How the Met hacks off its customers

How the Met hacks off its customers


norman lebrecht

May 14, 2021

David Rohde is fed up with being pitched to give money to the Metropolitan Opera:

Overall season occupancy reached 88% in Gelb’s first two years before the 2008 financial crisis hit. By the end of the last decade, the relative infrequency of sellouts as well as half-full houses for non-marquee operas pulled season occupancy down to a dangerous 67%.

Gelb and the Met appeared to attack this problem in exactly the wrong way. Every new patron that they did get seemed to become a “mark” for the company to make up the revenue gap.

Professional telemarketers started calling these green opera attendees as well as some more experienced patrons. They would begin the discussion by pretending to be interested in helping them select the next opera to attend. But a little probing — I received these calls several times — revealed that they were not really qualified to talk about opera.

What they were really interested in doing is lecturing patrons that “ticket prices only cover a fraction of our costs.” In one of these calls I even got a speech about that fiscal year’s $20 million operating deficit at the Met, as if that were my problem rather than Peter Gelb’s.

Then I’d hear a pitch/demand for an additional donation. It was often couched in the language of a membership in the Metropolitan Opera Guild, but it was a donation nevertheless. The donation price points matter here as well, as Guild membership doesn’t amount to very much in benefits, such as ticket priority, until at least the $150-a-year level….

Read on here.


  • Brian says:

    I was a season subscriber and was at the Met at least once a week throughout the season for a number of years until about 10 years ago when the subscription cost jumped substantially one year (around 50%). I let my subscription lapse thinking that I would just go less often and be choosier about which operas I would see. It turned out that I basically stopped going with any regularity. The Met still calls and writes regularly, but I have found other ways to spend my money.

  • Dave T says:

    Let’s see, Gelb and The Met get slammed when they resist the musicians’ and techies’ demands for exorbitant pay. Then they get slammed when they ask the people who benefit from those labors, the audience, to help pay those exorbitant wages. What’s a guy to do?

  • Kenneth Griffin says:

    In the UK, you can opt out of such phone contact, or mail contact or email contact, etc.

    I don’t know if that’s possible in the USA. Probably not, and you just have to shoot someone?

    • Sharon says:

      In the US you can opt out of commercial telephone solicitors calls but not the solicitation for donations of non profit ie charitable organizations.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Usually you can block individual numbers. But that only slows down callers, who can bypass the block by calling from another number.

    • Dave T says:

      You can politely and calmly ask them to please not contact you by phone or mail. Or you can write a blog post, and have it republished on the world wide web, generating scores of comments, about how incensed you are that someone should ask you to help defray the cost of your entertainments.

  • Reality Sux says:

    Yes, non profits solicit donations. Like the Sierra Club, Habitat for Humanity, Oxfam… They call and ask for money if they believe you are a potential supporter. The Met telemarketers aren’t professional, most of them are volunteers. No-one is ‘lecturing’ you or demanding anything, that’s your take on it – you can politely explain you’re busy, you can ask not to be called again, there’s caller ID also, you can hang up the phone anytime as many people do when telemarketers call.

    More importantly, what’s the point of reprinting the comments by a musician from Washington DC on the Metropolitan Opera? There are many, many thousands of musicians like D Rohde above. One has to wonder what the endgame is as far as the Met Opera is concerned for NL and many of frequent contributors on this site. What are we looking for, to have the place shut down? To have it run the way you think it should be run, with the rep you think it should have, with salaries you think it should pay…? While having no skin in the game?

    I can’t remember the sheer number of proposals on SD to ‘gut the Met auditorium’, ‘reduce the size of the seats by X’, ‘stop promoting the awful Netrebko’ and many other random suggestions from people (read: musicians) who couldn’t run a sandwich shop, let alone an opera house. Why the resentment? The old adage, to see what you can do to make something better rather than complaining about it, applies here just the same.

    • David Rohde says:

      Hi Reality. I’m also a regular reviewer for Bachtrack and a reviewer, interviewer and feature writer for a Washington area performing arts portal called DC Metro Theater Arts. I’ve also written about music for The Wall Street Journal, National Review and others. I realize that’s an unusual combination with conducting and playing in musicals, so I thought I’d mention it here.

      I’m not quite sure I grasp your parallel with the Sierra Club and the others, since I’m not aware that they provide a specific service for money in addition to asking for donations. As far as hanging up on telemarketers, you bet, I do it often, although they’re hardly on companies I patronize (even though in the US they’re not supposed to call registered numbers unless you have an existing relationship – whole other issue!).

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Just a point of information…none of the telemarketers at the Met are volunteers. I believe they would disagree with your assessment as to their not being professional telemarketers.

      • David Rohde says:

        If those were volunteers, then I play the viola. They were definitely professional telemarketers with a set dollar goal for their afternoon or evening’s work. I know the type.

        • Tiredofitall says:

          The “type”??? It is a respectable job requiring skills. Whether you like what they do is another matter. You may disdain telemarketers, but they are the lifeblood for many nonprofit organizations in the US. All you have to do is opt out if you don’t like to be called. Simple.

  • John Kelly says:

    This article is bang on the money (pun). And the Met isn’t the only arts organization doing this – I went to the Pittsburgh Symphony once. I live in NYC. They call all the time. Even after I asked them to stop. If this is “policy” then it’s a bad one. Yes, your best prospect is your best customer, but look elsewhere for the real money. It’s the job of the GM to raise money and serious money. Gelb has had years to prove he isn’t up to that. Now the piper is being paid (or rather none of the pipers are……)

  • Simon Willis says:

    Good article – but I have to say , speaking as a UK a subscriber to the the Met on demand service their people are very efficient polite and respond to emails unbelievably quickly . Other UK opera orgs could learn a thing or two

    • David Rohde says:

      That’s great to know, Simon! I’m not sure I’ve had too much need for that kind of “inbound” customer service on either tickets live in the house or Met Opera on Demand, but my impression has also been that they do an excellent, responsive job there.

  • Karlo says:

    Most large US orchestras do this, even going so far as to outsource the work to companies in Canada to do the telemarketing. Rooms of mouth breathers, calling away, selling concert subscriptions with dim witted incentives such as compilation CD’s for the higher payouts.

  • BrianB says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m a Guild member at the Supporting level but I finally blocked the Met boiler room number off my phone.
    The Met under Gelb co-opted the once more independant guild and the results have not been salutory. Opera News has declined badly in real content from what it was years ago, becoming a glossy “opera lifestyle” (whatever that is, their words not mine) fanzine with often questionable content.
    Us old timers, though, can recall when the Saturday broadcasts had regular pitches to support the Met even if it meant sending in a few dollars. No hard sell. And many of us recall and responded to offers to join the Guild. Remember those five issues of ON for a dollar? Now, the broadcasts never once mention the existence of the Guild and Opera News. Yet the national radio audience often gave the Met crucial support over some very bumpy rough roads going back to 1939-40 when the company was in peril of losing the theater.

  • Tiredofitall says:

    This model of fundraising–for better or worse–is the industry standard for large performing arts organizations and other non-profits in the US. Nothing to see here.

    Due to its size, the Met may be among the more aggressive, in large part because of the opportunities to track ticket buyers, but their ability to hire opera-savvy telemarketers with the requisite sales skills is not great in a competitive jobs market. It is a difficult and relentless job.

    For audience members who lament the high prices of tickets, the only way to offset those prices is (aggressive) fundraising. That, of course, does not excuse nor correct the expense side of the Met, which is uncontrolled.

    There is always the argument that reduced ticket prices will allow more people to participate, but that model has never really been tried across the board at the Met. Yes, they have a very limited subsidized ticket program, but it is more of a scheme to leverage more money from their board, rather than truly expand their audience.

  • NotToneDeaf says:

    Whoa! A non-profit trying to raise money from its customer base?? Unheard of! (What??) And this guy seriously thinks that operating the Met at 85% of capacity will get it to a break-even? I’m wondering more and more why this site reposts opinion articles by naive people who don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s the same tactic the Republican party uses to spread rumors and biased opinions.

    • David Rohde says:

      Hi Tone. Of course the Met has to get donations from its customer base, just like all the other opera companies and orchestras, and yes that is technically a different revenue mix than other businesses. The point is that at 85% full houses it would be far more able to do so adequately, because it would almost certainly have far more, relatively fresher REPEAT ticket-buyers who might be far more amenable to the pitch.

      This is a good opportunity to introduce a point that is core to the work of Aubrey Bergauer, the consultant I mentioned in the article. Her research indicates that it is self-defeating for classical music organizations to ask for donations until a patron has attended three times. A simpler, epigrammatic way of saying this is that the most important thing a concert presenter can do is not to get a new person to come, it’s to get him or her to come BACK. That insight underlays what I was talking about, where the immediate reachout, especially by telemarketing with a fund-raising focus, short-circuits the process of where the Met has needed to go. I hope this helps.

  • Xi Pythagoras says:

    I am happy to donate as much as possible to the met .
    It’s not Germany and Italy where
    Everyone is paid .

  • Jack says:

    The only viable options for the Met are as follows:

    1. demolish the existing house;
    2. build a smaller contemporary house;
    3. spend less lavishly on cutting edge sets by Robert Lepage and the like;
    4. present fewer operas per season;
    5. allow for attrition to cut the size of the stagehand crew.

    Without sensible downsizing, it’s difficult to see how the Met can avoid bankruptcy.

    • John Kelly says:

      6. Appoint a General Manager who knows what he’s doing………..

      • Petros Linardos says:

        I think they should appoint an oversight committee made of the most fervent MET bashers from this site. They can then show the world how to solve all problems in one stroke.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      I second that. The building is an acoustical disaster, and looks like something straight out of the ‘old’ Las Vegas.
      The current Met model is no longer a viable one. Everyone can blame Gelb all they want, it won’t change that fact.

    • Terence says:

      Too much sensible advice here Jack.

      It’ll never be accepted.

    • BrianB says:

      1 and 2 are anything but sensible. 3 makes a lot of sense. Why, say, replace a beautiful Meistersinger which has had no more than 35-36 performances for an ugly “cutting edge” piece of Regie trash which most likely will have nothing to do with the work itself.

  • Bill Gross says:

    The Met, the NPR of the arts.

  • Let’s be practical says:

    Two solutions:
    1) technical — call blocking on your own phone;
    2) personal — you have the right to ask to be removed from any business’ calling list.
    Would you rather be irate or achieve the desired result?

  • SVM says:

    Good grief, it must be quite bad — I was under the impression that assertive fundraising and telemarketing were considered the norm in the USA.

    Then again, Rohde seems to be taking for-profit theatre as his principal comparator, despite the fact that the business model is rather different. Unlike for-profit theatres on New York’s Broadway or in London’s West End, concert halls and opera houses almost always rely on what might be termed “subsidy” or “patronage” of some sort to balance the books. In itself, such reliance is *not* to be regarded as a failure of management (as Rohde sometimes seems to imply). There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but a significant one is that classical music cannot access the economies of scale available to some other art forms and spectacles; classical music is, and always has been, a minority interest, and its focus on unamplified voices and instruments demands a space that has decent acoustics and is small enough so that everyone can hear the performance properly (the Met is close to the upper limit of what is practicable).

    Whilst the reliance on “subsidy” or “patronage” is common across many parts of the world, the source can vary. In Germany, for example, it tends to come from state or municipal budgets; in the USA, conversely, it tends to come from private philanthropy.

    It is not a perfect model, but it does mean that ticket prices can be kept at a somewhat affordable level for a large percentage of the population. The question, then, is how to discuss the fact that ticket prices are essentially “subsidised”, and from whence it is appropriate to expect or demand support. Should it remain a secret that is deemed too vulgar to broach to the public, or should it be made transparent? Personally, I am inclined towards the latter approach, since people are predisposed to regard the price as an indicator of the quality of what they are getting, and are thus liable to undervalue classical music because concert/opera tickets are often cheaper than tickets for theatre, sports matches, &c.

    However, I agree with Rohde that it is very bad form to frame a fundraising message in terms of a negative insinuation that one is not paying one’s fair share. As Rohde says, a more positive approach might be framed in terms of encouraging people to come back for more and spread the word. At the same time, there is no escaping the fact that a fundraising pitch is needed somewhere, since box office alone is rarely sufficient. Personally, I would say that picking on individuals via unsolicited telephone calls is a very risky approach, but maybe I say that because I live in the UK, where fundraising is done a bit more gently, through devices such as electronic-mail/postal circulars, messages in the programme booklet, *brief* announcements at the event, and having a ‘Friends of …’ desk in the foyer. It is important to recognise that many people are already stretching their budgets just by buying the ticket and making the journey, and part of the rationale for the business model of “subsidised tickets” is to encourage these people to come and to make them welcome.

    At the same time, it is important to recognise that there are people of means who appreciate the art form, but who may not be conversant with the detailed financial realities associated with mounting performances, and who may not realise just how important their contributions are to “keep the show on the road”. How many non-musicians realise that, in a top concert venue, the pianoforte has to be tuned before every concert in which it is being played? How many non-stagehands realise that an opera production going on tour requires a formidable logistical effort to transport, assemble, and dismantle the sets for every venue (often, the time required to dismantle a set is significantly longer than the show itself)? How many non-singers realise how many specialists/coaches are involved behind the scenes in the rehearsals for the people we see on the opera stage? Putting together an opera production requires an enormous variety of specialist professionals, each of whom has dedicated many years (or decades) of his/her life to acquiring the specific skills he/she contributes to the production. Although some people within this workforce make a lot of money, many make relatively little, and are motivated to a large degree by their passion for the job and/or for the art form. Before making demands for money from audiences, it is important to capture their imagination by telling them more about these aspects of the show — they are endlessly fascinating (there are many fantastic magazine articles and ‘blog-posts on these topics, but there is always room for more), and offer a far more positive inducement to donate money than blatant guilt-tripping tactics. Keep in mind that, even if someone cannot afford to donate *now*, they may be able to donate some day in the future, and they may know others who are more able to donate. As Rohde alludes, audiences can sometimes play a valuable role in spreading the word and advocating for the art form and its practitioners. Good fundraising should seek to harness this potential, rather than attempt to compete with it.

    To be honest, I think that part of the problem is that there is sometimes a lack of transparency as to how concert halls and opera houses spend their money, or should I say a lack of discoverability — that is to say, unless you either are in the profession yourself (and it should be remembered that some of the most loyal audiences are fellow professionals!) or have the time and energy to trawl through the organisation’s statutory accounts on the Companies House or Charities Commission website (or non-UK equivalents), it is rather difficult to learn how the money gets spent. And if you are seeking philanthropic support, then you owe your prospective donors some explanation…

    • David Rohde says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! As a starting point, I’m a little amused by Norman’s set-up that I’m *personally* “fed up” with the telemarketing, which I think led a bunch of people to say “just hang up the phone.” The issue is actually who they’re calling, why, and when, as you seem to recognize. But there’s a good reason why Norman often runs that photo of a half-empty house or less. I’ve been there – I think of an excellent 2017 production of Werther with Isabel Leonard, although it was the one night that Vittorio Grigolo wasn’t singing.

      From that standpoint, I’m not of the mindset that the company should bang on, as you Brits say, about the costs and difficulties of putting on a production and obtaining professional training and all that. I agree that these details can be fascinating for regular patrons (and donors!), but that has to come later. To actually get new people to come – and, of course, come back – it’s very hard to get into all that without an air of resentment that ultimately doesn’t make the sale.

      I think of the situation in the 2019 Chicago Symphony Orchestra strike. The union and especially the lead critic at the Chicago Tribune kept harping on the years of training, the need for daily practice, and all that. But when the reader comments would come in from what seemed to be non-retiree occasional and potential concert-goers, they were overwhelmingly about why on the earth the musicians were so afraid of converting to an extremely generous defined-contribution retirement plan when almost all of the rest of the American private sector now relies on that.

      BTW I think that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is one of the wonders of the world, and I have absolutely no desire to see them have to take anything like the cut that Gelb is demanding – for those who are even still in town.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    S.F. Opera does much the same, and has so for years. Nothing new.

  • JimmyL says:

    The Met is doing fine. They don’t pay their employees and get huge donations for their outsourced streams and those annoying phone calls. And with the upcoming huge cuts to unions I think Gelb can finally stretch back in his golden throne and just sit back and enjoy.

  • Robin Worth says:

    Mr.Rohde is right, but surely the problem goes deeper? New York has changed so much in the last 40 years. The residents are of a different mix and there are far more tourists, not in the main, from places where opera-going is usual. And it is much more expensive (remember the 70s?) So one has to have some sympathy for Peter Gelb’s problem of filling a huge house which costs a fortune to run in the face of demographics which are overwhelmingly

    • David Rohde says:

      Yes and no. People forget, or never knew, that Broadway itself was considered to be dying in the 1970s. It’s had a huge resurgence, along with musical theater culture in America generally.

      I notice that a bunch of people are clicking through to my November 2020 article on Medium, “Six things that classical music can learn from Broadway after the pandemic.” The first thing happens to be essentially the matter being discussed here. Any thoughts about that article from anyone, let me know by finding me on Twitter, or on FB or LinkedIn. Avoid the “other David Rohde” (same spelling) who used to write for the New York Times and got caught in war zones, lived to write books about it, and who I believe is now with the New Yorker.

  • José Bergher says:

    I highly recommend the book “Performing Arts – The Economic Dilemma”, by William Baumol and William Bowen (M.I.T. Press, 1968).

  • Sharon says:

    I had the same problem but frankly this is the behavior of MANY non profit organizations of all types in the United States. It is difficult for me to listen to and not give because I know these telephone solicitors are on commission.

    What I have done now for a number of years is screen my calls through an answering machine. I now say on my message that I will not answer or return the call unless a message is left. This saves me time and the telephone solicitor’s.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    This is not a MET specific issue. Calling potential supporters is a very common practice among US nonprofits.

    On the other hand, there is no shortage of excuses for MET bashing.

  • Jansci says:

    Get rid of Gelb.