What's at Stake If There's a Lockout at the Met Opera

Thursday, July 31, 2014 - 12:00 AM

A construction site stands in front of the Metropolitan Opera on July 29, 2014 A construction site stands in front of the Metropolitan Opera on July 29, 2014 (John Moore/Getty Images)

TIMELINE: A History of Labor Disputes at the Met

Pre-season preparations are underway at the Metropolitan Opera: the chorus is rehearsing, tech crews are plotting out scenery and staging. In the next couple weeks, stage rehearsals start for Carmen, La Boheme and Macbeth, and The Marriage of Figaro. But they may all have to be put on hold if a contract deal isn't reached by Thursday night with the company's 2,437 singers, orchestra musicians, stagehands and other workers. Management has vowed to lock out the unionized staff starting on Friday.

"If something was to get to a delayed start, it would not be quite as easy to push a button and say, 'we settled and we're back and we can reopen,'" said Ken Benson, an opera consultant and veteran artist manager. "I think opera has become a so much more complex machine, so that has complicated scheduling tremendously."

Opera companies plan their seasons up to five years in advance. And locked out Met singers will also have a harder time finding replacement work, especially since the collapse last fall of New York City Opera.

"I'm afraid I would not be so optimistic about even wonderful singers being able to pick up work at the last minute," said Benson. "It just isn't there. Even the good regional opera companies across the country are booked for the next couple of years."

When the Met had a three-month labor battle in 1969, nearly 20 percent of its subscribers dropped off and it took the company five years to recoup the losses. The last time there was a lockout, in 1980, it lost donors and it took four years for ticket sales to rebound. Some question whether today's audiences will be nearly as loyal.

Karen Dixon is a Met chorus member. She says that some of the issues musicians fought over in 1980 are back on the table again. "That was when we gained some of the work rules that he wants to rip out from under us," she said. "That our base salary is set on four performances a week, things like that all happened at that point."

The "he" is Met general manager Peter Gelb. 

"I believe truly that Peter Gelb has planned a lockout from the very beginning," Dixon added. "I don't believe he ever wanted to seriously talk over the table. If he did he would have not have…put into proposals the extreme nature of what he did, in every aspect of our job."

Peter Gelb, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera, in the HD production truck.
Peter Gelb, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera, in the HD production truck. (Ken Howard/Met)

Gelb declined a request for an interview. The Met is seeking to cut worker compensation by as much as 17 percent, saying that it faces a dire financial crisis due to slowing box office revenues and reluctant donors. The company points out that singers in its chorus earn $200,000 dollars a year, although unions call that figure misleading because nearly half of that is in overtime pay.

Last month, Gelb spoke on the BBC's "Music Matters" program.

"Even if I was the worst manager in the world, if two-thirds of the cost structure is going to the unions, that's an area that has to be cut," he said. "This change has to happen now. The donors, the board members cannot support the Met as generously as they have in the past, unless they see a light at the end of the tunnel. They're putting their money into an operation that will ultimately go bankrupt." 

The unions say that the Met's problems are due to poor management and lavish spending, especially on new productions. A controversial production of Wagner's Ring Cycle came with a $16 million dollar price tag.

So what if a lockout occurs? A 1961 strike was averted after President Kennedy ordered the secretary of labor to arbitrate the dispute. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named a federal mediator to the talks. At a meeting on Monday, Bruce Simon, an attorney for the singers' union, predicted similar high-profile intervention. He said, "It will be the mayor, it will be the governor, it will be some extraordinary figure that will appear and produce a mechanism that will get the parties together, return to work and produce a settlement."

It's possible that the sides in this dispute will continue to talk for several more days or weeks beyond Thursday's contract expiration. But with The Marriage of Figaro due to open the season on September 22, there's not much time. As one union representative put it, a lockout would be an operatic tragedy.


Sources: Metropolitan Opera Archives; Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera, by Johanna Fiedler


Gisele Regatao


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Comments [13]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

ALL the comments that I have here read are valid and historic vantage points suggest that the executive will decry the artists as ingrates even though they are the only talents evident. Moneyed interests have little regard for what is moral or artistic. States that do not have opera houses or symphony halls are unlikely to voluntarily support them elsewhere. Potential outstanding instrumentalists, singers, authors and composers will not sacrifice a normal family life wherein a guaranteed income is essential if one is a responsible parent to the whims or trends or fads of a society errant in its respect and love for the masterpieces of geniuses. We must all be activists in challenging the dogma that nothing matters but money.

Aug. 07 2014 12:22 PM
Marty Murray from Rye, NY

Opera "dying"? They were saying that about Broadway too.

Somehow I find that a person who says something is "dying" is not the guy have running the show. That's utterly ridiculous.

The guy to have running the show is someone who is excited to make it all happen, no excuses, and given the location of this company that should not be all that difficult.

C'mon. This is obvious.

Aug. 03 2014 06:21 PM

In reading between the lines, it seems to me that the Met's administration is using this crisis, apparently brought on by their poor judgment in staging/production, etc., to engage in some union bashing. That is to say, aren't they really trying to blame and make responsible some other entity (unions?) for their own poor choices? If that's not a correct assessment of the situation, then what is?

Aug. 01 2014 05:34 PM


Aug. 01 2014 12:13 PM
Gerhardie from NYC

Everyone deserves a living wage and I don't support artificial levelings of pay based on job. But from all I've read about salaries and benefits (even if larger salaries come from over time) is that, like municipal union benefits, they are way out of line with what most working people get. Sr. stage hands making $450,000 and more? Chorus members making $200,000? Most financial-service firm workers don't make that. I would also add, that a huge amount of the money spent on lavish productions went to pay for staff overtime to launch the productions.

Aug. 01 2014 11:20 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I believe opera will survive even if, heaven forefend, the Metropolitan Opera Association goes on hiatus for a long time or declares bankruptcy. Here in the U.S.A. we still have the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera running "neck and neck", with roots in the early 20th Century, and, of course, there are the regional companies. There are the European houses and their connections with the summer festivals. The Russian Federation has a long and distinguished history; and let's not forget the long-time interest in European opera in Japan and the more recent interest in China. There are two inheritances that Mr. Gelb was the beneficiary of that not only ignited but exacerbated the conflict of ideas that's leading to the possibility/probability of a lockout. Number One is the decision Rudolf Bing made in 1951 to bring in stage managers and designers from Broadway (with stellar reputations there) for the "Die Fledermaus" production to be conducted by Fritz Reiner. Even then, if you read Bing's autobiography, there was a fundamental conflict between the musical reality (as voiced by Reiner) and the intended visual picture (as voiced by Garson Kanin). Those of us who lived through it could see the writing on the wall. Here, I believe, was the beginning of the dichotomy between what the conductor envisioned and what the stage director envisioned, with the General Manager as referee (or vote-decider) between the two. Number two is the reality of the nearly 4,000 seat house that was erected in Lincoln Center rather than refurbishing the original Opera House at 39th and Broadway. There are obviously more seats to fill. (Avery Fisher Hall's opening was an acoustic disaster, but that's another story; and we all know the New York Philharmonic had to move from the jewel that was and is Carnegie Hall, where most visiting orchestras chose to play anyway. Since we've been stuck with the new house since 1966, I say shorten the season and rent it to visiting opera companies (how about those with whom productions are shared for a start) and ballet companies, thus providing more income. And let there be federal subsidy. In a televised interview upon leaving the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf said that he was against federal subsidy and used the example of the re-opening of the Vienna State Opera in 1955 as an example of why not to have subsidy. The opening opera was to be by a native Viennese; and since "Fidelio" --- the most appropriate opera to have been chosen in my humble opinion --- wasn't composed by a Viennese, it was argued against. The compromise arrived at was this: the opening night was a final dress rehearsal of "Don Giovanni" followed by "Fidelio". Well, this should only be the biggest problem with federal subsidy as a buffer and a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera Company. Look at what's facing it now.

Aug. 01 2014 10:48 AM
Rosanna from NYC

Shame on Peter Gelb! First and foremost, he should be respectful to the Met's chorus and orchestra. I write this thinking of the audience's reverent reaction to "Va, pensier" at a performance of "Nabucco" I attended a couple seasons ago: rapt silence ... followed by several minutes of the strongest applause. Memories like that are what draw us back to the opera house, not LePage's clanking boards in the "Ring" cycle or Prada's outlandish "Attila" costumes that looked like a blend of "The Simpsons" with "Planet of the Apes". We patrons KNOW that many of the recent new productions wasted money bigtime, sometimes foisted dangerous staging on the singers, and LOOKED UGLY!!!!!!!!!! So why does Gelb think he is losing donors-- because of union demands? Come off it and negotiate seriously!

Jul. 31 2014 09:30 PM
maestro from NY-LA-MUNICH

It was Rossini who when asked for a definition of opera replied: "Voce, voce, voce."

Carol Bergonzi whom we just lost at age 90 said "I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing."

Gelb's 60 Minutes puff piece about himself and the Met was a bit offensive with his claims that it was up to him to "save opera" from extinction. And the way of saving it was gimmicky productions of Rigoletto in Las Vegas and singers chosen for their physique rather than their vocal gifts. We've even had singers do gastric by-pass surgeries to qualify for the "little black dress" Ariadne-- but ultimately to the loss of "something" in the voice.

The arts dollar is not wisely spent-- creativity in set and production design doesn't have to cost a gazillion dollars per production. Attention needs to go back to voice-- and serving the vocal art-- instead of the insipid novelty of thinking it's an improvement to have a soprano sing standing on her head. My first Traviata ever was with Monserat Caballe at the Chicago Lyric Opera. She acted superbly with her voice and with her presence. I wouldn't trade that performance for "picture perfect courtesan" for anything in the world.

And there is a lot of ugly politics at the MET as well. Gelb defended protests of Gergiev's support of Putin's anti-gay laws with a dismissal "We don't get into politics." Shameful-- There are wonderful musicians working in all areas of the MET. They are "maybe" a little spoiled (compared to other places in the world) with high salaries and benefits. And some aren't so kind to each other. I've known one union rep who threw a colleague under the bus for working under the "wrong category"-- causing him to lose certain benefits.

There is need for reform-- none-the-less, you hate to see the proverbial show "not" go on. And strikes are risky business. (Look at the Minnesota Orchestra. The inflexible board/vs/ the musicians-- and a mass exodus from the Twin Cities while a refurbished symphony hall sets empty and idle while a fine American orchestra goes under.

But it IS time to get back to basics!

Jul. 31 2014 08:46 PM
DT from NYC

I agree with all of the previous comments. Mr. Gelb and other "powers that be" at the Met have brought this upon themselves by their lack of understanding of the operatic voice and the essence of what needs to go into a successful opera production in order to send chills up a discerning opera lover's spine, vocally and dramatically. It appears that more importance is now being put on the cosmetic aspects of the singers and productions than on contracting outstanding, experienced singers who will "blow the listeners away", regardless of what the singers look like. I even heard one singer remark during an intermission feature that she "doesn't consider herself an opera singer, but an actress who sings". Well, maybe that's the problem!!!! Leave the "actors and actresses who sing" on Broadway, and bring some fabulous opera singers back to the Met!

Jul. 31 2014 05:38 PM
Arn Prince from UWS Manhattan

What Mr. Benson, whom I respect and admire, doesn't mention, that should be pointed out, is that the singers he alludes to, I believe, are the leading and principle singers - most of whom (in the entire history of the company) are foreign. As such, they will have options other than the regional companies of the US, though booking schedules are far in advance everywhere. But, it isn't unheard of that a company will cancel the contract of a lesser known singer to make room for a superstar suddenly made available. Those most seriously disadvantaged by a strike will be members of the MET chorus, many who I knew as an apprentice artist 25 years ago. Particularly egregious to me is the fact that several of these singers were far superior voices and artists than many foreign and domestic individuals who had careers handed to them. The politics of this business is so very ugly, as I have mentioned before. I sometimes give a brief synopsis: before Toscanini, opera was ruled by the singer - if the diva put on a costume from a completely different era than those of the others in the production, too bad. With Toscanini began the wonderful era, the 'golden age' of the 20th century - the era of the conductor - when the man on the podium chose the cast, and invested in young singers in whom he saw and heard the raw material of true greatness (and who were given the secondary roles that later, beginning in the 1970s, became the repertoire of mediocre singers who then made careers out of what should have been the building blocks of learning for the next generation of leading men and women). Next, there came the era of the 'production team' of director/stage designer (sometimes the same person), which had varying degrees of both good and bad influence, depending on their knowledge of the voice - certainly those who asked a singer to retain all vocal nuance while hanging upside down from a ladder did not know. Finally, there came what I call the era of the half-knows. When the artistic standards and decisions were wrenched from the individuals with knowledge of the voice at all stages, and given to those who more correctly should remain solely on the business side of the building - most often people with an early background (perhaps a bachelor degree) in music, a large ego and opinion of self, and incredible powers of charletan-ian persuasion. And here we are. I won't expound on the results, as those who know, know. I will close with a rhetorical question to point others in the right direction, perhaps. I will preface it by stating, so that I am not misinterpreted - often, true greatness prevails despite the obstacles - witness Fleming, Graham, Kaufmann, etc. One of the obstacles, however, need not be fighting through a line of successful mediocre competitors and their supporters. So - how often does one hear the Queen of the Night sung by the proper voice (a dramatic coloratura)? It isn't that they don't exist!

Jul. 31 2014 02:28 PM
Mary-Louise Murray-Johnson from NY and Germany

Supposedly----Peter Gelb thought that he would bring in a new younger audience for opera ----- with his outlandish productions. What he does not seem to understand is that traditional classic productions, including those he already had at his fingertips, might have done that. So he brings in a Tosca with an almost pornographic 2nd Act, a Haensel and Gretel with Nazi influences, A Ring cycle which is reminiscent of a heavy metal construction site, a Sonnambula in a factory, and on and on. He has not brought in a new audience and is losing his old audience - including my family of 3 generations - and me. The egoist Gelb produces too much trash for too much cash. He has brought this disaster upon himself and we, the people, who love, know and appreciate opera are the losers.

Jul. 31 2014 01:42 PM
Arden Anderson Broecking from Connecticut

I agree that the labor costs are high, but trashing productions of operas by marvelous directors such as Franco Zeffirelli, and saddling a company with astronomically expensive "concept" productions, (not to mention dangerous, as "Faust" where an artist had a serious fall and the perils of the behemoth"Ring" machine,)no matter how beautiful the singing may be,and it is,is highly unproductive. The only production that made sense to many people last season was Richard Eyre's beautiful "Werther." Friends of mine have told me they have reduced their contributions, and several have stopped altogether!
Please, Mr. Gelb, settle, settle by giving your artists, both on stage and behind the scenes,what they need and deserve. I'm not alone in thinking that Mr. Gelb should step down.

Jul. 31 2014 09:43 AM
BobbyB from Georgia

Will someone please tell me who wins if there is a strike.

Jul. 31 2014 09:42 AM

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