As Labor Talks Begin, Considering the Met's Essential Role

Friday, May 16, 2014 - 01:00 PM

Metropolitan Opera Season Opening Production Of 'Eugene Onegin' on Sept. 23, 2013 Metropolitan Opera Season Opening Production Of 'Eugene Onegin' on Sept. 23, 2013 (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Image)

"What’s wrong with the Metropolitan Opera?" is a question I am asked with troubling frequency. As a New Yorker who loves what the Met represents, hearing this question saddens and pains me to no end. It comes from people in the opera profession (artists, managers, board members, staff) in North America and in Europe. It comes from members of the media who see me as a reasonably impartial expert observer. And it comes from a wide range of opera audiences, of all ages, in person and via e-mail and social media postings.

Typically, the question is asked by people of good will who admire the Met for its many astonishing and unrivaled attributes and its ability, when the stars align, to achieve a level of opera performance that some other companies can equal, but not with the regularity and consistency that the Met at its best has been able to do. But there is a widespread belief on Planet Opera that the Met has been slipping badly. Whether or not that is true, perceptions take on their own kind of veracity that is quite difficult to undo.

The Metropolitan Opera matters because it is one of very few opera houses that serves, in one way or another, as a beacon and standard-bearer for the most complex and glorious of all art forms. Only the Vienna State Opera, Teatro alla Scala, the Paris Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden can be placed in the same league, although there are many other companies (including those of Barcelona, Berlin, Chicago, Munich, St. Petersburg, Salzburg, San Francisco and Zurich) that present outstanding opera with great frequency.

Before embarking on this series of four articles about the Metropolitan Opera, I want to lay some cards on the table so you know where I am coming from. I am a native New Yorker who grew up near the Met and has been attending performances there for 55 of my 58 years. I should point out that I worked at the Met in the 1980s as performance manager, appeared often on radio intermission features for 25 years (until December 2011) and lectured at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, though my talks were always about opera and not about the Met itself. I have also done extensive work for other important opera companies in the U.S. and Europe and bring my perspective as a person who not only knows the operatic repertory but how companies function and the challenges they face.

As a New Yorker, I was raised to believe my city has the capacity--indeed, the mission--for excellence in all things. This is different from the notion of being competitive with other places for being "the best" because how can one really evaluate such things? 

The expectation of excellence is a New Yorker’s birthright. We expect our hometown newspaper, the New York Times, to be excellent, as we do our most iconic magazine, the New Yorker. We expect our baseball team, the Yankees, to be excellent and hope for the same from the Mets. So too, we expect excellence from our Public Radio stations and demonstrate that by supporting them when they do well. In education, medical care, research, design, cuisine, fashion, visual arts and just about every aspect of human endeavor, New Yorkers expect excellence. 

Public, corporate and individual support of excellent institutions is part of the social compact here. We take pride in New York’s passion for excellence even if we do not partake of all of its offerings. Many of us do not regularly attend performing arts, but we identify with names such as the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall as symbols of what our town stands for.

This city is not perfect and New Yorkers are not shy about expressing their dissatisfaction when the standards we expect are not met. The opinionated New Yorker is a well-worn stereotype, but it is based on the fact that mediocrity has little currency and relevance here. And so we speak up. 

One can offer constructive, reasoned criticism with love and concern. Where criticism is expressed in this series, it should be received not as a personal attack on individuals. Rather, it comes from a passionate opera-loving New Yorker who expects customary excellence. I have given these issues great thought and have also received (without having sought) input from many people who love the Met and want it to enjoy ruddy good health, financially and artistically.

Everyone who cares about the Met, and about opera, has been watching the unfolding drama that attends the negotiations between Met management and the company’s 16 unions that represent many of its key employees and artists. This situation is very fluid and, as this article is being published, both sides are digging in their heels and making threatening and ill-considered pronouncements that will be hard to undo. It is deeply regrettable that management, early on, used the word "lockout" and some of the unions have shown a willingness to authorize a strike.

Those of us with long memories vividly recall the eerie darkness in October and November of 1980 as the Met was shuttered during prolonged discord between management and labor. The autumn of that year was a traumatic time. U.S. hostages were being held in Iran. The economy was in terrible shape. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were in a pitched campaign for president and the nation was sharply divided. Gay men and certain other citizens were sickened by a virus that did not yet have a name or a cure. Despite all of these crises, or perhaps because of them, many people bemoaned the tenebrous silence at the Metropolitan Opera House because opera offers solace, insight, joy and escape.

I was at the performance that reopened the opera house on December 10, 1980. It was not an opera but Mahler’s Second Symphony, whose name—The Resurrection—proved an apt metaphor for a company that had been brought low. James Levine conducted splendidly, the Met orchestra played magnificently and the Met chorus sang wonderfully. The marvelous soloists were Judith Blegen and Marilyn Horne. Many tears were shed, onstage and in the auditorium, as the symphony concluded with the choral hymn that begins "Rise again, yea, thou shalt rise again!" I could not locate a performance of the finale with Levine and the Met forces, so please listen to this one led by Claudio Abbado with your eyes shut and picture yourself at the Met’s concert: 

That performance of the Resurrection Symphony was only the first of many steps required to resurrect the Met. There were considerable financial losses, too many feelings hurt that took a long time to repair, and many disaffected subscribers and single-ticket purchasers who drifted away from the company and were difficult to attract back. Take it from me, the Met does not want—and cannot afford—for this to happen again.

Right now, the Met’s problems are much more grave, the stakes higher, certain egos too overweening, and a lot of skin much too thin. May I—and we—call for a resolution that everyone involved 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.

Next: The State of the Art at the Metropolitan Opera


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Comments [11]

concetta nardone from Nassau

Dear DD: Do not think we have enough for a kerfuffle. God I love that word.
Yes, bring back Volpe. He was a blue collar guy with a lot of savvy and not the elitist group Gelb and his crew are. Unfortunately, the country is in a lot of trouble and unemployment is really higher than the official rate. Not too many family foundations left that give large amounts of money to the arts. Wish I had a family foundation to fund the things that make life more beautiful rather than the tawdry stuff we call the popular culture. Stuck in doctor's office yesterday and they had on The Talk. Finally asked the receptionist to please change it and also politely asked the other patients in the waiting room and they said yes, please. Naturally my husband was embarrassed that I asked.

May. 23 2014 11:10 AM

Hey, hey, hey! If we want our kerfuffles, we'll have our kerfuffles!


May. 23 2014 02:01 AM
Benjamin Torbert from Saint Louis

A couple of facts. The US economy is not "collapsing." It's been growing sluggishly, usually at about 2%. The recession ended in late 2009. And there is not 25% unemployment. The unemployment rate recently dropped below 7%.

None of this means it's easy to run an opera company, but let's not go overboard with the hyperbole.

May. 22 2014 10:10 PM
Margaret Nolan from Stamford, Connecticut

I agree with Fred Plotkin, and wish to add my observations, as a Met regular for over 30 years. When I was able to attend more of the Guild lectures than nowadays, I was gratified by the insights and reflections of artists, composers, conductors, and opera directors, all of whom emphasized the level of musicianship at the Metropolitan Opera. The best was Franco Zeffirelli, who responded to a question about his feelings working at the Met. He asserted that each member of the orchestra and of the chorus was a gifted artist in his/her own right. For this reason, I support the Met unions in their contract efforts. My hope is that some generous benefactors will help with this matter.

May. 19 2014 06:49 PM

Adele aka AF you sound out of touch. NY City Opera and other opera companies around the US have shut down, Boston, San Diego, are you going to blame that on Gelb too? The reality is that there's no money to keep paying MET musicians the same salaries and benefits. No money means no money, capisce? Replace Gelb with Liza Minelli and the money's still not gonna be there.

Ticket sales and donations are down, the house is in the red. The US economy is collapsing. And you and MET musicians want to keep the same pay checks and benefits?? Yes, that's very selfish. They're not interested in saving the MET, they're interested in saving their pockets.

It's up to the board to replace Gelb, not you and me. You seem to be a conservative, you think going back to those old stuffy productions will attract a new audience? Good luck with that. It's also up to the musicians and other staff to go work someplace else other than NY if they think they can make more money, since that seems to be all they're interested in.

May. 18 2014 10:33 AM
Reid Condit from San Francisco

I recall reading the other day that NYC ranked third in the world after London and Moscow in its number of pound sterling billionaires. There are said to be 43. Can it be that none or a couple of those is not willing to bankroll the Met?

May. 17 2014 08:18 PM
Adele (a.k.a. AF) from Nassau County, Long Island

Malatesta sounds like Gelb himself! Same phrases: "engaging productions" to make opera "relevant" again. I don't agree with the adjective "engaging" for too many of the new productions, and I don't agree with Gelb's idea that his approach should make opera "relevant." I think that many of the new productions (including those with unnecessary and often silly "updating") are off-putting. Ditto for Gelb's idea that acting is more important than voices and singing in opera.

And I find Malatesta's other assertion (that workers at the Met are "selfish") offensive.

And, no, I don't work for the Met. I'm just an opera fan who is very upset with what is happening to the Met, and I think Gelb is in large part responsible for the situation.

May. 17 2014 05:13 PM

Gelb knows the real numbers and so does the board. I don't know how bringing back Volpe will change the budget available. The people out of touch here are MET employees I'm afraid to say. There's 25% unemployment in the country, ticket sales and donations are way down. If you wake up and smell the coffee, look at the collapsing dollar and the decaying American economy, you'll realize that chorus, orchestra and other staff can't expect to make the same kind of money or get the same kind of benefits. It's simple math.

So this Save The MET campaign by the employees is not really about saving the MET but saving their paychecks and standards of living. Rather selfish. I also find ridiculous to invite the press to the negotiating table, it's like holding a knife to someone's throat to extort money that doesn't exist.

Hospitals, schools and factories are closing all over the country. Opera companies are closing, wars are breaking all over the world and the US is at odds with Russia and China. The arts unfortunately become very low priority when citizens are fighting for their very existence, can't afford food, housing or health care.

Of course, the example has be set by the top, Mr. Gelb and all heads of departments must take pay cuts as well. Mr. Gelb has free housing, that needs to change. I think he has done an admirable job with the HD and engaging new productions. Controversy and failure sometimes are prices you have to pay if you want to make opera relevant again.

The MET chorus has been very well paid for decades. Not that they don't deserve it, they're excellent. But there's no reason in this exasperating economy for people in the arts to be paid fat salaries when they're not needed, I'm sorry. If the economy improves and goes back to past levels, being paid when not working can resume.

The same applies to other staff performers, stage hands, ushers, everyone.

The MET belongs to us, especially true opera lovers and fans. We buy tickets in the house, HD theaters and we donate as much as we can. It's now up to the workers to face facts, look around, smell the coffee and put their
selfishness behind.

May. 17 2014 01:54 PM
David from Flushing

The major problem for the Met is that it no longer sells out regularly. Back in the 1980s, it was often difficult to get a ticket unless you were a subscriber. That is no longer true today. This seems to have resulted in various attempts to popularize the opera with outlandish productions. Often, these have proved annoying to the regulars and done little to increase the house.

It is certainly true the ticket sales are not the only income for the Met, but a decline in audience likely reflects a decline in donors as well. These are tough times for classical music given the age of the audience and the relentless ticking of the clock. Many companies are now requesting reductions in pay for their musicians, etc. It is always galling to think your efforts are worth less now than before, but at some point, economics figures into matters.

May. 17 2014 09:09 AM
Robert Manno from Windham, NY

Bravo Fred Plotkin. I must add to this fine article the observation that there is a simple solution to the current problem. When Peter Gelb effectively fired Joseph Volpe as the chief negotiator for the MET and hired the Proskauer firm, he threw down the gauntlet to the MET unions. This is the same firm that Anthony Bliss engaged in 1980 with the purpose of trying to break the unions. Volpe observed that disaster and vowed never to repeat it. There followed 30 years of labor peace under Volpe with all major contracts brought to conclusion many months ahead of expiration. It's not too late for Gelb to eat crow, fire Proskauer and re-hire Volpe. I was a proud member of the MET Chorus from 1977 to 2001 and was honored to serve on the Chorus Committee for the 1980 and 1984 negotiations and to be its Chairperson for the following three contracts.

May. 16 2014 02:34 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I very enthusiastically second Fred's motion!

May. 16 2014 01:49 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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