'I Thought This Was an Opera Shop'

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - 02:12 PM

etropolitan Opera Shop Metropolitan Opera Shop (Kim Clancy)

A few weeks ago, with some time to kill before a performance, I went into the Metropolitan Opera Shop (a shop where, in the interest of full disclosure, I once worked during college) in search of a rarity: an opera recording that was not available on iTunes. While leafing fruitlessly through the sparse racks of discs, overheard another customer complain to an employee about their dwindling stock of recordings. Before storming out, she said, "I thought this was an opera shop."

Since transferring hands from the Metropolitan Opera Guild to the Metropolitan Opera Company proper, the shop has undergone a sleek transformation, all lacquered white shelves, archival costumes on display and hand-made Venetian leather purses. It's all impossibly chic and beautifully minimalist, but such a face lift also cost the Met shop one of its greatest assets: its arsenal of CDs.

To be fair, under Peter Gelb, the Met has also heavily increased its own commercial audio and video output, thanks to the Met in HD on Deutsche Grammophon and historic recordings on Sony. And these items are all readily available, often strategically placed at the front of the store and in a rotation to coincide with the afternoon's or evening's operatic offerings. Gone, however, are the floor-to-ceiling shelves of recordings so rare it's a wonder they ever made it to CD.

"The Opera Shop features a wide selection of opera CDs and DVDs, with a special emphasis on Met recordings and the operas featured on the Met stage during the season," the Metropolitan Opera said in a statement. Yet gone, even, are some of the rarer works in a Met season towards the end of the work's run. Growing up and going to the opera regularly with my mother meant stopping at the gift shop on our way out to buy a recording of whatever we just saw, a means of thematically replacing our LPs and cassette tapes and also a way to continue our post-Puccini, Verdi or Borodin buzz. It's an operatic hair of the dog, and it's what keeps many people still buying a $29.99 CD in an opera shop rather than waiting to go home and download it off iTunes for $9.99.

Admittedly, I didn't feel the pinch so much until the last few months, facing an empty shell of the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble (now plastered with cherry-red "Coming Soon" posters for discount department store Century 21). During the heyday of Tower Records, with its classical wing and dedicated opera room (yes, room), in fact, I often eschewed the Met Shop altogether for the better deals a few blocks north. Apparently, so did everyone else as you could often spot a star like Susan Graham or Emmanuel Ax in the endless rows of recordings as well.

It was in the Lincoln Center Tower that I found the Marilyn Horne recording of Mignon, long out of print and unavailable on Amazon.com; it was also where I got a first listen in 2003 of a young Russian soprano named Anna Netrebko. The sales people there could tell you exactly how many recordings were done of the baritone version of Werther, and show you what they had in stock. Even across the street at Barnes and Noble, with a comparably smaller offering of classical discs, there were a few staffers who constantly offered sterling opinions on matters like Behrens versus Nilsson when it came to Salome.

That's not to say that the Met Opera Shop staff doesn't know their stuff. Given that most of them are trained musicians, they actually know it better than most and are adept at tailoring suggestions to the tastes of the individual customer. No one there will hold it against you if you're in the market for a Tosca recording but don't care for Pavarotti; but if those are your tastes you'll be hard pressed nowadays to find many alternatives.

In the same aforementioned statement, the Met indicates that they have instituted a service called "Shop More Music," which is designed to help "fans track down rare and hard-to-find recordings (and ones that are not stocked due the Opera Shop’s space limitations)." The statement added that "distributors have allowed many titles to go out of print" but the shop will assist customers in "curating their own opera and classical music collections."

A phone call to the shop indicated that the curator of "Shop More Music" no longer works there and that the stated 48-hour response rate to online requests may take longer due to the extreme demand of customers and limited time for in-store employees to respond. Without any other resort, customers are often told to try Amazon or iTunes, but as statistics show, the average Metropolitan Opera customer (with a median age hovering in the late 50s and early 60s) is not in line with the average iTunes customer (statistics on this are harder to verify, but as of last year the average age of iPod touch users was 23; iPhone users hover at around 37). WQXR recently polled listeners to ask how they most often bought their music, and a resounding 78.24% opted for CDs, versus a 12.96% camp for digital downloads. And in a more real-world setting, the same woman who stormed out of the Met Shop, when offered the option of iTunes, asked where that store was located. This is not an uncommon reaction.

And ultimately, the new face of the Met Shop begs several questions: How many Carmen-inspired Richard Tsao jackets will the average Met customer buy? And can the profits off of those, or even a more modestly-priced Met T-Shirt, replace the potential income to be had from selling a wider selection of CDs? When the Met was facing competition from two major retailers in the neighborhood, sure, it made sense to cater to the more unique finds (of which I happily own a few), but now with even the Borders at Columbus Circle facing an uncertain future, this shop is slowly becoming the only game in town. And although the Met is also producing its own content, even some of those DVDs are not sold in the shop (recent releases of Turandot and Aida are currently available at Target, but not on the Met's website). In the meantime, there are still indie outposts like Academy Records on 18th Street and Westsider Records on W 72nd. A pity neither of them is open for those heady post-performance purchases (or Lincoln Center adjacent).

Should the Met stock more recordings in an effort to amp up a dwindling supply of retailers in the city? Where do you purchase your music? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Photos, top to bottom: A small number of CDs remain in the rear of the Met Shop; Century 21 prepares to take over the former Barnes and Noble space; shoppers at Academy Records (photos by Kim Clancy)


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Comments [38]

Cindy Battitsi

Looks like I was wrong- the Met Shop is now carrying the Ring Cycle Charm Bracelet that I designed just for them!

Apr. 23 2013 08:50 AM
Kim Kemmis from Sydney

Many years ago (in the pre cd era) the Australian Opera Guild ran a small shop in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House, selling not just the latest opera releases but the old Melodram lps of Neu Bayreuth and just about every other live recording in existence. We mourned its replacement by a souvenir shop with scarves, choclate opera houses and other tchotchkes. On a recent trip to Europe it was sad to see that most opera shops have gone the same way - but the Palais Garnier's selection of dvds and cds is surpassed only by Dussmann ('der Kulturkaufer') in Berlin. Hamburg Staatsoper also has a good selection of cds in their foyer, but it is never open after the performance!

Jun. 20 2011 08:08 PM
Joe Pearce from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Well, if Ms. Giovetti expects any record shops to be open at close to midnight, she will remain unfulfilled in that regard.
However, the one retail outlet in New York that still stocks just about everything that comes out or has not been discontinued for some time in the way of opera is J.&R. Records, (near City Hall) and they have been in that position for a good 20 years now. For example, I was there only two days back, and there were two fairly long bins filled with recordings of LA BOHEME - how many versions? Perhaps twenty, and what isn't in the bins they may still have in stock.
Anyway, it's worth a try. But don't try at midnight! That accommodating they are not!

Jun. 17 2011 11:51 AM
Wagnerian from Jersey

Having worked in the Tower Classical department (which had the best classical selection), i must say that this article omits the fact that people got tired of spending almost $20 dollars on one cd as well as being fed up with the major labels only giving us more recordings of the same old Bach and Beethoven. There is a treasure trove of unrecorded and forgotten composers that labels like CPO have luckily been recording that has made me an avid cd buyer again. The reason great shops like Academy and Princeton Record Exchange do well is because you can buy new and used classical and opera cd's at a really affordable price...Most listeners love to own the actual discs (especially when it comes to opera and the librettos they come with) but dont want to spend an arm and a leg...

Jun. 17 2011 11:44 AM
Cindy Battisti from Rochester NY

Not sure I agree. I developed an entire business, "Opera Bracelets" from the experience of visiting the Met Opera Shop in 2007 for the first time and being so totally BORED with the offerings. I wanted something more meaningful to the opera I had seen than a CD or video I could get off the internet. (Not that the Met will carry my products... who knows what they are thinking in there).

Jun. 17 2011 09:22 AM
belcanto-fan from USA

MP3 is no good for classical music, the quality of sound is very limited due to compression. I do not understand how classical music are expected to buy individual MP3 files on Amazon......
marketing executives: wake up, the consumer of classical music wants the entire opera with information in a nice sturdy packaging-format, this is wherer the business is. Deployment of classical music via i-tunes and Amazon is a waste of money.

Jun. 17 2011 04:48 AM

The shop is pretty awful in any number of ways. But at least they took those ridiculous voluminous Mardi-Gras scarves off the busts of Mozart, Toscanini, et al. That was really the lowest, and I complained every time I went to a performance.

Jun. 17 2011 02:01 AM
Jeffrey Tarlo from New York City

I wrote about J&R Music World way down at the beginning of the comments for those who want to check it out. Thank you llma but the store is at 23 Park Row not Park Place. Just about anything they don't have in stock can be ordered. The do have a huge selection. Well worth looking into. They also have a web site at JR.com .

Jun. 16 2011 10:39 PM
Ilma di Murska from New York City

Sad that no-one has mentioned the classical music department at J&R on Park Place downtown. J&R's classical division was there in the LP era, before the advent of CDs, before Tower, HMV and Virgin ever made their forays into the New York market; and it remains now in the same place long after those top-heavy conglomerates have pulled up stakes.

I should add that I am not an employee, manager, owner, or in any other way officially connected with J&R, and I am well aware of the problems besetting its classical division. It's a sad story in itself, how the J&R classical department, once the pride of the store, has been squeezed into a remote corner of the 2nd floor and is struggling there to hold onto floor space; and how the breadth of selections and the number and helpfulness of floor staff has similarly diminished. Still, it remains a classical music outpost, offering the widest selection of offerings, including opera, in the city. It should be encouraged to continue, not ignored.

Jun. 16 2011 10:04 PM
Silversalty from The Intertubes

Mp3 gained popularity when dial-up was the common form of Internet access. At its higher settings the quality is very good, though still what's called "lossy." There are lossless formats that are only slightly larger (less compressed) than mp3 at its best quality settings (flac, ape). These are becoming more popular with "broad band" Internet access being the new standard. There are higher quality digital formats than standard CD, with both more channels and better quality, but they haven't caught on yet.

Mp3 is also proprietary, requiring licensing for web sites, though maybe the patent has run out by now.

Apple (iTunes), being what it is, uses a different compression technology.

Jun. 16 2011 09:56 PM

Funny that high quality CD audio is basically obsolete and replaced by lower quality MP3. Sort of like how tapes replaced LPs even though vinyl sounds better.

Jun. 16 2011 09:41 PM
Silversalty from The Intertubes

I wrote a post like this about 10 years ago on a much less "mainstream" web site. The fundamental problem you're describing is with copyright. Only select publishers are allowed to publish certain works and if they don't have a strong monetary interest in doing so then those works disappear. And the really shocking aspect is that with things like transient technology and "copy protection," "disappear" can be forever. Works of art can be lost .. forever .. to protect the highest profit margins of mega publishers.

The phrase "out of print" should never apply to anything after the age of the CD, which is a digital format. Longer for print media which used digital "mechanicals" even before audio CDs.

The technology to print, in a matter of minutes, a hardcover quality text from a digital file has been available for years. To make an audio CD is far simpler. So how can anything of this sort be "out of print" without a willful disdain from the publishers?

It can't. Your pet choices are just too far off the mainstream profit margin for publishers to give a damn. They're interested in selling millions of Lady Gaga items, not a handful of Dame Whomever.

Guess who the real "pirates" are.

Jun. 16 2011 08:27 PM
Fred Plotkin

I attempted to buy the new DVDs of Aida and Turandot at the Target store at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn (because they are "exclusive" to Target and not sold at the Met shop). None were on the shelves, the staff had no clue what these were and seemed disinclined to help. I was sent to a computer and told to order online. I needed the DVDs sooner because I was to interview one of the performers the next day. I sought the manager, who grumpily said he would look for the DVDs. They were in an unopened box deep in storage. A copy of each DVD was brought to me but none were put on shelves, though I actively encouraged them to do so. Perhaps the Met might wish to reconsider having "exclusive" deals with companies that do such a bad job of selling the MET's products.

Jun. 16 2011 05:52 PM
ShopAss from NYC

To Ardath_bey:

As a former sales associate of the "new" Met Opera shop, I can tell you first hand that the shop most certainly does not have more rare CDs or DVD's than the old Guild shop had. BluRay? Well obviously, since it is a much newer format and the new store has already been open for nearly a full 3 years. The new shop does indeed sell HD DVD's but only about 20 titles and there are only about 25 non-HD titles that are exclusive Met productions, all of which took place after 1978. I don't consider those rare per se, perhaps exceptional performances, but certainly not rare.

The rare finds? Well they once were available through the Guild which now has much of the them stashed away in some warehouse in NJ. Why? Because the once positive relationship between the Guild and the Met "company proper" is tumultuous and nearly severed. Who do you think caused this breech? Mr. Gelb!

As for relationships between the Met and amazon or itunes, that is non-existent. The music buyer certainly tries his best to obtain what he can for the shop, but his hands are often tied by none other than those above him or the middle man supplying the recordings, the RECORD LABELS. Sometimes, they make it nearly impossible for him to obtain a rare recording in any format.

So, when you Ardath_bey have spent a week telling 8 out of 10 customers a day that we do not have the specific recording or dvd they are interested in nor can we special order one for them because it is out of print, then you may begin to tell the world that the new shop, the internet and Mr. Gelb's management is the wave of the future.

I realize this is a much bigger problem than Gelb or the consumer demographic or even the little lacquery shop. This speaks volumes about the art form itself.

I'm no fuddy duddy, in fact I download all my music off of the internet. But my experience as a former employee of the "new" shop is that I mostly felt like an ass, having to continually apologize for the changes that were been made after closing the Guild shop.

Jun. 16 2011 04:42 PM
David from Flushing

The times are tough for print and media outlets.

If one crosses the park to the other Met, one finds a large museum store. Even with the 10% member discount (and even 20% at special times), it is almost always cheaper to buy online at 28% or so off.

The bulk of the store is given over to women's stuff--jewelry and scarves-- that claim to be adapted from objects in the museum. Obviously, these are high class souvenirs for visitors to take back home as gifts.

The Met Opera shop will also never be competitive in price with online vendors. They too are in the souvenir business and there is nothing wrong with that if it is a needed source of income. Taking a DVD home of the production you just saw would have obvious visitor appeal. However, maintaining a large stock of opera recordings would be costly and likely unprofitable.

Jun. 16 2011 03:53 PM
Cathy of Aragon from New York

This no more record stores, no more book stores, is a tragedy we don't even feel yet. Not really...the community of just talking to personnel who really know their stuff, who love it, too. Everyone who lives on the Upper West Side was devastated enough when Tower closed. Barnes & Noble was always, well, just Barnes & Noble -- not Patelson's or Gotham Book Mart -- still, the loss is heartbreaking. A little loss that says big things. HEARTBREAKING to walk by and see Century 21....see "soul" supplanted by shameless commodity. But hey, the Met Shop? A vulgar piece not worth mentioning.

Jun. 16 2011 02:25 PM
Tom Lynch

'Me thinks there is a fine line between being old and stogy and simply wanting the leading opera house in the world to sell opera related items with a focus on the music as opera is, well, music.

Jun. 16 2011 01:55 PM
Kevin from San Francisco

And do please chegk out Pristine Classical on the web. Full bandwidth FLACs and WAV files. Old, forgotten classical and opera. Restored to...well, pristine quality. Downloadable for a reasonable price. A website for great music wonderfully restored. I am a very satisfied customer.

Jun. 16 2011 11:41 AM
Adam Cassel

I am 25.

I am not by any means an "Old "fuddy-duddy". That said, I am smart enough to know that the chances of finding a rare Mady Mesple CD on iTunes (yes, I know who Mady Mesple is) are about 1 in a 100. The Met Opera Shop had a rare opportunity to serve as the "go to" place for all tri-state opera lovers. There were many days I stopped into that shop, in the last year, with cash burning a hole in my jeans, only to walk out with nothing. So let's recap, you have a 25 year old opera nut, who is the ideal patron Peter Gelb is looking for, who wants to listen to all eras of music and read all kinds of books on opera and who can pay for it.

And all you want to sell him is feathered headbands. That's just bad business!

Jun. 16 2011 11:39 AM

Those blaming Gelb are living in the past. CDs are obsolete, please join the 21st century. The internet changed everything, folks, and there's more on the way so get used to it. The Opera Shop now does have more rare titles of live opera on DVD and blue ray than the old shop had ever dreamed of having. The Live HD series on disc is, too, something you old fuddy duddies should get on your knees and thank Gelb for.

Having said that, I'm a fuddy duddy collector myself and I like to see my music on the shelf. I still buy vinyl! And CDs, of course. But the internet is much more convenient than taking the subway or fighting traffic and paying $50 to park around Lincoln Center. So Amazon and other sites are the way to go.

Blogger Olivia Giovetti forgot to mention an even more fabulous opera shop at LC that also closed, the Julliard School shop, which had even rarer titles than Tower and the old Met Shop combined. Talk about a paradise for old fuddy duddies!

Jun. 16 2011 11:25 AM
Tim Taffe from IOWA CITY IOWA

Welcome to Old Timers Club....We all remember when we were all promised Bright Futures, and the demise of hard music sales as we know it, is just one more lie manifested... Only when you play a well cared for 33.3 LP with a Diamond Stylus and a pair of vintage real walnut Harmon Kardon Speakers...do we get to hear Good Sound. How have we been hood winked into ear buds and digital downloads?
The only recent technology which is positive, is that I can live in affordable Iowa City, and internet listen to and financially sustain WQXR !

Jun. 16 2011 11:24 AM
Peter from The Swamps, New Jersey

I miss Tower but I've shopped at Rizzoli for years, which has a good collection of music, still, though not a trained staff.

The point is, the kind of material you find by browsing in a good music store can open up worlds for you. It did for me.

I'm also glad someone pointed out that music via computer does not compare to a good sound system.

And I agree, years ago the Met gift shop used to have wonderful, quality inexpensive gifts.

But, I'm a dinosaur, even in my early 50s and I no longer live in NYC due to its impossible rents and lack of the things I used to live it for. O tempore! O mores!

Jun. 16 2011 11:09 AM
L.Mendelsohn from NYC, Manhattan

As a member of the older (eg.more discriminating) faction of opera lovers, I prefer CDs. Nevertheless we of the rapidly diminishing segment of the population must come to grips with the obvious commercial decision to make individual recordings obsolete, even when iPod and other portable systems have lesser sound qualities. As is the case with acquiring older and out of print books (even within the now disappearing book chains) one must depend on small businesses owned and run by individuals who cater to the buyer of high quality,rare and hard to find items of value. Sadly this is the way of the world, change is necessary but not always for the best.

Jun. 16 2011 10:58 AM
Craig A from MD

Physical CD shops provided important features and services that you can't get online, but I've given up hope of ever seeing such a shop again. Now when I am looking for something specific, my choices are Amazon, ArkivMusic, and (a far distant third) ebay. I have not found any site that provides the same possibilities for discovery that browsing in a well-stocked physical store did.

Jun. 16 2011 09:37 AM
Flute Lady from Manhattan

Another downside of downloading (sorry!) is something that the older generation understands but the younger one never took seriously, namely that listening to music for long periods (even classical music and opera) through headphones can cause long-term damage to your hearing. For that reason alone, many people will prefer to continue to listen to music on their cumbersome old sound systems rather than plugging it directly, and dangerously, into their ears.

Jun. 16 2011 09:25 AM
Sid from Brooklyn

I'm surprised CD's are still being bought what with downloads and musical sites on computer why spend money on CD's. I recently gave away some 300 classical CD's after downloading them to an MP3 and I'm not buying anymore. My listening habits have changed from cumbersome audio systems to earphones that are amazing to listen to.The CD'd were given to a local high school's music dept., they were thrilled.

Jun. 16 2011 09:14 AM
Joseph Lieber, MD

Best bet...go on line...Arkivmusic.com.
Great selection, customer service!!!!

Jun. 16 2011 08:51 AM

I'm lucky to have a friend with an excellent collection. She burns me a copy and I download it to my IPOD. Yes..illegal but how else can I listen to great opera?

Jun. 16 2011 08:39 AM

I agree fully with all that is said. A tragedy & travesty. What Opera Shop? Will they soon charge us just to admire the decor? Seconds on J&R Music World! I will try Academy & others mentioned. If you really love Operas & the Old Met, google subito-cantabile. This is a European site, with reasonable prices, takes Paypal, astonishing opera rarities, live broadcasts, and quick shipping.

Jun. 16 2011 06:13 AM
af from ny

The article is "right on," as is the comment that what has happened to the Met Opera Shop can be blamed on Peter Gelb.

Jun. 16 2011 02:01 AM
Mary Leiberman

I used to love visiting the shoppe listed in the article above but it all changed for the worse a few years back. They simply do not stock anything I want. They don't stock anything rare or specialized. I don't have any interest in buying $700 dollar necklaces and cuff-links from the same shoppe that sells golf balls (of all things) or glo in the dark things (tacky). The old Met and the old Met Shoppe had some dignity and some sense of pride.

Jun. 16 2011 12:38 AM
Jeffrey Tarlo from New York City

I won't comment on the changes in the Lincoln Center area for avid music and even casual collectors but a full selection of Classical and Opera recordings may be found at J&R Music World,23 Park Row.. The store in lower Manhattan, near Ground Zero has been there for 40 years and most likely has the best selection of classical and opera in the country. It is the last man standing in New York City and extremely easy to get to from anywhere in the metropolitan area. Your music needs will be met there with an extremely knowledgeable staff.

Jun. 15 2011 11:35 PM
Agnes White from New Jersey

I agree with a lot of what was said in this article and think it's so sad what has happened to the world of the Arts in New York City.

As a retired person, I love going to Lincoln Center and I would love to buy Lincoln Center related products.

However, there is nowhere to shop and nothing to buy.

I don't want to buy clothes at Lincoln Center. I want gifts for my family. Items I can't get elsewhere. Items that are one of a kind.

Very sad.

Jun. 15 2011 08:46 PM
Martin Ralph Lorenzo from NYC

Anyone who knows and loves Opera in this city knows to avoid the disaster that has become the Met Opera Shop. The selection is idiotic and, as a man, I have no interest in scarves and silk lounge jackets. It's awful and I blame Peter Gelb for destroying yet another aspect of the Arts in this city.

Don't give them a dime!

Jun. 15 2011 08:21 PM
Martin Ralph Lorenzo from NYC

Anyone who knows and loves Opera in this city knows to avoid the disaster that has become the Met Opera Shop. The selection is idiotic and, as a man, I have no interest in scarves and silk lounge jackets. It's awful and I blame Peter Gelb for destroying yet another aspect of the Arts in this city.

Don't give them a dime!

Jun. 15 2011 08:20 PM

Will the powers that be ever learn??? It's the same complaint since the shop opened but what's amazing is that they didn't see the closing of Barnes and Noble as an opportunity to really boost up on cd sales. Funny that since going to Barnes and Noble isn't an option anymore the staff are suggesting Amazon. It's just pathetic that they have to do things like this. Didn't Albert Einstein say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? Management needs to stop with the freakin scarfs and get some damn cds in. If I need a scarf, I can think of 100 other stores I would go to first before thinking, "hey, maybe the MET has something."

Jun. 15 2011 07:27 PM
Mountain Babe from Clayton, GA

I'm guessing that most Opera lovers are audiophiles -- and it is true that music on the computer is NOT the same as a well equipped audio system (by which I do not mean surround sound) with really good speakers.

Having said that, I put all my CDs on the computer. But I still want the real thing, so I am in the aged group that likes music best the old way.

I have dug through Amazon and Archiv looking for some old recordings. While some of the new offerings are good, when there is some feature of an old recording I had once upon a time, and I want that feature, nothing else is going to fill the bill.

Hunting for music I want gets harder and harder every year.

Jun. 15 2011 07:21 PM
Lois Rosenfeld

I really miss the 67th St Barnes & Noble. There is virtually no selection at Borders. Juilliard used to have quite a lot but that seems to have disappeared. I buy mine online at Arkiv and Amazon, some at Academy. It seems terrible that there is nowhere left with a current selection of CDs.

Jun. 15 2011 06:44 PM

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