How the Met ate its own audience

In my monthly essay in Standpoint, I bring some new information on the depths of the Metropolitan Opera’s decline, and some analysis of the causes.


Almost anywhere in America and most countries around the world you can now watch live opera from the Met in a local multiplex for the price of a family pizza. The Met, globally branded by (Peter) Gelb, has never been so popular.

The downside is that it has consumed its own audience. Many of the couples going to watch opera in movie houses — especially in the New York commuter belt — are former Met-goers who have got used to watching opera in closeup, popcorn in hand, sitting in Long Island, surrounded by friends and neighbours in jeans and loafers.

There is no easy way to get them to dress up and come back. The sensible course would be for Gelb to cancel Live from the Met in New York area cinemas but he cannot do so without facing financial claims from distributors and complaints from opera houses across America that he has eaten up their audience as well his own. Gelb’s medicine has worked. The patient is now on life-support.

What’s to be done? Read the full essay here.


elster gelb

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  • Great article- You deserve to trumpet the low box office numbers (like the Trovatore picture earlier this year that was met with many unbelieving folks)…

    Being a donor, I asked why can’t they fundraise to some degree during the movie theatre broadcasts, so try to get extra income from all those eyes on the screen in the mall cinemas. Shockingly, I was told that the deal Gelb made with Fathom Events strictly prohibits any fundraising during these broadcasts.


    • Interesting to hear about the donation issue – presumably this only applies to the USA? I attend Met in HD screenings in the UK and every one is accompanied by a request for donations to the Met. I have mixed feelings about regional UK audiences being asked to donate to the wealthiest opera house on earth, especially at a time when UK companies are facing funding cuts, and much as I enjoy the relays my donations will be going somewhere rather closer to home. But hey, full marks for trying.

      I don’t know if this is the case in other non-US territories.

      • Here in Canada the host of the program always mentions that “nothing is quite like the thrill of live opera but ticket prices barely cover the costs of running the organization, join the met by making a donation at etc etc”

    • I think passing the hat during the HDs is a sensible idea especially as there is often a Met representative outside our local auditorium–but who is not promoting Guild subscriptions or passing out brochures except for HD event cards.
      The Met is not offering Guillaume Tell next season as an HD and that was an incentive for me to travel to NYC and go in person next season for a week of opera.
      NFL rules routinely black out home games on local TV if they’re not sold out. Different ballgame, literally, but one does wonder about it.

      • There were discussions last year about having a ‘text to donate $5’ during the broadcast- the company that handles the texting arrangement was even willing to do it gratis, but Gelb nixed it using the ‘no fundraising during broadcast’ excuse. Should have been more specific in my original post

    • They already make a mint out of these movie relays by the cost they charge. Here in the north of England there were only 11 people in a cinema that holds nearly 300 for ‘Roberto Devereux’, and it was £25 to get in. London is normally full for these but there is only so much money around, and also ENO and Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, the Globe and – yes – international football all compete for our money in the cinema.

      Perhaps the Met auditorium is too big for its audience. So many American opera houses are like barns with about 3,000 or more as its capacity to seat? And they are doing too many performances as well perhaps – two major and different shows on a Saturday? I’m not an economist so I’m sure I’ll get shouted down on all of this. I was there in 2003 at four operas, and can’t say the place was full then for mainstream operas, and only the radio relays in those days for us in Britain.

      • I had season tickets for about 10 years during the mid-1980s – the mid 1990s. And – I lived in SC, flew up for the performances. The Met was almost always filled to capacity. Then again, it was when there was a world-class super-star every performance. I’d fly up on Friday and fly home on Tuesday evening, usually attending Friday night, and at least one of the Saturday performances. There was always a Domingo, followed by a Pavarotti, then Gedda, Krause, Hofmann, Vickers, and so forth and so on. You’d get Price, Norman, Bubbles, Milnes, Hines – you name it, night after night.

        If you want to fill the auditorium, quit using sub standard performers who make you cringe to hear them, and someone needs to explain that there is noting more annoying that the current fixation with costumes out of the 1930s.

        The smart thing would be to just do what pro baseball & football does, modifying it so that Live in HD isn’t shown within a 100 miles or so of NYC.

        I’m waiting for live-steam of the performances like they do in Europe.

        Ticket prices are way too high.

      • One could hope – it is amusing to read the responses galloping off in all directions and
        as usual missing the point .Mr. Lebrecht I am sure doesn’t miss the point ,he has been around too long . He knows the fault is not Gelb.Mr. Lebrecht is just rattling the cage door
        to get the dogs barking . He is having fun…

        • Perhaps we’re all just waiting to see when you’re going to write something in prose instead of poetry, with all lines of different lengths – and rambling.

        • A little bit less arrogance and personal attack Milka would endear you to us a bit more. Norman Lebrecht is a respected and professional musical colleague of mine, and even if he weren’t, I dislike this kind of sarcastic attack by anonymous people. Everyone has their own views, including you and including me. There is room for everyone, even if you may disagree with us all.

  • This is all based on supposition. The Met itself has done studies of its audience and probably knows the answer to this. I have attended ‘Live from the Met’ myself a number of times and what I have found is a very elderly, downscale-looking audience (no offense to anyone!). I doubt if these were the people who were buying the top-price seats, never cheap, which are now going empty. The cause of the Met’s dwindling audience is more likely to be found in the punishingly long hours worked by New York’s upper classes, long commutes, and the passing of a generation of loyal opera-goers with European roots.

    • Agreed. It’s ludicrous to think the Met didn’t study potential audience cannibalization by the Cinema presentations – if they did they ought to have concluded that the effect would be small and only in the Tri-State area.

      The major factor causing audience diminishment is surely demographic change, an older generation passes and a newer one with more things competing for their attention comes along in smaller numbers because of the competition from other “entertainments.” These younger folks have shorter attention spans (though Game of Thrones moves at half the pace of Parsifal) and a greater appetite for sex and violence, which tends to be only intermittently part of operatic entertainment. An attempt to rectify this at Covent Garden recently was too graphic for their audience however.

      • What you say, John, about demography is quite right everywhere apart from Hong Kong and the east where the audiences are by far half my age and younger! I was in Berlin on holiday in January, and went on the spur of the moment to see Traviata at the Deutsche Oper. It cost me 40 euros to get into a good seat, it wasn’t full, and I looked around to see again like here in England in a lot of classical music concerts, even the London Proms (except it has become ‘cool’ to go there for the young but many, as do tourists who turn up) thing they are getting the flag-waving night with Land of Hope and Glory, not serious music!) an aging audience. Seems many can’t even sit through anything this day and age without either sipping water out of a bottle every five minutes with the cap put on each time, and / or getting up to go to the loo, or fidgeting – except here I most places you’re not allowed back in if you go out until there is a suitable break to creep in, unless it’s the pictures or a pop concert!

        • After thirty years as an expat in New York I had the chance to go with my son to see Manchester United at Old Trafford. A hospitality ticket for 2 including dinner was over $1000. It was well worth it, since as others have pointed out a night for 2 at the Met can run almost that much if you want it to (though you could also do it for under $100 in the Family Circle). Unused to spending so much on anything and struggling as a Leeds supporter to even enter the ground, I persuaded said son to come with me to hear the Halle at Bridgewater Hall. Program was the complete Nutcracker. Hall 60% full, and he looked around and said “is anyone here under 50?” We couldn’t see anyone. They were even older than the NYPO crowd and that takes some beating. Woeful.

    • I don’t want to get too Bernie Sanders here but inflation adjusted wages are down for everybody bar the top 1%. The middle class is shrinking and couple that with the rising cost of living means that the potential audience is feeling a financial pinch unlike that of the middle class 60’s and 70’s. There are just not enough 1%ers to fill seats every night, you need everybody else to be able to afford tickets too.

        • “Met Family Circle seats are around $45, cheaper than a baseball game.”

          Besides the fact that major league baseball, too, has complained about falling attendance, $45 for a night out is still a lot for a beleaguered middle class. I generally refuse to pay any more than 25€ for an opera ticket in my neck of the woods, and I’d do my best to try to get it cheaper than that through some kind of discount.

          Surely the key to the survivability of the genre is keeping ticket prices very low that people can attend fairly regularly at least a couple of times a month. With high ticket prices, people might go once or very occasionally as a splurge, but they won’t be the loyal audience that classical music needs to survive.

          • Ticket sales do not cover costs.

            So, lowering ticket prices might bring in more people (which is laudatory in its own way), but then the Met would be even more dependent on other sources of income, e.g. donors.

        • “Met Family Circle seats are around $45, cheaper than a baseball game.”

          Cheapest Met ticket: $45
          Cheapest Mets ticket: $20

        • Exactly, and you hear everything so well. I wouldn’t pay 280 dollars for anything. It’s more than I earn a week!

  • Whoa – Pizzas must be pretty expensive down your neck of the woods. £17.50 per ticket to see the Met at our local (Midlands) Odeon. That’s a full-size Meatilicious from Domino’s plus a side order of doughballs, round these parts.

  • This is not a reflection of The Met and NY audiences but my non-scientific observations are that every time I attend a MetLive event in Chicago the audience is:
    95% elderly seemingly not wealthy, though I assume some may attend live opera in a theatre at Lyric or elsewhere
    5% opera students or opera professionals who are certainly doing both
    And 99.5% white
    Is this the perception of others in Chicago?
    I’m curious about other cities???

  • Just like everyone else the Met has to adjust with the times. Had/have a lot of admiration for the great singers of the past – can devote many an hour listening to them and even if it’s not the complete experience the quality of the singing more than creates what’s lost by not having the image. The same could be true of the Met broadcasts with good singers.
    So not living in NYC the primary experiences with opera are recording (with some video like DVD), and if lucky find a production nearby where the singers are appropriate – and they’re not trying to do the Ring with 20 strings.
    Can’t say in either recording or video the Met productions gain too much over others – when any opera or recording company puts good ingredients in the mix – great things can be achieved. Of course the Vienna Phil has always added a special touch. Thanks also to the National Phil on the recordings – or should we say LPO – those players worked wonders in the lighter operas. Still a sound that seems natural and ideal for lighter music.
    Always heard people say how great the Met was – but companies like RCA didn’t automatically go there, and Decca was able to achieve great results at various places. What they achieved at Kingsway Hall for instance was extraordinary and I think we can say now that few live productions since (including the Met HD feeds) will ever achieve those kinds of results. Being able to put the mic exactly where it needed to be (not worrying about it being in the way of audience). And whatever anyone says, the music is really everything – the composer wrote the opera – the rest has always been peripheral.

    • Think there are too many people going into operas uninformed. More difficult to spend that kind of money on something they’ve never seen before. If the Met is indeed better – one has to have other experiences to compare it with. Then spending a lot of money on the Renee Fleming performance makes sense. But if you don’t really know why her performance is better than anyone else’s, then what difference does that really make? Why does the Met have to be the best if most of the audience can’t hear it? I know some people in NYC know the difference – but it’s a small percentage. NYC isn’t alone of course, and it also applies to the concert stage.
      Interesting thing about critics too – most know when something sounds bad, but not as many know what good or better is.

  • Like PHF I am not convinced that the audience which attends the cinema relays would contribute much to the Met’s bottom line if the relays were stopped in the greater New York area. NL is right, though: they should never have been screened in that area in the first place. But going back in time, as has been written so many times in various threads here, Gelb himself should never have been hired.

    The Met’s Board must be a bunch of ostriches with their heads unable to face the reality of a disaster which has been brewing for years. These are the people who gave Gelb free reign and contributed the extra funds even when, as so often, he failed to do due diligence well in advance, as is essential in international opera.

    Oh dear, the Ring set was discovered far too late in the planning process to be way too heavy and a vast sum had to be spent to strengthen the stage structure! Oh dear, Gelb could not handle the most recent – and he claimed, utterly vital – contract negotiations and an expensive expert had to be hired with little in the end gained. Oh dear, Levine’s obvious continuing ill health resulted in a sudden resignation with no successor on the far horizon! Granted, you cannot have major international conductors just standing by, but you can have potential successors working regularly at the House so that in the event of a sudden resignation, you have at least a degree of continuity. I suspect Levine may have resisted this, but Gelb can not ease himself out of some of the responsibility for failing to force that issue. That is his job! Fabio Luisi was said to be filling an Artistic-Director-in-waiting role, but that was handled so badly, Luisi decamped back to Europe.

    And now after a wasted and wasteful decade, the Met is increasingly rudderless, being blown towards the rocks at a perilous pace. The Royal Opera went through a roughly similar period during Jeremy Isaacs disastrous reign, but at least Haitink remained at the helm. That the ROH was able finally to right the ship is perhaps an indication that the Met might eventually do likewise. But the ROH first required a near total rethink and Board clear out. Is that really likely to happen at the Met? I doubt it.

  • I’m an active opera (and classical music) lover and have been to all the major opera houses in the world many many times. What puts me off the MET is simply the rather low artistic standard, the orchestra is mostly dull and all mezzoforte, the conductors are uninspiring, the productions overall are simply unexciting (with a few exceptions). Perhaps a new music director will put some life into it.

    So, my point is, the cinema initiative is great and the marketing machine of the MET too (including their weekly radio broadcasts) but what’s lacking is the foundation of it all, the musical and artistic quality. A shining example of an opera house that produces truly outstanding performance is for example the Bavarian Opera in Munich – what a difference between their Meistersinger currently running and that of the MET a while ago!

  • Of course the question is; what can the met actually do to put butts in seats?

    Lowering ticket prices? Im no economist but if you cut ticket prices in half and double your audience (which is not guaranteed) you still break even vis a vis revenues.

    I think the met should advertise to the large number of tourists that visit NYC. There are apparently 56 million tourists per year, on any given day that means there are over 153000 potential tourist operagoers. I just googled “what to do in new york” and the met opera is barely even mentioned at all with some lists omitting it entirely or lumping it in with Lincoln Center. The met could create an ad campaign that says “If you come to New York/Come to the opera”.

    The opera is the greatest performing arts spectacle in the city but you wouldn’t know it if you were looking at a tourism website or a “top 25 things to do in NYC“ list.

  • They need some imagination. Dance was nearly moribund in the 70s, but it came roaring back and has never really looked back since. There are good audiences for ballet, modern, contemporary, avant-garde and international dance companies. How did they do it? Was it the excitement of a defector like Baryshnikov? (I’m talking of America here — dance was always more secure in the UK, and they had had their spectacular defector a decade earlier). Was it a run of movies, not all good, from The Turning Point to Nijinsky to Saturday Night Fever that actually discussed dancing? Whatever, enrollment in classes went up, attendance at ALL forms of live dance went up, and dance was hot. It settled a bit, but settled in a comfortable spot.

    Opera, and classical music in general, need something to kickstart interest again in a dumbed-down society that is also lazy intellectually — always has been, really, but today’s techno-addicted youth are only stimulated by gadgetry, not content, which takes effort. I hope it does not take their tools to get them interested, but it may mean some use of them.

  • At least the Met hasn’t thrown in the towel completely, like La Scala, which doesn’t start its 2016-7 season until early December (with Madame Butterfly), presenting just 7 operas.

    • The season of La Scala has always started on Dec 7, the day of St Ambrogio, the patron of Milan.

      Funding in Italy is different from that in the US, there isn’t the money to stage more in a season.

      After the Abbado era the artistic level of La Scala under Muti took a nose dive but it has picked up a little since.

    • The La Scala season has traditionally opened on December 7, the feast day of Milan’s patron saint. That is nothing new.

  • The essay began with a reference to the success of “Hamilton,” and then it missed one of the real points of the show’s success. The musical features a diverse, American cast performing American music. How many times of the last decade has the Met brought operas by American composers (much less those of color) to its stage? How many of the leads–beyond the handful of “usual suspects”–are American, much less of color? It’s been 30 years since George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has been performed at the Met. Even with its controversial themes, it recently had a very successful run on Broadway. It’s time to make an overt effort to bring American music and American performers to the greatest American opera house.

  • I’m surprised to hear that Live from the Met has been so successful.

    The Dallas screenings I’ve been to just had a smattering of an audience.

    • Yes, Robert, outside of America (and not so where I live when something slightly obscure) the attendance has been phenomenal, even at £25 a go, which is not cheap here! Particularly when you can get into live opera at Opera North for as little as £12.50 per ticket up to about £60.

  • I know Peter Gelb is a favorite whipping boy of the blog owner, but you can’t blame this all on him. He’s no different than opera directors around the world who is trying to do new director-driven productions in order to attract audiences; he didn’t invent Regietheatre, after all.

    I have my doubts that Met in Live HD or whatever it’s called is cannibalizing audience; watching opera in a movie theatre is different from watching it in person. But I can say that if I lived in New York, I wouldn’t go to the MET much, simply because of the high ticket prices, much as I understand that opera isn’t cheap.

    And if the MET is selling only one-third of tickets for La Boheme, Don Pasquale, l’Elisir d’Amore and The Pearl Fishers, maybe it’s time to give some of those operas a rest. When they’re doing those numbers for Wagner and Strauss, I’ll get worried.

  • The answer is to cast Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and Beyonce and Jay-Z in some of the roles. Expand the audience.

    • I don’t know if the comment was meant in a snarky manner or genuine manner but regarding Kayne, but he is actually a closet opera fan. He was at the 125th anniversary gala and was taken by the art form. He was at 2 performances of Einstein on the Beach in LA, and the LA Opera Gotterdammerung. He went to Rome last week for the opening of the Sofia Coppola directed La Traviata.

      While he may be a polarizing figure, it would be wise for Gelb to try to reach out to someone like him to try to excite the audience.

  • Has John Borstlap written an opera yet? The Met should program that. Instant fix to all that ails it.

  • How stupid. Met HD is keeping Met from insolvency. The revenues from HD are keeping them afloat as all the folks in Boise who go to HD are never going live. There is a long, pretentious, tendentious, Met culture that actively discourages popularizing opera. All the time I was in NY it was well known that any singer who was a popularizer would be black balled at the Met. They were one of the last to have titles because they thought it terrible that opera might be approachable. There is so much of a culture of control that many of the great singers who have sung there ended up hired as emergency replacements, and otherwise would never been hired. It is the largest musical organization in the world, and can thrive on mere momentum, but it is historically mismanaged. Where I live we merely have incompetent reviewers; NY has a flat out sycophants (remember effort to forbid negative reviews in Opera News.) What they will never admit is that the board has too many spineless, ignorant, dysgenic trust babies who will not make the tough decisions needed. Met HD is Gelb’s one truly saving innovation, but it still rubs many the wrong way as it challenges the pretentious exclusivity that is harbored at the core of the Met audience and board. It is a true shame, as this is an organization that has thrived in spite of itself, was founded to challenge an earlier “elite” social clique, and should be the jewel in the crown.

    It is encouraging that City Opera may make a come back, as that organization always kept the Met honest. There is a longer story, but it will sound like a rant, and it isn’t. The problems of the Met are the result of many years of bad choices.

    As to City Opera, there is a long list of great singers who were black balled by the Met because the started at City. Nonetheless, the mere existence of City was the thumb in the eye that always challenged mere expensive as the standard of excellence. “cutting-edge” directors is a euphemism usually for someone who substitutes outrageous for creative or insightful. But even there, the Met’s “cutting-edge” directors are fairly tame. At least at the last Beyreuth Siegfried the audience booed when Erda gave oral sex to Wotan. At the Met “cutting-edge” directors means a jerk who casts Prince Igor as “The Wizard of Oz” and spends a a small fortune of silk poppies which prevent the ballet troupe from dancing during the most famous part of the opera. Nothing that gets the audience to boo any more, they are just too stultified.

    In essence, the Met has always thrived on the edge of elitism that is denied by the people who are elite. Since they never resolve the tension, they are always in a compromise mode where they act in a exclusive, elitist manner, while saying they don’t. As a result there is always incoherence. Because of its size, it could just flat out say we are the best, and we will attract the best, and come here so you can here the best, and the quality will always be the best; but they pretend otherwise and become more incoherent, and drive away potential audience.

  • In discussing the Board, the key is not that they are rich and socially connected: it is that they are “ignorant”! All opera companies are hugely complex organisms, the Met more than any other. How can a mega-rich businessman or trust baby have a clue how it all works? They are all dependent on what the CEO and the Arristic Director decide to tell them – or, as is often the case I suspect, choose not to tell them.

    A Board’s primary responsibility is the appointment of these two key personnel. Yet, as is perfectly obvious from the introduction to Peter Gelb’s speech by the Chairperson of the search committee of five which appointed him, they were clearly clueless about the qualities required to manage and direct their hugely complex artistic operation. And the history of the Gelb regime has shown he is able to wrap them around his little finger almost at will.

    Well, they appointed him and now it is their responsibility to come up with the solutions required to stabilize the organisation and then start building paying audiences again NOW. Not those able to afford $25 rush seats – those from their circle of rich friends prepared to cough up $800 or more for a pair of seats – lots of them. If not, then the solution has been staring them in the face for quite some time. Pay off Gelb and hire a thoroughly experienced and competent manager.

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