The state of the Met

This is the first time I’ve posted about the current labour negotiations at the metropolitan Opera though I’ve been following the story closely.  I have rather a lot of experience of contract and grievance negotiations and I think I can spot bad faith bargaining at some distance.  Good faith bargaining typically occurs when both sides want to reach a settlement.  The opposite when one side is more interested in ramming home some “point of principle”.  This last was often a starting point on the union side in the bad old days ,especially in the UK and Australia but has become much less common.  Nowadays bad faith is much more likely to come from the employer’s side, usually when they are bent on some principle like the “right” to hire and fire at will.

met-opera-gelbIn the case of the Met I submit that management is acting in bad faith in a tangible and obvious way (and note that this is a breach of US federal law).  The first obvious signs are that Gelb and his board have chosen to make their position through ads in the press and rather inflammatory public statements.  They have also hired a lawyer (at a reported $1000/hr for those of you who think the Met choristers are overpaid) notorious for his track records of forcing lockouts in support of union busting.  Management has refused to provide the union with detailed financial statements (in cases where an enterprise is pleading poverty as grounds for concessions, this is plain common sense.  It’s also requred by law in the US.)  Finally, and most damningly in my view, management has completely failed to provide a rationale for why it needs a $34 million/year reduction in labour costs to deal with a deficit of less than $3 million.

Even if one needs reductions in labour costs, reductions in rates and benefits should be the last thing management goes after because it’s the last thing a union can accept without loss of face.  Most unions are prepared, if not exactly happy, to talk about reductions in overtime for example.  It’s hard to quantify this at the Met because of the aforementioned non-disclosure of information but large amount of overtime have been mentioned pretty frequently as one of the reasons earnings are so high.  90% of overtime is caused by management and, again anecdotally, at the Met by bad management.  Let me provide a simple for instance.  In 2012 I attended performances of Nixon in China at COC and the Met on two consecutive days (well the met one was in the cinema).  COC ran with a single 20 minute interval between acts one and two.  The met had two intervals and they lasted about 35 mins.  That’s 50 minutes, on a Saturday where two performances are scheduled.  I wonder how much that cost?  There are lots of similar things one can do.  When the COC did Tristan they sent the chorus home after Act 2 as they don’t appear in the last act.  These things add up.  I bet I could save $10 million without trying too hard!

Then there’s the fact that non labour costs at the Met have been rising much faster than labour costs.  This appears to be as a result of Gelb pursuing a new audience through new productions.  I’m all for new and innovative productions but I don’t think that needs to be expensive.  I’ve seen innovative productions from small companies that cost less than the overtime costs for a week for Gelb’s chauffeur.  In fact, simplification has other benefits; smaller stage crew, faster set changes and so on.

Finally, I find it deeply suspicious that Gelb is threatening a lockout when talks have barely begun and the union is tabling concessions.  Today the unions offered up a plan they claim will save $20 million/year (reproduced at the end of this piece).  I’d like to see the details but I’m far more impressed by their approach than by management’s bombast.

Here’s the latest press release from Local 802.  The presentation of proposed savings (the link) is particularly interesting.

Associated Musicians of Greater New York
Local 802, AFM


Friday, July 25, 2014

Laura Dolan / Geto & de Milly, Inc.
212-686-4551 x715 / 917-650-1420

Met Orchestra Musicians Detail Failed Management and Lack of Artistic Vision of Met Opera General Manager Peter Gelb

Musicians Propose $20 Million in Cost-Savings for the Met Opera

New York, NY–Friday, July 25, 2014–Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musicians today have commenced negotiations with Met Opera management including General Manager Peter Gelb. The union and the musicians released the attached report detailing the failed management and flawed artistic vision of Gelb during his 8-year tenure at the helm of the Met. The report analyzes the dismal reception of Gelb’s expensive new productions by opera critics and patrons and also recommends specific strategies the Met could employ to save $20 Million annually by curtailing Gelb’s lavish spending and realizing scheduling efficiencies.

Gelb has stated in the press that the Met is facing financial ruin and possible bankruptcy, while refusing to provide the musicians, the media or the public any evidence of such a crisis. He has announced that he must impose draconian cuts of over $30 Million, yet has refused to substantiate/document the reasons. No one yet knows why Gelb is asking for over $30 Million in cuts when his reported deficit is only $2.8 Million in the context of a $327 million annual budget.

What is known, however, is that under Gelb the Met’s labor costs have remained flat, while the Met Opera budget has increased by nearly 50% ($105 Million). This is in large part due to Gelb’s overspending on critically panned, unpopular productions, as well as poor scheduling, inferior marketing and extensive management waste. The musicians are in favor or new and artistically daring productions but want to see them managed expertly, whereby the Met is able to achieve artistic success while living within their budget.

Link to MET Orchestra/Local 802 findings on Peter Gelb’s record of managerial and artistic failure; Musicians’ recommendations on cost-saving efficiencies for the
Met Opera.

Even if—after an objective analysis—the Met can be said to be facing some degree of financial challenge, it is clear what the solution isn’t. It isn’t slashing the compensation of the world-class performers and other craftspeople on whom the Met’s excellence and success relies. If Gelb’s cuts were implemented it would be impossible for the Met to recruit and retain the best musicians in the world who today comprise the company. The quality of the Opera would rapidly deteriorate, and Gelb will have succeeded in further decimating the audience that already has been diminished by his failed productions.

The musicians had hoped to purse good-faith negotiations with opera management. Unfortunately, Gelb has pursued a cynical strategy calculated to result in a lockout of his artists and craftspeople and imperil the upcoming Met Opera season. For months, Gelb has purposely refused to provide essential financial information that would have allowed substantive, good-faith negotiations to proceed, instead making erroneous claims in the press in the run-up to his long-planned lockout. His callousness, combined with his attempt to cover up his failed management and lack of artistic vision that has resulted in declining audiences and plummeting ticket sales, jeopardizes the livelihoods of his employees and the many businesses in New York City’s cultural sector and the Lincoln Center area that depend on the Metropolitan Opera for their incomes.

The loss to the City’s economy as a result of a lockout will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars – first, the $327 million that the Met spends on salaries, sets, costumes and on many other vendors/services will be lost; on top of that, the losses to restaurants and hotels, especially those in the immediate vicinity of Lincoln Center, will be devastating given that the Met has 3,800 seats and its audience represents a high proportion of local restaurant and hotel patronage during the opera season.

The musicians believe the Met’s problems are solvable without a lockout and a cancelled season, which will be a major blow to New York City culture and disastrous for Opera’s financial health. They wish the Met to remain an engine of the cultural and tourism economy—and continue to thrill both the Met Opera’s loyal audience and the young people and non-traditional audiences who will carry this great art form into its next generation.


30 thoughts on “The state of the Met

  1. Mr. Gelbs track record is appalling especially when you put it against some of the Met’s great productions by Zeffirelli! Gelb’s pathetic productions pale in comparison and some how cost more to put on. Take the old Tosca for example. It was visually breathtaking and it sold out! The new Gelb production ends with a dummy taking the leap and it looks like one too. The laughter in the audience is quite evident and you could shoot buffalo in the house because its so empty!
    As far as givebacks are concerned… Has there been any mention that Gelb and his ego get a free apartment in the building next to Julliard and a limo to take hime one long block to the stage door? Now that’s appalling!

    • The car and driver thing has been noted. It seems particularly inappropriate in Manhattan and is, I think, very much a symbol placing Gelb with the 1%s with whom he likes to hang out. Which is, I believe, part of the problem.

      • Just a clarification: Gelb’s apartment is at Hotel des Artists on Central Park West and West 67th Street. About 3 blocks from the stage door.

  2. I look forward to reading this but I am uncomfortable with complaints about new productions. I have liked every new production I’ve seen (except Faust)! Parsifal was the experience of my (admittedly short) opera-going lifetime and as far as I’m concerned worth every dollar. I think it must be difficult to expect directors used to working in Europe (where apparently money is no object) to pinch pennies in one of the world’s greatest houses. If European houses ARE able to rein in production costs and still have some incredible productions, then their Intendants should give Gelb a hint as to how it can be done. And as far as I know, that Parsifal did not bankrupt Lyon.

    • I don’t think it’s true that European houses have money to burn. Just because more comes from government and less from private donors doean’t mean that there aren’t budget pressures.. Most directors/designers can work to a budget but know that they can get away with murder at the Met. And, of course, not all Met productions are expensive but you don’t need many like the Lepage Ring or the recent Prince Igor to blow some serious coin.

    • Also I think the track record of Gelb’s productions has been uneven rather than disastrous. There have been some real turkeys. Bartlett Sher’s Le Comte Ory for example. Most of the best new works have been copros created elsewhere. I’m thinking Parsifal, Falstaff, La Fille du Regiment, La Traviata. On average much better than Tosca, Peter Grimes, Iphigenie etc.

      • Wasn’t the Bondy Tosca a copro with Munich and LaScala? I know it’s been done in Munich and I seem to remember somebody (Terfel or Kaufmann) saying they toned it down a bit in Milan.

      • I think the comments are extremely interesting and provocative. I did not mean to imply that the old productions are the answer to the Met’s problem but if they put on a new production to replace the OLD it should be done for a reason. Hopefully to bring a better production and a thought provoking interpretation. And at a reasonable cost. YES! The productions are usually backed by a Met patron, but productions like Prince Igor were shameful. The infamous poppy field cost 1 Million Dollars. The designer wanted a special silk and they were all hand made at the Met. The scene is behind a scrim and everyone who worked on it agrees that the poppies could have been bought in the flower district for under a hundred thou! I firmly believe that better management could redirect the donated funds to a pool to maintain other shows and help others that need an influx of cash to lower the Met’s over all operating cost.
        Has anyone mentioned that the Met’s wardrobe staff, except for the Supervisors, are the lowest paid in the business? Most of those hard working people make less than $25, 000 a year and barely make enough to get union health insurance. Now that’s ridiculous!

      • I loved the Iphigenie (Robert Carsen) which made the rounds of San Francisco, Madrid . . . much sparer and thus the beauty of the music, singing, and story shown through. In contract, the Met Iphigenie was too crowded a set and there was too much going on.

      • What bugged me about the Met one was the really crude way they portrayed the back story. Clearly someone there thinks the audience is too ignorant to have a knowledge of the Troy story and/or too lazy to read programme notes. FWIW I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Carsen production I didn’t like and I’ve seen several I really loved. Roll on Falstaff!

  3. But your point stands…I am just uncomfortable with what sounds too much like a call from the unions to go back to safe old-fashioned productions. I know that isn’t their only point and I haven’t read the entire paper yet.

    • Actually the press release says that they are all in favour of new and artistically challenging productions but they need to sell and costs need to be controlled. That’s a bit Captain Obvious and maybe a bit hypocritical as it;s in the nature of taking risks that not every endeavour will succeed but I don’t think they are saying “we want Schenk and Zeffirelli”

  4. First of all the infamous Prince Igor poppy field cost 169k not a million dollars and was made by Met union labor. The cost of new productions is a total red herring: 1. Under Gelb the Met has been doing 6 new productions vs. 4 under Volpe–I do not think 6 new productions is out of line for a major company such as the Met. Given the warehouse of horrors Volpe left behind and the way the rep at the Met had atrophied 6 new productions seems like the minimum that should be done. 2. The new productions make up 7% of the Met’s budget. 3. They are paid for by donors. The various unions sure do talk like they want nothing but Zef/Schenk and Aida, Boheme and Carmen as rep. If you want to talk about bad faith bargaining take a look at some of the missives Alan Gordon the president of AGMA (which represents among others the chorus). has sent to his members and Gelb and which always find their way to Paterre Box. On the management side, Proskauer–the firm the Met has hired is basically a union busting firm that always advises its clients to lock out employees. If the Met is in such dire straits how can it afford full page ads in the New York Times? I also don’t think there is any question that the Met is poorly run and this is a major reason costs have risen so much–what did the board expect when it hired someone who had no experience running a major performing arts institution. In Spring 2013 I attended a Friday night Parsifal. The Saturday matinee was a Don Carlo which started at 11 am and the evening performance was a Ceaser which ran more than 4 1/2 hours. Holy overtime Batman! Gelb with the likes of Sher, Sams, Zimmerman and his new fav Eyre sure likes to reward past failure. I know some Canadians will disagree but Lepage should not be let back in even if he has a ticket. BTW, I’ve been going to the Met for 40 years and the intermissions have always gone on forever–I strongly suspect that this is something negotiated with the unions long ago. In short while I generally side with the unions and the many talented and hard working people they represent I do not think either side is 100% in the right. I also agree with John that asking a union for give backs should be a last resort and I do not see where the Met has really made a case that there are not other ways to achieve savings.

    • I agree with you about the number of new productions. I do think though that directors and designers shoukld be held to a budget; both capital and operating, for new productions. I really don’t see why productions at the met should cost more than in other major houses but it does feel like working for the Met makes people think they can go nuts. I don’t think (I could be wrong) that McVicar would ask for a bunch of horses and wolf hounds in SF. Your (and the unions) point about scheduling gets to the heart of the matter IMO. There’s some seriously bad operations management going on and it ought to be relatively simple to fix. Someone should also take a hard look at non production related costs.

      • I don’t know if the director’s go nuts at the Met. I don’t have the link but either the NYT or WSJ ran a detailed story about the costs of Prince Igor (why the unions and so many others keep singling outthis production–enough with the poppy field already– when it is one of Gelbs few home grown success stories–you are correct in that most of the successful productions have been imports are co-productions). The director had to make quite a few compromises to shave more than 1mil off the projected budget. But again, new productions are 7% of the budget. I really object to all the union carping about the new productions because it sort of puts me a position of defending someone who I think on balance has done a lousy job.

      • I agree it’s ironic that one of Gelb’s better decisions gets panned. Tcherniakov is just the kind of guy who should be directing at the met. he’s got a solid track record. Carsen and Herheim are two more. Maybe even Bieto though that’s somewhat riskier. Probably less risky than people with less experience of opera who seem to bottle when they get to the M

      • I’m sure there are a million dissertations on sexism in architecture by now, so let’s just say the architects of Lincoln Center were following in a grand and long-established tradition.

  5. “When the COC did Tristan they sent the chorus home after Act 2 as they don’t appear in the last act. These things add up.”

    Do you think that this is a revolutionary thought? Trust me, when the chorus isn’t used at the Met past a certain act and there’s no reason for them to bow (like an HD), they go home…even in short operas. See: Last season’s Rondine for example.

  6. Dear John – really appreciated your piece on The Met. Have shared on Facebook and Twitter and followed you on Twitter. I’m @mimicowan.

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  8. A point that perhaps bears some consideration is that trying to save money by co-producing new productions may not pay off in the long run. While it is true that each new production is underwritten by the largesse of a donor, it is important to note that the opera house itself is a very unique building and is designed with many mechanical advantages which can often alleviate the need for large manpower counts during performances. not every theater has these advantages, and if they do, they are definitely not to the same specifications. While co-productions can lower the initial cost of construction, the fact that no other Theater has the same specifications regarding automated lifts, wagons and turntable, it is impossible to design a production that can be used in more than one theater and still take advantage of these unique mechanics. It seems that the one time cost of initial construction is replaced by a larger show count and an ongoing added manpower count for each and every performance. The scene change between acts 1 and 2 of La Boheme is a classic example of this. The show was designed with the mets unique wagon system in mind and therefore allows that change to take place in under 5 minutes. It seems that when a show is created for more than one theater a lowest common denominator design is employed.

    • Very interesting observations. I do think productions should be designed with an eye to their ongoing costs. Maybe I’m wrong but that back stage footage they show during MetHD broadcasts suggests that a lot of Met productions are very labour intensive.

      Your co-pro point is interesting too. I thought there was a certain amount of commonality to the design of modern opera houses. Trucks of a standard size and so on. Obviously this might not be true for , say, La Scala but shouldn’t, for example, Toronto, Oslo and the Met be working to some sort of “standard gauge”?

      • shouldn’t we all be using the same power plug system?

        Is there anywhere a list of the most successful/profitable productions?

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