‘Ego is winning the battle of the Met’

‘Ego is winning the battle of the Met’


norman lebrecht

August 07, 2014

Susan Bender, who has worked with Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Yuri Temirkanov, Simon Rattle. Phillippe Entremont and others, wrote a letter to the New York Times about the injustice that is being done to the Met’s musicians. She makes some valid points, not raised elsewhere. The Times wouldn’t publish the letter. So we will.


It’s not the fault of the unions

As we approach the deadline between the Met and their unions it is time for concerned opera lovers to weigh in on some of the issues that are currently haunting negotiations.

Grand Opera, as enjoyed by opera lovers at the Met, is the result of a collaboration of artistic entities that strive to do their collective best to present live performances of the highest caliber.

Some years ago, when Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Met, arrived at the opera company, he wanted to use HD Performances to provide subsidiary income which was meant to, supposedly, increase the public appreciation of the art form.  Yet, HD performances, while
convenient, do not present the art form at its best.

Any opera lover can tell you – Opera is meant to be seen on a stage and heard live! It is to be experienced with the best singers in their respective roles and to be accompanied by the best orchestra to convey the musical intentions of the composer.

In some cases, composers were also involved in stagings and direction of productions.  No great composer like Mozart, Verdi, Wagner or
Puccini ever intended for opera to be seen on a screen with vocal and orchestral scores limited to the speaker capability of a movie theater.  Nor did they think that the director of the drama  or a set designer should take precedence over the music.  Yet, this is what has happened over the past years to the fabulous Metropolitan Opera in New York.

I assert that these new productions were planned with the intention of increasing the income stream through the HD productions. Hopefully, a subsidiary aim was the thought that new productions will attract ticket buyers in the house. BUT to achieve these HD presentations action needs to be centralized and thus the action on the largest stage in the world has been contracted. To continue the income stream are we bound to a constant flow of new productions to provide it?  Are any past HD productions going to be viewed again?  Is there any income from that?

I wish that HD were as great a force for the current viewer.  Instead, the viewer probably thinks that what he got for the price of a movie ticket is what they would get from a live performance.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The sound quality cannot be imagined unless you have been in the opera house.  Why else would performing arts institutions worldwide be so focused on acoustics.

So, I now ask, why is the Met spending all this money on new productions instead of directing it to the music making? The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera is one of the finest in the world.  One  should recognize that musicians are able to move on – in other words, get a job elsewhere. Singers enjoy singing with the Met Orchestra and Maestri enjoy conducting it.  Likewise, the wonderful chorus and stagehands who can handle anything!!


zeffirelli tosca

What was wrong with the fabulous collection of Zeffirelli productions?  The Tosca of today is a paltry substitute for the former production. Likewise La Traviata.  We now have matching upholstery and costumes, surely not the atmosphere Verdi intended.  I am frightened to think what the new Der Rosenkavalier will look like.

Really, the people in charge of what is going on at the Met need to get their heads on straight.  It’s simple math. If they have overspent on HD then try cutting the number of new productions.  If the contractual obligations prevent that right now, then set a time limit and cut new productions after that.  Perhaps, the Met could allow those of us who attend the Opera a chance to choose which productions we would like to see.  So, you could have a series of old productions and a couple of the new productions.  If the previous union obligations need to be changed then that is a separate negotiation. It is not the unions of the orchestra, chorus, and stage hands etc that spent the money on new productions.  It was the management that made those decisions.  How many more new productions are we going to see?  Are the current HD productions able to provide income stream or, are we only going to continue repeating the formula of new productions each season?

Unfortunately, ego is winning the battle at the Met right now and it’s time for Peter Gelb and the board to choose – what is our Met going to be in the next 10 years. A Hollywood studio or the home of the greatest opera company in the world?  It’s time to pay the artists and the production team what they deserve and keep putting on great opera.

susan bender
Susan Bender

Former VP External Affairs, Manhattan School of Music


  • GEll says:

    Well stated. About Der Rosenkavalier, the wonderful Merrill/O’Hearn production needs no help. Here it is as heard in late 2000


    I too wonder, and fear, what the new one will be like. A dominatrix for the Marschallin perhaps?

  • Claudia Menlo says:

    What was wrong with the fabulous collection of Zeffirelli productions?

    I shudder to think that anyone this ignorant is associated with educating the young. A production is not a “collection” of flats and drops and hoop skirts. A production is a process of creating meaningful stage pictures, and design is only one element. Far more important is the creation that goes on in the rehearsal room, and the director and the performer discover the emotional qualities of the scenes and find ways to express these qualities through movement, grouping and so forth.

    There is no such thing a “production” for which the director is dead or otherwise unavailable. One might as well speak of the New York Philharmonic’s still doing “Bernstein’s” Mahler symphonies: musical assistants could note down the exact tempi and judge by ear the orchestral balances, and an assistant conductor could memorize and perform Bernstein’s podium movements.

    [redacted: abuse. final warning]

    • Nick says:

      Perhaps you misread, Claudia, or perhaps you haven’t been following very closely, but the entire argument being made here, by Ms. Bender AND both AGMA and the Orchestra Union, is that one of Mr. Gelb’s primary mistakes is spending on lavish, yet unsuccessful “productions.” When Ms. Bender references the “Zeffirelli Productions” she simply means to say that those sets and costumes are perfectly good, and opera goers come to hear the singers, not to see what crazy interpretation some director has dreamt up in order to put his stamp on Tosca. Opera directors rarely direct anymore. They’re more concerned with “the concept” that’s being imagined, like Turendot where everyone is a moth, or Traviata set in a giant bed, or Elixer where Nemorino drives an ice cream truck and the setting is “americana 1930’s.. ish..”

    • Nick says:

      And yes, when a “production” gets rented by say, Michigan Opera Theatre for instance, all the flats and costumes have their home company printed on the back or on the tag. And places like Indiana University or Atlanta Opera make part of their living from renting those “productions” to other companies, so that not every company has to build their own Magic Flute from scratch.

    • Mahler3 says:

      Nail.head. Thank you.

  • william osborne says:

    Ms. Bender is correct that opera is the most visceral of art forms. It will never be adequately captured in broadcasts. It is thus unfortunate that the USA ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita – just ahead of Costa Rica at number 40. We are behind all the countries of Europe except for impoverished Portugal.

    I’m surprised by Ms. Bender’s comments about the Zeffirelli productions. The Manhattan School has an excellent opera program so she should know better. The Met really does need to modernize. By opposing these efforts, and by exploiting the risks such efforts entail, the musicians present themselves poorly.

  • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

    I think her argument for promoting live performance in the theatre as opposed to promoting evermore HD is fair enough. Sadly the rest of her letter is very unrealistic and rather out of touch with the raison d’etre of theatre and opera generally. Yes, the music is important, and the quality of performance is important. And Yes, the highest quality of production is also important – but old Zeferelli productions and others like them do NOT necessarily guarantee high quality or even progress, just a remembrance of what was and what is no more.

    Theatre, in which I include Opera, as an artisticly relevant genre, must move forward and not stagnate. New productions of great works are MUST, otherwise there is nothing new to discover. One only has to look at the Verona revival of Zeferelli’s production of Bizet’s Carmen to see that what was originally (in it’s time) an exciting, if rather conservative and naïve, take on “Grand” opera has over the years become a genuine travesty, the very thing that drives younger audiences away because it is not of their time, the very thing that prolongs the old conceptions of opera being all about “period” costumes, “period” painted backdrops, ungainly singers dressed with appalling ill-fitting (often ill-making tightness), unnatractive in HD close-ups of terrible make-up that is really only meant to be seen from a distance. The quality of music making alone will, in the long run, never be enough to help opera survive or generate new audiences. It would be naïve to believe that.

    So, despite my dislike of the man’s management style and the obviously bloody minded and naïve approach he has taken in the negotiations and dispute with his company members at the Met, I would definitely stand up and defend Gelb’s right to mount new productions. I defend the right of any Intendant/General Director to mount new productions. I defend his/her right to choose the directors and performers he/she wants for those new productions, and I defend his/her right to replace 40 or 30 or 20 or 10 year old productions with new productions if he/she feels that they no longer speak to the wider going opera audience, if they no longer say anything relevant, if they no longer get the best out of a new generation of singers, or no longer appeal to a younger and more demanding audience, no matter how popular those older productions may have been. We could argue ’til the cows come home about the pros & cons of such a thought, but it is still his/her right and definitely part of his/her job.

    Call me old fashioned, but GONE are the days of Callas, Bergonzi, Caballe, Pavarotti, Zeferelli, Filipo SanJust, Karajan and the likes, wonderful though they were in their time. We are living in the time of Damrau, Netrebko, Kaufmann, Gerhaher, and countless other singers who work with – collaborate with – the likes of Decker, Negrin, Kriegenburg, Loy, Jones, McVicar, Carsen, to name a very few, to bring new life to a 400 (yes, 400) years old art form called opera, LIVE opera, on stage, with a real live audience in a THEATRE, living the experience of Music-Theatre. My old fashioned understanding is that Art (ALL forms) must always renew itself, and part of the pain and the beauty of that renewal is failure and success. Thank God! If everything were a safe bet, if everything were what we liked 40 years ago or 60 years ago or what our parents liked 70 years ago, what a BORING and UNEXCITING artistic world that would be to live in!

    I do not defend Gelb’s obvious lack of control over the company’s spending, the excesses that seem to be the Bain of his not very illustrious career, or his obvious lack of understanding when it comes to both negotiations and public relations. And I am certainly not saying that the new productions that he has introduced to the Met in the last few years are necessarily the best possible or even the best value for money (the complaints of financial excess are, I think, already well documented). But at least he was doing what any intendant has to do and introduce new repertoire, and new approaches to old masterpieces. The real cause for concern is not about that he did it but rather more about HOW he and his management did it and what it cost the company financially and artistically.

    I won’t go on about it. The man clearly made mistakes and blunders, and for my part I really believe he ought to fall on his sword or, even better, be fired! BUT, pray that whatever happens in the coming season or two the Met will continue to put on new productions of traditional mainstream repertoire (and continue to revive the good old ones, of course) and take the artistic risks that Theatre and Opera demands in order to survive. I hope the current mess is sorted out soon, that money is spent where it should be and, more importantly, that there is a greater scrutiny of the management’s role when it comes to spending on new productions.

    • Nick says:

      Like you, I hope the current mess is sorted out fast. I also hope there will be a greater scrutiny of new productions. But there is a problem there: who is to do the scrutiny? You seem perfectly happy for Gelb, who had minuscule experience in ‘live’ theatre or opera production at the time of his appointment, to decide on new productions and be free to select directors and designers. Why? I realise the praise/blame for that decision rests entirely with the Board. But please ask yourself this: would any other major performing arts company appoint as its ‘Artistic Director’ (as opposed to Gelb’s actual title of ‘General Manager’) anyone – anyone at all – with such a threadbare resume in such an important element of its work?

      In another thread, I looked back to the 1980s when some on the Board’s Search Committee felt strongly that one man could not head up the Met, as in the old days of Rudolf Bing. With a $70 million budget by that time, the job was too big to be tackled by just one man. So James Levine was created Artistic Director making many of the decisions that passed to Gelb on his appointment. In 2004, for whatever reason, Ms Sills and her Board went back to an old Bing-style one-man management/direction, but with an appointee with few of Bing’s hugely impressive credentials in the world of opera.

      In yet another Met thread, a poster refers to a number of articles in the New York Times. One looks back to the days when the Met employed the hugely talented and experienced director John Dexter as its Director of Productions. As part of his remit, Dexter would have had to ensure that those chosen to mount new productions had the experience of both music and theatre to present productions that were faithful to the score, brought the score to life with dramatic intensity and had present-day relevance. Amongst his other attributes, he had the experience to know what would stand the test of time. And it is that part of your argument I have to question.

      Earlier, you say. “I defend his/her right to replace 40 or 30 or 20 or 10 year old productions with new productions if he/she feels that they no longer speak to the wider going opera audience.”

      Again it is hard to disagree with that. But again there is a problem. If the Met does not have a bottomless pit of cash from donors, the new “Tosca”, “Parsifal” “Don Giovanni” and all the other new productions have to stay in the repertoire for two or three decades before they can be renewed. That is a fact of life in international opera. In the theatre, you can create a production of “Hamlet” that is highly relevant to today knowing that it will run nightly for a period of, say, between 30 and 100 performances. Thereafter it is scrapped. A few years later, a totally new production will appear with a totally different concept and perhaps set in a totally different period.

      Opera cannot work that way. The economics are prohibitive. Met patrons are now stuck with that pretty dreadful “Don Giovanni” for the foreseeable future. Will revivals attract audiences, especially new audiences? I hope they will, but I have huge doubts.

      • Claudia Menlo says:

        the new “Tosca”, “Parsifal” “Don Giovanni” and all the other new productions have to stay in the repertoire for two or three decades before they can be renewed.

        That is absolutely not true. If a production is genuinely a failure in any theater, it falls out of the repertoire fairly quickly, e.g., the Graham Vick “Trovatore” or the Francesca Zambello “Lucia” at the Met. Each played two seasons and then disappeared. True, there are some classic productions that enjoy a two-decade run or more but those are more the exception than the rule: if a production is a real clunker then the opera will simply fall out of the repertoire for a few years and then return in some new vision.

        In my opinion, unless a production is an absolute classic, e.g., the Miller “Mikado” at ENO, it should be retired after at the very most a decade and preferably sooner than that. Later revivals of the production should be approached as revisions to the original, because frankly even the most brilliant director’s vision begins to date after five years or so. This is true in every other theatrical form besides opera, and the only reason opera lags so far behind the other forms is that in many places the opera public placed no value whatever on theatrical values: they only go to the opera for voices or “spectacle.”

        • Nick says:

          A decade, dear Ms. Menlo, is a very long time, and audiences clearly are not turning up in sufficient numbers for the Met revivals. If you believe that opera companies are comparable to theatre companies in respect of the cost of their new productions and their ability to mount new production after new production, run them for a few weeks and then scrap them, you are indeed plain wrong. Besides, a theatre company will most often play in a stage a fraction of the size of the Met with a company of performers a tiny fraction thereof. The real reason opera companies can not keep mounting new production after new production has nothing to do with singing or theatrical values: it is all about costs and realities. Economically, theatre and opera are galaxies apart.

          Yes, a few productions are indeed scrapped after a couple of outings. Some may even be scrapped after just one, as was the case with the Royal Opera’s disastrous Ponelle/Mehta/Pavarotti “Aida” in the early 1980s. How, I wonder, do the donors who put up millions for such productions at the Met feel when they know their name will only be associated with a production for a dozen or so performances?

      • Claudia Menlo says:

        Check your facts. Joseph Volpe was named “General Manager” in 1993. That was the “return to the old Bing-style one-man management/direction.” Gelb’s appointment was to succeed Volpe in that office.

        • william osborne says:

          Menlo is correct, the focus on star singers hurts opera as an art form because so many other dimensions of the genre are overlooked. The Met is one of the worst houses for this. These star singers have very little time to rehearse so they come in for park and bark productions that are theatrically one-dimensional.

        • Nick says:

          Ah, but it is your facts that are wrong – once again! When Volpe was appointed, James Levine was already the Artistic Director making most of the key artistic decisions. So the Met then had an Artistic Director and a Chief Executive. Levine relinquished that position in 2004 prior to Gelb’s appointment. No-one has ever replaced Levine in that position – apart from Gelb!

  • Philip Arlington says:

    This is very much an artistic person’s approach to a financial problem: it doesn’t contain a single number!

    Two thirds of the Met’s budget goes on salaries and six or seven per cent on new productions, so a major cost problem can only be approached by focusing on salaries. Furthermore a large part of the cost of new productions is covered by targeted donations which might not otherwise be available to the Met.

    I donate to various programmes at the British opera companies, but I wouldn’t give a penny beyond the ticket price to the Met, which is profligate and overpays many of its people.

    these salaries tend to be above the market

  • Janice Fischer says:

    I agree with much of what you say, especially regarding some of the new productions (Guilio Cesare especially – what was that supposed to be about?) but let me defend the HD performances. No, they’re not as good as live performances but some of us can’t get to the Met on a regular, even an irregular basis. Actually, not at all, both from a standpoint of distance and expensel. But I love opera and I love the Met and I’ve enjoyed the HD performances more than I can say. Would I have listened to Satyagraha on the radio? No way, but seeing it was huge. The new Tosca is awful but I loved the Ring cycle. There has to be a solution to the current fiscal problems. There just has to be. HD performances may be imperfect but they’re way better than no opera and, for me at least, they are a life line. Don’t kill them!

  • Felipe says:

    The whole thrill of opera is to hear unamplified voices in a large space. Once you start miking, or any kind of electronic reproduction, you have a Broadway show. Once you have a ‘film director’ deciding what characters, actions or reactions will be the focus of an opera presentation, you have further reduced the excitement of the performance. HDs. DVDs and CDs are all fine as souvenirs of singers and/or productions, or for people in East Buttfcuk, Iowa who cannot get to an opera house. They do not replace the in-the-opera-house experience.

    As to recent productions, the TOSCA is reportedly already scheduled to be replaced. The PARSIFAL, which was to have been repeated during 2013-2014 with Levine conducting was deemed too costly to revive and hence the scheduled PARSIFAL singers – Voigt, Hampson, Simon O’Neill – were offered WOZZECK instead. Such ugly one-shot Gelb failures as ATTILA and EGYPTIAN HELEN have been conveniently forgotten. We have a perfectly fine NOZZE which has not been used all that much, now being replaced. The Met’s classically attractive MEISTERSINGER was to have been dumped for the Herheim production in the coming season (if there is a coming season

    Another factor which no one seems to consider in all of this is: not merely do people not want to see (or hear) many of Gelb’s productions more than once (out of curiosity) but have you noticed the large numbers of patrons who leave at intermissions?

    The Met has always been a singer-driven house, going back to Caruso, Flagstad, the ‘Bing golden age’ of Corelli, Tebaldi, Nilsson, Price, et al, Pavarotti…these names sold tickets, whatever type of production they were in. Now Kaufmann and Netrebko are probably the only two singers likely to produce a well-sold house.

  • DYB says:

    I certainly don’t object to new productions being staged. But there is the question of taste. And Peter Gelb, the man who gave the world Charlotte Church and ruined Sony Classical before coming to the Met, has none. If there have been any successes they are like a broken clock: there’s bound to be one or two purely accidental ones. Gelb’s choice of productions has failed more often than it has succeeded. And even more problematic is his casting. The people he considers to be STARS is truly baffling and very revealing about his taste level. A man of no musical or artistic taste has appointed himself the Emperor of the House (with a 26% pay raise to boot and a 10 year contract!) The house desperately needs an artistic director and/or head of productions, like Dexter and Levine used to be. But Gelb is an egomaniac. He wants it all for himself. And he’s willing to destroy everything so nobody else can have it.

    Someone recently reminded me of the story of “Moses und Aron” at the Met. Levine wanted to stage it and Volpe said: Fine, but we can only do it in 3 years so everyone can learn it without putting in overtime ($$$) and when we schedule it we will have to schedule it at a time that is not chorus heavy ($$$). And so they did. Who can doubt that Gelb would have scheduled it for the following year, with Lepage directing/designing, and with “Meistersinger,” “Les Troyens,” and “Boris Godunov” (all new productions) in the same month.

    • Nick says:

      Thank you for that perceptive post. It neatly and succinctly encapsulates points several of us have been making ever since this debate about Gelb and the Met’s future started.

  • Jacqueline Kahane Freedman says:

    As a “literally from childhood”, longtime opera goer and Met supporter, I have been joined by many of my opera-loving friends, who historically had also been supporters, but who, in recent years, have been turned off by the soulless “noveties” intended to attract new audiences.

    In his thrust to achieve this stated goal, Mr. Gelb has succeeded in driving away a considerable body of the most loyal of the Met’s patrons, many of us at a time in our lives where our economic situation is such that we are considering disposition of our assets. Given the nature of productions we have recently endured, that are devoid of either beauty or fidelity to the intentions of the composers or librettists, we now vote with our feet and our money, and no longer attend these director-driven presentations, either on stage live, or on screen, and have made the decision to find other, more appealing recipients to support than the Met.

  • musicologyman says:

    I doubt that Gelb would ever countenance Moses und Aron at his Met, but not because of the cost. After all, his approach, as Ms. Bender realizes, is to make opera more appealing by making it look like everything else the culture industry has to offer. In so doing, though, he renders the Met’s position in American cultural life superfluous and, this, irrelevant.

    Moses und Aron resists that trend.

  • Frank says:

    East Buttfuck, IA is actually quite an opera conscious community thanks to all the men there who enjoy the traditional back door sport. They routinely meet up in Indianola to see a production, then drive back to East Buttfuck for group bonding activity.