Gelb blinks, agrees to mediation

Gelb blinks, agrees to mediation


norman lebrecht

July 30, 2014

A day and a bit before deadline, the Met weakened. After one union, Agma, proposed a less confrontational form of bargaining, the Met suggested calling in the the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service – provided other unions join in.

Mediation would get both sides off the hook and save Gelb’s career from the legacy of a lockout. This is the first good news from the Met for months.

metropolitan-opera exterior




  • Claudia Menlo says:

    Wait, if the Met called for mediation, how can that be construed as their “agreeing to it” and Gelb’s “blinking?”

    If you demand French food for dinner, and I say, “No, I don’t care for French food; let’s have Indian instead,” and then you say, “All right, Indian it is!” — you’re the one who “blinked” and “agreed.” I got what I asked for.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Perhaps I just don’t get it but why isn’t the headline one of moderation and compromise rather than triumphalism for the union position. The issues are clearly more complicated than a soundbite solution or tabloid headline can encapsulate and we all hope for solutions which allow the Met to open, the employees to be satisfactorily compensated and the trashing of personalities on this site to be ended.

  • newyorker says:

    I’m sorry but who the hell is this Claudio Menlo who crawled out of the ooze this week? I am sick of his/her coarse and arrogant commentary!

  • Marshall says:

    Agreed-I have no idea why this is being couched in those terms. If this is going to be resolved there has to be the right spirit and true give and take-a grand compromise. But that is not the way the world is going right now-so why should the Met be any different?

    I have many issues with Gelb’s decisions, but given the vanishing role opera/art plays in the modern world, I’m not sure anyone else would have done better? The performing arts unions have to look at the real world-that most don’t care if this all survives or not-and they need to be more realistic. However, I can see their point that Gelb has not been fiscally prudent.

    • Nick says:

      “I have many issues with Gelb’s decisions, but given the vanishing role opera/art plays in the modern world, I’m not sure anyone else would have done better?”

      Sorry, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Who would have done better? How about someone with these qualities –

      – Anyone who had years of experience in managing and directing a large performing arts company employing around 600 – 1,000 staff with a variety superbly honed skills. Gelb did not.
      – Anyone who had experience in programming a similarly large company operating a repertory system. Gelb did not.
      – Anyone who had the guts to face up to directors and designers, lay down the specific parameters in which they were to work and then make it clear that if they could not bring production estimates into line with the budgets in their contracts, he would – if necessary – fire them and find replacements. Gelb does not.
      – Anyone who has a long-term vision that accepts opera productions just do not last for one season. Most must have a life span of 20 or more years.
      – Anyone who accepts the reality that increasing income merely with a stroke of the pen is an illusion. Gelb did not.
      – Anyone who agrees to increase costs by some 50% over 7 years at a time of the worst depression since 1929. Gelb did not.
      – Anyone who looked around the world are realised that opera audiences in many cities are actually not just increasing, they are increasing way beyond expectations. Gelb tells the word this is not true.
      – Anyone who actually did something positive with his creative and marketing teams to go out into the community to start engendering an interest in opera. Gelb, it would seem, does not.
      – Anyone who realised that with ticket sales revenues falling off as early as 2009 the time to start action to rein in costs was then – not 5 years later. Gelb did not.

      And that’s just for starters!

      • Marshall says:

        You give a long-somewhat artificially extended litany-each one of which begins with the rhetorical device “anyone who”. But you must appreciate the irony that you fail to mention even one name-and you really owe a list of them-who could -possibly- do a better job – and someone, first of all,who would have actually been appointed by the Met board. Did you mean someone like Gerard Mortier? Give us some suggestions beyond “anyone,” name one, and one who had even a remote chance of board acceptance.

        You seem a bit naive about how power works-how it particularly works in America where wealthy donors have huge and often misguided notions,-and of how jobs like general manager of the Met are selected. Joe Volpe, was an exception in Met history (unless you include Edward Johnson) who came up through the ranks. His pragmatism, and good relations with the Met family were fortunate qualities, but the artistic values (and virtues IMO) he represented would now be seen as old fashioned, and would be viewed as making no attempt to save opera’s future, to bring opera into the “modern world.” Unfortunately, even now in the US, but an iron law in Europe for years, is the absolute dominance of regietheater-often more correctly called Euortrash-which sees the only salvation of opera in re-interpretations of works, or splashy gimmicks-which are supposed to create a new audience for opera, and make it into “serious” drama. All your comments don’t address the bigger trends in opera, as well as the diminished role of all serious art in western consumer land.

        Gelb, for all the faults we both see in him, took a stab (he could not stand against the prevailing wind anyway) took a gamble-and it doesn’t seem to have worked. My point is that anyone who got the job would have had to have gone in a similar direction- and even if a more traditional approach had been tried, I don’t think it would have changed the bigger socio-historical forces at work.

        I do agree-wholeheartedly- that among the qualities that Gelb should have had was previous experience as a large scale administrator, where he could have honed the managerial skills necessary for running an institution of this size and complexity. (It should also be pointed out, that there is no other opera company like the Met-so it’s a job hard to train for.) I’d also point out that the idea of dividing the general manager position into a two separate jobs may have to be considered-but the artistic one-the head of the company-quickly wants absolute power. (I’d also add that for years I’ve argued that it might be more realistic for the Met to go to a stagione system, and accept that with today’s expenses having 7 performances a week, of sometimes 5 different operas is no longer practical. That might really save some money-without diminishing quality) So his seeming lack of business skills can’t be overlooked, but it has been the larger “vision” decisions that are at the core of the problem.

        What I meant by how much better could anyone have done has to do with the realities of art in this world, which you seem oblivious to-as if this is just a technical, managerial problem. I can list all the opera companies, symphonies, art centers, particularly in this country, which have closed in recent years. As Gelb reported-the average age-average-a staggering figure-for attendees at Met HD broadcasts is 65! Go to any classical music event in this country-not just opera-and it is a sea of gray-with wheelchairs, walkers, and canes all over the place. The audience is not renewing, and that is not Gelb’s fault. In America particularly, but even in Europe, the society is unwilling to subsidize what is seen by the rest of the population, and particularly young people, as just another form of consumerism-I like rap,you like opera. Art is no longer-and it is stunning how in the last say 20 years that has accelerated -given a pride of place, a societal relevance, not to mention some spiritual significance. All this is taking place Gelb or no Gelb.

        So he gambled that new productions, re-interpretative productions, splashy ones, expensive ones, to a lesser extent possible in the US,shocking ones, and bringing in “name ‘ directors from film and theater would do the trick. It hasn’t, and it cost a lot.The old fogies as some of us are described, are alienated, and it is still an irrelevant form for young people. Could he have managed that approach with more cost consciousness and efficiency-I suppose-but maybe he figured in for a dime in for a dollar-and it is the only strategy, he and many others think will work. Go for broke-if it works it will be the salvation, if it fails it won’t matter anyway.

        The false premise for me is that opera could ever prosper without stars.Opera as a form has, until recent years, always had the drawing power of super human voices and vocal personalities, that were known outside of the opera world-as was the case with great pianists and instrumentalists.. Maybe for some of the same reasons it is all fading,also results in the dearth of these great voices -and perhaps even if they were around, their impact would be much less? Whatever we thought of Pavarotti’s later years, he was an opera singer that the man in the street knew, and could sell out performances. Are there any singers/ classical musicians known generally today? Ask the name of an opera singer-and you’ll get Caruso, and Pavarotti. Is there a classical artist whose death would merit front page NYT coverage today? So this is also not Gelb’s doing-and any opera manager is confronted with the same lack of true stars-at least Volpe had Pav, and Domingo and the tail end of some big careers.

        There are quite a few specific points of yours I should comment on, but enough for this reply

        • Nick says:

          Thank you for your admirable response. Indeed I did not mention a name for Gelb is in the post. My point was to highlight some aspects of the job which the Board should have taken into consideration, and in my view did not. A manager with many years experience in the performing arts would, I submit, not have made many of the mistakes that have tarnished Gelb’s tenure. Further, as you correctly point out, I do not work in the US system. I do have friends who run opera companies and other arts organisations in the US and so I am not entirely in the dark. But I will leave suggestions as to who might have done better to others.

          As for appointments in the US, I know you are correct about my lack of detailed knowledge – but I have run companies in the arts business in various parts of the world for many decades and am not entirely clueless. However, Bing had huge experience in Europe, as had Gentele. One wonders what might have happened had he lived. You are also correct. Gelb took a gamble which has not paid off. But, with all respect, no arts administrator in his right mind should take an organisation as large as the Met and then commit it to massive overspending merely on a hunch. And that’s precisely what it was: a hunch! You take gambles having weighed up all the pros and cons in the light of all your vast experience and that of others. That takes knowledge, expertise and guts. Gelb may have had guts, but as is perfectly obvious he lacked the former two.

          I will not get into your other points at present as you may wish to come back regarding other points from my earlier post. It have seen suggested in, I believe, another thread, that the Met needs someone like Pamela Rosenberg working alongside Gelb. Now that would be fire and water as far as I can see. Ms. Rosenberg is eminently qualified within the European system. In European companies there is not only the Intendant, there is also a Director of Opera and a Verwaltungsdirektor, a Head of Administration. At the Met Gelb seems to be occupying all three – and that is simply an impossible task. At least two personalities and sets of skills are needed to complement each other, argue, toss around ideas and eventually come up with what is best for the House and is workable within a workable budget. Even the Royal Opera House has moved towards that system.

          My only other point is that you talk about the audience ageing and declining “Gelb or no Gelb”. I regret I do not agree with this statement. If an arts organisation wants to stay in business, it cannot just sit back and expect audiences to come – or not to come. It has to find ways and means of justifying its existence – or it goes out of business. HD relays have not worked in that regard. How much work has Gelb and his team actually undertaken out in the community, as Dudamel as been doing very successfully at the LA Phil? (Is it not supremely ironic that its CEO was in the running for Gelb’s position?) Opera companies in the UK and other parts of the world see it as part of their mission to venture forth from their gilded palaces to foster an interest in the art form within communities. If the Met happens to go out of business, I believe it would be the Board’s own fault for choosing a leader who was not up to the job, for not recognising that fact much earlier and for not embracing change much earlier.

          • Marshall says:

            I do appreciate your tone this time.

            I assumed yours was a European perspective, but didn’t know for sure. Now, knowing that you are professionally involved, and have practical knowledge of the arts as a business, and have friends who run opera companies etc. in the US, then even more significant that you didn’t have some suggestions. No doubt there are others who had the business qualities Gelb lacks, other names out there, but as I said would the Met board have appointed therm? Also, at least with opera companies, with my knowledge as only an outsider and opera fan, whenever these divided management schemes-or even triumvirates are tried in the US, they very quickly turn into a single general managers. (My assumption, beyond ego, is that to follow their “vision’ they must have control of the purse strings, must have a compliant board, and in the morphology of power everywhere, eliminate potential rivals, achieve absolute control.)

            You refer to Bing-but that was from a very different era-and with a rare exception a manager of the Met had to European then. (also the role of opera was still a kind of jewel in the crown of Western performing arts, the financial situation was totally different, and there was a large generation of great singers who attracted
            audiences on their own-almost all names we recognize as historic today) Yes, Gentele was European, but a “modern” figure, and it was one of the great tragedies of Met history that he never had his chance.( Interestingly, E. Johnson who became manager by the sudden death of another manager, was actually Canadian. Following Gentele’s death, until Volpe,the met was led by a series of different arrangements-including a troika, which, it seems didn’t function well because of the egos and type of power struggles I mention.)

            Not to repeat myself, but it is agreed that Gelb could have taken the same steps, played his hunch, and managed it all more prudently, and professionally. But where was the board? Most likely under his control-or at least backing him all the way-and maybe some of these financial realities were lost in the spreadsheets. But I can’t help think that whoever had the position would have plotted the same course, and even if costs had been controlled better, the larger outcome (though not the financial situation they have right now) would be the same. The opera audience is largely geriatric (is it so much different in Europe, or do the still huge subsidies remove the bottom line as a sword hanging over the enterprise?),and there are not great singers drawing audiences, and allowing opera to transcend its own circle. In Europe there seems to be a core of regie followers-maybe somewhat younger, but European friends I know think this approach is the cats .pajamas, are also older. (just deluded in my opinion-and maybe never heard the great opera performers and performances of the 50-90 era) Also, in the US the re-interpretative approach is hardly universally embraced, with many, yes, older opera goers often avoiding them (adding to the current financial situation), and even those sold on it (as if opera were not drama before) seem to keep having to talk themselves into it.

            But I would be interested in your thoughts and reactions to my admittedly grand statements, on the real future of this art form, of the old European arts in the western consumer world, and how many of us who still place great value on all this, don’t seem to realize how marginalized it’s become. Many of us(maybe Slipped Disc itself) seem to proceed with a perspective on the arts that is already a generation out of date. Again, beyond foolish management, Gelb’s real problem is the world we live in. Any thoughts?

            One of your pts. from the previous reply I will go into, briefly, because, by extension it reflects on the whole problem of costs and productions-and the quandary, not just Gelb but any opera manager would have today. You say-“a long-term vision that accepts opera productions just do not last for one season. Most must have a life span of 20 or more years.” In theory that makes sense, and it was often the case in the past. Good productions would be around for yrs., and were often re-worked and revived, and presented with a new director. But today’s opera, at the heart of the presentation is the new production-meaning now,the new take on the work. That part of the opera public who goes, and supports the present approach would have no reason to attend without a new production. Most are the flavor of the month, don’t have staying power, and the public anyway, is waiting for the next gimmick,. So they don’t have much of a life, or not a long one. At the Met the classic older productions, e.g. the popular and pleasing if sometimes bloated Zefferilli realistic shows, are mocked and except for Boheme have been eliminated. A good, let’s call it realistic production (or I might characterize it as following the composer’s wishes)- for years in Europe, but now in the US (due to Gelb), cannot be presented, because the opera “intellectuals’-whoever they are- will excoriate it. And honestly, when was the last time a realistic production even made it to the stage in Europe? All a pity because a new director could offer a new thoughtful interpretation of the work-even within a traditional background. IMO most new productions have a concept, a ‘take” on the work, a splashy or shocking set, but are rarely deep on the direction-the true heart of drama itself.

            So Gelb has to play the game-and present lots of new productions that make the news, and most with short lives, and the huge costs have been incurred with them..As the Met unions have shown-that’s where this shocking amount of money has gone, and why the budget has soared under his administration.

            Gelb doesn’t have the balls, but imagine for the upcoming renewal of the Ring that he jettison the LaPage debacle (it’s not even a set that works well-and true the money is already lost) takes the traditional one which is said to be preserved in storage-redoes some of the weaker scenes (and takes advantage of the technical/digital magic out there), and brings in a great director who can take the already symbolic stage of Wagner, and provide some strong, insightful direction? The world would be shocked, the keepers of the regie flame would howl, but he might have a great success on his hands, and could make a liberating point about the world of opera.

  • Seb Schulherr says:

    Gelb had refused to engage in good faith negotiations for many months. He had demanded cuts without justification. The adoption of a mediation service signals that Gelb will not throw the workers out and try to blame the workers for his actions.

    • Marshall says:

      A plague on both their houses-hardly defending Gelb, but an old negociating tactic. He may not have demanded equal cuts (his own salary)but to say he “demanded cuts without justification” is not accurate.The company is broke, and Gelb could save in many ways-but one big area will have to be salaries and benefits-that will have to be.

      Gelb controls the board, as many CEOs do-but I’d love to see a deal where the unions go for large cuts, and get Gelb’s head in return. He has mismanaged-he guessed wrong-bring someone else in and save the company.

  • Nick says:

    I am in full agreement with the headline. Gelb could have proposed mediation at any time during the many months this dispute has been going on in a very public way – thanks only to Gelb making it a public matter. He did not. His only remedy – the only one he put forward – to the problems he faces was ‘accept my cuts or I lock you out.’ Remember he even sank to the depths of telling members that their medical benefits would be lost unless they paid their own premiums, an issue that all Union members would have been perfectly aware of.

    I sincerely hope both sides will put aside the rancour and posturing and now try to hammer out a reasonable settlement. Whatever happens, though, Gelb blinked. He cried “Wolf!” and then backed down. His own position and authority have now been diminished both in-House and in the public arena. My own view is that he is going to have a major problem keeping his job.

  • Felipe says:

    A friend of mine who worked at the Met for a couple of years told me yesterday that she believes that Gelb and the administration have been cooking the books and that Gelb is now ready to let the financials be seen by the Feds, having buried or magically ‘removed’ some line items that might be suspect.

  • Seb Schulherr says:

    Workers do not schedule their own overtime. You cannot blame workers for making extra money because overtime is freely invoked for Gelb Operas. If you can’t say no, you should not be managing the Met.

  • Nick says:

    This is in response to Marshall’s post of 2 August.

    Yes, my experience is far more European-based. I have also occupied senior positions with a major opera company and a major symphony orchestra. Since you asked for names, I believe I did make a suggestion in another thread. However, let me repeat that thinking back to the time of Joe Volpe’s resignation, the two obvious candidates in the US, in my view, would have been Deborah Borda who had achieved excellent results at Detroit, San Francisco and the New York Philharmonic, and who has made a huge success at the LA Phil, particularly in appointing Dudamel and in the outreach work that they were doing. But, as I mentioned in that thread, there were very strong rumours that the Search Committee under Beverly Sills was against the idea of a woman running the Met. (If that is true, then the parallel success of Deborah Rutter at the Chicago Symphony and now about to take over the Kennedy Center rather knocks that sexism out of the park.)

    Another perfectly positioned candidate would have been Michael Kaiser then running the Kennedy Center. He had quite recently turned around London’s Royal Opera House from a state of near-collapse, having earlier done the same for American Ballet Theater. One of these probably would have been my choice had they been interested – and if not, then I would have done as much arm twisting as possible to make them interested!!

    I doubt if the Board was at Gelb’s beck and call immediately after his appointment. Rather, he will have put forward his ideas during the interview process and the Board will have bought into it. Frankly, I do not agree that whoever had taken the post would have put the Gelb plan into effect, Some of it, perhaps – notably the HD relays. I hope they would have first instituted a major and extensive market research programme before increasing the number of new productions to ensure that the style of production was indeed one of the root causes of audiences reduced interest.

    The audience in Europe certainly seems more democratically based, partly I suspect a result of subsidy which keeps some ticket prices gneerally lower (although to be fair, Europeans do not get anywhere near the level of donations as in the US – so they kind of cancel each other out), and partly because some of the companies started taking it upon themselves years ago to go out into their communities and build new audiences. As many European opera directors have remarked recently, the average age of audiences is lower. And it is enthusiastic. And opera is in some cities a growing art form. With other musical art forms, especially orchestras, it is in Asia that the number and quality of orchestras is mushrooming with lots of acoustically excellent new concert halls and vibrant younger audiences.

    I did spend a number of years in Asia and it is quite remarkable how different going to a concert ‘feels’ in several countries. Many younger concert performers are treated almost like mini-pop stars, especially in Korea. As Lorin Maazel said to the Carnegie Hall audience at the finals of his ill-fated Maazel/Vilar Conductors Competition some 10 years or so ago where five of the six finalists came from Asia: “Tonight you have witnessed the future of western classical music!”

    Personally, I am largely with you when it comes to regie-theater. I’ll happily do without much of it. But there is certainly a place for it and it does have an appeal to some opera-goers. I also believe there is a middle-ground where the dramatic element is strong and the approach is away from the traditional. I have seen some splendid productions in this category. As long as the music and the singing take precedence and there is no musical compromise, such productions can have both immediate appeal and lasting value. It was only a few years ago that I saw David MacVicar’s wonderful “Giulio Cesare” at the Lyric in Chicago. Set in late 19th century colonial Egypt, that could be regarded as an un-traditional production. Yet the audience adored it. I believe the same production played at the Met.

    It is in respect of lasting value and the need for productions to be revived to justify the huge cost of putting together a production for the first time – musical preparation, designs of sets, costumes, lighting, lots of rehearsals etc. – that opera is at a huge disadvantage over, for example, theatre and symphony concerts. New productions are almost the only major investment an opera company makes. A work has to be kept in the repertoire so that that initial high investment can be spread over a reasonable time. That inevitably means revivals. How long did Zeffirelli’s “Tosca” last – 24 years? His “La Bohème” has lasted even longer. How long will Gelb’s new “Don Giovanni” last, I wonder? And why did he bring in a new “Don Giovanni” when the old production (which I saw and enjoyed) was premiered only in 2004? Why was it necessary to invest time and capital in another new one in 2011? (I believe my years are correct). And with respect to your comment, classical realistic opera productions are not unusual in Europe! Just take a quick look at the Royal Opera House repertoire.

    There is no handbook as to how an Opera House should be run. I still maintain that Gelb’s lack of experience in so many aspects of managing a large organization should have resulted in his not making it anywhere near a short-list for the top job. I also believe, as I have said several times before, in this day and age it no longer makes any sense for the General Manager also to be the Artistic Director in a House the size of the Met. The functions are totally different and often clash. With Gelb, the artistic side seems to have overtaken by considerable degree the management side. And we know the results!

    • Marshall says:

      OK-I’m sure there were some other qualified names that might have avoided Gelb’s missteps-but without just begging the question, Gelb was the one that the board supported, and he was appointed. Neither of us appear to know the machinations of the Met board-during the selection process, and what forces were in play. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but who knows if another candidate would have made the same moves, and made them better? We can assume that the direction Gelb took, was either in accordance with what the board were looking for, or Gelb sold his strategy, either before, or after the appointment. I do think that other candidates would have had much of the same approach Gelb did-after all it is the same approach globally-yes?, but probably better managed. However, I don’t think a candidate with a Volpe, or more traditional vision would have been appointed. Of course, we see in NYC the shocking demise of the NYCO, which entered its death spiral when a European known for the current new vision of opera, and experienced in Europe, was appointed. Perhaps its disappearance didn’t have the impact in Europe it had here, but that this honorable company (IMO mismanaged clearly before Mortier’s appointment) would simply vanish, and that a city of NY’s size couldn’t support 2 companies is particularly ominous. There is such great mega wealth in the US-in NYC alone(the former Mayor Bloomberg is worth $34 billion! but I guess he doesn’t like opera-he said as much), but none of it stepped forward on any level(because there is no status in opera for the wealthy anymore)-yet this same money will buy a $40 million-plus paintings without a second thought.

      Let’s get my view of regie (excluding the gratuitous shocking for its own sake fairly named Eurotrash) more precise. (Funny, you’re in the field and you’ve said you’re not that happy with regie-but why is it such a terrific tyranny in the opera world?) I don’t want a world where only the most traditional productions will be allowed, nor do I want one where anything but re-interpretations are tolerated. I also have seen many non-traditional productions-insightful, creative ones-that I have enjoyed. I will point out that I usually have a traditional one under my belt, so the other become variation on a base. I have seen traditional ones that are old-fashioned, without direction, that are undeserving, but at least in the old days with a great performer, nothing else really mattered. I think the opportunity to see well done traditional ones, new, insightful takes should all be out there-and an important subject I’ve yet to comment on-education and bringing in a new audience requires exposure to something more or less tradtional-IMO. I can tell you many stories of in recent years getting people excited by opera-yes, e.g. you should try Tosca (thinking their first experience would be with something like Zefferelli, with a real church and castle)-and the new comers coming back disappointed and saying it took place in an old railroad station and cheap brothel. Why not the imagination to run a company to have an opera with the newest take, and then a year or two later have a traditional revival? I also go crazy when an opera on an historic theme set in a particular time and place-a Boris, Meistersinger,Tosca, Don Carlo, etc. is re-set. I do sense with many of the directors today, some disdain for opera, and often contempt for the audience-and some I just think are talentless-but I often react, thinking that they really should be making their own movie-they want to be the autuer.

      I defer to your up-to date knowledge of productions in Europe, but some years ago when I was traveling to Germany, I saw nothing even resembling a traditional production-and what I read of France, and following the many years of Bayreuth productions(when was the last time there was anything resembling Wagner’s interpretation there, or the genius of Wieland’s non-traditional vision), can I assume the Royal Opera is an anomaly?

      • Nick says:

        I have to disagree, I frankly do not think other candidates if chosen would have taken the same path as Gelb. I suggest most would have been too sensible (and too experienced) re the problems of increasing expenditures at the rate he has done without being more sure that additional revenues would actually accrue. But it’s a moot point The Board appointed him and he got the job. Now the Board is coping with the mess he has largely created.

        I also suggest we have to discontinue this exchange of views. It has been interesting (at least as far as I am concerned) but the topic has moved on and this blog should not be a discussion between just two posters. We now await the outcome of the mediator and the financial auditor. I suspect that will create a whole new series of threads!

        • Marshall says:

          By the same path I meant-new productions, catchy production, HD, the idea of “modernizing” opera-whatever that means-but clearly it could have been attempted with real business skills, and facing fiscal realities. Dipping into the endowment should have been the canary in the mine, to anyone but Gelb.

          Yes, an interesting exchange-thanks-usually the comments here are fail to explore something in depth-and once it began I was, it seems, less interested in just Gelb and the Met, than in some other questions-so the topic and who joined in didn’t bother me.

          It’s interesting that as far as this has gone your perspective has been that it is a managerial problem, or one of building audiences-an out-reach problem-and mine (why I expressed a certain kind of “sympathy” for Gelb) that there is cultural shift, a value shift, a ” ‘brave’ new world before us.” Your thinking comes across as very informed, professional, but still in the box-and I think with profound regret that it all has changed.

          Last night I wrote out something about education(writing it anyway)-which is such an important topic. Yet, on this blog and elsewhere, the party line is proper outreach, spending money on education, “building” new audiences is the answer. I’m not so sure that is possible. So I’ll send it along-even if your are the only one looking at it.

          No response expected or needed. Best regards.

          One more important topic–out reach, and education. One of your criticisms of Gelb and the Met was their failure to reach out to communities, educate and create a new audience for opera. Now I still believe in this, am somewhat of a missionary on my own, and I know on paper you mention successes, but I’m dubious that it works. I want it to, but the forces arrayed against it, appear too deep and monumnetal.The fact of closing opera companies and cultural institutions ( in America) show the failure of those efforts, and the attendance figures at most American opera houses are mostly large percentage decreases. You still have not commented on what I see as a historic cultural change in values and interests, that I don’t believe Europe is immune from. You don’t have I-phones, I -Pads over there?

          In the US, most public schools have long eliminated even the very little music and cultural education they offered in the past-called music appreciation here. Outside of the larger cities, and the more cultured households (and many of those may not have ‘classical” music anyway.) the only exposure to “classical music” are the snippets used on TV commercials in some cliched fashion, maybe a looped tape at a funeral-and it is no longer even used at weddings-where people have their favorite rock song, or a special pop song. I live in the “real” America, and I’d do this with a tape recorder on the street and prove my point-but if you mention opera to the “average” American they will almost always imitate some screeching soprano sound-the men in falsetto-and that’s that.

          Quickly two first hand examples of the failure of outreach that I have experienced personally.
          In a small city near where I live in upstate NY, they have had a chamber music series that has been around for decades. They bring in fine quartets and chamber groups, most probably just below the biggest names on the international circuit. It is reasonably well attended in a smaller auditorium, but as usual it is a sea of gray, and the core group are the same ones you’ll see at any other musical or cultural event in our area. Except for very rare exceptions, do you ever see anyone younger than their mid 50’s attending? No..and that huge gap of younger people-I mean 20’s, 30’ 40’s- is startling An occasional younger person, and very infrequently a family with a high school child, because they play an instrument-such as when they had a saxophone quintet. I keep saying where are younger people, can’t we try to get them, give away tickets. (it’s a mere $20 a ticket-cheaper with the subscription) The people who run it commiserated, but sort of got exasperated with me-and said sure, try-but this is what we’ve done over the years. Gave out free tickets-particularly to the local high schools. Sent in speakers and representatives to explain and encourage attendance, with free tickets. Paid for the chamber group to speak at local schools, give a free concert, etc. Had individuals from particular communities try to get people to attend using their contacts.

          They threw it back to me-and said you see the results-and while we still try-after years of those activities, it just seems pointless. But encouraged me to try, or come up with any ideas that might work.

          Another quick example. In a very touching story, a local factory worker had accumulated a substantial sum of money. He was a man who loved good music, sang in his church choir and what no longer exists-a community choir. He left this endowment to a small, what we call community colleges in the US, in order that they present two chamber concerts a year. They have younger quartets, and now more groups that also lean toward some pop or other type of attraction to draw people in. It take place in a good sized auditorium-that I’ve never seen more than half filled-and even that because the regular core group in the area shows up, and they bus also in residents from local nursing homes. At first they charged $ 10, I guess with the idea that people value something when they have to pay for it, but have since dropped any admission. Except for a rare exception, the only students who attend, are those enrolled in classes involving music management (pop and rock), or some technical aspect of music production, and the professor makes attendance mandatory and signs them in. A handful of students from local high schools often show up, despite all the efforts made to publicize it in the surrounding area.
          So it is worth the effort, but it appears to be hopeless.

          Whatever efforts the Met has made, or should have made under Gelb, do you really think it would make the difference?

          PS Regarding your interesting remarks about Asia. At a recent A. Watts recital I attended (in my area-and the same story on attendance) the only children to be seen, were two separate Asian families, with 3 and 2 children, respectively.

  • Nick says:

    I said I had had my say, but one thing in your response prompts me to come back one more time. You give two examples of chamber concert series. There is a flaw in the discussion here for you absolutely cannot compare evenings of quartets, trios etc. with performances of opera. Some will disagree, but I believe the markets are basically separate. I’ll even go out on a limb and suggest that younger audiences who know little about music generally will find even less interest in evenings of chamber music. Opera has a far larger mass appeal.

    And as for education working or not working, I just do not agree. Surely that depends very much on how youngsters are introduced to opera? Try and teach it academically and it’s all but a lost cause. Drag them to their first opera opera and the chances are they have decided they will be totally bored before getting near the opera house.

    One of the younger members of my family recently went to her very first opera “Madama Butterfly”. The only reason she decided to go was she had seen a very short excerpt in a movie on television! I asked her later how she enjoyed it. “Loved it. Loved all of it!” was her reply. So now she wants to see “La Traviata” since that was featured in the movie “Pretty Woman”. Does it matter that Richard Gere and Julia Roberts inspired her choice? Of course it doesn’t! I still hear people discuss the glorious Act III Countess/Susanna duettino which was featured in both “The Shawshank Redemption” (in a hugely powerful scene) and even in the comedy “I Love You, Philip Morris”. Opera needs to be introduced through sound, vision and its emotional impact. It cannot just be “taught”!

    Lastly, I think anyone who works in opera and has the passion to want to see it not merely survive but develop has to spend a great deal of their time considering how to introduce audiences to opera. With all respect, I gain the impression from our discussion that your ideas are a good deal more old school than many of us who have the immense pleasure of working in the profession.

    • Marshall says:

      Oh, you’re back. Since you said that was it for you, I never bothered opening this, until the other day.

      I see you studiously ignore my broader points about cultural-historical changes-as I see you do in general-but I am especially disappointed that you pay no attention to the many practical points I’ve raised about the real world of art and culture today.

      I take your point about chamber music as being viewed as somewhat more esoteric, but it has the advantage over opera in that it is pure, absolute music. I really disagree that opera has more of a mass appeal-in fact I think it is one of the hardest forms to get people to like. I mentioned the general reaction to operatic singing-at this point a source of mirth and caricature, but opera also has the disadvantage of being in different languages, and requires an investment of time and concentration
      Sitting through an entire opera is vastly different than hearing some mediocre pop contest winner sing Nessun Dorma. Now we have the added disadvantage for the newcomer in not having traditional productions-at least Zeffirelli’s were a treat for the eye. I think titles, especially the unobtrusive Met style, are a great help in that people understand it is a play in music and singing, but it is only an aide.

      You mention a younger member of your family being excited after seeing her first opera. But you answered your own question;a member of your family-it proves nothing.

      Anecdotes used as evidence are notoriously unreliable-even mine. But my references to a local chamber series were not based on one incident, but a compilation of years of observations and experiences. Putting the chamber music aside, it is the same experience I’ve had for years with symphonic, opera, all forms of “serious” music. It is ironic that you pick a few savory examples of opera used in cinema-with I add, traditional productions. That in comparison to non- stop use of opera, “opera music” as a source of amusement, or to depict a caricature of a situation that turns up endlessly in film, cartoon, and commercials on American TV. A five minute reference to Traviata, in a movie about a whore (which is already yrs. old), is going to build opera audiences for the younger generations? Then you say-” Opera needs to be introduced through sound, vision and its emotional impact. It cannot just be “taught”! What, pray tell, does that really mean-how is that actualized? I said to you that American school budgets have generally eliminated all music, other than marching bands, who is going to do the introducing and pay for it?

      Here is your early comment which I let go.

      “The audience in Europe certainly seems more democratically based, partly I suspect a result of subsidy which keeps some ticket prices gneerally lower (although to be fair, Europeans do not get anywhere near the level of donations as in the US – so they kind of cancel each other out), and partly because some of the companies started taking it upon themselves years ago to go out into their communities and build new ..”

      It’s ironic because what you say is just the reverse. Opera in a democratic/capitalist society has the real test when people vote with their pocketbooks and their attendance. Subsidized opera has the luxury of indulging a coterie of specialized tastes, and is not on the razor’s edge of financial doom all the time. How can you-telling me you’re in opera management -think that subsidies and contributions cancel each other out?-just not true. It is not an apt comparison-they represent two different systems, and the need and appeal for contributions is totally different, A different system-a different tax code. I’ve know personally someone who has run 2 opera companies in the US-and they spend the lion’s share of their time wining and dining donors. They spend huge amounts of time not running the company, but begging for money-in essence licking the asses of the rich.(what do you think Gelb does?) So much easier to know that a huge percentage of the budget is covered-two completely different business models. And you’ve yet to show the reality of what reaching out to communities consists of, and how new audiences have been built? There is even less of a need for that when subsidies are there, and yes,it also results in lower ticket prices.

      “As many European opera directors have remarked recently, the average age of audiences is lower. And it is enthusiastic. And opera is in some cities a growing art form”

      Come on, you have to do better than that! Some directors “remark” And where is opera a growing art form? What cities? What statistics?

      It’s strange but you almost seem obstinate in not admitting that the world has changed. I’m reminded of how much when thinking about this remarkable release of Horowitz live at Carnegie. As a bonus you get a DVD of the 1968 televised recital, which aside from snippets on documentaries, and inferior versions on You Tube was never before re-released. On commercial television in the US this was presented on two separate occasions, (2X!) including on Xmas day. And of course later his return to Moscow was shown on commercial TV in the US. Something like that would be out of the question today-impossible-and of course, beyond the fact that the “average” person could not name a classical pianist, period. Regular people knew him, van Cliburn, Rubinstein, even heard of the eccentric Glen Gould. They may not have listened to that music, but they had some inkling of it, and in their way knew it occupied some important place in society. All that is gone-don’t you see that?

      You know I sometimes wonder if we are living in the same world!-by the way you’ve never said where you do live-subsidized Europe, I assume. This is not the place, and I don’t have the time (and I confess to going on a bit when something matters to me), but just off the top of my head, here are the last couple of years of the situation in the US. Studies show opera attendance down 30% (summer festivals are better), the Met HD audience averages 65, and actual Met subscriptions (what’s left of them,)older). Gone from the earth: Syracuse symphony, Utica symphony,Indianapolis symphony, Minneapolis.-15 month strike- even the Philadelphia orchestra, surviving but declared bankruptcy. NYCOpera-gone- all these other operas closed-Indianapolis, Baltimore, Cleveland, San Antonio, Connecticut, Opera Pacific, Mercury, Spokane-San Diego-closed but sort of back again. I know there have been big cut backs in Europe-with some of the many small symphonies in Germany closed, just read that a Ring D. Voight was to sing in Spain has been canceled,etc.

      You referred to me as”old-school”. I’m not sure what that means, anyway, in this context, but it came across as a negative charge, But you’ve already said you’re not a big fan of Regie productions, so you are then also old-school? You would be viewed that way. But “old-school” can be a virtue-in terms of standards, and knowledge of the tradition-but being out of touch-with all respect-which seems the way you come across, doesn’t help the situation. And then your-” I gain the impression from our discussion that your ideas are a good deal more old school than many of us who have the immense pleasure of working in the profession.” Please-could your self-interest blind you to a changing world?

      But I think that we could both agree that something must be done.! We see the results in the US, and as subsidies are reduced, (even eliminated in some cases in Europe), it may soon find itself in a similar situation.

      I’m open to new ideas-I’ve yet to hear any from you-but we also must face the indisputable fact that the nature of society has changed, and it is moving with a perhaps, irresistible glacial force.