has chosen not to.
          Why they do not capitalize on “tourist season” in anyone’s guess, but it’s also not my job to tell them how to make money.
          Many company members (musicians, stage hands, etc) have watched and remarked on Gelb’s profligate spending for years. I always figured it would come to rest on the backs of labor, though am a little surprised it took so long.
          The Met’s cost of labor has been pretty flat, while Gelb’s spending has been soaring. That’s mismanagement.

          • william osborne says:

            If wages and benefits are 285k per musician, and if the orchestra has around 130 members (typical of big houses,) then the yearly cost of the orchestra is about 37 million which is 11.5% of the Met’s budget. Not so bad if one considers that the orchestra is the core of the institution.

            The Met’s bass trombonist just won a position in the Helsinki Radio Orchestra and is planning on leaving. Perhaps that illustrates why competitive salaries are necessary — though I suspect Helsinki pays quite a bit less. Pit work can be really dull.

    • Suzanne says:

      I guess one reason there are no performances in the theater over the summer is that they have rented it out to ABT – American Ballet Theater, and have done so for the 18 years that I’ve been a member of the full-time chorus. They move in the day after the last Met performance. I don’t know how much profit the Met earns for doing that vs. producing more operas but my guess is its significant.

      Also, to reiterate a point someone made above, just because there are no performances from mid May to the last week in Sept., doesn’t mean we aren’t working. The amount of rehearsing, MEMORIZING for the chorus, staging, costume fittings etc that go into those summer months is what most people don’t think about. You don’t show up the last week of september and …… voila, instant opera! It’s some of the hardest work of the entire season. In the few weeks we do have off, many people are having surgical procedures, physical therapy, visiting family members…..all things we can’t do any other time because we work 6 days a week most weeks and most holidays during the season. How many jobs do you know that have that limiting a schedule and lack of flexibility? The Met has to approve of any other singing work we get, IF they give you permission. We never know for sure our schedule more than a week in advance and even that they can change on short notice. I love my job but it comes with a lot of sacrifice.

  • john says:

    The actual performances go from late september to mid May. However rehearsals for the upcoming season start in July. By no means are we off for 4 months.

    • william osborne says:

      There seems to be a lot of vagueness about what the orchestra and choir members do during the 4 months the company is not performing. I sense hedging on both sides. So we need hard, documented information. My concern isn’t what the musicians are paid, but rather how the house might be best run — certainly a concern for the employees.

  • Comment Correction says:

    Actually they toured Japan in June of 2011. A wrong-headed decision, as radioactivity levels were very high in Tokyo at the time.

  • Comment Correction says:

    Correction, 7 months, not 10 months.

  • CB says:

    The annual US train tours were cancelled at that time. Other global touring continued into Gelb’s tenure.

  • Hasbeen says:

    What is your point. Global touring is paid for and profitable and comes and goes with the offers. Mr Gelb has not cancelled it/them. The offers simply are not there or good enough.The National tour was a loss making venture and was cancelled in 1986. The musicians article clearly refers to the US tours. Furthermore the HD broadcasts reach a much wider audience than the tours.
    I think cheap point scoring on either side is not conducive to a satisfactory resolution. The issues are clearly complicated and the PR profiles totally unimportant.

  • william osborne says:

    On the other hand, I’m not so sure the very high salaries in the top 8 US symphony orchestras and the Met are fully justified. We are seeing top arts institutions become more and more lavish while the rest of the country remains culturally impoverished. In reality, the Met’s budget could fund three top level opera houses. The San Francisco and Chicago Operas both have budgets around 80 million as opposed to the Met’s 320 million. By comparison that would be four houses, but let’s call it three considering the costs of NYC.

    • Comment Correction says:

      As most know, the Metropolitan Opera is a not for profit institution. In order to maintain NFP status, goods and services are supposed to be bid out to those capable of meeting the needs of the organization. I can tell you for a fact, goods and services at the Metropolitan Opera by and large are not bid out and the business is going in many cases to high price operators. In one instance, Peter Gelb helped to put one of his Sony Studio engineers into business and now an outfit, Long Tail Studio is the exclusive sound engineer for the Sirius channel. In many cases, the work is “good enough” or “sub standard” as they had little to know experience dealing with historical broadcasts. While they let their former contractors, of which there were several through the Guild go. When Gelb wanted to change the font of the Metropolitan Opera’s signage, he paid Pentagram, the highest priced operator in New York to do it, when there were plenty of other businesses he could have gone to for less. They use the Serino-Coyne division of Omnicom Advertising for marketing, once again, this agency was selected and never bid out, therefore, they are paying premium prices. Gelb’s art gallery a losing proposition from the start and a manager who is making in excess of $200k. Gelb forcefully took over the shop from the Metropolitan Opera Guild, who was generating an excellent GMROI, today, the shop run directly by the Metropolitan Opera has never equalled the return the Guild generated. By the way, he also added a cost structure of employees to the shop, Director, Buyers etc. whose salary costs were way over what the Guild paid their staff. This does not take into consideration the cost of hiring movie directors, Broadway Directors etc. whose pay scale is well beyond that of the important opera directors and produce far more new productions at their cost structures. (Even if shared with other houses.) Keep in mind, for instance it would have been cheaper to cancel the new horrendous Faust which was a shared ENO production after it was panned in England, rather than retro-fitting it to the MET, where it was panned again. They had a fairly recent production of the opera which was servicable, so it was a complete waste of treasure. The Metropolitan Operas cost structure since Gelb arrived has been a bloated. That said, the artist on the stage (soloists and chorus) and the pit are the attraction and that is always going to be your highest cost structure. These artists, the ones who live here, are living in a City with burgeoning costs, rents, taxes, mortages, foodstuffs, transportation etc. is beyond that of any other city, save maybe San Francisco, which is a shorter season, less productions and a much smaller house. But the cost of food and transportation at least are more cost effective there. Gelb is going to have to reassess his entire front operation, the supply chain and other costs to make them more efficient and cost effective. Part of that should be bidding out their needs with their suppliers.

  • NYMike says:

    ABT uses a separate tenured orchestra run by a different board. Combining the two into one is next to impossible because musicians would lose work. The same problem occurred in the NY State Theatre (now Koch) with the then two organizations – City Ballet and City Opera (now defunct) – sharing 52 weeks almost equally but employing two separate orchestras.

  • william osborne says:

    @NYMike. All true. And examples of how much inefficiency and irrationality has been grandfathered into NYC’s cultural life. It is not a question of eliminating orchestras, but adding them. If NYC had the same number of orchestras as Paris or Berlin (which it should) there would be 7 or 8 full time ensembles spread around the city. And in opera there would be about 3 full time houses.

  • Barbara says:

    I used to think that Peter Gelb was just an ego maniac. Now I believe he has mental heath issues [redacted].

  • Dave T says:

    Mr. Lebrecht- I had no idea a font so tiny as that used for the NYT piece existed. How is such miniaturization possible? To say nothing of how reading such a thing is possible.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      would you like me to explain to you the glitches that can beset a new blogsite? how long have you got?

      • Dave T says:

        It seems new blogsite problems miniaturization is much more difficult to achieve.

        Never mind about the article. From all the slanging back and forth in these comments I think I get the jist.