Today is the day the classical music world has been braced for all summer: the day after the Metropolitan Opera’s contracts with 15 of its unions — the musicians’ union, the stagehands’ union, the ticket takers’ union — expire. The Met, which says it faces bankruptcy if it can’t reduce its ballooning budget, threatened to lock out employees if they don’t accept the company’s proposed salary cuts. On Thursday, at the 11th hour, a federal mediator named Allison Beck was brought in to oversee negotiations that, until that point, seemed to have been conducted largely in the press. Late that night, the Met announced that the lockout deadline had been extended by 72 hours, after three unions — representing ushers, ticket takers, cleaning staff, call center workers and building engineers — managed to negotiate contracts. The talks continue.
This is the most heartening progress yet in a negotiation period that has been conducted, throughout the summer, in the public eye. With blog posts, calls to the media, and a steady stream of press releases, both the unions and the Met have done their best to steer the discussion. The Met — in the person of its controversial general director, Peter Gelb — says that opera audiences are steadily declining, donations are down, and cutting salaries is the only way to stave off disaster. (This argument evokes the terms of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 16-month lockout, which started in much the same way.) The unions retaliate by saying that they are experts in their field, work punishing hours, and that their salaries alone are not to blame; the Met should take a long hard look at the cost of its new productions — many of which have not been very good.
Both sides are partly right — this is why negotiation is so difficult. But the discourse in the media has amounted to a dust-cloud of response focused on a few constantly rehashed points: Peter Gelb’s statement that opera audiences are declining; the union members’ high salaries; and the idea that Peter Gelb’s expensive and supposedly bad productions are to blame for this mess.
The most hysterical response is reserved for Gelb’s statement that opera audiences are declining. In recent weeks, articles and blogs and Facebook posts have repeatedly said that Gelb is lying: opera attendance is just fine, because look, the Chicago Lyric Opera had a banner year this year! This view represents an alarming level of wilful denial. Audience decline has been an ongoing problem for orchestras and opera companies at the very least throughout the current new century. In a recent article on the Glimmerglass Festival, I cited an Opera America study that followed nine major American companies — not including the Metropolitan Opera or the Chicago Lyric — from 2002 to 2012; all declined, but the summer festivals declined the least. The average rate of decline for the year-round companies was 31% — in other words, ticket sales fell by nearly one-third. It’s unfortunate that, when anyone does tell the truth about this, it tends to meet with an outcry from people reacting as if a beloved art form were under attack, or with rebuttal from other leaders saying that audiences love productions and opera is in better shape than ever — statements that, however true they may be, don’t actually address the issue.
It isn’t attacking the art form to tell the truth about the large institutions that have been its chief propagators. There’s a lot of talk, these days, about the future of classical music; and in this debate there is considerable blurring — as I’ve said before — of the distinction between the art form itself and the institutions that surround it. Cars are not in trouble every time that automobile manufacturers are in crisis. Similarly, classical music is not in trouble; opera is not in trouble; the news is not in trouble; religion is not in trouble. But some of the large institutions that have traditionally disseminated these things — opera houses and orchestras, newspapers and traditional old-line churches — are facing shrinking audiences, declining revenues, and the challenge of figuring out how to reinvent themselves to make themselves vital to a younger generation. And openly identifying the issues is a way to begin to find solutions — even if hearing about the problems of the field is off-putting to prospective donors. (This is the main argument I hear about why not to address the issue of audience decline — as if lying to people to get them to give money were a better alternative.)
As for the salaries: debating how much anybody’s work is “worth” is an exercise in futility. There are no objective measurements of worth. Having supported myself as a freelancer for 20 years, I can attest to the fact that what one is paid is a reflection of one’s status, one’s context, and what the market will bear; an article worth $150 to one publication might get you $3,000 from another. The unions have done a fine job at getting good compensation for essential jobs that are consistently underappreciated — to see how underappreciated, witness the derogatory comments about the Met stagehands’ supposedly exorbitant salaries.
At the same time, it is entirely possible that large institutions — not only the Met — will no longer be able to support this kind of remuneration in the future. This is not just hype that greedy institutions spin at contract negotiation time, though the Minnesota Orchestra case certainly eroded people’s trust in managements’ good faith. And it isn’t true of every organization. But the same problems are showing up in institutions of varying sizes all over the country. The San Diego Opera, too, nearly went out of existence earlier this year; its board voted to close in the face of declining ticket sales and donations. The company has now been brought back to life — but operating on a smaller budget.
As for the question of Peter Gelb’s productions: I don’t know of many cases where a labor dispute bled over into the critic’s terrain and became so focused on artistic quality. It seems somehow extraneous to the argument. It’s true that if the Met had had a string of wildly successful and popular new productions it wouldn’t be in such a serious financial situation, but it’s also true that the Met’s financial troubles far predate Peter Gelb’s arrival at the helm, though in the years when Joe Volpe was leading the company they were significantly underreported to the public.
Gelb is right that opera in its current form is not sustainable — something of a given in a field that has literally no independent commercial viability, relies entirely on donations, can’t hope for significant European-style government funding in this country, and is paying hundreds of people very large salaries. The unions are also right that the problem is partly artistic. What the Met wants — what all large institutions desperately need — is a leader with vision: with the ability to frame the problems and hopes and to get people on board with what he’s doing. Gelb has actually outlined the problems very well, and his goal — to do more new productions that reflect the contemporary world more, in as many ways as possible — is a good one, on paper. But he hasn’t been able to deliver on the artistic portion of that vision. If he had, perhaps people would be more willing to follow him where he wants to go. At the moment, at least, the door is open, and everybody, at least, is still talking.