Reading Between the Lines in Dowd’s Interview with Gelb

Interesting. As the Metropolitan Opera careens toward a management-led lockout of its orchestra musicians, singers, and workers, we have some fresh words from the man at the center of the dispute: the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. Recently, Mr. Gelb sat down with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to share his thoughts on where the dispute stands, and what he’s hoping the end result would be.

Dowd’s piece is warm and sympathetic (Norman Lebrecht called it “maternal”)—this is not unexpected, as she used to work for Gelb’s father. What strikes me as notable about the column is that since Gelb is in a relaxed, comfortable setting, he let slips some thoughts and ideas that he might not have otherwise.

And frankly, these ideas terrify me.

Allow me to share some thoughts about the interview.

* * *

“Hurtling toward a lockout, Gelb sees a fresh vitriolic insult from a union negotiator every time he checks the news on his phone.”

I can only imagine the stress he’s going through, and I agree it must be tough. However—and I can only speak for myself here—I would have more sympathy for him if he wasn’t making daily digs at his workers, as he has done in many recent interviews. And frankly, as he does in this very interview. Imagine how his workers feel when he repeatedly insults and demeans them, and blames them unilaterally for all the Met’s problems.

This is a point that bears repeating. He keeps dehumanizing his workers as some faceless, sinister “union.” This is wrong. Again, they are his workers. And since putting on operas is the Met’s business, these workers are his product. They should receive their due respect.

Over the last eight seasons, the musicians, singers, and workers at the Met did all Mr. Gelb asked them to, and more. But now, he calls them overpaid (for work he asked them to do) and greedy (for expecting to be paid for the amount of work he asked them to do), and tells them they’re part of a dying industry that has no future.

This is as absurd as Éric Ripert badmouthing the chefs at his restaurant Le Bernardin… and further going off about how seafood tastes terrible anyway.

Please Mr. Gelb, consider how your workers feel every time they check their phones.

But another point. Labor disputes are inherently ugly… the ugliness is unavoidable. A lockout will fray friendships, turn people against each other, and severely damage any institution that experiences one. This is why it’s so disheartening to see Mr. Gelb actively pushing a lockout, as if it’s an easy solution. I saw how a similar line of thinking played out with the Minnesota Orchestra, and the results were terrible. Things are much, much better now in Minneapolis, but it has taken a great deal of effort to heal the damage. From my vantage point, Gelb is unleashing a whirlwind that he cannot control, and things can get much worse.

So I’m sorry that you’re feeling the heat Mr. Gelb… but you are not an innocent bystander in this.

“Gelb, a Yale dropout who worked as a teenage usher at the Met and an office boy for the impresario Sol Hurok, comes across as smooth, tailored and cerebral.”

This is an interesting tidbit, that helps humanize Peter Gelb—it shows a long-standing connection with the Met in a way that many can relate to.

What this sentence also suggests is a superficiality to his understanding of the Met and all that goes on there. Reading this sentence, Mr. Gelb has just as much qualification to run Yale University. In either case, he would bring a generalized business sense to the job, and a modicum of institutional memory. But based on his experiences, would he be able to run one of the nation’s most prestigious intuitions of higher learning? Would he be able to effectively and efficiently manage the competing demands of students, parents, instructors, researchers, adjunct faculty, maintenance staff, administration, donors, alumni and local townspeople?

So why does a short stint ushering at the Met give him any special insight into juggling all the unique demands of the nation’s premier opera house?

And why does he continue to act is if he alone is able to understand the problem?

Look, I get it… a man’s background is hardly his destiny. And sometimes an outside perspective is necessary, or even desirable in an organization; a shake-up can sometimes be just what an institution needs.

But sometimes it flops—because the outsider is not fully prepared for the challenge, or doesn’t have the necessary skills.

“The unions have personalized the fight, sniping at Gelb and expensive productions that have not panned out, while Gelb is sticking to the bottom line of unsustainable labor costs.”

This is debatable. It’s not a simple case where the musicians, singers, and backstage workers are attacking Gelb as a person—they’re doing so because of his role as the person who has authorized the work schedules, approved the overtime, greenlighted productions, monitored spending, and ultimately has been tasked with running the organization. They are saying that he has not completed these tasks adequately, and therefore is ultimately the person responsible for the Met’s current financial problems. For example, if overtime costs are too high, he is the person who approved it; ergo, we should not blame the workers for working the hours he asked—and required—them to work.

And remember, right from the start of Gelb’s interview with Paula Zahn, he put 100% of the blame for the current financial problems squarely on “the unions,” and accused union workers of being unable to understand budget cuts. He has made a whole series of inflammatory statements about unions in the press over the last two weeks. He is most certainly not blaming impersonal “labor costs,” but specifically calling his union workers greedy, financially ignorant, and a drain on the institution.

For example, moments later in this interview he makes the following statement:

“They’re surrounded by too much gold leaf,” Gelb says of the 15 unions — from wigs and makeup to a union consisting of one house painter. “It’s delusional.”

Isn’t that personalizing the fight?

“Economically, they’ve been calling the shots for decades. And I have to break that up for the Met to survive. We have to go big, but do it in a way that’s economically small. Even in the Met, you can see the gold leaf’s chipping off the ceiling.”

For me, this is the clearest statement of Gelb’s principles, priorities and intentions. And completely demolishes the notion that he is doing this for any other reason than to bust the unions. Note that he isn’t looking for minimizing any potential damage to the institution. He’s not concerned with his artistic mission or product. He isn’t exploring any other cost savings, including those that he has direct control over.

He only wants to break the unions.

He doesn’t even articulate specific reasons for how specifically this will help the Met’s current problems—it just seems that once he breaks the unions, a new golden era of prosperity will dawn for the Met. As I said before, this is essentially arguing that by making choristers work overtime for free, his poorly-attended revivals will suddenly begin playing at more than 50% capacity.

As a result, it is hard to see “breaking the union” as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself.

“Anthony Tommasini, The Times’s chief classical music critic, says there have been mistakes on both sides. ‘The union heads have made Gelb seem so incompetent, even artistically, that if the talks are resolved, then what is the public to think? “Great, another season courtesy of that know-nothing.” ’ ”

This gets back to an earlier point. Gelb is threatening to go nuclear. He should not be surprised that his workers are pushing back. That’s why he should be working with the union workforce to defuse the situation before it gets any worse.

And I have to say, the fact that so many of the Gelb-produced shows are selling so poorly in revivals suggest that many in the public are already thinking, “Great, another season courtesy of that know-nothing.” I hardly think the unions bear all the blame there….

* * *

There’s a great deal going on in this interview, but for me the most important aspect is how clearly Mr. Gelb’s intentions come through.  And not necessarily to his benefit.  In the end, my impression is that this interview doesn’t necessarily help Gelb’s cause, however much it may humanize him.

 

Xochipilli

Mr. Gelb’s Disastrous Interview

My Goodness. To my readers, I offer an apology. I had hoped that with the resolution of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, my blog could move away from discussing labor unrest, allowing me to cover topics that were more fun and entertaining.

Alas, a nearly-identical labor dispute is coming to a boil over at the Metropolitan Opera… and I can’t look away.  I thought that after sharing my thoughts over the weekend (say, here, here, and here), I could step back and take a break.

But it seems that fate has other ideas.

Many thanks to Drew McManus over at Adaptistration, who pounced on an interview given by the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. As Drew points out, this one is explosive, and is already raising the hackles of other writers.

Well… I can’t resist providing commentary on my own.

If you’re not already sick of reading my thoughts about the Met, please read on:

* * *

“We need to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make them take this seriously,” Gelb said in an interview Thursday. “The short-term pain is something we’d have to live with in order to provide long-term survival.”

Wow. Just… wow.

Mr. Gelb, I hope you’re paying your public relations people well. I cannot imagine a more inflammatory statement to make to the press—one that makes you look more petty, paternalistic, and completely out-of-touch. Coincidentally, this statement also closely mirrors a statement made by the Minnesota Orchestra leadership explaining why they chose to lockout the Orchestra musicians: “[W]e were obligated to make the decision to hold musicians accountable for a counterproposal.”

Let me be clear… the union musicians and workers are not your underage children; they are your partners in negotiation. Partners who have legitimate concerns. The fact that you don’t like their concerns doesn’t mean they are somehow illegitimate or un-serious.

And it is shocking that you seem to believe that you get to determine how seriously people are taking this situation, and that you unilaterally get to choose what steps to take as a consequence. Mr. Gelb, you are directly toying with their livelihood… their mortgages, their children’s college funds, their healthcare and more. Trust me—they’re taking this very seriously.

In fact, one could reasonably argue that it is you who has refused to take this situation seriously. You are willing to inflict direct financial pain on hundreds of full-time workers, thousands of additional personnel, and the city as a whole simply to make an economic point. Moreover, you have refused to provide real, concrete financial data that supports your position, or even to negotiate in good faith. Plus, you have repeatedly refused to take any responsibility for your actions.

And I’m astonished that you are characterizing the potential damage to the Met as “short term pain.” Everywhere this has been tried in the last few years, the damage has been crippling. As Drew McManus lays out on his blog, “Anyone who has been paying attention to the field since 2008 has seen the devastating impact poorly designed work stoppages (both lockouts and strikes) have on an institution; just look at what happened in Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville, Minnesota, and St. Paul. The Met is no exception to this new rule and you can expect that a bitter work stoppage will reap equally devastating results.”

So, what do we need to do to make you take this seriously?

I would also like to point out that others who have taken this paternalistic approach in similar situations have lost—and lost badly. For example, the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Lead Negotiator Richard Davis, Board Chair Jon Campbell, and Orchestra President and CEO were all forced out of the organization once the lockout ended. They were ejected from the organization because it was widely realized that they could never effectively lead the recovery—their ouster was a necessary first step to begin the healing. So the board got rid of them.

And interestingly enough, only a few months before he was forced out, Michael Henson had had his contract extended, too….

That [$2.8 million] deficit might not sound like a lot, but Gelb said it “could have easily been $20 million to $30 million if I had not been calling up our donors and getting them to fill the gap.”

Oh Good Heavens. Mr. Gelb, it is somewhat embarrassing to point out that the Met is a 501 (c) 3, not-for-profit organization. This means your organization engages in fundraising. This means, by definition, that you will always be calling up donors and getting them to fill the gap. That’s what a non-profit does, every single year. You make it sound like you are a commercial theater, which you are not. Please stop with the mendacity.

Look, I get it, fundraising is hard. But donor fatigue is not in any way tied to you unionized workforce. To be blunt, it is a problem of your fundraising team. And as has been pointed out again and again, there are other ways to reduce costs at the Met, ways that will probably have a higher rate of return, without crippling your workforce or your artistic product. The fact that you are only targeting union concessions smacks of ideology, not economics.

If the unions would agree to concessions, Gelb said, the savings of more than $30 million annually would inspire the board to carry through a plan to double the company’s relatively anemic endowment of $253 million and guarantee future financial security.

Mr. Gelb, you need to explain the quid pro quo logic here. It will “inspire” the board to “carry through” on a plan? That’s hardly a rock-solid guarantee. And if they love the organization, why aren’t the board members doing this anyway? Didn’t you just admit that there is already a plan ready to go, one that will be implemented as soon as board members are “inspired?” Refusing to take a critical step that can insure the long-term financial health of the organization just so they can extract maximum union concessions now is breathtakingly petty.

I could understand if the board was implementing a multi-faceted, comprehensive strategic plan to reform the Met’s finances, and both a capital campaign and union concessions were part of the mix. I might not agree with it, but I would understand the rationale. But Mr. Gelb, you’re describing something very different. There is no comprehensive plan. There is no vision. It’s just a case where the unions take sacrificial pay cuts for now in exchange for the possibility of undefined board actions sometime in the future. Would anyone find that to be a good bargain?

Gelb said administrative employees would see their compensation reduced by an amount equivalent to that of union members. He himself took a pay cut in April, lowering his base pay to $1.4 million a year.

Yes. But Mr. Gelb, it has been widely reported that before you took your “solidarity pay cut,” you gave yourself a hefty raise. Do you not see why this raises hackles?

“The people who work here are incredibly professional,” he said. “I admire them greatly and we had great mutual respect for each other, up until I asked them for a pay cut.

“Once the dust settles,” he added, the musicians “don’t have to love me to play well.”

I find it hard to believe that it was just the “pay cut” that caused people to lose respect for you.

This is such a jaw-dropping statement. Mr. Gelb, just based on your own words in this one interview, you have shown astonishing arrogance towards your workers, ignorance of industry-wide labor trends, and breathtaking hypocrisy.

And after all this, and all your work creating a hostile workplace, you expect everyone to treat you professionally… and to just suck it up and do their jobs as you want them to?

Mr. Gelb, I daresay you’ve become a poster child for a well-known business leadership phenomena known as “toxic leadership.” As Marcia Lynn Whicker described in her influential book, Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad, toxic leaders “Succeed by tearing others down. They glory in turf protection, fighting and controlling rather than uplifting followers.”  They are often bullies, and like all bullies are fundamentally weak and insecure. They frequently follow a “divide and conquer” approach to leadership—essentially establishing a culture where people are against each other and engendering a culture of fear and mistrust.

I’m sure many are wondering when you will start acting professionally, Mr. Gelb.

* * *

Based on this interview, I fear the situation is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.  And that makes me very sad.

 

Xochipilli

A Response to the Met’s Response

I have just been reminded of a certain scene from Christopher Marlowe’s classic play, Doctor Faustus. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the play follows the life of a medieval scientist/philosopher who sold his soul to the demon Mephistophilis in return for knowledge and earthly power. But Faustus repeatedly finds that all of his questions, and all of his requests, somehow get twisted around so that he never quite gets what he wants… or expects. In exasperation, Faustus finally asks the most difficult question he can imagine, a problem that confounded the scientists of his day—how do the planets move? What dictates their actions? Why is there no apparent pattern to eclipses, conjunctions and such? He demands a real answer from Mephistophilis: How does this happen? Mephistophilis complies with Faustus’ direct command by giving a sly non-answer, one that is so vague as to be meaningless. Defeated, Faustus gives a sardonic chuckle and responds, “Well, I am answered.”

At that moment, Faustus knows the gig is up. No matter how specific his queries, no matter how straightforward his demands, he realizes his hellish companion will always wriggle out. He sold his soul for knowledge… but he’ll never actually receive it.

* * *

With this in mind, I can’t help but reflect on the ongoing labor dispute that’s slowly engulfing the Metropolitan Opera.

Yesterday, I posted an entry here on my blog showing that the union had greatly bolstered its position in the dispute by presenting a vast pile of charts, graphs, and analyses that helped prove its case. At the same time, I called out the Met for not supplying similar information to bolster its own case. Without this supporting documentation, it seemed that the steep cuts and sweeping structural changes proposed by the Met’s management were necessary… simply because the Met said so.

And now, the Met’s management has responded. It has provided its own documentation to prove the rightness of its case.

Sadly, the Met’s response is just as vague and unhelpful as the answer provided by Mephistophilis.

Allow me to provide a few comments. Note that the Met’s management inserted its 50 pages of responses directly into the 80-page document originally created by the union, creating a 150-page document. Fair enough—that’s a good way to track the points and counterpoints. But unfortunately, the version I have is a copy, meaning everything is in shades of gray. It might be that the Met’s original document was color-coded so it stood out from the union’s, but in this version it is difficult to tell the pages apart and see who is saying what. Note that the Met’s pages are indicated by the words “Met document page XX” in the upper right hand corner. Flip through… you’ll see what I mean (link is below):

Combined_Met_rebuttal_and_802_powerpoint_7-26-14

And to begin.

* * *

Met document pages 1-4

The original document provided by the union begins by setting out to show that the Met’s productions under Peter Gelb have received poor reviews—much worse than those of his predecessors. The union argues that these badly-received performances are a significant cause for decline in ticket sales at the Met.

The Met, then, seeks to rebut these charges.

But it does so in a hasty, clumsy manner that doesn’t really help its case. It essentially blusters, yes we did too have some positive reviews!

Obviously, everything submitted for public approval will probably get a variety of good and bad reviews. That point is not disputed—it is true of all aspects of life. For example, if you go to websites like Rotten Tomatoes that provide aggregate information on how movies are reviewed across North America, you will find that even the most popular, most beloved movies of yesterday and today have some nay-sayers. Companies or with great customer service records will still have disgruntled reviewers, and fantastic products will still garner negative reviews on Amazon.com.

The point isn’t that there are good reviews out there. The point is that when compiling aggregate totals, the new Met productions have gotten overwhelmingly bad press.  And no one is interested in forking out the money to see these shows. Why isn’t the Met addressing that point?

I’m also intrigued at the disparity between the Met’s and the union’s data. The union provided a page full of productions, listed in specific detail. The Met, however, counters this by tossing out a few shows from a handful of specific years: 2013-14, 2003-04, 1993-94, and 1983-84. Why only these shows?  Why choose these dates, decades apart? Are they particularly representative? Are the 10-year gaps problematic? And, if the union can compile loads of data, why can’t the Met?

To further its point about positive reviews, the Met then gives information about how the productions were rated in the New York Times over the last six or seven years, and accentuates the positive. Well, okay, but I’m not sure what the Met’s point is here. Is the Met challenging how the union classified the shows in the union’s original analysis (positive, negative, neutral)? Is it suggesting that the Times alone is the benchmark about how a production is reviewed—how do reviews from other publications factor in? For that matter, what are the criteria the Met uses to determine whether a performance is rated highly or poorly?

And I can’t help but find it comical that Met is trying to bolster its position by showing the positive reviews its productions have garnered. After all, Gelb was so dissatisfied that his shows were receiving poor reviews in the publication Opera News, that he forbade it from reviewing Met productions altogether. Opera News protested, but ultimately the publication was forced to comply. So… are all those “positive” reviews the Met is crowing about real, or are they the result of whipped-dog reviewers who are afraid of losing their careers?

* * *

Met document pages 5-6

A new section begins where the union argues that by raising ticket prices, the Met was losing audience members. The union argues that lowering ticket prices could lead to growth in ticket sales.

I am struck by the Met’s response to this. It’s verbatim reply: “Lowering prices means sales have to be significantly better in order to make up the difference in order to have a positive financial impact.”

Yes. Yes it does mean that. That’s the whole point. That’s why the union is suggesting it.

Then, the Met then tries a “gotcha” moment by suggesting that ticket prices were reduced—and reduced dramatically—in the last two years covered by the graph, and sales only ticked up slightly. Aha! It seems to be saying… See? We tried lowering ticket costs and it didn’t help!

This is disingenuous. There is a difference between reducing prices as part of a pre-determined, season-long marketing strategy… and papering the house because ticket sales have tanked. Yes, in both cases tickets are discounted, but there is a world of difference between the intent, the rationale, and the overall goal of these actions. One is done as a deliberate, strategic attempt to meet consumer demand, and the other is a desperate bid to stave off humiliation. Very different things.

Then, the Met tries to further rebut the union’s point about how lowering ticket prices could lead to better overall numbers by saying, “that’s incorrect economics.”

Well. That’s a comprehensive rejoinder.

That’s it? Nothing more to add? No further justification, or explanation?

Unfortunately, the Met does have something else to add. Immediately following that statement, it provides a bullet point that says, exasperatedly, “Total revenue may or may not increase as a consequence. That depends on something economists call elasticity (‘the price elasticity of demand.’)”

Thank you for the condescending macro-economics lesson.

First, let me point out that this is, by all accounts, a public relations document where the Met is attempting to persuade readers about how it’s position is correct, wise, and forward-looking. In such a document, it is not helpful to scornfully quote a textbook definition of an abstract economic principle. Many would read this as a veiled insult to your readers’ intelligence.

But it also shows the Met is losing the PR game. Who cares about the abstract rules of supply and demand? What does the Met’s research specifically say about this specific topic? What does it indicate about the optimum price point for tickets? Is there one price point for all shows, or are there variations depending on type or projected audience? What has the Met done in the area of dynamic pricing? Rather than discuss this incredibly important topic in the abstract, why isn’t the Met getting into the specifics of its own scenario to show whether or not this will work?  It would be far more convincing than what the Met provides here.

So again, these statements don’t address the union’s point.

* * *

Met document page 7

To bolster its previous claim, the union offers up several examples of orchestras that have tried lowering their ticket prices in order to boost overall sales.

And the Met responds: “The comparisons offered are all to regional symphony orchestras, which may or may not be relevant to the Met, an opera company with numerous full-time employees.”

Well… yes. These comparisons may not be relevant. Or they might be relevant. This is a philosophical point, yes? Again, it might help the Met’s case to actually explain why these comparisons have no bearing on this situation, rather than to make some airy pronouncement.

And I’d also like to point out that if the Met is only willing to look at models arising from identically-sized opera companies, it’s going to be waiting for a long time for data. Perhaps it should expand its field of vision.

And finally, I again question why the Met is adopting such a condescending tone in a public relations document.

* * *

Met document pages 8-14

The original union document moves into a new area of analysis, essentially arguing that Gelb’s shows did far worse than his predecessor’s, particularly in revival.

Unfortunately, this is where the Met’s response seems to run out of steam. The next many, many pages of the Met’s response consist of the repeated statement that revivals that originally opened before Gelb’s tenure ultimately sold better under Gelb’s leadership.  Presumably this is to prove that Gelb is actually a skilled arts marketing guru.

But this completely misses the point.

It is more accurate to remove Gelb entirely from the equation and simply say that these older revivals are doing better right now than they did in the recent past.

Gelb had absolutely nothing to do with their success, either then or now. He didn’t supervise or design the original productions, but is only capitalizing on their success. Could it be that these older revivals are doing better because the newer, Gelb-led productions have completely bombed, and patrons are flocking to the earlier productions as a result? Are these revivals still trading on good word of mouth and good reviews that have held over from the original productions?

I would need to see significant proof from the Met that it was Gelb’s personal marketing finesse that boosted attendance, or in any way contributed to the shows’ successes.  And the Met isn’t providing this kind of proof.

* * *

Met document page 15

In response to union comments about how expensive the new Ring production was, the Met responded: “As stated numerous times before, the Ring productions were fully funded by a generous gift from the Ziff family.”

First, a heartfelt thank you to the Ziff family for supporting the arts, and particularly for supporting new productions. This is an act of great generosity, and I am grateful for their vision.

But to the Met I say: as stated numerous times before, it is widely reported that the Ring productions went far over budget, and were not “fully funded” by the Ziff’s $20 million gift. That’s one of the union’s key points—Gelb’s cost overruns are crippling the organization’s finances. The Met has no credibility in this area until it fully opens the books and allows for an independent financial analysis.

* * *

Met document pages 16-25

More about how pre-Gelb productions did better under his tenure than they did in their original runs. Which I covered above.

* * *

Met document page 26

In response to the union’s commentary about how Gelb’s productions have garnered negative reviews, the Met puts forth a profound statement that will endure for centuries: “Reviews, good or bad, do not necessarily translate to box office success.”

Yes. Yes we know.

This is staggering. Really? That’s how the Met rebuts all the evidence of Gelb’s artistic failures? By saying that it doesn’t matter, because well-received shows don’t necessarily bring in money?

What an astonishing philosophy for a performing arts organization.

And really, is anyone saying that a good review would cause a box office success, or that at bad review would preclude one?  This feels like a straw man argument.

* * *

Met document page 27

The original union document listed that many large opera companies around the country—and the world—have done quite well over the last few years, refuting Gelb’s oft-repeated claim that opera is “dying.”

And here, the Met rebuts those claims by saying… well yes, but the Lyric Opera’s success over the last few years doesn’t count. The Met’s key argument? The Lyric Opera’s biggest show was The Sound of Music.

I was waiting for someone to try to make this weak argument.

On the one hand, who cares? The Lyric was responding to consumer demand. Good God, everyone tries to end the budget in the black by scheduling a beloved warhorse. What’s the problem?

But let’s dig a little deeper. Musically, what is the difference between The Sound of Music and Gelb’s English-language production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, which the Met keeps crowing about? Both shows were written for the popular theater, composed in a populist musical idiom, and contain a mixture of singing and spoken dialogue. If musicals are taboo, what about other singspiels? Zarzuelas? Operettas?

I’m astonished that Peter Gelb—who has been so studiously promoting popular entertainment, and so vehemently declaring that opera is dying—is writing off the Lyric Opera because it dared to perform a musical.

* * *

Met document page 28

The Met goes on to say that the successes of three other opera companies don’t count because their ticket sales declined… a whopping 0.6%, 1.3% and 5.1%, respectively.

Really?

That 0.6% decline in ticket sales is a national tragedy, to be sure, but this argument misses the point. Ticket sales will always fluctuate. In the case of these three companies, ticket sales did decline slightly this year. But these declines didn’t impact the bottom line—the companies found ways to cover those costs, offsetting them elsewhere. So as a whole, each company had a great year.

The lesson is that other companies survive by living within their means, and skillfully managing their resources. Perhaps the Met could emulate these trends.

* * *

Met document page 29

And the argument continues with a parade of horribles—all the companies that have experienced problems.

First, as a general observation, let me make a point. If General Motors has a bad year and sees its stock price collapse, as it did in the 2008 recession… do we assume that the entire automotive industry is collapsing? Do we assume that the automotive culture that has built up in the US over the last century is collapsing? For example, gas stations, insurance agents, detailers, repair shops… are they, too, about to go under as part of a generalized “death of cars?”

I don’t think so.

So can we stop seeing single examples of opera companies going under as proof of a global “death of opera?”

Yes, the City Opera closed—but is that because of the “death of opera” or the specific issues the company was facing? Many view Philadelphia’s bankruptcy as part of an underhanded attempt on the part of its management to avoid pension payments and other various financial obligations.

And so on.  I’ve already dealt with this “issue” many times on my blog, so let me direct readers here.

* * *

Met document page 31

At this point, I admit I’m losing interest in the Met’s document, in part because it is so laughable. Here we get to a tired argument that the workers and artists are terribly overpaid. Again, this has been delved into before, and it’s clear that the Met is inflating numbers and removing context to make them as high as possible. So it is wearying to read the Met go on and on about how the unions are misstating the budget numbers.

And as I have argued many times before, the Met (and Gelb himself) consistently ignore the notion of agency. The workers, singers, and orchestra musicians are not flash mobs that run on the stage and then shake management down for cash—they are doing the work that the management has hired them to do. So if overtime or production costs are spinning out of control… that’s the fault of management.

The Met has no credibility here.

* * *

My analysis has gotten over long. But this would seem to be a good place to stop, at least for now. After this section, the document moves into the give and take of the various proposals, and the conflicting accounts of what these proposals really mean. As that gets into the actual negotiations taking place (I believe) as we speak, I will hold off on commenting further until we see what’s happening on the ground.

So. Overall, I was surprised by the Met’s response. In sharp contrast to the union’s clear arguments, which were supported by solid data, the Met essentially provided a list of vague comments and weak justifications, which were bolstered by little hard data.

And to be honest, I’m irritated that in a PR move like this that the Met would be so… condescending. Many of us in the arts world battle with these same issues every day. We’re well aware of the challenges. We know the value of looking at outside models for ideas, and are wise enough to know these models are never an exact fit for our organizations. So give us some credit.

With respect, I think the Met can do better.

 

Xochipilli

Unions Have Proof to Bolster their Claims, Gelb Does Not

One of the things about the Met’s labor dispute that has disturbed me has been the fact that Peter Gelb and his supporters have never offered any real evidence to back up their claims. Instead, Gelb has simply stated that opera is in a state of decline, and that union salaries are crippling the institution.

But I have seen nothing concrete to bolster this position.

For example, if the Met truly believed that attendance was down because attendance was down everywhere, they would put together a chart ranking its performance against 25 or so peer companies, showing specific and aggregate figures, plus future projections. The analysis would measure several criteria, including ticket revenue, number of tickets sold, and paid capacity. And, it would show options, such as changes in the size of productions, number of performances, and such. This, and only this kind of study could show that opera was in a financial decline across the country, and point at the specific implications for the Met as a part of this trend.

Where is this study?

If unions were clearly, and unambiguously the cause of the Met’s financial troubles, it should be easy to prove. There should be some sort of comparative chart that shows labor costs with union and non-union workers. Peer-to-peer comparisons. Analyses. That sort of thing.

Where are these analyses?

Also, Gelb dismisses suggestions that cost overruns are a factor, essentially arguing that all expenditures are normal costs of doing business. Take the case of the controversial poppy field from Prince Igor. Critics have labeled it a wasteful extravagance, but Gelb argues that dollar for dollar it was a bargain, considering how much sets cost. Very well… prove it. Show us the complete production costs. And show the real world costs associated with similar sets, or other options the Met considered.

Where is this side-by-side comparison?

Another point Gelb has repeatedly made is that the costs for new productions have been underwritten by donors, and as such are fully funded. For example, the recent Ring cycle cost $19 million, and was completely covered by a $20 million donation provided by an interested donor—therefore, no cost overruns. Other insiders, however, have suggested the real costs were closer to $30 million, and represented a huge drain on the bottom line. Again, this should be easy to prove—open the books and prove the critics wrong.

Where are these figures?

All in all, I am stunned by what’s happening here. Gelb is running from interview to interview saying that the Met is teetering on the brink of collapse, and huge structural change is required to stave off disaster. More importantly, these huge structural changes have to be implemented immediately, before it’s too late.

But for proof, he wants us to rely on his good word alone. He’s asking for sacrificial concessions from his workers… based only on his assurances?

And what’s perhaps worse, that’s all he’s asking for: union concessions. It feels rather convenient that although the Met is apparently about to dissolve into bankruptcy, the only thing necessary to save it is… union concessions.

Isn’t there anything else to be done? Isn’t there any way to streamline operations, trim costs, or otherwise solve the budget dilemma?

Interestingly enough, these questions and concerns have been answered… by the union.

While Gelb refuses to provide any real world data to support his claims, or to provide any context for how he reached his numbers, Local 802 has done the necessary background research to show why the costs have run up, pinpointing what the problem really is. It has crunched the numbers, made the comparisons, and come up with a very different conclusion as to where the fault lies. After taking this critical step, it then sets out to come up with a solution. One that is not based on abstract notions or ideology, but on the Met’s real-world numbers.

In short, they’ve found a different way to save money without resorting to the damaging steps proposed by Gelb.

Their press release makes for fascinating reading.  And, following the link reveals a vast number of charts and graphs that clearly and colorfully show what the real problems are—exactly the kind of information the Met has thus far failed to provide.  The unions offer proof.

Yes, I’m sure Gelb will dismiss it out of hand because he has shown nothing but ideological contempt for anything associated with “the unions.” But the union’s position is so well argued, and so well documented, that I suspect it will be difficult to completely brush it aside….

 

Associated Musicians of Greater New York
Local 802, AFM

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Friday, July 25, 2014

Contact:
Laura Dolan / Geto & de Milly, Inc.
212-686-4551 x715 / 917-650-1420
ldolan@getodemilly.com

Met Orchestra Musicians Detail Failed Management and Lack of Artistic Vision of Met Opera General Manager Peter Gelb

Musicians Propose $20 Million in Cost-Savings for the Met Opera

New York, NY–Friday, July 25, 2014–Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musicians today have commenced negotiations with Met Opera management including General Manager Peter Gelb. The union and the musicians released the attached report detailing the failed management and flawed artistic vision of Gelb during his 8-year tenure at the helm of the Met. The report analyzes the dismal reception of Gelb’s expensive new productions by opera critics and patrons and also recommends specific strategies the Met could employ to save $20 Million annually by curtailing Gelb’s lavish spending and realizing scheduling efficiencies.

Gelb has stated in the press that the Met is facing financial ruin and possible bankruptcy, while refusing to provide the musicians, the media or the public any evidence of such a crisis. He has announced that he must impose draconian cuts of over $30 Million, yet has refused to substantiate/document the reasons. No one yet knows why Gelb is asking for over $30 Million in cuts when his reported deficit is only $2.8 Million in the context of a $327 million annual budget.

What is known, however, is that under Gelb the Met’s labor costs have remained flat, while the Met Opera budget has increased by nearly 50% ($105 Million). This is in large part due to Gelb’s overspending on critically panned, unpopular productions, as well as poor scheduling, inferior marketing and extensive management waste. The musicians are in favor or new and artistically daring productions but want to see them managed expertly, whereby the Met is able to achieve artistic success while living within their budget.

Link to MET Orchestra/Local 802 findings on Peter Gelb’s record of managerial and artistic failure; Musicians’ recommendations on cost-saving efficiencies for the
Met Opera.

Even if—after an objective analysis—the Met can be said to be facing some degree of financial challenge, it is clear what the solution isn’t. It isn’t slashing the compensation of the world-class performers and other craftspeople on whom the Met’s excellence and success relies. If Gelb’s cuts were implemented it would be impossible for the Met to recruit and retain the best musicians in the world who today comprise the company. The quality of the Opera would rapidly deteriorate, and Gelb will have succeeded in further decimating the audience that already has been diminished by his failed productions.

The musicians had hoped to purse good-faith negotiations with opera management. Unfortunately, Gelb has pursued a cynical strategy calculated to result in a lockout of his artists and craftspeople and imperil the upcoming Met Opera season. For months, Gelb has purposely refused to provide essential financial information that would have allowed substantive, good-faith negotiations to proceed, instead making erroneous claims in the press in the run-up to his long-planned lockout. His callousness, combined with his attempt to cover up his failed management and lack of artistic vision that has resulted in declining audiences and plummeting ticket sales, jeopardizes the livelihoods of his employees and the many businesses in New York City’s cultural sector and the Lincoln Center area that depend on the Metropolitan Opera for their incomes.

The loss to the City’s economy as a result of a lockout will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars – first, the $327 million that the Met spends on salaries, sets, costumes and on many other vendors/services will be lost; on top of that, the losses to restaurants and hotels, especially those in the immediate vicinity of Lincoln Center, will be devastating given that the Met has 3,800 seats and its audience represents a high proportion of local restaurant and hotel patronage during the opera season.

The musicians believe the Met’s problems are solvable without a lockout and a cancelled season, which will be a major blow to New York City culture and disastrous for Opera’s financial health. They wish the Met to remain an engine of the cultural and tourism economy—and continue to thrill both the Met Opera’s loyal audience and the young people and non-traditional audiences who will carry this great art form into its next generation.

###

So again, if the Met had a slam-dunk case about unions or a quantifiable decline in opera attendance all over the country, it would be making that case loudly and repeatedly at every chance they could. If the evidence was unambiguous, Gelb and company would be ridiculously transparent, showing everyone their numbers and being crystal clear in all their data. There would be daily briefings, bolstered by charts, graphs, PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos. Everyone involved in the organization would be working at, walking the skeptical through the evidence so everyone could understand it.

But instead, we have dissembling, opaque finances, and easily-disproven statements.

The union, however, has provided actual data—data that proves its point.

Again, this is reminiscent of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, where the Orchestra’s leadership repeatedly stated that union salaries were crippling it, but refused to show the data that supposedly backed this up. And when data was pried out of the organization, it was obvious why it was reluctant to share it—it didn’t back up their assertions. On the contrary, the audience advocacy group Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOS MN) examined the data and determined that the Orchestra’s financial problems were caused by mismanagement of funds, creative bookkeeping, and a reduction in the number of concerts performed.  Union salaries had little to do with the financial crisis.  But what is really important is that SOSMN was so convinced that the numbers proved its case that it shared them with the public.  Openly.  The group scheduled media events, posted videos… and took questions from the press and the community.

In short, when the numbers back you up, you publicize them.

The fact that the Met has been so slippery about its numbers makes it hard to believe the data truly bolsters Gelb’s overall position. And the fact that the union does have clear, easy-to-understand data that backs up its position makes it hard to take Gelb seriously at all.

 [Edit:  the Met did make a provisional response to this proposal... my response can be found here.]

 

Xochipilli

Problems Abound as Gelb Prepares for Lockout

Well, it appears that Peter Gelb over at the Met has written up his Articles of War, and announced that hostilities will begin as the clock strikes midnight on July 31. I suppose at this point it is statistically possible that some sort of accommodation can still be reached, as I understand that a few last minute negotiations are planned. Likewise, it is possible that Gelb’s recent threat is simply a bit of theatrics—a last-minute bit of posturing to indicate strength.

But based on everything that has happened to date, I have to believe Gelb’s threat is serious, and he fully intends to carry it out.

That would be a monumental mistake.

Right now, Gelb and his backers have made a series of four critical missteps that make it hard to take them seriously. Allow me to share how, over the last few weeks, they have systematically undermined their position.

* * *

1. Horrible PR. From my vantage point, the public relations strategy leading up to the lockout has been a disaster. Even worse than that of the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) in the lead up to its lockout of its musicians, which is saying a lot. It isn’t that Gelb has drifted off message—the issue is the message he’s actually delivered. Again and again he has hit the point that opera itself is passé, dying, and financially unstable as an art form. Many observers have been appalled at these remarks, and wondered if he was he was the right man to be running a major opera house. Thus, Gelb is starting from a position of relative weakness.

Worse, these doom-and-gloom assertions have been completely undermined by real-world evidence. Over the past two months, a number of American opera companies have reported record-breaking ticket revenue and donations, including those of St. Louis, Chicago, and Houston. Also, the people of San Diego were horrified by the imminent collapse of their beloved opera company this spring; they rallied together and successfully pulled the San Diego Opera from the brink. And after reading Gelb’s comments, a number of international companies openly derided them.

His main points, in other words, have been completely undermined in the press, making him appear foolish and tone-deaf. At this point, it’s hard to credit anything else he has to say, and the media doesn’t seem to be in any mood to give his comments the benefit of the doubt. Exactly not the position one would want to be going into a controversial lockout.

2. Complete inability to identify—and correct—what’s really wrong. Related to the above, I think it is important, if not slightly disconcerting, to point out that Mr. Gelb and his supporters seem to truly, fundamentally believe the fairy tale they’re telling… that opera is somehow dying. In their analysis of what has gone wrong at the Met, they have avoided mentioning any specific problems, particularly problems that involve them or their own actions. So while most outside observers are focusing on such concrete issues as cost overruns, bad marketing, the CEO’s aloofness to the public, artistically questionable productions, and similar issues, Gelb has all but shrugged his shoulders and named the impersonal “decline of opera” as the root of all the Met’s problems. This brings to mind one of the most memorable quotes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, made by Dr. Beverly Crusher: “If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!”

The disturbing thing here is that without a real analysis of the problems facing the Met, without a true understanding that there are a number of problems facing the Met, there can never be an effective solution. Look at the issue of how poorly ticket sales have done in Gelb’s revivals. The Met’s pricy, critically panned and artistically questionable revivals are playing to houses at 50% capacity… is that because opera is dying? Or the shows are duds? Gelb’s analysis suggests he has no understanding of the real problems the Met is facing.

And that lack of critical thinking makes me doubt his ability to manage the organization long-term.  Or, for that matter, to even manage the current dispute.

3. Obsessive union bashing. When Gelb and his supporters do finger a specific cause for the Met’s problems, they invariably choose to scapegoat unions with their “extravagant salaries.” In his interview with Paula Zahn, for example, he repeatedly deflected any blame off of him personally, and placed it squarely on the shoulders of the unions. And when Zahn challenged some of his answers with publicly-available information, he waved his hand and accused her of falling for union propaganda. Unions, unions… unions! (My commentary on the interview as a whole can be found here.)

This tactic might have worked in 2009 when the economy was in freefall, and people were scared about their financial future. It might have worked in 2010 when the Tea Party movement was at its full strength, and politicians all over the country were trying to establish their credentials by trying to rein in union “excesses.” It might still have worked in 2012—the start of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout—when the high-water mark of these currents had begun to subside, but the rhetoric still had some punch.

I find it harder to believe it will still be as effective in 2014. Unions are much less likely to be seen as a dangerous threat right now. Union-busting politicians such as Scott Walker are running into problems around the country. New York just elected a progressive mayor. Moreover, out of touch plutocrats are increasingly being seen as a problem, and Gelb’s huge salary, and hefty pay increases have started raising questions. While we are hardly in a pro-labor utopia, I think the current climate is much less receptive to Gelb’s claim that unions and unions alone are crushing the poor desperate Met.

And ultimately, this obsession with unions makes the whole lockout look like an ideological choice, instead of an economic necessity.  That’s not a good way to build support.

4. Race to lockout. Gelb seems to want to present himself as a reluctant hero here—he is forced to take this extreme action unwillingly, because events have forced his hand.

I don’t buy it.

Based on the actions over the last two months, it is hard to escape the clear implication that the lockout is exactly what Gelb was working towards, and his fingers are itching to pull the trigger. Indeed, there has been no effort to engage in negotiations, or to respond to the unions’ requests for more information. There has been no campaign to find solutions. There has been no attempt at formulating a talk-and-play mechanism to continue what negotiations were scheduled but to let the season continue as scheduled. Just a note to prepare for a lockout starting next week… along with a reaffirmation that opera is in a death spiral, and union concessions are the only force on the planet that can hold back the final darkness.

Worse, it’s clear that the lockout is the only plan. I’ve seen no evidence of a “plan B.” The Met management hasn’t released a holistic plan to get all costs under control, to mandate production cuts, launch new fundraising or marketing initiatives, or try any other solutions. Union cuts are it. So, apparently the fact that Gelb’s opera revivals are playing to half-empty houses will be solved by… cutting singers’ overtime pay.

And to continue this point—I was intrigued by the fact that in the Paula Zahn interview, Gelb made reference to the fact that if the union workers took sacrificial cuts, the board would respond by looking into a capital campaign to double the size of the endowment. This is… bizarre. Are they going to or not? Why isn’t the board taking this critical step anyway, regardless of what happens with the negotiations?

Surely the board knows all the basics of the campaign already, including what it can realistically raise, and by what date.

A basic step of any capital campaign is that before anything else occurs, you complete a feasibility study to determine if the campaign will work and how much it will raise. Then, you embark on the “quiet phase” where you line up key gifts. Only when you’ve locked in about half of what hope to raise do you make a public announcement for the campaign, telling people your plans—that way you can be sure you will succeed and avoid an embarrassing failure.

But the background research, feasibility study and quiet phase take years of work.

So, either Gelb has a good sense right now whether a campaign is about to launch, or it’s going to be years before one is launched. And if one is already lined up, and he’s waiting for union concessions to formally launch it… well, that means Gelb is not taking a necessary step that is crucial for the organization’s long-term survival simply so he can threaten the unions right now.

Either way, Gelb comes off as a bit too comfortable with launching the lockout—which is a case of horrible optics.  A lockout is a dangerous move that deliberately seeks to inflict economic harm on his employees, and has not been particularly successful elsewhere.

* * *

Peter Gelb has repeatedly stated that his goal is to save the Met—that is his only concern. But based on the points I’ve outlined, it’s hard to see that as a credible statement. I’ve seen no evidence of a larger plan to rein in costs or cut expenditures. There is no talk of other initiatives, other people being brought in to help, or any other moves being done to save the Met. As I mentioned before, it looks like Gelb’s only concern is… forcing union concessions.

And the lockout is a central part of that plan.

The problem is that he’s set it up quite badly; as a result, he doesn’t look resigned or  resolute, but foolhardy.

Based on my four points listed here, I suspect that it will be impossible for him to reach beyond his core supporters and convince undecided observers that he’s taking this action for the good of the organization. He’s already lost a great deal of public support, credibility, and momentum, and that gives me even less confidence that he’ll be able to handle the coming storm.

If I were him, I’d start making a serious effort to stop the lockout from ever happening. There is still time.

 

Xochipilli

“Die Fledermaus”: A Sparkling Finale to Sommerfest

The Minnesota Orchestra’s summer festival Sommerfest is drawing to a close, but there is still time to catch its grand finale: Johann Strauss’ sparkling operetta, Die Fledermaus. There are a few tickets still available, and you should mob the Orchestra’s website to snap them up.

Let me tell you why.

* * *

To begin, let me share a few personal memories of Die Fledermaus, which may explain why the work will always have a place in my heart.

I have had an extensive background performing in musical comedy—I started out as Kurt in The Sound of Music and never looked back—but Fledermaus was the first real opera I performed in. That in and of itself is enough to make me love it. But these performances took place while I was still teaching Latin American history at the University of Kansas; and while it was not unusual for the music faculty to perform on stage, it most certainly was unusual for the history faculty to do so. As a result, I was the subject for much gossip and speculation prior to opening night… from fellow instructors and students alike. Intrigued, many made their way to the performances.

There, they had a bit of a shock.

Die Fledermaus was originally set in Vienna during the late 1860s—a time widely associated with reckless hedonism, and extravagance that was nearly violent in its intensity. Nowadays, these associations are largely forgotten, and we tend to think of the entire century as simply “old.” To help the audience better understand the “feel” of the piece, the director chose to set it in the Roaring ‘20s, an era that has the same connotations to us as the 1860s did to Strauss’ audience. And indeed, the Great Gatsby-like atmosphere fit perfectly. It also gave the creative staff a chance to let their imaginations run wild—so much so that when the curtain rose on the famous party scene in Act II, the audience audibly gasped as they took in the jaw-dropping costumes and set, and immediately broke into applause.

And trust me, my costume was something to behold. I was in a little fuchsia-and-purple number that fused Chinese and Persian elements with an Art Deco sensibility. The fabric was as diaphanous as it was sparkly, perfect for a drunken revel out on the town.

Of course, I was also bedecked in matching makeup—painted on so heavily that it would have startled a Maori warrior. Best of all, it primarily consisted of fuchsia glitter… and anyone who has ever worked with the blessed stuff knows that glitter gets everywhere and stays with you forever. So naturally, my face and hair still had more than a few traces of glitter the next morning when I went off to teach. I think you can imagine the scene as I walked into the classroom, and 75 undergrads uniformly tilted their heads to the side and raised an eyebrow.

I’m sure this helped make my lectures on the Bourbon Reforms of the 1740s much more… dynamic.

Anyway, the production was a sensation. The word of mouth from opening night was so good that ticket sales went through the roof, and each of the remaining performances were sold out. I personally gained a whole lot of street cred from my peers and students despite the fuchsia glitter… or maybe because of it. And most of all, the production rekindled my passion for performing—a passion that is still very much alive today.

* * *

In many ways, Fledermaus is a most unusual piece. It is a rare example of a revenge comedy. And for it to truly make its impact, both those elements have to be present. It is too easy to stage the work as a bit of madcap fun, but there has to be a hint of anger there, too. For me, the perfect description of Die Fledermaus is a phrase Hal Prince once used to describe Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music: whipped cream with knives.

The story is similar to the plots of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in that it is entirely logical, yet patently absurd. Sometime in the past, Gabriel von Eisenstein played a humiliating practical joke on his good friend, Dr. Falke. The two were at a fancy masked ball where Falke was dressed in an extravagant bat costume (the “fledermaus” of the show’s title). Eisenstein got Falke drunk, then dropped him off outside of town, forcing his hung-over friend to stagger back into town on foot in an increasingly bedraggled bat costume that evoked jeers from children and his neighbors alike. Soon he became the laughing stock of the entire city; he never lived down the mocking epithet, “Dr. Bat.”

And so Falke devises a complicated plan to avenge himself by duping the philandering Eisenstein into trying to seduce Eisenstein’s own wife in disguise, and thereby revealing his infidelity to all. The centerpiece of the story is an over-the-top masked ball, where multiple mistaken identities, close calls, and dubious antics make for joyous entertainment. And amid the final laughter at how things ultimately turn out, the audience more than suspects that like Eisenstein’s original prank that set the story in motion, Falke’s practical joke has also gone too far… and the cycle is about to repeat itself.

To match the effervescent story, Strauss composed some of the most astonishing music of his career. It is wonderfully melodic, to the point that many of the songs are performed independently and have taken on lives of their own. The Overture, in particular, is a beloved concert piece that invariably moves people to dance. It only takes one or two measures for it to completely capture the listener and transport him or her to a glittering age of decadence.

And this is one of the marvels of Strauss’s score—there have been few times which a score has come to almost single-handedly embody an entire era. It is impossible not to be swept up in Strauss’ brilliant recreation of Vienna at the height of its glory. It is Vienna. The waltz, in Strauss’s hands, isn’t some old fuddy-duddy of a dance, but a dazzling example of unbridled revelry. The character pieces aren’t just mindless bits of slapstick, but strike a perfect balance of being ironic, witty, and hilarious.

And the music is completely infectious… I remember as the curtain closed on Act II, I wished that party could just keep going.

Another reason to go is to see the staging of the opera. Over the past few years, the Minnesota Orchestra has perfected its own unique style of presenting operas—a style that is unique by necessity. Because it was built primarily for acoustic orchestra performances, Orchestra Hall is a difficult space to present stage works. It lacks space in the wings or backstage, and it is impossible to move fully-designed sets onstage. But over the last few years, director Bob Neu has worked miracles with a less-is-more approach, using minimalist props and sets to bring the operas to life in only a few deft strokes. And the results have been spectacular. Anyone who saw the Orchestra’s staging of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, done in partnership with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, will know what I’m talking about—those performances were absolute wonders that again drew gasps from the audience. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, using these same forces, was equally astonishing. And who can forget Deborah Voigt’s hair-raising suicide at the end of Tosca, handled simply by a brilliant trick of light and shadow.

The Orchestra’s staging (or semi-staging) of operas over the last few years has been an absolute triumph of maximizing minimal resources to create breathtaking productions. And, coincidentally, they have completely undermined assertions made by Peter Gelb from the Met—Gelb seems to feel that opera only works when it’s presented in extravagant, over-the-top stagings. Well, the Minnesota Orchestra’s productions prove that, again, sometimes less is more.

So go!  Visit the Orchestra’s website and get your tickets if you haven’t done so already.  Don’t miss hearing this brilliant score—one that evoked pangs of jealousy from such composers as Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss (not related). And see it in a wonderful rendition that will match the music’s effervescence. You’ll even get to see my friends and colleagues from the Minnesota Chorale as drunken party guests… and let me tell you they are loving every moment of it.

Go!  I guarantee you will have a most enjoyable time!

Xochipilli

Greg Sandow and the “Death of Opera”

Over the past month or so, we’ve been treated to a series of reports saying that classical music, and opera in particular, is doing quite well. As I’ve commented on my blog before, Chicago’s Lyric Opera has had a record-breaking year. Opera Theatre of St. Louis had a record-breaking year. Houston Grand Opera has also had a fantastic year. All kinds of opera companies are having great years. And across the pond, several English opera houses have openly mocked the Met’s Peter Gelb for his dire warnings about the death of opera, saying they too are having great years.

And yet there are still those who continue to argue that opera is dying. Dying!

(For those who have not seen it, Charles Rosen created this handy chart for the New Yorker explaining the various predictions of death for classical music over the centuries.)

10449172_10153002523898222_7545305789245676404_n

The worst part of this nay-saying is that it is coming from people who purport to be opera supporters. And yet they continue to spout warnings and threats like a modern day Savonarola.

Yes, I get it. As a classical performer, as an arts administrator, and as a board member of a large arts organization, I am quite aware of all the potential threats that opera and classical music are facing, thank you very much. But I cannot, and will not agree with those who seem to think the art form has one foot in the grave. Not when there are so many encouraging trends taking place.

One of the more recent articles foretelling the death of opera is Greg Sandow’s The Peter Gelb Furor.

A bit of background. Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Met, has made a whole series of comments recently that opera is a dying art form with shrinking audiences. Because of these difficulties, he has demanded steep cuts on the musicians, singers, and workers who make the operas happen… although he has conveniently excluded himself from the list of people that must endure painful economizing. (For my commentary on his remarks to the press, visit here and here.)

Sandow rushes to Gelb’s defense, arguing that opera really is teetering on The Abyss. His article sets out to show that the good news coming from the opera world is misrepresenting the true state of affairs, creating an illusion that threatens to lull people into a false sense of security.

With respect, I think Sandow is wrong, and I’d like to explain why.

* * *

“Yes, some companies are doing well. That would be true even if the entire field was doing badly. It’s a basic principle of statistics. And of common sense. If you look at a large enough sample of opera companies — or shoe manufacturers, or dairy farmers, or any group you care to name — a few will be doing much better than the norm, and a few will be doing much worse.”

Here’s where I start to have concerns. Yes, Sandow is correct that there will always be statistical outliers, regardless of whether or not the overall trend is positive or negative.

But that’s the point. There will always be outliers. So his framework can easily be inverted… this is essentially a half-full, half-empty philosophical debate that very much depends on the observer’s frame of reference.

But what worries me is that he isn’t approaching the subject with a neutral mindset—his hypothesis is already well-established in his mind. Looking at his blog entries as a whole, it seems clear that he adamantly believes classical music and opera are dying. So is he a neutral observer trying to accumulate data to determine a trend, or a fierce partisan trying to gather anecdotes to persuade an audience of his view?

At what point do you determine all those various “outliers” are, in fact, the trend? The last month has brought good news from a whole variety of opera companies—are they all outliers? Is he dismissing everything that doesn’t align with his view as an outlier?

“Back in September, I asked my invaluable assistant, Caroline Firman, to contact classical music service organizations in the US, and ask if they had information on ticket sales in the area of classical music they deal with. Kate Place, research director of Opera America, supplied a chart showing attendance from 1988 to 2012 at all the larger US opera companies, taken together.”

And again, I hear warning bells. To be sure, Sandow is absolutely correct to use broader data to test his hypothesis. But I have questions about the data he gathered.

For one, he told his assistant to gather data from specific sources—did his guiding philosophy unduly influence his choices? Did the fact that Caroline Firman worked for him influence her choices? There’s no methodology listed, no listing of the questions asked or data requested, no list of sources contacted or even how many were contacted, no mention of the return rate, no indication of who responded, or what years the data covered.   Plus, I don’t know what mechanisms were put into place to minimize confirmation bias or agreement bias.

And what, exactly, is meant by “larger opera companies?” And what allowances are made for different repertoire, different forms of presentation, different geographies, and so forth? How many opera companies fit into this definition—and are represented in the results? In short, how did he determine who is in the data pool?

And, obviously, the Met is in a category of its own… so how does it fit into the sample?

Another point.  I’m intrigued by the dates used for the analysis. How were they determined?  Would a different timespan support Sandow’s hypothesis?  It’s also curious that Sandow is using data he collected in September to discuss a problem that has popped up now. This is hardly a fatal flaw, and the timing be fortuitous. But it is much more problematic that he is presenting a huge statistical view that ends in 2012—two years ago. That is a significant gap, particularly if the narrative is that opera is failing right now. The exclusion of two current years, when the survey had no problem finding data from as far back as 1988, suggests that something might be hiding in those two critical years… something that the researcher doesn’t want to reveal.

Before I even see the data that’s presented, I have serious concerns about it.

Opera_America_1988_-_2002_Attendance__1_page_

And then he presents the data, and things really get murky.

Again getting to my first point, I’m intrigued that Sandow sees the trend as proof of decline. Really? Looking at this chart I can see that opera attendance has risen and fallen, but it has done so within a fairly narrow band, centered around 1,000,000 attendees. Peaks rose to slightly over 1,100,000, but fell back again to around 1,000,000. Moreover, between 2003 and 2008 the needle barely moved at all, holding steady at the baseline of 1,000,000. Based on Sandow’s set-up, I expected a much sharper decline over a much longer timeframe.

The decline that is apparent in this graph comes primarily in one single year: 2009. But… well, everything went haywire in 2009 as a result of the Great Recession, the largest economic downturn since the 1930s. Of course you’d expect to see attendance falling. But what I find really remarkable is that dip wasn’t nearly as bad as I would have expected. The decline actually halted in 2010 and remained steady ever since. That to me represents astonishing durability for the art form—even in the midst of an enormous economic crisis, ticket numbers dipped, but did not collapse.

And from my earlier point, I have to wonder if the slow—but real—economic recovery helped return attendance to its former benchmark….

“Maybe the numbers picked up since 2012, but what would that mean? A two-year increase wouldn’t reverse the trend.”

Sandow must have read my mind. But this isn’t a satisfactory answer. As noted, I see the overall trend of this graph as one of stability. If the attendance figures returned to their former level, or at least moved in that direction, it would essentially prove my point, and completely undercut Sandow’s.

“But how did they do the year before? Really badly. In their 2012-13 season, ticket sales were only 83% of capacity, down from 88% the season before. That’s a 9.4% drop.”

Here is where my most serious grievances begin. On the one hand there is an important question to ask—what is the cause of this decline? Leaving the specific case of the Lyric Opera aside… when there is a sharp decline in an opera company’s ticket sales, is that the result of large-scale, impersonal forces? Or is it the result of a very localized case of bad management and/or bad luck?

This is a particularly important point with the Met. Sandow seems to think that the decline in ticket sales is due to the larger “death of opera,” while many of the musicians and workers are saying the decline is specifically the result of Gelb’s mismanagement.

But there is a far worse problem here. As get gets into his analysis, Sandow begins to blur three separate criteria for measuring success. They are:

  • Ticket revenue. The total amount of money that is brought in by selling tickets, over the entire year. This number is directly tied to an organization’s budget. It assumes over the course of the year some shows will do better than others, but sets a final benchmark for where the organization hopes to land at the end of the year. If the company doesn’t hit its ticket revenue goal, there are serious, direct budgetary consequences.
  • Number of tickets sold. This simply reflects the number of tickets an organization sells over the course of the year. This number is usually tied to marketing goals, but it doesn’t have to tie directly to the organizational budget. In part this is because different tickets cost different amounts. And, it doesn’t necessarily indicate who actually attends the performance—there is always a number of people who buy tickets but ultimately don’t use them, as a result of inclement weather, last minute emergencies, or such. Or, a company could buy a block of tickets to give to its employees, only to find the employees aren’t interested or available. Again, this is a useful metric, but hard to tie directly back to the budget.
  • Percent capacity. Percent capacity refers to how many people are actually in the theater as a percentage of the total seating capacity. This is the number that really makes a difference to the performers, who love to perform to a full house. Conversely, few things are more depressing for performers than working to a house that’s only half full, or worse. But just because the house is full, or at near-capacity, that doesn’t mean the show is doing well. If a show is struggling, administrators may choose to “paper the house” or give away tickets to improve the optics of the situation. Or, it could offer a wave of last minute discounts to lure people in for a fraction of the listed ticket price. There are other issues that can eat into inventory, such as stage extensions or closed-off sections that actually reduce the number of seats available. This can be a useful metric, but as a result of the qualifications I mentioned it is usually the least important metric, and has the least impact on a company’s budget.

But again, the key to remember is that all of these things are different, and don’t directly relate to each other… or necessarily to the overall budget. As a result, your final analysis will look very different based on which criteria you choose.

Sadly, Sandow seems to base his argument for the death of opera on paid capacity—a particularly problematic choice. Again, capacity in and of itself doesn’t tell the whole story. Were those seats occupied because the opera company papered the house? Or were the ticket prices relatively cheaper in the 1990s, leading to more tickets being sold but far less overall revenue? What were the total number of seats sold, and what was the average price per ticket? Was the price per ticket appropriate for the performance, leading to acceptable amounts of revenue? After all, it is possible, particularly when an expensive superstar performer is headlining a production, that a company could sell every ticket in the house and still lose money.

And, have the sizes of the auditoriums stayed constant since the 1990s, an era when many arts organizations renovated their facilities? The Minnesota Orchestra, for example, just completed a refurbishment of its home, Orchestra Hall that reduced the total number of seats in the hall in order to make those that remained larger and more comfortable. Therefore, it will be impossible to compare paid capacity pre- and post-renovation.

The point is that while obviously opera houses want full houses, paid capacity alone doesn’t tell if an organization is financially healthy or not… or relevant to the community or not. A company could have full houses back in the 1990s, but have been overextended and increasingly marginalized. Was it making wise investments in building audiences or patting itself on its back assured that good times would last forever? Was it investing in artistic partnerships or going on autopilot? Was it working to understand its audience’s tastes or relying on conventional wisdom?

As we all know from the business world, sometimes a company’s glossy exterior is hiding the rot below, and sometimes a smaller, leaner company is having a greater impact.

“The Lyric might now announce what seem, in the present climate, like wonderful results, but in the past 20 years they’ve taken a big hit to their bottom line.”

But there are so many issues going on here. You can’t compare the 1990s to today—yes, it is a different climate, and yes that does make a difference. Financial models, resources and aspirations are wildly different today, particularly coming out of the Great Recession.

And more to the point, even if everything Sandow said about the Lyric Opera’s finances—and by extension, the Met’s—was true, it wouldn’t mean that opera was “dying.” Again, the fact that its paid capacity was larger in the 1990s than it is now tells us nothing about how relevant the organization is today. Nothing about how effectively it is acting on is mission. Nothing about its artistic activities… or their quality. Nothing about what it’s doing long-term to build audiences. Nothing about what it’s doing to create a new generation of musicians, composers, arts administrators or arts workers. Nothing about what it gives back to the city of Chicago.

These are important issues—it is, after all, a non-profit, right? So why is the only criteria being used to determine whether it’s dying or not its paid capacity?

* * *

At this point, let me back up and address Sandow’s larger question: What does all this mean for the Met? On the one hand, given its size, reach and national importance, I don’t know how well it can fit into generalized trends—it will always skew the sample.

This is important. The Met should always be above the curve. As the largest opera house in the country, with resources most other organizations can only dream of, it should be leading the way in nearly every category. It should attract the best talent, of course, but it should attract the most innovative administrators, who are ahead of the curve in finding ways to reach new audiences. It should be better at building revenue. Better at meeting customer demand.

The fact that it isn’t outperforming everyone else should raise some serious questions.

But let’s say that Sandow’s trend is correct and the Met fits the pattern the same as everyone else. That still doesn’t answer the real question at hand—what is causing the Met’s problems? As I’ve mentioned before, Gelb’s administrative and artistic choices have had a far greater impact the Met’s financial situation than the abstract notion that “opera is dying.” It’s clear that his shows have been disproportionately expensive and poorly attended, particularly in revival. They represent a poor return on investment.  Using capacity, the same measurement that Sandow uses, his 16 revival shows sold less than 65% capacity, and six revival shows sold at less than 50% capacity.

Is that due to the decline of opera? Or simply bad choices?

And related to that, what will do more to right the ship: stopping these bad managerial decisions, or simply forcing union workers to take a pay cut?

* * *

So in the end, I am not convinced by Sandow’s presentation. In fact, I suspect that he has fallen into the same trap he warns us about… cherry picking facts and ignoring a larger context.

I see an art form that has had ups and downs, but has remained remarkably secure over time. Looking at Sandow’s own data, I am encouraged by opera’s resiliency; it has successfully adjusted to the Great Recession and based on many examples, has begun to thrive again.

To me, the glass is more than half-full.

 

Xochipilli