The Met was half-empty on opening night

The Met was half-empty on opening night


norman lebrecht

March 11, 2016

This was the Metropolitan Opera last night.

met half full

It was the start of a new run of the usually-popular L’Elisit d’Amore with Vittorio Grigolo as Nemorino and Aleksandra Kurzak as Adina. ‘First time this season,’ proclaims the program sheet.

As you can see from the picture, posted by a Slipped Disc reader, most of the best seats went unsold.

Other observers have remarked before on poor ticket sales.

Peter Gelb cannot turn a blind eye much longer to these half-empty houses.

met half full

UPDATE: The picture taker informs us: Picture was taken at 7.30 sharp (they started 5 minutes late) and dress circle and first tier were just as empty. In fact there were numbers of completely empty boxes.


  • Bystander says:

    How do you know this wasn’t taken 5 minutes after the house opened?

    • Stravinsky says:

      It’s true. No music director. Met needs a new dynamic figure that will put it back on the map. Here’s to the new golden years for the Met. Get it done.

      • MWnyc says:

        “Getting it done” isn’t so simple. James Levine still has enormous residual good will from the wider audience and donors, so flat-out firing him or refusing to renew a contract would be a public relations disaster. And Levine does not want to go.

        • Peter says:

          There must be other more bipartisan ways than a public execution to release the MET from the deadlock JL imposes on the opera house.
          A general manager worth his reputation should be able to find them.

          I suppose the problem is a bit more systemic. You can’t buy yourself the future for ever. Even though this is New York, the home of the money printing philosophy.

          Imagine the MET with an average budget. It would be hard then to attract the world’s talent, since artistically the MET is as interesting as the Dutch mountains.

    • Martin Bernheimer says:

      Absolutely true. Depressing. I was there. And Grigolo (alone) was great.

      • Olassus says:

        We are looking at a complete collapse of the subscriber base. The man needs to be fired and a new team with a new (old) business model put in place pronto.

  • Lydia Cottiers says:

    New opera fans need to be sought out. Most of the opera-goers are senior citizens. Under 30 discount tickets, student-discount tickets need to be made available. That might help.

    • MWnyc says:

      The Met’s doing some of that (though there can always be more, probably). The day-of lottery for $25 tickets – created by the sainted Agnes Varis – is excellent.

      In this case, I think that L’elisir d’amore just isn’t the audience draw that it was 40 years ago.

      • Mark Coassolo says:

        I liked the Varis deal, BUT they screwed it up this year. NOW it is only for people in Manhattan, NYC. I am a subscriber and I live in Bucks County, PA, so they blocked out the new usage of the $25 dollar ticket because you can’t do this on line or on the phone. I at least last year was able to get a couple of tickets using the lottery system last year. They cut us out here. Can’t come up to get to the box office when you have to get to a train station in Trenton, NJ from PA, get to Union Station, take the subway and hope you get to the box office before the deal expired. At least last year if I won the lottery, I could pay for the tickets at home and it was at least a day or two to get the train deal, etc. They are forcing us to say, the hell with it, so we go to the movie house instead.

        • Dave says:

          Not sure what you mean.

          There’s still a lottery, but it’s via Internet.

          The real problem with the Varris Tickets is that it’s easy to scam, with ticket brokers snapping up most of the tickets and reselling them at a profit on Craigslist. Met could solve this by printing the “winner’s”name on the ticket and demanding that those who present these tickets show an ID that matches.

    • Stravinsky says:

      I don’t really believe that the “ol ye” audience is gone. They just don’t want to commit to an old place they loved dearly and now brings bizarre overpriced productions and has a Broadway fan for GM. Not gonna get their $ until they deem it worth to come back. But they are out there. As for the new audiences, they do show up. Just remember that the Met performs seven times a week. If the production is disliked, you are going to see only them new folks and tourists.


    those are absolutely not the best seats. did you look at the grand tier or dress circle?

    • Carol Blades says:

      I agree with Joanna. And way too little info on when the picture was taken. That said, the uncertainty of the MD situation doesn’t inspire confidence.

  • Alice Coote says:

    It is wrong and incorrect to claim Peter Gelb is ignoring anything.
    Box office is tough in most of the world’s opera houses in today’s cultural landscape.

    • Olassus says:

      Not true. Many of the world’s opera houses, including several where you sing, are regularly FULL.

      • Bruce says:

        Doesn’t mean it’s not tough (although others may be dealing with it better).

        • Olassus says:

          Bruce, Americans love to go out for the evening, and love to hear and see new things.

          In the few U.S. cities with opera companies and symphony orchestras, there are millions of people.

          So I won’t accept for a minute that it is “tough.” Only that the mindset of these so-called Presidents and CEOs is wrong in and for the arts.

          In fact the entire 501(c) regime needs an overhaul.

          • Una says:

            All my singing colleagues tell me it’s tough these days, and no less the Met. People have only so much money, audiences are getting older, and audiences too are becoming more selective in what they want to see. Opera North was full for Elisir just recently, but far from full for Andre Chenier. Covent Garden dropped the price of tickets for Gloriana and Wozzeck a couple of years ago and it was still a third empty – a small house in comparison to the Met – and yet another Boheme at £180 and it’s full. Some go to the opera like some go to church – it’s a ritual, but only want to hear what they want to hear. Either way, it’s not easy for the planners. And we have both Paris Opera and ENO on strike.

          • Olassus says:

            Audiences have been getting older and people have had only so much money since the beginning of time.

            If they want Bohème and Elisir, they must suffer Chenier and Wozzeck. It’s called a subscription. It’s the purchase of a season. It’s nothing new.

            These are marketers’, not singers’, responsibilities. Just straighten your wig and nail that D in alt, OK?

          • Janis says:

            Americans without kids and with disposal income and jobs that let them take off work early and who don’t mind driving into the middle of a huge metropolitan area and then paying premium for parking love to go out for the evening. That’s about 0.0004% of us. The rest of us love to think about doing it, but can’t do it.

          • Olassus says:

            Janis, the arts should be accessible regardless of income, pretty much. Just like parks.

            The age groups 25–39 and 25–44 are, as you point out, coping with kids. When they re-emerge, they are gray!

      • Jimbo says:

        Try and get a ticket for the Royal Opera House. The best seats are sold out before general booking.

    • Brian B says:

      Covent Garden (if not ENO), Munich, Wien, are doing just fine, playing to almost 100 capacity.

      • Tom Kennedy says:

        ENO has sold out Akhnaten, and Flute and Norma are playing to nearly full houses every night.

        • pooroperaman says:

          ‘Flute and Norma are playing to nearly full houses every night.’

          Only because they’re heavily papered. So much papering goes on at the Coliseum that they could open a branch of Smiths in the foyer.

    • Trevor Neal says:

      Really? Sarasota Opera sold out 12 performances of AIDA and had to add a 13th. And that’s just one example. The problem is Mr. Gelbs inability truly understand the want of the audience base. He has failed to give the people what they want and in return they are not coming.

  • PaulD says:

    This is the third run of this production in as many years. You cannot expect your customers (which is already a limited base) to shell out big dollars for the same thing year after year. That could explain the half empty house.

    • juliet solomon says:

      #Specially when it’s Elisir D’Amore – once is more than enough. What about the real operas?

  • Colin Reed says:

    This is a seemingly pointless post. The photograph has no context. Box office figures would either back up the opinion or refute it. Either way, showing a limited area of seating with no idea of how long before the performance starts it was taken, is a bit red top!

    • Frankster says:

      Read the comments. One of America’s most respected critics (Bernheimer) was there that night and confirmed the large number of empty seats. This is not OK, it is not normal and ticket income is a major part of the Met budget.

    • Una says:

      Forget about the photo, but the rest isn’t pointless.

  • TC says:

    The subscriber base system is outmoded. I have subscribed to opera and theater companies in town, and often wound up having to exchange tickets due to various schedule conflicts. It was simply easier to buy tickets closer to the dates of the performances. I think there has to be a lot of incentives to get younger people to subscribe nowadays — scarcity of tickets for one; missing out on performance(s) because it is sold out. That’s perhaps rarer in opera and most theater now (except HAMILTON which is sui generis).

    I do think the Gelb is doing a good job of bringing interesting productions to the Met (Butterfly, Parsifal, Carmen, Pag). He needs to balance what will please older, conservative audience with what will also intrigue younger audiences. That’s quite a juggling act to pull off. Compare the Met’s new MANON LESCAUT with Munich’s ‘out-there’ production. I can only imagine what the reaction would have been to the Oompa Loompa/Planet of the Apes chorus at the Met. And sorry for some of you traditionalists, but a lot of those Zefferelli productions were looking pretty dated and stale.

  • David Boxwell says:

    The house is too big now. Shut it down, carve it into two smaller spaces (say 1800 seats in one–call it the MainStage, and 400 in another, a place for contemporary and Baroque productions).

  • Michael B says:

    As an outsider (Australian, but I see quite a bit of opera internationally too), the interesting thing is that several of the comments imply that many Met productions are regarded as challenging/contemporary.

    I’ve not been to a house anywhere that does more of the ‘traditional’ style productions than the Met does. For every ‘bad’ contemporary production at the Met, I’ve probably seen three ‘bad’ traditional productions (to my taste).

    I assumed it was because the Met was very reliant on philanthropy; that is typically the domain of older patrons; and, older patrons may want familiar productions and may not be looking to be challenged.

    The only thing to add is that I loathe ‘bad’ non-traditional productions. But if sympathetic to the composer and librettist’s intentions, an interesting production can add a further layer to a performance.

  • A Met Fan says:

    None of this is new, or unexpected, after ten years of declining ticket sales. It is all true. There have been numerous performances this season at the Met with less the 40% attendance (several less than 30%)…and that’s including ALL tickets, paid, press, and comps.

    The simple fact is that the Met board (the governing body to which the General Manager reports; not the other way around) is not made aware of accurate ticket sales data, since large board contributions to subsidize rush tickets are counted as box office revenue, not as contributions. They see for themselves the half empty houses–or more–and still believe that the average capacity is in the high seventieth percentile, as reported in their meetings. Do they not realize that they have an enforceable fiduciary responsibility? The State Attorney General does.

    No one on the Met board will ask the tough questions, for fear of being ostracized. (Yes, even wealthy folks can be intimidated by their own.) If they truly understood the composition of what is counted as ticket revenue, Mr. Gelb may have to offer some concrete explanations, other than “we don’t understand our audience”. If you don’t know how to fix the problem after ten years, cut the cord and get someone in who has a clue.

    It’s not that Peter isn’t doing anything…he has done plenty over the past years, but much of it wrong-headed and ultimately detrimental to the very existence of the institution we all love. (Look out for the monstrous new addition to the façade of the opera house. You thought the RING was expensive?)

    No one should have to look back in a few years and mourn the loss of what had been one of the world’s greatest arts institutions because those people in charge—the board of directors—were asleep at the wheel.

    The Met has a wanna-be artistic director, not a General Manager who is paid a great deal of money to shoulder bottom line responsibility for everything…including selling tickets. No one should accept any further excuses after a very long decade of decline.

    • Olassus says:


      Maybe *especially* wealthy folks can be “intimidated by their own.”

    • Joanna says:

      Well put. To bad they can’t scrap the whole Board of Directors and get wealthy folks who are more than just Society ciphers. Of course Gelb goes bye bye too. But….I know it’s all just a dream.

  • Nick says:

    It is not OK! It is not normal!

    In any opera house, the first night of the revival of a standard repertoire work, especially one which was well reviewed, should be pretty near full or the management is just plain not doing its job. Period!

    How much longer will the toothless, seemingly brainless – certainly ignorant of the business of opera – Board of the Met stand behind the man it engaged despite his glaringly obvious lack of experience and who has since then been dragging the institution towards oblivion?

  • Old school fan says:

    I’m curious…what are specific things wrong with the general director? What changes can be done to improve? I’m curious what other people think. I have my own opinions (singers inexperienced also quality not good, staging is ehh, productions are stupid, etc)

  • Teryle Watson says:

    The Met has done tremendous outreach to high schools visiting NYC.Many of the high school class trips from my adopted home of Rochester attend a Met performance.
    The house is simply too large.I like the idea of creating a smaller main theatre and creating a smaller recital hall and black box theatre.There must be radical changes to preserve this vital art forms and yet press body into the future.Failure is not an option here.

    • Nick says:

      It may be too large now, but clearly was not considered so when it was built. Indeed, there seem to have been far fewer questions about its size in the years prior to the disastrous Gelb reign.

      Moving to a smaller house may well appear to be an answer. But that in itself poses a vast number of questions to which answers will be impossibly expensive – almost too expensive even to think about. Like it or not, the Met is interwoven into the fabric of the Lincoln Center with a host of agreements in place between it and the parent body. You cannot suddenly extract the opera company from the building. Where would it go? How much would it cost to adapt its huge inventory of scenery to fit on a smaller stage? And who would occupy the building in the Met’s absence?

      When a House is as large as the Met with so many staff and such a huge wage bill, the management has continuously to do its job as managers. That means not only ensuring its productions, attendance figures and various sources of revenue come within its budget parameters. It means managing and providing motivation, inspiration and direction. Through its disastrous policy of increasing its overall annual budget by 50%+ at a time of deep recession and its wasteful and frequently uncontrolled expenditure (partly through not telling directors and designers that they are over budget and therefore must find ways to reduce expenditure), Gelb has headed a team that appears virtually out of control.

      Gelb’s position is General Manager. That is the job he was offered. Given his background, it was a job for which he did not have nearly enough experience. As a consequence he has failed miserably. And since the Met Board failed to appoint an Artistic Director when Levine left the post in 2004, Gelb has somehow morphed also into that role. And his tenure has shown he does not have the experience for that post either!

      That he remains in charge of such a valuable institution is just mind-boggling to many in the business.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    Has any body heard of papering the house, when it’s so empty? a give away might encourage some new opera addicts.

  • MacroV says:

    I have trouble thinking that failure to fill 3,800 seats – at steep MET prices – on a Thursday night for a performance of L’Elisir d’Amore is a sign of imminent collapse of western civilization.

    When they start getting these kinds of crowds for the Ring, Tristan, or Rosenkavalier, then I’d start to worry.

  • Milka says:

    It is pleasant , it is almost charming ,it is silly it is almost 200 yrs, old , written
    for the sensibilities of a past time -it is not a masterpiece worthy of constant
    revival …the house is too big for such a work …. the year is 2016 , for good
    or bad people have changed , the curiosity of hearing such a minor work should
    be addressed in a much smaller house . Western civilization has not collapsed
    as much as it has changed, one thinks the general manager is stupid .

  • richard van schoor says:

    Maybe it has something to do with the same ol’ same ol’ repertoire they keep churning out. Yawn!

  • W. Holt says:

    I hate to say it but most of the posts are wrong and some are just bile and hate. Why do I say such a thing? Well, for starters I like the much maligned Peter Gelb. I’ve never met him live but on the MET HD broadcasts, I’ll admit his face looks like a lizard waiting for a transient fly. However, the man has tried to liven up he MET. Productions of The Nose, Nixon in China,The Death of Klinghofer (shot at for its content not the fact that it was a recent work,) the Pastiche and next year’s revival (not a MET revival) of L’Amour de Loin are all indications of an alert manager. Casting has been, as in the past, top international figures: Nebtrenko, Kaufmann, Garanca, Mattei, Domingo, DiDonato. You can add the best in new American talent as well, Meade, Fabiano, Costello, Barton, Hymel and the list goes on. Conductors? A better assortment than ever, if you ask me. Productions? Gelb has brought in the best directors he can find. Always successful? Hardly, but that is theater, after all. Take a look at the “Reggie” stuff presented in Europe. Find anything better? Price? Compared to Broadway and the even more pricy athletic events, the MET is not out of line. So, What’s wrong? Too many performances of less popular works. Too many performances of more popular works that people go to but do not expand their interest. (That’s not Gelbs fault.) Finally, a change in taste. Sixty five years ago, there were still touring operetta companies. We are now down to two or so operetta venues and no new operettas. Many people, who in the 1950s would have thought that pro football was a bunch of coal miners from the Scranton are now diehard Eggles fans (or Giants or…) All of this to say, I see loads of young singers at music schools and I hope that they will form an audience for opera and even operetta that will sustain these mediums. On the other hand, you may see opera go the way of the minstrel show, which did not die out because of the blackface presentation. It was gone long before that became an issue.

    • Nick says:

      I suggest that anyone who has read NL’s blog regularly over the last couple of years at least will have more than a fair idea as to why Gelb is not merely disliked but considered pretty disastrous.

      First and foremost, he had virtually no qualifications that would recommend him for the job of running what should be one of the world’s great opera houses. For a time he had been a staffer of the iron-willed Ronald Wilford who happened to have managed James Levine for almost his entire career and had vast connections in the world of opera – and, incidentally, in the circles inhabited by many of the Met’s Board and major donors, his third wife being the granddaughter of President Roosevelt. Gelb had never managed any major arts organization even on a scale a fraction of that of the Met.

      Under Gelb, the Met’s budget skyrocketed. In the 2012/3 season he spent $324 million. The following season the annual deficit ballooned to round $22 million, roughly eight times higher than the previous season and the Met’s biggest deficit since 1984. When Gelb took over he inherited a balanced budget of $209 million. So in just 9 years during which the world experienced the worst recession since 1929, Gelb increased his budget by over 50%. He then used the media worldwide to claim that the Met was hovering on a precipice and required massive cuts in labour costs. Lockouts were threatened whilst Gelb played the tough guy. He then does not involve himself as the Chief Negotiator and ends up with an agreement that results in a mere fraction of these “essential” cuts – and says he is satisfied. Does W. Holt seriously believe any of this is a mark of a responsible manager? It is not! It is a sign of ineptitude, indiscipline, inefficiency, near total lack of control and an absence of sheer managerial competence.

      As to some specific points. Selection of repertoire is not the job of a General Manager. It is primarily a responsibility of an Artistic Director, although usually in consultation with the GM. I have no idea what role James Levine has been playing, but I have no doubt it has been important. On this point, I agree that Gelb has the right to take some credit. As for casting and deciding who sings which roles, though, that is the job not of the General Manager but of the Artistic Administrator. Sarah Billingshurst filled that role very admirably until her retirement at the end of the season in 2014. Robert Rattray now bears that responsibility.

      You ask, “What’s wrong?” and then suggest “Too many performances of less popular works. Too many performances of more popular works that people go to but do not expand their interest.” You absolve Gelb of fault, and yet it is Gelb as General Manager and de facto Artistic Director who makes these very decisions!

      Lastly you mention change of taste. That is not a result of the policies of the GM of the Met. But it is absolutely his responsibility to be aware of changing tastes and adapt accordingly. With all respect, your encomium of Gelb paints an almost wholly incorrect picture and omits vast swathes of sheer incompetence. It is a fact that most of the posts here are neither “bile” nor “hate”. They are pretty close to the bullseye!

  • Brian says:

    Music critics are often reluctant to report on shrinking audiences (as seen above) for fear that it will send a signal to their bosses that the artform they cover is dying – and thus their job isn’t really so needed. They become de facto boosters out of self-preservation. So things are probably much worse out there than most people realize.

  • Dileep Gangolli says:

    No question that the MET has to figure out how the next 25 years are going to be defined both in terms of having a music director as committed as Levine has been and also what the art form means in terms of the cultural landscape of NYC.

    But I would not say that the art form of Classical music is dying. While redefining itself, there are some very meaningful signs that it is healthy. Youth orchestras around the world are vibrant and play at a high standard. China seems to be embracing Western music and importing orchestras (while it has the economic means to do so). El Sistema is a model for learning in all fields of the humanities. And Bayreuth and Salzburg sell out year after year.

    So while the MET may have issues, to say the entire industry is falling apart is a bit gloom and doom.

  • Valerie Kilpatrick says:

    The season starts in Sept, not March, this production was done last September, so this is a repeat, but with a different cast.

    • Nick says:

      Splitting performances into different parts of the season is usually done for the assistance of regular subscribers. But the Met’s subscriber base has been dropping and single ticket sales are far from taking up the slack. Vienna sold about 99% of its tickets last season. The Met struggles to sell 70% (albeit in a much larger house – but that is not a reasonable or valid argument in this case). That is a management issue.

  • Peter says:

    This is a symptom of the end game of capitalism. The rich are getting obscenely richer, the masses poorer. The income gap between the CEOs and the average employee has risen from 20 times 50 years ago to 400 times today. The educated middle class, in NY offset to the upper, has been the main pillar of opera audiences for a century at least.
    With the middle of society being squeezed to the sides, and social vertical mobility ever shrinking, opera is threatened to lose its natural habitat.
    There are simply less and less people, especially in NY the capital of worship of Mammon, that are both interested in classical music AND have the money, time and peace of mind to buy tickets.

    The natural habitat of opera is in the middle class, with the concept of vertical social mobility through education alive and promising. If these defining fundamentals in society do not change to the better, anything they do at the MET will just be a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  • SJ Reidhead says:

    I don’t think Mr. Gelb is doing enough to promote vibrant young voices and has a tendency to over-use his favorites who aren’t that good. There are so many times I go to listen to the evening performances on Sirius, only to cringe and turn them off as quickly as possible. Let’s be honest about how horrible some of the singers he promotes truly are. I come from the ‘New Golden Age’ – the 1980s, when the Met fielded a world-class tenor every night. The sopranos were legendary. Today, all you seem to get is La Raz, and I turn her off the moment I have the misfortune to hear her voice. I am a baritone junkie. Gelb’s choice of baritones is deplorable – where are the amazing young barihunks out there?

    Then – there is the fact that, apparently, there are very few black singers on the roster. It reeks of racism.

  • Dave says:

    Repertoire has a lot to do with it.

    The productions I’ve been to the past couple of seasons, some more than once (Turandot, Rigoletto, Magic Flute, La Traviata, Lucia di lammermoor, Don Giovanni) were pretty much sell-outs, on weekdays.

    And, there were plenty of non-seniors there, at least in the balcony and Fam Circle, where I sit.