On Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera is scheduled, with a new production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” to open a season that many thought might never make it to the stage. This summer, the company offered plenty of operatic drama behind the scenes as it negotiated a new contract with 15 of the 16 unions representing its various employees — from box office staff to stagehands to the chorus and orchestra — in a turbulent and publicly fought wrangle that threatened to lead to a season-ending lockout.
The crisis was ultimately averted. At the eleventh hour, a federal mediator came in; the July 31 lockout deadline was extended; an independent investigator prepared a report on the company’s financial position; and last month, one by one, the unions and the company came to terms, making cuts on each side. Public and media attention can move on to the Met’s next scandal: Protests at Lincoln Center on the Met’s opening night will concern not the union members’ incomes, but the October production of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which some people allege is anti-Semitic.
Yet the Met situation needs to be remembered and better understood. Various news outlets seized on factoids that came to symbolize the argument in people’s minds: The orchestra gets 16 weeks of paid vacation! The company spent $169,000 to create a poppy field for a single scene in Borodin’s “Prince Igor”! (In fact, one reason the orchestra gets so much time off is that the Met canceled the outdoor summer concerts in city parks that had been a regular component of the season. And the cost to build scenery, for some productions, is not as much an issue as that many new sets are too large to be stored easily at the Met during the season; trucking and storage costs, the orchestra musicians’ union claimed — incorrectly — that trucking and storage costs had gone up by 100 percent under Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, though the rise was, the Met says, actually in the order of 1 pereent.
More important, the situation raised questions about whether large institutions can sustain themselves and whether the people who work for them can continue to earn their livings there.
Union-bashing is a popular pastime in classical music these days. Reactions to the Met situation often included disparaging mentions of six-figure salaries for stagehands, without much regard for their 80-hour work weeks. The Met’s board, in an open letter in the New York Times, disparaged a couple of union work rules.
And for the past few years, lockouts have been all too much in vogue. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony and the Atlanta Symphony all exacted concessions from their musicians by locking them out before the Minnesota Orchestra embarked on a devastating 16-month lockout of its musicians that was resolved in February with a contract that made fewer cuts than management had wanted. Atlanta is now embarked on its second lockout in three years.
Following suit, the Met administration targeted union salaries. In a Guardian interview in June, shortly after talks had begun, Gelb pointed out that nearly two-thirds of the company’s $327 million budget was spent on labor costs. Faced with declining ticket sales and a dwindling endowment, “If we are not able to create a more sustainable business model now,” he said, “we know we will face a bankruptcy situation in the next two or three years.” (Those who looked for financial salvation from the live HD broadcasts that are among Gelb’s most successful initiatives are disappointed; the $17 million in revenue they generate is only a small fraction of the budget.) Gelb’s proposal to the unions: Accept changes in work rules and pension and benefit plans amounting to income reductions of about 16 to 17 percent, or be locked out.
The unions countered by pointing to the increase in new productions during Gelb’s tenure, many of which flopped with critics and at the box office. To present “the unions” as a single voice is misleading. Of the 15 involved, the main focus was on the three largest: the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA); Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (representing the orchestra); and Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), representing the stagehands. AGMA’s president, Alan S. Gordon, was particularly adept at incendiary memos that were picked up on blogs and Facebook posts. “I was so nasty,” Gordon said on the phone last week, “that I wouldn’t ever talk to me again, if I was Peter Gelb.”
At issue, for the unions, was that the increased number and complexity of the new productions meant a lot more work, and a lot more overtime pay — one reason labor costs had increased. Under Gelb, the Met’s annual operating budget rose from $209 million in 2006 to $327 million in 2013. If union members were going to take cuts, they said, management had to make comparable reductions in other areas.
Gelb’s lockout threat was arguably a tactical mistake, polarizing the debate early in the negotiations. Once it was made, though, many thought Gelb would feel obliged to act on it. The final contracts, therefore, came as a pleasant surprise, even a capitulation. The independent financial analyst, Eugene Keilin, will continue on retainer, supervising the company’s expenditures and reporting to the main unions and the Met administration. And while the unions had to accept minor salary cuts, the Met did as well; last week, it let 22 staffers go. The union work rules, of which Gelb and the board were so critical, remain fundamentally unchanged.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a victory or a defeat,” says Joe Hartnett, the assistant director of IATSE’s department of stagecraft, who coordinated negotiations for the IATSE unions. “I think it’s more the relief that common sense has prevailed.”
The Met is not commenting on details of the contracts. “The entire company is relieved that the negotiations are behind us,” a Met spokesman said in a statement, “and we look forward to the new season opening Monday.”
The Met is certainly not alone. This spring, the San Diego Opera nearly shut down for many of the reasons Gelb cited: dwindling audiences, declining donations, budget deficits. In 2010, David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, wrote in the company’s program that “the ‘business as usual’ model will cripple San Francisco Opera in the next two years if there is not major change.” Not only did his words presage Gelb’s, but he was just about to negotiate a new contract (which he did, successfully, in 2011). There is nothing like an impending union negotiation to make an opera administrator emphasize the negative.
This fall, the San Francisco Opera and its unions negotiated another new contract. The company’s endowment is up, and it has increased its number of operas from eight to 10. “I would say I’m feeling better about our short-term prospects,” Gockley says.
But he acknowledges that the fundamental problems aren’t going away. Half of the company’s fundraising income comes from nine donors who are over 70 years old, he says. And he characterizes opera as “a voracious beast that will continue to consume increasing amounts of money.” Meanwhile, the decline in subscription audiences and corresponding rise of single-ticket buyers puts more pressure on companies “to deliver a popular or hit production every time, or we are stuck with empty seats” — pressure that the criticisms of Gelb illustrate.
Opera isn’t dying, but the organizations that produce it are facing significant challenges. Gelb has embraced the notion — espoused by the Kennedy Center’s former president, Michael Kaiser, among others — that to generate excitement about a company, you have to create big projects for people to get excited about. “[Gelb’s] attitude was to spend his way out of a recession,” says Gockley, “where ours was to save our way.”
No one should criticize an artistic leader for having artistic ambitions, and anyone in the arts knows that there is no formula for getting it right every time. The heat Gelb has taken for the lackluster Robert Lepage “Ring” cycle has detracted from the success of other productions on his watch, from “Parsifal” to “Don Carlo” to “Satyagraha.”
But Gelb’s ambition may not be coupled with practical vision — including a complete understanding of the unions he works with, whose employees are considerably invested in the Met’s future, and who are, like the audience, eager to be inspired. “These contracts didn’t come to be the way they are,” Gockley says, “without rational minds making decisions.” The question remains whether the summer’s experience will lead to both sides better understanding the other’s problems — or just to throwing out more money and new work and hoping something sticks.
“Le Nozze di Figaro,” directed by Richard Eyre and conducted by James Levine, opens Monday and runs through Oct. 25, with additional performances in December; the HD broadcast is Oct. 18. The Met’s season continues through May 9. www.metopera.org.