More Rhetoric In The Met’s War Of Words

The 04/28/2014 edition of Deutsche Welle published an article featuring an interview with Metropolitan Opera (Met) General Manager, Peter Gelb. The interview was conducted by Gero Schliess and although not terribly long, it turns up the fire on an already heated labor dispute.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-068Gelb’s key talking points include:

  • The need for permanent cuts isn’t due to executive mismanagement.
  • The failure to meet revenue goals is due to a “cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form.”
  • The Met’s current donors are “suffering” from giving too much for too long.
  • Union employees have overly “generous” benefit programs; in particular, pensions. On this point, it is difficult to miss the fact that Gelb’s go-to examples on these points favor American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) represented chorus members over the other unionized employees.

There are a few bits of peculiarity in the piece, the source of which may or may not be something of a lost in translation issue; one of which was when Gelb was asked to describe the Met’s financial challenges, the article quotes him giving what comes across as inconsistent references.

Two-thirds of [the Met’s annual operating] costs – $200 million – are being spent on union labor and visiting artists as well. So, two-thirds of our budget are going to unions through wages and social benefits.

In the first sentence, union employees and visiting artists are referenced as separate expenses contributing to the two-third ratio (yes, we’re going to overlook the wildly nebulous nature of the latter term), but in the following sentence it appears that only the union employees comprise the respective operating expenses.

One element missing from Gelb’s talking points that usually turn up during concessionary bargaining is the notion of shared sacrifice, but in this article, it appears that only the union employees are meant to absorb concessions.  Given the position that the overall need for concessions is due to what Gelb defines as an outside force, it is difficult to see where this may not become a problematic sticking point in the near future. It will be particularly interesting to see if that point gathers any additional traction in the coming weeks.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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4 thoughts on “More Rhetoric In The Met’s War Of Words”

  1. Cultural and social rejection of the form? Could someone tell people in Stockholm that so I can get tickets to Tannhauser? It’s been sold out other than obstructed view seats for a while…Would have been nice if they had told people before I couldn’t get a seat to Salome. And before I had to buy my ticket to Parsifal a month in advance, had to pay far more than I would have like, and still got a crap seat where I missed most of the action DSL.

    I’d also like him to explain that to everyone I’ve given my 5 minute elevator pitch to about my dissertation and Fulbright research…they don’t seem to know that, because as soon as I say “I’m writing an opera based on Swedish folk tales with a heavy political message using different musical styles for each character…” then get asked to recount the whole story, people think it’s an amazing idea. This includes people who have never been to the opera in their lives (and then I suggest a few operas to check out, and more often than not they do).

    When I lived in NYC, I only went to the Met once…for one simple reason: I couldn’t afford the $100 nose-bleed seats.

    And the rejection of an art form doesn’t just happen. People still love listening to music, singing, attending theater and movies, and even love musicals. The idea of people randomly singing about their lives isn’t a problem. What then in the art form is rejected? The musical language? Which operas are being rejected then? Could there be a problem by programming “safe” operas which people don’t want to see (how many times do people return to see the same movie in the theater, shelling out the extra cost? If Star Wars was re-released every couple years, would it always draw the same crowds?)? Is there any link to the lower crowds and the loss of funding to music education, and the way in which music education has changed in America to a more performance oriented scheme? What about the role of media in the portrayal of opera? How many shorts are there using opera as the go-to boring activity, thus ingraining a societal view of opera with little to no connection to the art form itself?

    That statement lacks perspective, and it drives me crazy. I wish executives would stop thinking in this monolithic, overly broad fashions. If all of society rejected opera as an art form, why are more and more small opera companies popping up and thriving?

    Maybe in the circles Gelb walks in and speaks to there’s a problem with opera…in the circles I’m in, the problem is not opera as a form, but the cost of tickets and the lack of exposure. There’s a huge difference between rejecting an art form after experiencing it first hand, and being apathetic toward an art-form you’ve only experienced through media portrayals.

  2. It is perhaps a small point of language, but 2/3 of the budget (or whatever percentage it is) is not going “to unions.” It is going to union members in compensation for their work. I assume that some small portion of each employee’s pay is deducted for union dues. This amount is surely much less than the payroll taxes, but Mr. Gelb does not say “a large percentage of our budget is going to the federal government.”

    Opera is a “product” that would seem to be all about labor – intangible art produced anew each day by people’s efforts. The fact that not only the performers but also the costumers, carpenters, stage crew, etc are also union members, means that a large part of the company budget is spent on unionized labor. Whether Mr. Gelb emphasizes “union labor” because the company is currently negotiating with the employees’ union representatives, or whether he is trying to color the public perception of the issues in some way, I can’t tell from the context.

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