The Bottom Line on Costs at the Metropolitan Opera

The Last in a Four-Part Post-Season Analysis of The Met

Wednesday, June 04, 2014 - 03:43 PM

A limo arrives in front of the Metropolitan Opera House A limo arrives in front of the Metropolitan Opera House (Sean Pavone /

One of the cardinal lessons taught in arts management classes is that, at the very least, the endowment of an arts institution must be equal to one year’s budget. After I published the first article of this series about the current state of the Metropolitan Opera, the company’s press office sent a document outlining management’s perspective as it entered contract negotiations with 15 of its unions.

In the Met Document (as I will call it), the company’s endowment and budget are revealed to explain why the Met management and board believe that cost reductions are essential.

In Fiscal Year 2012, the Met had expenses of $317 million and an approximate endowment of $236 million (it had been $336 million in 2007). For comparison, in FY 2012: Boston Symphony (endowment $380m/expenses $86m); San Francisco Symphony ($268m/$78m); Carnegie Hall ($249m/$67m); New York Philharmonic ($196m/$68m); San Francisco Opera ($154m/$70m). Of these, only the Met does not meet the minimum requirement for fiscal stability and health that comes when the endowment is at least equal to a year’s expenses. 

The Met Document noted:

"Contributions have increased considerably over the past decade from $68.6 million in FY04 to $157.9 million in FY13, but donors are not willing or able to continue to finance the growing gap between flat revenues and growing expenditure. The Board recognizes that the organization is over-reliant on a small number of major gifts from a group of individuals, with the top ten donors contributing almost 20% of the annual operating budget, and have mandated cuts in expenditure as a condition of their building-up of the endowment.”

An article in the Wall Street Journal evokes the disagreements between management and unions about the expense of productions and makes evident the degree to which each side views the other as being at fault. Management says labor costs must be contained while union representatives say wasteful or profligate expenditure should be curtailed.

For background information, the Met has issued a financial statement detailing its financial condition; for a different perspective, the Met Orchestra musicians outline their arguments on their website.

The Need for a Healthy Endowment

An endowment for a non-profit institution, when well-managed, provides income that helps cover expenses and creates a buffer against unforeseen overruns. Many financial advisors recommend an annual draw of 5-6 percent of the total value of the endowment, depending on needs and the amount of income generated. In a bad economy, the endowment might shrink and fiscal restraint becomes more necessary.  The principal of an endowment should only be invaded for a genuine need and not considered a well of money waiting to be drawn from when spending gets out of hand.

When an opera company does financial planning, some costs can be foreseen and others not. If contracts exist with musician, craft and stage union employees, the management knows what the basic cost of their compensation and contractually-agreed increases will be. One way to lower expenditure comes with the repertory. Longer operas with larger casts and choruses result in more overhead and overtime; new productions cost more than revivals.

Programming can and should be adjusted when economic hard times hit, especially when they are as protracted as the period we are in. You might say that a company such as the Met, which in the Peter Gelb era (2006–) has done six or seven new productions per season, should do fewer and favor more revivals. That seems logical, except that many deep-pocketed donors are more willing to underwrite new productions because of the glamor and prestige that attend them than to pay for revivals or the essential expenses of keeping the lights on, everything in repair, and the payrolls met for both union and non-union employees.  An opera company usually has to meet those costs in other ways, including ticket sales and contributions from foundations and individual givers.

In FY2008, the Met had 92% attendance. In FY2013 it fell to 79%. I contacted the Met press office to find out what percentage of ticket purchases were on subscription and was told, “we don’t have sales figures broken down by method of purchase (subscription v. single-sale), just the overall box office figures.” Having high percentages of subscribers is essential for the health of arts institutions. The income that arrives ahead of time provides ballast that keeps the institution afloat. Subscribers enable a company to do budgeting and advance planning based on a more accurate projection of income.

While many American opera companies have reported a fall-off in subscriptions and ticket sales, the problems the Met faces are specific to the institution and are, in many ways, of its own causing. Because of disincentives created by the company, ticket-buyers have been discouraged to show the commitment and confidence that come with purchasing a full subscription.

The Rise of Premium Seats

Ticket purchasers and, especially, subscribers want pricing to be fair and clear. In recent years, costs of subscriptions and individual seats have become so complicated that people no longer understand or trust them. In the past, subscription brochures clearly indicated the sections and their prices, i.e.

            Orchestra Center A-W and seats 1-8; A-V seats 9-16
            Orchestra Side     A-V seats 17-38
            Orchestra Rear    Row W seats 9-36; all seats in Rows X-EE
            Center Parterre Boxes 13-29; Side Parterre Boxes 1-12
            Grand Tier A-C; D-G; Boxes
            Dress Circle A-G; Boxes
            Balcony A-G; Boxes
            Family Circle A-K; Boxes


In 2007, certain seats in each section were designated Premium or Prime. Their prices went up more than 30% from one season to the next while many other seats saw no increase at all. The seats affected belonged to long-time subscribers who were also the most loyal donors. When they discovered that the row behind them cost much less, they either moved or, if they stayed put, stopped giving donations. The Met has the right to raise prices to help cover costs, but it should have been done across the board rather than punitively targeting the people who were the most devoted subscribers. 

Gradually, more seats were designated as Premium or Prime to boost income. There used to be 14 different sections; now there are now 27. The seating chart no longer specifies rows and seat numbers. Different operas and productions (even different casts) are priced differently and are described as A, B, C and (in the coming season) D. Confusingly, C is the most expensive, then B, then A, then D. 

This system raises so many questions. One wonders why Falstaff on December 30 was a C while the same cast could be heard on January 7 at B prices. Or why La Bohème with Maija Kovalevska was a B, while the same opera with Anita Hartig or Barbara Frittoli was a C. Consider the cost of some Orchestra and Grand Tier subscription seats over the past two seasons:

  • 2012-2013 season: $112.50 (flat cost)
  • 2013-14 season: $104.50, $130.50 or $155.50 (depending on an A, B or C categorization)

The cheapest subscription ticket with a full view is a $25 A ticket in the Family Circle.

The current pricing chart for subscriptions can provoke a headache and eye strain. The 27 sections are divided into 25 different price ranges (based on the number of A, B, C and now D seats) for 29 different series. Subscription prices are lower than single ticket sales, which is meant to be an inducement to subscribe. Clever single ticket buyers have figured out how to game the system. The Met now has an official policy of “dynamic pricing” whose rules are described on its website. Someone thinking of attending a performance can look at the site and see how sales are going. Many people buy last-minute rush seats for $20 and then, using smartphones, look at the seating chart just before curtain and occupy an empty seat worth much more. Some people see nothing wrong with this while others do.

Dynamic pricing is intended to harvest extra money on ticket sales for popular works. This season, the excellent production of Madama Butterfly (right) was much in demand so the company raised prices on single tickets. The reasoning is the same as charging A, B, C or D prices: If you think an Andrea Chénier or Butterfly will be more desirable than a Wozzeck or Sonnambula, you charge more for it. This creates a class system that keeps potential buyers away if they cannot afford tickets to a C opera they might wish to discover.

Higher ticket prices are not due just to increased costs but reduced income because of another huge disincentive to buy a ticket to a live performance: the HD (high definition) transmissions that the Met has presented in cinemas since 2006. According to the Met Document, ticket sales for HD transmissions have plateaued in the past three years with approximately 2.5 million tickets sold per season that “generated approximately $17 million of net revenues to the Met bottom line while also contributing additional income to unionized employees through media guarantees and revenue sharing payments.”

Gelb declared, when he came into office, that the opera audience was dying and it was his mission to create a new, younger one. He promoted a production style deemed relevant or appealing to what that new audience was thought to care about. And outreach would be done through HD transmissions in cinemas at an affordable $25. 

The old (which is to say, core) opera audience did not die. Most of them, anyway. I believe they simply opted out of increasingly expensive opera subscriptions with productions they did not care for and went to movie theaters. Because the Met presented HDs throughout the New York metropolitan area—including a block away from the opera house—subscribers and single sale ticket buyers chose to see opera at the movies. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have personally met or heard from a few thousand people in New York and elsewhere who now make attendance at a live opera performance optional rather than a part of their routine, their pleasure, and their sense of connection. The HD income cannot replace that.

It does not make sense, they say, to spend $100 for a Balcony seat in the opera house or more than $300 in some locations downstairs for a ticket (multiply that by two when a couple attends), plus all of the ancillary costs when you can see an HD for $25. If the Met does ten HD transmissions per season, that means one can see them all for a total of $250, approximately the price of one or two live opera performances depending where you sit.

There is almost no evidence that attendance at HDs inspire people to attend a live opera performance. And most of those attending HDs are the older cohort who used to buy tickets at the Met. I recall that Peter Gelb told The New York Times that HD transmissions in the metro area had “cannibalized a little” the ticket sales for live performances. Those figures can be discussed, but I think it is clear that the genie is out of the bottle and it is a big challenge now to get people to buy tickets to live opera at the Met.

Keep it Simple

I hope, in the contract negotiations now under way, that both sides discuss reigniting ticket sales, especially on subscription. Perhaps, within 100 miles of New York, charge Met subscribers $25 for HD tickets but $50 to non-subscribers. Maybe HDs should not be shown live in the New York area but gathered at the end of the season.

Ticket pricing must be simplified and made clearer. If people feel they are being taken advantage of, they are less likely to buy. Selling a ticket to an opera performance is not like selling an airplane ticket in which the price reflects what the market will bear. It is, for most people who live near the Met, part of an ongoing relationship in which ticket buyers become opera lovers and want to support the Met.

It might be time to consider Sunday afternoon performances. Right now, contractually, Sunday work comes at a higher price for musicians, stage hands, ushers and other employees and is untenable financially. Make it a work call like any other. Sunday is when many audience members might wish to attend. I would not abandon Monday performances because its subscribers are very devoted and it is a night when many other theaters in New York are dark. There could be a rotating dark night on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday so that the Met would still do its customary seven performances per week.

I invite readers to offer constructive suggestions on this page (rather than Facebook) about how the Met can stimulate ticket sales, rein in expenditures, build its endowment and get back on track.

The words with which I concluded the first article of this series are the ones I want to reprise here: May I—and we—call for a resolution that everyone involved in the current negotiations put the interests of the institution and its public (without whom there is no Met) ahead of any personal considerations and then try to find equitable solutions to each issue without a sense of winning and losing? It is about service to the Metropolitan Opera and to the art form, not to one’s self.

Photos: 1) Madama Butterfly 2) General Manager Peter Gelb in the HD production truck. (Ken Howard/Met)


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Comments [45]

Peter Feldman from New York City

Yes, replace Peter Gelb and Board members because they all are very STUPID

Feb. 01 2015 01:48 AM
john galt from Florida

Move The Met to a non-union state.

Jul. 22 2014 08:47 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

To Michael from NYC: While I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with your suggestion that Peter Gelb be replaced (it is not my role to do that here), I just want to make one clarification. Francesca Zambello's "Lucia" was from about 20 years ago or perhaps a bit more. The "Lucia" from the Peter Gelb era was by Mary Zimmerman.

Jun. 23 2014 07:55 PM
Michael from NYC from NYC

My solution:

Gelb needs to be replaced by someone who loves opera.
We need someone who is not so damned focused on the visual aspects.

Awful productions and awfully expensive productions are not needed and not necessary. Designers like Francesca Zambello, who gave us a God-awful Lucia which looked like it took place on the surface of the moon (actually it might have worked for Elektra come to think of it) or Faust - who knew Marguerite lived in a bat cave, complete with dripping guano?
People like that should be sued for desecration of the art form.

Jun. 21 2014 02:27 AM

It's time to stop blaming the unions and start putting the blame where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of Peter Gelb who allows those productions with limitless budgets The Met cannot afford. Everyone deserves to make an honest living for a decent wage and some of the union employees work 12-16 hours a day. Do we really imagine that it doesn't take a particular set of skills, craftsmanship and experience to put together the immense and complicated scenery at The Met? Or a very special talent to play music of the quality one hears there?

I think a realistic budget on production values is called for on new productions. It seems pretty simple. Also the ticket situation is mind-boggling. It's confusing and even offensive in some cases, as this article points out.

Jun. 12 2014 01:40 PM
Michael from New York

I have been going to the Met since I was 5 years old. I bought my first subscription in the family circle as a highschool freshman and am still a subscriber and donor today. My sense is that there is an overall slow erosion in passion for large-format classical performing arts. It's across most genres. It was not uncommon two decades ago for 6,500 people to be simultaneously attending two operas at Lincoln Center in sold out houses; we are at half that level today in one opera house on a good night. Think of how common it was years ago to see "SOLD OUT" banners slashed across performance posters at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center; one rarely sees those today. When I have a free night in NYC and browse performance availability at various performing arts organizations the day of, almost invariably every performance is available in multiple seat categories. I think Broadway and sports arenas are experiencing the same issues.

One thesis for this is the huge explosion in home-based entertainment options -- from cable TV to the Internet. Where people had limited home-based entertainment options even 10 years ago and set out for the communal experience of live performances, arenas and movie theaters, today there is infinite entertainment available on your home couch. Certainly kids are far more likely to choose video screens over anything else. I took my nephew to a Yankees game last year and paid a fortune for close-up third-base seats. But his eyes still kept veering to the stadium's enormous video screen rather than the nearby batter and pitcher -- his eyes are accustomed to going to a screen.

I am encouraged by the growth and evolution of smaller, experiential performing arts organizations like Le Poisson Rouge and Gotham Chamber Opera. While these can never replace the large, great performing arts organizations of New York, they are cultivating new and younger audiences.

The situation also reminds me of the changes facing mainstream organized religions, which are undergoing demographic changes no one knows how to deal with yet.

Certainly no easy long-term large scale solutions. At a grass roots level kids must be brought to live performances and grow up with them if they are to be the audiences of the future. That's hard to accomplish on a society-changing scale. Nearer term, financially the Met is going to have to change its operating model, probably to fewer performances and new productions each year, and possibly mid-afternoon Sunday matinees.

Jun. 11 2014 03:21 PM
Cathryn Darcy from Virginia

Thanks, Fred, for an eye-opening blog. What I want to know is where is the outrage for the Chagalls being put up for collateral? It seems Mr. Gelb suffers from the same elitism that almost did San Diego Opera in! I believe he can only ask unions to sacrifice when he demonstrates financial restraint by nixing projects like the current "RING" or "Tosca." Eurotrash is Eurotrash in Europe or at the Met.

Jun. 10 2014 06:34 PM

Although I disagree with the posters who favor earlier start times, I'm seeing a majority of 7:30 curtain times for the upcoming season. Is this not a recent change? Looks like you're being listened to.

Although it's true that "Life is Short.... Opera is Long," not all operas are of equal length. Wagner operas can be glacial....Die Walküre clocks in at over 5 hours and typically starts at the Met at 6:30, if memory serves.

But Bohème comes in at a tidy 3 hours. Carmen's even shorter. And there's everything in-between.

As far as not getting back to Brooklyn until 1 a.m. on a weeknight.... ya can't blame The Met for that! You might as well blame living in New York. And not for nothing, but it'd be worth it to me if I only went to the Met once in a great while. Seeing massively huge tragedy enacted on stage is not going to make you walk away like you spent four hours smelling daisies -- it ought to take something out of you, no matter the out time.

Jun. 10 2014 10:34 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I was wrong. Found many Metropolitan opera dvds on line. That should be a good source of income.

Jun. 09 2014 01:00 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

This is just another idea to add to some good suggestions that have been posted so far. There are not too many Metropolitan opera dvds that can be purchased. I could be wrong but I have not been able to find too many of them. This would be very good for someone like me who is somewhat disabled and not able to attend live performances. I also wonder if Mr. Gelb reads some of these comments.

Jun. 09 2014 10:03 AM
Martha Dudrow from Pawleys Island SC

I have been reading this series with great interest and not a little trepidation. My own ability to attend an opera in person has largely been limited to the the Met in Boston and Washington when it used to tour,Washington Opera now and again, and a couple of smaller companies. I have been fortunate recently to attend a couple of the HD performances (Werther and La Boheme). Would I prefer to be in the house? Yes. However, given geographic and financial issues I am doubtful, so I am glad the HD broadcasts are there.
About the new, "updated" productions. I may be the only person who did not like the Las Vegas Rigoletto-- found it garish and distracting (watched a little when it was on PBS Great Performances at the MET, changed the channel). If an opera is updated to the point where it does not make sense musically and the sets are ugly it can turn people off and there goes a new opera fan. I have seen a number of truly strange opera productions (youtube uploads)that I believe are called "Eurotrash" by some. I stuck with them only because the singing was glorious, but that is me, I like--and love many operas. Someone new to the art might not.
I do not unfortunately have big ideas that will help the Met--perhaps a new Gen. Manager with a less defeatist,lets blame the unions approach might be a place to start. It seems that through his pronouncements of "a declining audience for opera" and "facing bankruptcy in the next 2 (or so) years" Mr. Gelb has a tendency to blame everyone but himself. Perhaps, as has been said, "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves."

Jun. 07 2014 11:47 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Peter Gelb has made the statement on the BBC Radio 3's "Music Matters" program that the Met "faces a bankruptcy situation in two to three years". Further, "Even if I was (sic) the worst manager in the world if two thirds of the cost situation is going to the unions, that's clearly an area that has to be cut." An article about same is on the BBC's website in the "Entertainment" section. I couldn't agree more with the other posters who opine that the lack of music education in the public schools (and at home) is contributory to a large lack of interest in the "new audience" that Mr. Gelb is looking for. That's one reason why the Eurotrash and concept productions foisted upon the audiences drive away the real opera lover who doesn't think that what one sees is more important than what one hears. I also agree that cutting the number of operas presented during the season be implemented immediately. Let there be 9 or 10 productions during this crisis period. Let there be management as well as union cuts in salaries. I'm outraged that $169,000 was spent on the poppy field set for "Prince Igor", despite how delighted I was to hear it and that it was part of the current repertory. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Let someone with universal respect who isn't part of the management or labor force be the official spokesman for the Met insofar as fund raising appeals are concerned. Fire all "concept" stage directors and make the stage manager a functionary of whomever the conductor is for each production as it was in the days that made the Met it's justly earned world-wide reputation. Mr. Domingo comes to mind immediately, though I realize he's still heading the Los Angeles Opera...someone of that level of reputation and recognition. And let's have backdrops for the time being and/or concert performances until the time comes ... if it indeed does come ... when the Met is in the black and has a secure endowment. If the HD transmissions and/or broadcasts aren't paying off, I'd reduce their number as well, though with the greatest regret. We all know that truth isn't always a pleasant thing: the older one gets, the more apparent that is. There's a time to fish and a time to cut bait; and that time is obviously now.

Jun. 07 2014 10:39 AM

@ JIL from New York

While I get the gist of your post, I have an option to offer. It's not the MET, and it's sort of an apples/oranges comparison, but if introducing classical music to children and families is a goal, I highly recommend Bargemusic's free one-hour Saturday afternoon concerts.

Yes, it's (gasp!) Brooklyn, but it's a fun time with a (usually) small audience -- a great introductory situation for families and children.

I've heard violin/piano duos, chamber music (trios/quartets), flute/piano duos, and solo pianists. All for free -- and most times with children attending.

As I said, it's not the opera or the ballet, but it's a great way to introduce classical music.


Jun. 07 2014 01:55 AM
Samantha from NYC

I lived 8 blocks away from the MET and the family I was living with would rather go to see a MET broadcast than go to see something live. I think the option of eating/drinking made it slightly more enjoyable.

Jun. 07 2014 12:44 AM
JIL from New York

I love opera, but who can afford a good seat in the U.S.? From a young age, I would go to the opera with my father, who taught me love for good music and opera. I don't think he would be able to afford it if it were in these times. I used to take my son. I wouldn't be able to take my grandson now.

I recently went to Vienna, Austria and was extremely impressed to see how families with young children attend concerts, operas, ballets. It is a family outing. Really - young children who behave during a performance and are taught to love music from a young age! How can a family of four afford going to the opera or a concert in the U.S.? I fear that eventually, one will not see young people in an opera or concert in the U.S. What a loss this will be!

Jun. 06 2014 08:31 PM
Paul A. from Chicago

In the lead paragraph, why not mention both Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra? Both are robust financially and employ transparent, effective subscription models.

Solutions (some already mentioned):
* SHORTER SEASON -- This way you're not compromising production values nor relying more on revivals. The Lyric season is 8 operas. Met is over 25. Isn't there a happy medium?
* EARLIER START TIME -- Lyric productions start at 7, Wagner productions start at 5 or 6. This seems to be a common complaint as evidenced by earlier comments.
* MEMBER/NON-PRICING FOR HD SCREENINGS AND DELAYED SCREENINGS -- Excellent solutions proposed by Mr. Plotkin.

Jun. 06 2014 11:51 AM
R2D2 from NYC

I'm 40 and have been going to the Met since I first came to the Northeast as a grad student - I used to subscribe then as the family circle was the best deal possible for a student, and come down to NYC for performances. I bought subscriptions the first couple of years after I moved to the city and started working, but over the years I've just found the pricing getting quite unreasonable. I don't have a philosophical problem with market-based pricing based on weekend/ star power/ audience interest as such - the Philharmonic does exactly the same thing. But the base level pricing at the Met for halfway decent seats has kept going up, to the point where it starts to become hard to justify - and I'm too old to sit in the stratosphere any more. What the Met doesn't do is what the Philharmonic has done really well - develop and retain relationships: last year, for the first time in years, they got me to buy a subscription with a fantastic price ($69.50!) for orchestra/ first tier box seats and the ability to pick the performances I wanted to go to and exactly where I wanted to sit. Single tickets outside that are still full price ($143 for a first tier box seat next weekend, for example), but I bought a series of 7 and then have gone to a few more as single tickets - still an incredible deal. The Met doesn't give me this flexibility - I typically want to sit in a specific section depending on what I'm going to see (for instance, if I've seen it before) or offer any kind of meaningfully discounted pricing for the series. You'd think that if the Met wanted to attract and retain the next generation of subscribers - i.e., me!! - it would be more user-friendly and less "well, we're the Met and we don't have to do that." Because they do!

I will say the gorilla in the room though is costs - spiraling costs have killed, or come close to killing, most of the regional companies (witness San Diego, and don't talk to me about City Opera), but there seems to be very little acknowledgement of the trade off between short-term self-interest and long-term viability on the part of all involved.

(For the record, I'm not a fan of HD - the only time I like it is on the Plaza in the summer, which is a whole different experience - and it's spurred me to the live the performance in a couple of cases at least. But with prices going the way they are, I can see why people do it!)

Jun. 06 2014 11:14 AM
Jagoda from Poland

You write that young people do not know what it really is classical music. I'm 15 years old and I adore this kind of music, I started this interest when I was 11 years old. No one around me does not like classical music, do not listen to her, so the more they do not know what it is. As for me, opera is the quintessence of flavor and taste. Why music lessons in public school we learn about commercial and kitschy modernized songs? Leave it as a rhetorical question, but the answer is probably obvious.

Jun. 06 2014 10:58 AM
Stewart from NYC

My point of view comes from twenty years of regular attendance at the Metropolitan Opera, attending about 40 nights a season. I am 46 and started regular attendance when I was 26. I have watched the transformation at the Met first hand. I have positive and negative observations. The good news is in the 1990's the Met Opera was beginning to loose attendance. In my opinion because there were few world class singers available. However, there was a long string of singers that began to appear in NY after 2000. I thought the Met would do its best to cast this group of almost two dozen singers and in general they did. The problem was no one had heard of them. This is where Mr. Gelb was brilliant. He put them all on movie screens around the world and began to turn them into celebrities. In our celebrity culture this was essential to the future of the art form. People across the country will pay huge ticket prices to see a sports game because of a particular player. Equivalent tickets to football or baseball are more expensive than opera tickets. However, the exposure of singers fell short. They never made it into pop culture the way Beverly Sills did when she sat in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. The Met needs to push its singers into the world of pop culture. Perhaps another three tenors with Kaufman, Grigolo and Florez? Or, at least get them onto some talk shows.
The bad news is the Met thinks they can create a younger audience. This is an inherently flawed approach. People come to opera later in life. Today young people are obsessed with social media and not interested in classical music. This has nothing to do with education. Its just the time we live in. Instead of looking for a younger audience the Met should have put its loyal subscribers first and brought new productions that would appeal to them. This is not to say new inventive productions are bad but some have been awful. Butterfly is the perfect example of a successful new co-production and Maria Stuarda is another. Finally, they simply must cast the best singers. Why is Jonas Kaufman only singing two nights in the entire 2014-15 season. The excuse will be scheduling conflicts. But the future of the Met is too important and they must do whatever it takes to get the singers. The best singers will fill the seat.

Jun. 06 2014 09:46 AM
David from Flushing

The issue of music education in the schools often arises in discussions of the lack of popularity of classical music. I attended public schools from the mid-50s to mid-60s. In the 7th and 8th grades, we had a course for a third of each year on music. This included the stylistic periods of Western Music, the instruments of the orchestra, musical notation,singing, and actually composing a short tune to a text provided by the teacher.

By the time I attended a large state university, I found that perhaps only a few percent of the thousands of students would attend the free concerts given by visiting professional groups. I cannot imagine that the early educational experiences of the non-attendees were all that different from my own.

It would seem that the Post War Baby Boom generation never got into classical music to any degree even when it was taught in the schools. I suspect the lack of interest in the subject might have been the cause of its removal from the schools. Audience extinction is the major threat to classical music, but I am not certain that the schools can be blamed for this.

Jun. 06 2014 07:18 AM

Re. Sheila
Unfortunately, I feel that this is an investment AND a luxury.


Jun. 06 2014 03:54 AM
Sheila Clemett from New York City

No one has yet mentioned that the educational system is failing the public in terms of arts appreciation. Too many schools no longer have courses on this subject so that current generations will be growing up without knowing who Verdi was. The outreach required to promote opera to younger people needs to be increased to turn them into paying attendees in the future. Whether this is accomplished through volunteers or paid instructors, younger people need to be educated to appreciate opera as it is meant to be seen and experienced rather than encouraging more of their own-generation-centric viewpoints.

I have been a Met subscriber for seven years and it doesn't escape me that I am still among the youngest members in the audience. This is because an evening at the opera is a substantial time investment that is difficult for any working person who lives more than an hour's subway ride from the opera house. The solution is more compelling productions that entice such viewers to attend at least one more live performance. Minimalism isn't going to cut it when opera is meant to be grand. The Vegas setting works for RIGOLETTO because it is grand, lush, and interesting while the minimalist TRAVIATA is too discordant relative to the subject. Not to mention lazy production design, which many opera fans find insulting.

I also attend HD broadcasts and I will continue to support them. If a production is good enough I will attend the live presentation; THE ENCHANTED ISLAND and RIGOLETTO are my two most recent examples. I am also aware that their existence affects live attendance in other countries as well. We are in a recession, and this cannot be discounted.

Finally, the Met needs to advertise. There is too much competition for people's entertainment budgets. This is an investment, not a luxury.

Jun. 06 2014 01:39 AM
Johnny from Cobble Hill

I disagree with some of the reactionary opinions here about revamped productions. Opera needs to change and there's no decree that they must be set in the times in which the stories took place. Anyone who's traveled to Europe or even the West Coast knows that opera productions are routinely - and successfully - set in modern times. The problem with the Met's is they don't go far enough. The most successful one I've seen so far has been the Vegas Rigoletto because it actually went much farther than the others. It took a strong interpretive stance.

I do agree with David about the late-night issue. I live in Brooklyn and a night at the opera is really prohibitive if I want to get through the next day at work. I'd only go on the weekend but that tends to be when prices are highest.

Jun. 05 2014 10:08 PM
Theresa from CT

I have been attending the Met for the past 25 years. For the past 4 years I have brought my daughter to the Holiday productions to introduce her to the wonderful world of opera. I do not attend as many productions because quite frankly, I am disappointed in the non realistic, low budget staging that is now being offered. It may be an idea to bring in younger audiences but I feel that it is a cost saving measure. I cannot imagine why else they would settle for such mediocre productions. The talent that graces the stage is still amazing and can make up for the loss in visual stimulation. Not sure what the future holds for the met but as for me I miss Mr. Volpe

Jun. 05 2014 08:13 PM
David from Flushing

I have attended a few HD broadcasts at our local theater here in Flushing. The first thing that struck me was the very old audience with few under the mid-70s. A number of these people have obvious mobility problems and I question whether they could make it into Manhattan should these broadcasts be eliminated.

The main problem I had with attending an evening opera was that by the time I got home by subway, it was often after 1 AM. Having to work the next day made the experience an ordeal. Friday and Saturday nights and the matinee were the most desirable performances unless I took the next day off from work, which I often did. Some concession needs to be made to the hours of people with jobs such as an additional matinee on Sunday.

Jun. 05 2014 07:11 PM
Dimmerdiva from CT

Everything you've said about the Met's new, punitive pricing is true. My husband and I have been subscribers for nearly thirty years (we've become the audience Mr. Gelb would like to be rid of) and used to hold Grand Tier seats, but two tears ago when the crazy pricing started we moved to Dress Circle. Not because we couldn't afford the increased price but because it mad me angry and we can see and hear just as well at the lower price. We live in CT and see many of the HD transmissions as well because, to us, it's a different experience.
I think a fair amount of the drop-off in attendance can be attributed to some of the truly un appealing "new" productions that Gelb has imposed on the audiences, Eurotrash in my opinion. I do agree that it would be less costly to show some of the older, and much loved, older productions. I do not think I your comparison of concert hall expenses to endowments vs the Met's is fair, however. Concert halls do not typically have the expenses of sets, costumes, choruses, supers, and large star casts. They usually have only orchestra, conductor and, perhaps, principal singer, or singers.
The bottom line is that Mr. Gelb seems not to care much about keeping his audience

Jun. 05 2014 06:37 PM
Fred Lasker from Brooklyn, New York

I have had a Metropolitan Opera subscription since way back with the old House and even saw Callas ther in Tosca, a truly memorable performance. I continue to re-subscribe each year and hope to enjoy many more often wonderful seasons. In addition I always purchase three or four additional Met operas depending on what's offered, the casts, etc. Yes, as of late some productions have scared me away especially since I'l an old fashioned traditionalist. The Rigoletto currently is mostly acceptable but when the baritone sings: "To the river...Al Honda..." and he's in the Las Vagas desert, it's like annoying. BUT, I will happily continue subscribing and generally avoiding the movie theater large screen nonsense, poor sound, no Met experience with a lively loving audience!

Jun. 05 2014 05:55 PM
Albert NYC from NYC

I feel that one big problem at the MET is the HD transmissions! The tickets are cheap so why should people go to the house! Also directors are getting crazy with HD,they want sets and costumes to be so real like. Well first od all they are sets and costumes of which the MET in the past has had some of the best. And then these new productions,some are awful! A new production yes,but oe that makes sense,and goes with the time and location the opera is set in. I have hated so many of them that when it says new I don't go. They need to realistic about this. Sets,props and costumes are that,and we know it. This is just one example of where they are off track.

Jun. 05 2014 05:08 PM
Paul Uhler

I just read about the current Macbeth production at the Armory with the interesting element of audience participation. Why not stage an opera using the same concept? It would probable increase overhead, but might generate more ticket sales by attracting an audience that would otherwise never attend an opera.

Jun. 05 2014 04:35 PM
Judy from St. Petersburg FL

One wonders if other large opera entities, like the Royal Opera House and La Scala, are in better financial shape and, if so, what factors contribute to their success.

As to HD performances, the choice in my neighborhood theater is not the Met performances but rather the Royal Opera House performances, so there is competition in this medium for revenue.

Jun. 05 2014 04:09 PM

They can start by firing Gelb! His HD programming is innovative and he's great at marketing, but making decisions that are respectful both to old audiences while building new - not so much! We are talking about the man who was at the helm of Sony Classical when it went bankrupt - why the Board hired him in the first place is beyond me.

Jun. 05 2014 03:02 PM

I live in Central NJ and while it is not physically impossible for me to attend a Met production in person, it can be expensive and time consuming, even if I come by myself and buy the cheapest ticket. By the time I factor in transportation costs and time spent traveling, it is far more economical for me to attend the HD broadcast, 7 miles from my house. As a civil servant with stagnant wages (actually, my take home pay continues to decrease), indulging in the arts is something I find myself doing less frequently. The notion that people should pony up for a subscription and attend all productions in person only adds to the criticism of opera as elitist.

Being relatively new to opera, I find the HD broadcasts a wonderful way to broaden my opera knowledge, and often introduce friends to opera as well. I also saved up and purchased one year of access to Met Opera on Demand so I can watch past performances in the comfort of my home. This would not happen if I was forced to only attend in person. And to charge $50 instead of $25 for those theaters within 100 miles of NY? What a dumb idea. That would only turn more people off. I have yet to attend a Met performance in person, but am hoping to do so next season. By being able to attend the HD broadcasts and watch opera on my iPad at home, I feel I will be better prepared to enjoy a live performance when I am able to afford to attend one in person.

Jun. 05 2014 02:57 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To J Fischer in Virginia: This article is not about the merits of HDs as a medium. They are a reality and have an indisputable role in the opera world today. But it is also rather clear that HDs from the Met and other companies have induced many in the core opera audience in the New York metro area and elsewhere to purchase fewer tickets to live performances at the Met and at their local companies. Several opera companies have gone out of business and many more are foundering due to insecure finances. I think a big reason for this is the decline of subscriptions, much of it due to the availability of HDs. Companies such as those of Chicago and Houston have shown more fiscal prudence and have made their subscribers feel valued. The New York Philharmonic does an outstanding job of subscriber relations. Unfortunately, many Met subscribers in the metro New York area feel alienated and now choose to get their "opera fix" at HD transmissions which one can find all around the NY area, including two cinemas within a half-mile of the opera house. If the Met's finances are imperiled, it cannot present quality live opera and sell tickets to it. That downward spiral will affect the quality and availability of HDs as well. Heaven forfend that the opera house turns into a sort of studio that churns out HDs as its primary mission.

Jun. 05 2014 02:18 PM

They only have one theater in my part of CT which does the HD. Perhaps, instead of having HD broadcasts in Manhattan, increase them outside Manhattan?

They need to offer discounts to bloggers/critics. And they need to have some promotion. I don't see ANY consistent promotion of singers. An acquaintance of mine was one of the "Young Artists" singers, from a couple years back. I got more information on what he was going to be in from HIS Facebook than I did from the Met, at all.

For all of this insistence on "new technology, new productions" they are not thinking outside the box. I suspect they also spent a lot of money trying to promote the Ring Cycle after the word had gotten out about it. And now, after spending all that money on the Machine, will they ever be able to use it for something? It was a good concept, but they needed to have someone there to critique, to tweak.

And recently, they seem to have been doing a lot of variations on "black box" opera, minimalist. Opera is supposed to be lush and dramatic. Not a "big giant clock because she's dying, see?" to quote a friend. There are interesting, creative ways to stage productions which are not hugely expensive, but are also fresh.

Basically, clean up ticket prices, discounts to bloggers/critics, fresh productions which actually mean something, and BETTER promotion. (and I am also sure they have the info in re subscription vs single sale).

Jun. 05 2014 02:07 PM
J Fischer from Virginia

I love opera. I donate what I can (I fear it's very little indeed) and I love the HD performances. For those of us who can't afford the money or the time toe travel to New York, the HD performances are a god-send. Although I don't attend them all (really don't need to see another Boheme) it's a great way to see those I wouldn't normally. Examples are Satygraha (did not expect to like it and loved it), Guilio Cesare (expected to love it and hated it), and Enchanted Island (loved it too). Does it generate a younger audience? Probably not, but for many of us, it's our only way to get our opera fix.

Jun. 05 2014 01:49 PM
Jung from South Florida

It's a world-wide issue. Everywhere, someone is trying to pin it on a Gelb, a Schwarz, a Weiss, a Azul or a Púrpura. If you got 8% on your investments in 1985 you had lots to spread around. If you get 0.50% on them now you are left with very little money for needy causes or even necessary "luxuries" like entertainment. I will agree that the HD does not bring in new audiences. Neither does "dumming down". Cut-backs need to be made, while showing vibrant repertoire until we see a better financial environment or the singers turn up. I see no one performing here for whom I would travel the 1500 miles to see... as in years gone by. In any production... old, new, set in 2050, in 1750, in a gas station, a casino or in concert version.

Jun. 05 2014 12:24 PM
Bill Dyszel from New York

I'd really doubt that the unions would agree to exchanging Sunday work for a rotating dark night. When you're on that kind of work schedule (12 to 14 hours/day 6 days/week 30-some weeks/year) it's essential to have a reliable day off to conduct your life.

Jun. 05 2014 11:50 AM
beachsiggy from NYC

While I don't have the time at the moment to thoroughly read the discussion, might I ask why the Met is comparing itself to symphony orchestras? The two have not much in common, in terms of cost and budgetary considerations. Apples and oranges, another chapter of How to Lie With Statistics.

Jun. 05 2014 10:02 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Fine article, thanks Fred. The economy has not really recovered all that much. The number of family foundations has also dwindled. The Met has also produced some awful productions, such as Traviata, Tosca, etc. and word has gotten out about this.
Also they need to get rid of some of the really fat singers. Yes, I know I am being nasty and shallow. But opera is THEATRE folks.

Jun. 05 2014 07:32 AM
Stan Bowker from New York City

For a company that has developed such an elaborate pricing system, I find it impossible to believe that the Met doesn't track subscriptions vs. individual sales. They just don't want the public to know.

Jun. 05 2014 12:35 AM
Fred Plotkin

To James Jorden: You and I both have intelligent, sophisticated readerships and it is not news to them that there has been a serious financial crisis since at least 2007 and perhaps even further back. They will look at the endowment/expenditure contrasts (provided by the Met) at the Met, Boston Symphony, Carnegie Hall, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera and see that, in the period since 2007, the Met is the one company of the ones it cited that is in a negative situation. All of these companies existed in the same economy so, perhaps, it is not just about the economic crisis but how these organizations responded to it. you have any constructive suggestions for how the Met can get on more secure financial footing?

Jun. 05 2014 12:22 AM
Paul Pelkonen from Brooklyn, NY

As a music journalist and blogger who is NOT granted press tickets by the Met Press Office I've had to learn to "game" the system a bit--and give the Met lower priority in terms of determining what I cover on my blog, Superconductor.

A few years ago, when my hard-earned Row B dead-center "Family Circle" became "Family Circle Premium" I cancelled both of my subscriptions and learned to love the rush line. I rushed 25 operas this season, buying "Family Circle Balance" (back upper corner seats) for "Die Fledermaus", "Werther", and "Prince Igor" on opening nights.

The system changed gradually under Gelb, with the first shot being a surcharge on exchanges (a former privilege of the loyal subscriber) and it has gotten worse under the "Broadway pricing" system put in place in recent years (and which the Met is continuing to use.) Currently, the ticket price system of A-B-C-D-E (or whatever) is confusing, Byzantine and off-putting to the would-be subscriber. Subscription has ceased to be a benefit and become more trouble than it is worth.

No wonder they're having trouble filling seats.

Jun. 04 2014 09:59 PM
Leslie A. Miller from Belfast ,Maine

Very interesting.

I did buy another subscription this year. The prices are crazy. The person on the phone, told me if I ordered the extra tickets with my subscription, the tickets would be my subscription price. But they are pricing tickets according to the "stars." That is nuts! But I got my tickets for the people I wanted to hear sing, and the productions, not by price.
The MET says I can pay over a few months instead of all at once. That helps.

The HDs actually sent me back to the real thing. In the HDs the camera work cuts out too much of the production. The sound is not real.
I grew up at the old MET in my Grandparents' seats, Row R on the left center aisle, on Dress up Monday nights. In the 1968-69 season I went to the new Met, almost 50 times on my student tickets.
So when I began to work in the Boston area, all I had were yearly visits from the MET and the local companies, which I attended occasionally.

I was thrilled when the HDs came. Two years was enough! I ran "screaming" back to the real thing! I can't afford to go to every performance (a dream), but choose the operas and singers I prefer . I make sure I go to the real thing BEFORE I see the HDs. Then I can dream about what I saw.

There will be a time when I cannot go to NYC for the real thing, but until then I will go to as many operas at THE MET as I can in multiple performances, and then the HDs...just because I cannot get enough.

Jun. 04 2014 09:21 PM
Sandy from Peterborough, NH

Bravo Fred! Your analysis is well thought out, logical. and clear. Having moved to NH I was unaware of the crazy state of ticket pricing. Al Hubay would never have allowed this! Most of the friends I used to attend with, on subscription, have now shifted to Live in HD. It is great for remote opera lovers like me, but never should have been allowed in the New York metropolitan area. Even here in NH the Live in HD audience is mostly gray haired. I think all of your suggestions are good. I only wonder if there could be some incentive for those deep pocketed donors who like to fund new productions to re-direct their money to where it is most needed. The state of the endowment is especially worrisome and makes me fear for the Met's future.

Jun. 04 2014 09:02 PM
James Jorden from New York City

Fred, not even a passing mention of the fact that for the past five years the US has been in the worst recession since the 1930s? Don't you think the fact that people are worried about being able to pay their mortgages and holding on to their jobs so they won't lost their health insurance might deter a few people from dropping a couple of thousand dollars on opera subscriptions?

Jun. 04 2014 07:53 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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