Crisis engulfs New York’s Met, world’s richest opera company

NEW YORK, July 24 — Proposed pay cuts, declining ticket sales, dire reviews and threatened strike action, the Metropolitan Opera in New York is embroiled in perhaps its ugliest crisis in 30 years.

As the wealthiest opera company on the planet and the biggest classical music organisation in the United States, the Met dwarfs counterparts in Europe with a budget of nearly US$327 million (RM1 billion).

Yet staff are locked in a bitter dispute with the company’s managing director of eight years, Peter Gelb, over proposed pay cuts of 16 per cent that threaten to delay the start of the new season.

If no resolution is found by Thursday in the dispute over pay — which represents US$200 million of the Met’s budget — the company has threatened to order the first work stoppage since 1980.

Gelb turned up the pressure yesterday, telling The Wall Street Journal that staff should prepare for union workers to be locked out from August 1.

While spending and fundraising have increased, ticket sales have declined steadily over the past four seasons, and the Met says it must slash overheads now to avoid bankruptcy in the future.

Fighting for survival’

New York City Opera, formerly the Big Apple’s second company, went under last October and the Met says the audience for opera is in decline and that it must get costs under control.

“The Metropolitan Opera is facing one of the biggest financial challenges in its 131-year history,” a spokesman told AFP.

“Donors are not willing or able to continue to finance the growing gap between flat revenues and growing expenditure.”

But musicians’ unions say poor ticket sales reflect bad Gelb productions, not declining interest in an elitist art form, and that slashing salaries is unfair.

“We’re really fighting for the survival of the Met artistically and financially,” clarinetist Jessica Phillips Rieske told AFP.

Peter Gelb, polarising manager proposing a 16 per cent cut in salaries. — Reuters file pic
Peter Gelb, polarising manager proposing a 16 per cent cut in salaries. — Reuters file pic

Gelb proposes a 16 per cent pay cut from August 1 to save US$30 million.

Musicians are outraged. They say they already work 30 per cent more than any other orchestra in the United States in exchange for the lowest quality of life because New York is so expensive.

They also question the urgency of the financial crisis, saying that the company ran a deficit of only US$2.8 million last year.

Rather than cutting pay, they want Gelb to save US$20 million by commissioning one or two fewer productions, staging fewer overtime operas and slashing wasteful rehearsal time.

Gelb, a nephew of violinist Jascha Heifetz, who came to the Met from Sony, where his biggest hit was the soundtrack for the movie “Titanic”, has been a polarising manager.

Artistic director as well as general manager, he launched his Met career with a string of well-publicised successes.

He commissioned Oscar-winning British director Anthony Mingella, for example, to stage “Madama Butterfly”, which got rave reviews.

He also pioneered cinema broadcasts of Met productions, which a spokesman said generated US$17 million and quadrupled the Met’s audience with over 2.5 million viewers worldwide.

Yet productions have also been plagued by scathing reviews and ticket sales have plummeted from a high of 92 per cent seats sold in 2007-09, to 79 per cent in 2012-13.

Boos and hisses

The orchestra has won a string of awards but miserable reviews are disheartening. Phillips Rieske told AFP that morale was “incredibly low”.

She winces when remembering boos and hisses and even laughter in Gelb’s first production of “Tosca”, which was panned but revived last season with star French-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna.

His Ring cycle was rubbished by The New Yorker as “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history”.

Trombonist Weston Sprott says Gelb had spent US$1 million more — inflation adjusted — per production than had been the case before he arrived, and that he could save millions by bringing costs down.

“You have this double dip in that you have productions that cost much more and are reviewed much more poorly. You’re paying more for less return, which is a difficult sell,” Sprott said.

But it’s not just overspending. Staff object to claims that opera is in decline, pointing to resilient US companies and European houses doing innovative, well-reviewed productions.

Even by the Met’s statistics, its US$326.8 million budget is extraordinarily lavish — more than half that of La Scala and way over the US$194.3 million of Covent Garden, split between opera and ballet.

“We want to see innovation, enthusiasm and growth from our management... and make bad productions into good productions,” another orchestral player told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“That’s what’s going to save the Met. Not cutting our salaries.” — AFP