NY Times to Met unions: Cut the rhetoric

In an otherwise thoughtful piece on the new-production aspect of the Metropolitan Opera dispute, chief music critic Anthony Tommasini has a typically wimpish conclusion: On the whole, one hopes that the unions will tone down the rhetoric. In his public statements, Mr. Gelb has consistently praised the artists and technicians at the Met, whereas many company members have denigrated their boss as overbearing and clueless. How can these put-downs not engender serious doubts about the Met among the very public the company needs to court right now? Never mind that the Times is, as usual, way behind the Times. There has not been a peep from the unions, or any of their outspoken members, since the federal mediators stepped in at the weekend. A nervous peace prevails. Wagners Das Rheingold Metropolitan Opera 2010 The false note here is Tommasini’s blind eye. Here’s what he failed to point out: – Peter Gelb has spent way over his budget. – He admits that box-office and donations have fallen way below target. – But Gelb blames high wages for the deficit and demands that the people who make the music take a 17 percent cut. Are they supposed to remain silent while Gelb threatens them with a lockout, loss of health cover for their sick children and a period of existential difficulty? What Tomassini ignores is that the Met dispute has become, in part, a discussion of Peter Gelb’s competence to run a major opera house. The unions – the musicians, especially – have raised serious factual doubts on that score. They were also right to question Gelb’s handling of human relations, never his strongest point. When the dispute is over, Gelb will be on probation to see whether he can restore financial stability. The musicians will play on.

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  • Tommasini lost his legitimacy long ago with patsy reviews of Gelb’s worst productions. He’s the last music writer who should be commenting on the Metropolitan Opera debaucle, as he is culpable in the clueless, rudderless and feckless current leadership at the MET.

    • Little point in the unions’ “toning down their rhetoric” when they’ve got “Save the Met” astroturfing for them.

      • Except, Claudia, that comment was made by “Save the /Met”…not “Save the Met”. Almost as if someone was trolling under one (slightly misspelled) name in order to launch an argument, perhaps under yet another name.

        Thanks for introducing the term “astroturfing” – I see I have a lot to learn about propaganda.

  • What a strange article! Tommasini completely fails to point out that it was Gelb who many moons ago fired the first of his many blasts about opera being on the edge of an abyss, that geriatric audiences were not being replaced and therefore the only route to salvation would be to slash costs. He also took this message to the international media long before, as far as I recall, any “Union rhetoric” started to appear. And no mention that several European-based Intendants rounded on his prophecies as having no relevance in their houses! Why no mention about Gelb toning down his rhetoric, Mr. Tommasini?

    “Mr. Gelb has long said that bold new productions will bring opera in line with the latest currents in theater and entice new audiences to the house,” writes Tommasini. You’d have thought he’d then state that those new audiences are largely phantoms! But no! He waits for 11 more paragraphs before hinting “Mr. Gelb’s new productions seem not to have reversed the decline in attendance!”

    I totally fail to understand how a knowledgeable writer/critic who is supposed to be following these events far more closely than almost everyone else can write such an unbalanced article! Ah! But I forgot! The Met spends a sizeable chunk on advertising each year in Tommasini’s publication! Need I say more?

  • The main point of the article is that the unions have erred in appearing to criticize the Met’s attempts to modernize its productions, work that is much needed and very important.

    • Ah, but one needs to have a taste level and not produce gimmick productions that Gelb keeps throwing on the stage. Keep in mind, the gimmicks have had horrible sales results when presented for the second time and will need to be replaced. It was a travesty to name him artistic director, a man with no experience in the position. His box office results clearly show he’s done a lackluster job. Tony Tom is wrong about the fact that Gelb’s successes and failures stack up with previous general managers, that is simply not so. His fail rate is much higher and Tomassini himself wrote an article about it several years ago. But of course he forgot about that when writing this article. The person who is in the artistic director slot needs to understand the New York opera going public’s mindset before thinking about bringing in new audiences. Many ticket subscribers have not renewed their season subscriptions because they don’t like Gelbs productions. You have to keep your base in their seats before you bring in the New and compromise. Both are important, but there is not enough new ticket buyers out there to ignore your bread and butter.

      • It may be true, but I would need to see some sort of evidence that Gelb’s productions have been less successful than Volpe’s and others — a list of all productions over the last 20 years, attendance numbers, income, reviews, etc. There are so many vested interests at work that a skeptical view has to be taken toward all sides in the disputes. After all, Save the Met isn’t exactly an impartial moniker…

        There have also been many factors at work in the decline in attendance, not all of which can be attributed to the productions.

        • Indeed, that is what the union negotiators have been asking for. Complete financials. They have made their arguments with what has been provided, which apparently contain hidden costs from new productions that are buried in other categories, for example, the trucking and storage costs associated with the fields of poppies, and the air conditioned storage required for the Ring stage machine.

      • Many ticket subscribers have not renewed their season subscriptions because they don’t like Gelbs productions.

        Do you have a survey to cite? If not, please produce your certification in mind-reading.

          • Ah, good… it took a moment’s Googling, but I found this discussion from OperaAmerica on the subject “Are Subscriptions Dying?”

            A 2014 study indicates a “[d]eclining subscription base” over the previous five years in eight of 10 North American opera companies surveyed. The other two companies report their subscription sales have held steady or increased.

            The study indicates that the most important variable affecting sales is “the repertoire mix
            of the season.” Too many overly-familiar titles or too many obscure novelties seem to discourage subscription renewals: the study recommends a carefully-crafted balance.

            Offering star casting does not seem increase the subscription rate, but inferior casting and cheap, tatty-looking productions seem to turn off potential subscribers. There is some indication that certain productions styles (“the Alden brothers”) discourage renewals.

            Finally, the study states that audiences have become accustomed to “fire sales” (midseason discount pricing) and realize that they can attend the opera more cheaply buying individual tickets instead of subscribing.

            Or, briefly, there are a number of different reasons subscriptions seem be declining. As such, without polling data from Met audiences, I think it’s presumptuous to say “because they don’t like Gelb’s productions.” Given that “Save the Met” has a clear agenda here, repeatedly parroting the unions’ talking point that sufficient budget savings can be made by gutting the production budget, I think it’s fair enough to ask that he produce some sort of corroboration for his statement.

            The referenced study may be viewed at the following link:

            http://www.operaamerica.org/content/conference/2014/presentations/sunday/deadoralive_aresubsdying.pdf

    • You seem to forget that the problem anyone in Gelb’s position faces, though, is pushing through change without alienating his existing subscriber and donor base. If he does that, he loses a great deal more than he gains. It is a hugely fine line and Gelb has not found it.

      He should have remembered the advice of Sol Hurok, his first employer: “If the public doesn’t want to come, you can’t stop them.”

      • No, I haven’t forgotten. With such a large institution and such a parochial public, finding a balance between innovation and popularity will take more than 8 years. So far the results have been more-or-less what one might expect except for the Ring. And even there I have a certain sympathy. The project probably looked very good on paper and given Lepage’s successes I can see how it might have seemed worthy of support. To add perspective, it’s interesting to compare the Met’s Ring failure to LA’s. Theater being what it is, we have to leave plenty of room for failure. The Met isn’t outside the norms.

        To put the Met’s problems in perspective, I try to imagine what might have evolved if Mortier had taken over the NYCO. New York’s parochial opera public is like trying to push a colic cow out of a barn.

        In any case, I find it beneficial that both sides have shut up and doing the serious work of quiet negotiation.

  • It seems to me that the Times has been protecting Gelb since his days at SONY, and even more so since he joined the Met Opera. They feel he is family and out of loyalty to his late father, just won’t write anything critical about him.

  • This was a Tomassini article from 2013, Gelb already realized he had cannibalized his audience by showing HD in New Jersey, Eastern Connecticut, The Philadelphia Area, even Boston, as a good chunk of their audience came from there, not to mention New York City.

    “Surveys have shown that the decline in the Met’s audience has come from “outlying areas of New York,” Mr. Gelb said, with people who used to visit the Met now simply finding it easier to stop by the local movie house on Saturday.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/15/arts/music/mets-hd-broadcasts-success-but-at-what-cost.html?_r=0

    In this article, Tomassini queries whether Mr. Gelb is in over his head.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/arts/music/peter-gelbs-tenure-at-metropolitan-opera.html

    It’s not the new productions per se, it is the quality of what is offered and the audience that it is being foisted upon.

    • The important point is that one house can’t serve a metro area of 18 million people. In the densely populated Ruhrgebiet of Germany, for example, there are 11 full time houses within a 35 mile radius.

      Why drive from Philly to NYC for an opera that ends at 11 PM followed by at least a 90 minute drive home? And don’t bother with the train. You’ll likely miss the last one until morning.

      • Tourists come to NYC and stay in hotels, dontcha know. For opera lovers, the Met may be the primary reason they make the effort to travel here. 🙂

        • Opera needs to be affordable for middle class people and on a regular basis. This means affordable tickets and a local house that does not require the expense of travel and hotels — and especially not hotels as expensive as most in NYC.

          Middle class people also have to work. They can’t take time off to spend time over-nighting in NYC every time the want to see an opera.

          • That is exactly right, and it is the central problem facing the company beyond the new contracts, whenever they are signed. The Met must reconnect with ordinary people and again become part of their routines. It is not about a given “show” or a given star. It is about putting on a season and having people buy a season. There are 4,000 seats. Get them filled!

          • …there is no good opera in NYC besides the Met? Middle class audiences have a dozen good small opera companies to choose from, as well as the opera productions at the music conservatories.

            As someone who has performed with some of those companies, I can say that audience members who patronize the little guys express more satisfaction with the experience where they feel they are part of something, where they are close to the action, where they can see up and coming artists and even some established artists perform. These are the “farm teams” where one can also find Met choristers and assistant conductors practicing their craft.

            The Met should be afraid that audiences and donors will begin filling up their schedules with subscriptions and switch their giving to these adventurous companies.

          • My response to this argument about NYC’s small companies is misplaced a couple posts below. I would also like to add that exploiting students and pickup musicians to have affordable opera is no solution. Quality is weakened and artists are mistreated. It is correct, however, that opera in smaller venues is usually a much better experience than in the Met stadium. See my post below.

  • We already know that the Met’s payroll is far larger than comparable houses that do a similar number of performance like the Vienna State Opera and the Paris Opera. The Met payroll of $200 million is about $65 million more than than the entire budget (payroll and everything else) of the Vienna State Opera. I’m wondering if the number of employees is similar or if the Met requires a much larger staff.

    • I presume you are reading the financial information released by the Met orchestra and chorus so you know that the higher annual pay is because they work more than any other comparable US opera companies and symphony orchestras, and actually earn less per hour. It is not the base pay that has increased, but the overtime that is owed them because of management’s poor planning and budgeting.

      • I’m not convinced the large OT costs are solely due to poor planning. I think it is quite possible that the OT regulations make the costs excessively high even for well-planned standard repertoire. So the problems might be structural.

        To answer this question we need concrete numbers and clear contexutalizations. If there are structural problems with the OT rules, it would benefit both sides to find workable solutions that would allow the Met to maintain its high artistic standards.

    • Take a look at the staff numbers from the Volpe years versus the Gelb years. After your post I opened two programs one from this season and one from 2004, the staff is up by about 30%. Gelb has added staff in every department and then added in the HD staff to top it off. Their non-union payroll has increased substantially as well. By the way, did you know that the Manager of the art gallery which sells very little makes in excess of $250,000 per annum? Wasted space, but am friend of Gelb. He also uses her as his interior decorator, has even been quoted in the New York Times as doing so. Seems like a waste of money to me, the union has yet to pick up on this.

      “OFFICE MAKEOVER When I moved in here eight years ago, I asked Dodie Kazanjian, the director of our art gallery, to create a redesign. Previously, the office had been dark and wood-paneled with wall-to-wall carpeting. Her idea was to remove the rug, polish the concrete floor and create a more open, modern feel.”

      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/business/in-an-opera-house-all-the-office-is-a-stage.html?_r=0

      • So the staff has increased by 30% in 8 years. I wonder how the unions might react if attempts are made to reduce the staff.

        I agree that $250,000 for an art gallery manager is ridiculous. And why does the Met even need one?

        I notice that the public funding systems in Europe exercise much better oversight. Tax payers don’t like to see their money squandered. Excessive costs faced heated public debate. This explains why Vienna and Paris run their houses at less than half the cost.

        A private system, by contrast, has fewer concrete limits. Wealthy donors follow an ethos of lavishness. Fund-raising continually expands until the whole thing collapses. This is what we are seeing at the Met. I really hope both sides can work together to clean this mess up.

        • I should add that the houses in Europe are generally operated by municipal or state governments. That is why they are responsive to public pressure about costs. If they were operated at the Federal level (like the US military,) the public would have far less control over spending.

  • There is a short discussion earlier about the need for a comparison between revivals of Gelb’s productions with those of Volpe’s and others. Frankly I’m not sure any detailed comparison is of particular use unless it is to suggest that one was better or worse at marketing revivals than the other. Audience revenues are to quite a large extent determined by the subscription programmes they purchase rather than the number of non-subscription tickets sold. Also, we have no way of knowing exactly how much discounting went on for each performance – and we know that discounting is indeed practiced at the Met. Surely what is more important is that revivals in general do not attract anything like the same level of audiences as new productions.

    With so many Met threads, it’s not so easy to keep track of information. However, in the July 27 thread GELB TO MUSICIANS: YOU CAN’T COUNT there is a long .pdf file giving the Met management’s response to the paper from the Musicians Union offering savings (some admittedly somewhat spurious). The page numbering is not easy to read (since the Met merely added their own comments and their own numberings to the original MU document). But if you scroll down to the MU page 22 you will see an analysis of “Revenue Performance of Gelb Revival Runs Compared to Opening Run.” This surely is one of the key issues since it provides an indicator of likely future audience levels for future revivals.

    Here is a breakdown of some Gelb era new productions compared with revivals. (Please note, though, that since the information is provided in graph format, there could be a leeway of up to 2% in each of my figures) –

    Madama Butterfly – 98% / 87% / 93% 69%
    Barbiere – 97% / 81% / 68% / 69%
    Orfeo – 96% / 80% / 60%
    Lucia – 97% / 80% / 77%
    Macbeth – 88% / 71%
    Iphigenie – 92% / 66%
    Fille du Regiment – 98% / 82% / 50%
    Damnation of Faust – 94% / 58%
    Trovatore – 97% / 78% / 52%
    Tosca – 97% / 72% / 70% / 73%
    Carmen – 99% / 95% / 74%
    Hoffmann – 98% / 66%
    Traviata – 92% / 100% / 98%
    Rigoletto – 83% / 77%
    Faust – 70% / 41%
    Giovanni – 84% / 58%

    Judging from another graph (The Met’s page 11 which follows the MU page 22), pre-Gelb revivals did not fare too well either, although overall there does seem to be a higher average revenue per production.

    But the main point to arise from the longish list above is very, very clear. Discounting all external factors including casting, the trend for revivals is sharply downwards. Surely there has to be something very seriously wrong when revivals of such warhorses as Butterfly, Barbiere, Trovatore, Faust and Giovanni do such terrible business when revived a 2nd, 3rd or 4th time. Only Traviata shows any increase and consistently high revenues!

    And when the pretty dire Giovanni (from accounts I have read) is revived again, will the potential sales revenues fall even lower than 58%? That’s a desperate prediction for any opera manager!

    By bringing all this information into one post, my point is to suggest that as General Manager Gelb should be using his so-called legendary marketing skills spending far more time on attracting far more audience revenues for revivals and less of his time on new productions. For if he does not, he can spend the moon on new productions, but he will then be facing a barren landscape when perusing forward income projections when these productions are revived. Revivals make up 70% of the 2014/5 season and should therefore be generating far more revenue than new productions – or perhaps he has failed to realise that!

  • In an ideal world we would reduce the 800 pound gorilla to 400 pounds and redistribute the saved resources among the smaller companies. This would be an enormous boon for NYC.

    People rightfully want to support the musicians and stage workers in this struggle with the Met, but we should remember they are already by far the highest paid in the world. They demand so much money that they leave little for other worthy musicians and companies such as those who were in the NYCO. In this dispute at the Met, two greedy sides will work out an accommodation and keep everyone else starved. There is no innocent party in this struggle.

    This is the weakness of a plutocratic funding system. They wealthy treat themselves luxuriously while letting everyone else go to hell. As Europe illustrates, public funding systems are better at controlling costs, they distribute funding more democratically, and they offer good quality tickets average people can afford on a regular basis.

  • I’m sensing some confusion as to the specifics of the document put forward by the Met Orchestra. It’s not complicated, everything has been laid out very simply with bullet points, graphs, and other visual aids. It is very clear. If anyone is in the least interested in perusing the actual points made, I offer a link to that document.

    http://www.local802afm.org/MetMusicians/2014-07-25_802-Presentation_Gelb.pdf

    At no point during this process has the union said that it will reject any and all changes to their work rules or compensation arrangements. They simply want, no, expect, a level of artistic decision making and financial restraint from the opera’s management that any successful artistic organization has the right to expect.

  • I’m sensing some confusion as to the specifics of the document put forward by the Met Orchestra. It’s not complicated, everything has been laid out very simply with bullet points, graphs, and other visual aids. It is very clear. If anyone is in the least interested in perusing the actual points made, I offer a link to that document.

    http://www.local802afm.org/MetMusicians/2014-07-25_802-Presentation_Gelb.pdf

    At no point during this process has the union said that it will reject any and all changes to their work rules or compensation arrangements. They simply want, no, expect, a level of artistic decision making and financial restraint from the opera’s management that any successful artistic organization has the right to expect.

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