Let’s talk about the Met.
I’ve been putting off writing about this issue because, to be honest, I know very little about it. I’ve done a lot of reading and research, but the fiscal aspects of a classical music organization’s operations are way more delicate and complicated than I’ve made them out to be in previous posts.
First, some background. Low ticket sales, near complete reliance on donors, and overall financial instability have caused the upper echelons at the Metropolitan Opera to call for a dramatic decrease in pay for pretty much everyone who works there — musicians, producers, even ushers and maintenance staff. As could be expected, no one was happy with this, especially the unions, resulting in a high-stakes labor dispute (high-stakes because the season is scheduled to open next month) and the threat of a total lockout. For a quick summary of the situation, watch this video from the New York Times.
Much of the blame for all this contention has fallen on the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. He states his case rather concisely in the aforementioned video:
Something has to give, and I don’t think it should be the artistic product. It should be the expense that drives it.
The fundamental sentiment is a good one — when finances are tight, the artistic product shouldn’t suffer. But there’s also a problem of simple economics: cutting expenses will cause the artistic product to suffer. If people are being paid less to do their job, they won’t want to do as good a job. Maybe they’d go someplace that would pay them more, and then the Met would be left not with the top-tier musicians and workers who make a Met production an unparalleled artistic feat, but with second-tier musicians and workers for whom the lesser pay would be a step up. At least, that’s how it seems to me. I know nothing about economics.
But there have been other complaints about Gelb’s managerial habits that have brought him under fire. There’s his $1.8 million in pay and benefits in the year 2012, for one (see “Met Opera Tax Filing Reveals Pay For Gelb”, Michael Cooper, New York Times). Then there’s his “Failed Management and Lack of Artistic Vision” perceived by Met musicians (see “Orchestra Faults Met Chief’s Record as a Lockout Looms”, Michael Cooper, New York Times).
As a musician myself, it’s so easy to paint Gelb as the villain here, to claim that he doesn’t value the work that goes into a production, seeing how eager he is to slash musicians’ hard-earned pay. But the issue is much more complex than that. Gelb doesn’t want a lockout — “I sincerely hope to avoid such an unfortunate event,” he wrote in a letter to the Met’s unionized workers (see “Met Opera Prepares to Lock Out Workers”, Michael Cooper, New York Times). No one wants a lockout. This is more than an issue of art versus administration, and there’s no single person at fault. Mismanagement and financial struggles come from multiple angles. Not to mention that we’re looking at unions and endowments and nonprofit status and the national economic climate and about a million other facets that I am not qualified to comment on. All I can say, really, is that I stand in support of the Met musicians. (If you do, too, sign their petition!)
Before I go on, here’s a little timeline of related articles if you want to learn more:
- July 31, 2014: “New York Metropolitan Opera Postpones Lockout” (Jennifer Maloney, Wall Street Journal)
- August 1, 2014: “Metropolitan Opera delays staff lockout in late talks” (Nick Bryant, BBC News); “New Deadline for Metropolitan Opera Talks” (Jennifer Maloney, Wall Street Journal)
- August 4, 2014: “Met Opera and Building Workers Reach Agreement” (Tobias Salinger, Commercial Observer)
- August 5, 2014: “Met Opera Foresees a Rise in Annual Deficit” (Michael Cooper, New York Times); “Metropolitan Opera Forecasts ‘Significantly Larger’ Deficit This Year” (Jennifer Maloney & Mike Cherney, Wall Street Journal)
- August 6, 2014: “New York’s Metropolitan Opera lives to sing another day” (Tom Service, The Guardian)
- August 11, 2014: “Metropolitan Opera Extends Lockout Deadline” (Jennifer Maloney, Wall Street Journal)
Also, some opinion pieces:
- August 6, 2014: “Let’s Talk About Risk at the Metropolitan Opera” (Anthony Tommasini, New York Times)
- August 8, 2014: “Union Trouble Isn’t the Met’s Only Problem” (Joseph Horowitz, Wall Street Journal)
So, things are still quite shaky, and will be for a while. But then you hear news like like “Louisville Orchestra ends fiscal 2014 with a surplus” (Carolyn Tribble Greer, Louisville Business First) — this after a crippling labor dispute in 2011 — and you realize that cooperation and recovery are possible. Not only possible, but necessary — because the loss of the Met would be the loss of a vital cultural gem that has been at the heart of classical music performance for over 130 years. We can’t lose the Met. At least that’s one point everyone can agree on.