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.)

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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

Gelb vs. Zahn

Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, sat down for an interview with Paula Zahn to discuss his thoughts on the looming labor dispute between the Met’s management and the union workers.

Based on his media appearances to date, I think it is fair to say that Mr. Gelb is not helping his cause.

The interview is full of astonishing, jaw-dropping statements that demand responses.

Allow me to provide them.

* * *

“The financial crisis that the Met is facing is the result of years of layers and layers of union contracts that have resulted in a cost structure that is no longer supportable.”

And right from the first statement, things go off the rails.

Mr. Gelb, this is a bizarre statement to make—it is so cartoonishly oversimplified, ham-fisted, and willfully untrue that makes it nearly impossible to take the rest of the interview seriously. So, the crisis has nothing to do with cost overruns, out-of-control executive compensation, changing musical tastes, a slow economic recovery, artistically weak performances, a declining donor base, ineffective marketing, a transformation in corporate philanthropy, reduced governmental support, artistic competition… or any other issues?

It’s all the fault of… unions?

Forgive me, but can’t you see how that looks like rank scapegoating?

For one, as I’ve mentioned before, you seem to use the term “union” to mean a nefarious cabal up to who-knows-what-kind of evil.  Sorry, but it is not a faceless “union” you’re dealing with… it is your performing artists, and the workers who make the productions happen.  And they are your product.

Plus, your argument is not even true. Union compensation is a known commodity, and forms a basic framework for your costs as you build a budget. It is easy to understand and calculate… so why haven’t you done so when creating a budget? If you know that overtime is expensive, and kicks in at such and such a level… why do you rely so heavily on it?

And that gets to the issues of agency. You are the person approving the budget… and with it, the cost overruns.   The workers are doing the work you demanded they do. It’s not as if some crime syndicate forced you to buy hand-painted poppies at gun point. You approved the budget. You approved the work. You got what you requested and paid for.

So how are you not ultimately responsible for the resulting cost overruns?

But more to the point, you didn’t answer the question Zahn asked you: What responsibility do you bear for this mess? Your obvious deflection led her to re-ask the question more forcefully, which led to your jaw-dropping response….

“I have full responsibility for… trying to fix the problems.”

Well. This has so many problems, on so many levels, that I barely know where to start.

Mr. Gelb… I’m sorry, but I couldn’t disagree more with your sentiments here.

If you have “full responsibility” for ending the crisis… well, logically, why don’t you completely eliminate your $1.8 million salary? This is, after all, an area that you unquestionably have full control over. Plus, it would instantly eliminate more than half the $2.8 million deficit the Met has posted, and would serve as a powerful good-will gesture that would almost certainly induce other stakeholders to respond in kind.

Allow me to point out something else. If you have “full responsibility” for saving the Met, then you have the duty to fully understand what the real problem is, as well as the real solutions that are required. So, it is imperative that you look to see what your own role has been in the crisis. Have your artistic decisions led to trouble? Has your demand for extravagant and hugely expensive productions contributed to the crisis? The fact that when asked point blank, you can’t think of any way you might possibly be at fault means you are most certainly not taking full responsibility for saving the Met.

But it hardly matters. Let me say unequivocally that you do not have “full responsibility” to save the Met. That is a shared responsibility that also involves the musicians, singers, stagehands, and all of your union workers. It involves the administrative staff. It involves ticket buyers, donors, and corporate partners. It involves the local, state and national governments. It involves the millions of viewers who see your live telecasts around the world. It involves all opera lovers and people who believe arts are a vital component of our society. All of these groups must be activated and involved if we are to save the Met—without their support it will fail.

So why are you adopting a “Great Man” approach, where you are uniquely able to solve this crisis? You are not called in to swoop in and save the day, but rather to be part of—and even lead—a cavalry charge riding to the rescue. Not a heroic action, but a coordinated group action.

Trust me, I know how hard it is to pull an arts organization up from the depths. Here in Minneapolis we came within a hair’s breadth of losing the Minnesota Orchestra. I’m in the trenches trying to nurse it to health… and we need everyone who can possibly help.   One person cannot have full responsibility for its survival.

So rather than blaming everyone else, ask them for help. Especially your union workers. Trust me… there is not a group of people that are more concerned with the Met’s survival. It is not just their passion, it is their livelihood.

“$200 million is going to the union… the question is simply an issue of cutting a small portion of that expense.”

But Mr. Gelb, you haven’t provided any rationale for why you should cut it, beyond simplistic notion that it’s a big number out of the budget. And an implication that “unions” are a bad thing to spend money on. What is your evidence that cutting that number will truly help? Are there other areas that you could cut that would have a much larger impact? Different cuts that lead to much greater efficiencies, or that would bring about a much larger rate of return?

“… not by changing their basic wages, but by changing antiquated work rules and benefits that are far beyond the norm.”

There is also a basic question of why you don’t change your salary, which is many times larger than those of your workers, and certainly qualifies for being “far beyond the norm” of an arts administrator.

I don’t want to be glib here, but Mr. Gelb, you’re grossly mischaracterizing what you’re doing, and the real-world effect of the cuts you’re proposing. While you claim you aren’t changing “basic wages,” but only some abstract “work rules,” you are clearly, at a fundamental level, impacting your workers’ weekly paychecks. There is nothing “abstract” about it.

Take that tired “choristers are making $200,000!” complaint you make just a few minutes later. The singers aren’t making this amount because of impersonal forces acting beyond the realm of human consciousness, but because in order to keep up with the weekly demands of the Met’s schedule they are working in excess of 70 hours a week. So this $200,000 figure isn’t just base pay—it includes overtime. You are correct in that if you change the impersonal “work formula” for calculating overtime, you can suddenly have a full-blown chorus for a whole lot less. But in doing so, you’re forcing them to work overtime for free. And that would most definitely impact their basic wages.

And again, this blithely overlooks your role in hiring them. After all, this wasn’t some flash mob and ran onto the stage, sang and then shook you down for payment (reminiscent of those squeegee-laden windshield washer guys that used to haunt street corners). You hired them. They were working to fulfill your demands. So why are you so reluctant to pay them at the rate you knew you were supposed to be paying them— the going rate for their profession?

“The 16% cut we’re asking from the union will be shared equally by the administrative staff.”

Mr. Gelb, months before announcing this “financial crisis,” you gave yourself a 26% pay increase. To truly share with the union workers, do they get a similar raise before their cuts kick in, too? As you no doubt have found, a 16% cut is much more palatable when it is preceded by a 26% raise.

And as a note of caution, let me point out that the “16%” number you keep floating around is highly controversial—people familiar with the contract argue that the cuts you’re demanding are much larger, particularly when you take into account the practical terms by which they will be implemented. Paula Zahn alludes to this when she mentions the real-life impact of insurance cuts, which brings the total of the cuts to at least 20%. To my knowledge you have not effectively refuted any these claims, so I would be careful with the 16% talking point.

“…achieve the greatest artistic results…”

But to achieve the greatest artistic results, you need to pay the greatest artists at the going rate. You clearly want the results… but don’t want to pay for them. That’s like saying you want the best doctor in the world to treat you for cancer, but you only want to pay this person minimum wage to do so.

We don’t want to cut back on the artistic results we’ve achieved, because that would result in the Met being in the position of the New York City Opera….”

Are you suggesting that unless you pay outrageous fees for your artistic productions, the Met will go bankrupt? Was that the problem with the New York City Opera… its productions weren’t lavish enough? Aren’t there any other options? Any mitigating factors between your point A and your point B? What about better marketing, better community outreach, more effective fundraising…?

“Our box office sales are down because the box office sales in every other city are down.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the “death of classical music” meme is a tired falsehood that has bedeviled us since time immemorial.

And it is flat out wrong.

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 assertions, saying they too are having great years.

Put into blunt terms, more people are buying tickets to the Metropolitan Opera than to the New York Giants.

For Heaven’s sake, opera is not dying. Nor is classical music generally.

But this brings up a monumentally important series of questions. Here, as in other interviews, Gelb goes on a rant about how opera is dying, ticket sales are down, money is drying up… and worse.

So why is anyone tasking him with saving an opera company?

And why is he leading an opera company?

Why does he want to work for an opera company?

I mean, if he were a commanding officer leading a company into battle, who would want to follow him? Instead of inspiring his men with a speech out of Henry V, he has essentially told them that the assault is doomed because no such assault ever worked, and the army is on the brink of defeat anyway. And as a final pitch, he then asks all the soldiers to give him 16% of their bullets.

“In terms of our video audience, we have quadrupled our audience.”

Great. But it seems you still haven’t developed an effective means to harness this program so that it supports your bottom line. Have your successfully turned those audience members into donors, or gotten them to otherwise support the organization? Plus, many have remarked that the demands of your HD presentations have had a tremendous financial impact on what happens onstage—requiring much more elaborate sets and costumes than were needed before.   So why are you bringing this up at this particular juncture?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the presentations. But it is your responsibility to make them financially feasible. You haven’t, which doesn’t make you look like an effective artistic manager.

“It’s difficult for union members to accept cuts.”

No, not really. More accurately, it’s difficult for them to accept cuts from a person who gives himself lavish raises while demanding they take cuts. It’s difficult for them to accept cuts from someone who takes no responsibility for the problems of an organization, and puts all the blame squarely on their shoulders. It is difficult for them to accept cuts when they have done all that was asked and required of them from a person who hasn’t done his part to save the organization. It is difficult for them to accept cuts from a person who says repeatedly that the art form has no future. And it is difficult for them to accept cuts from a person who repeatedly dehumanizes them by sneering out the word “union” as a pejorative.

Mr. Gelb, I imagine if you had gone into negotiations with an attitude of “we’re all in this together and we’re all going to be part of the solution,” you might have seen more willingness from other stakeholders to take cuts.

And if you had gone in with statistics that weren’t transparently false, and made fewer statements that were transparently self-serving, there would have been even more willingness to accept cuts.

“I have a demanding job. But I don’t expect to be paid an amount that is unsupported.”

Why are you allowed to make the final determination for what is supportable across the organization, and for the organization as a whole? I understand, you’re the organization’s leader and leaders usually get to make the big decisions. But in honesty, Mr. Gelb, I think you’d have more of a case about making the call of what is and is not supportable if your decisions weren’t so obviously self-interested. Or for that matter, effective.

“Short of completely shutting down the Met and completely redesigning our contracts so we were working under a completely different basis, that’s not going to happen. If this art form is to continue….”

But again, other people working in your art form are making it work. Please don’t speak for them. And please don’t condemn an entire art form based on the fact that you personally can’t seem to make it work effectively.

Maybe it is time for a complete reconfiguration, as you say. Only a few months ago, the San Diego Opera chose to do just that, and the decision to do so has brought a huge infusion of money, talent, and creative problem-solving into the organization.

“[New productions] are a scapegoat used by the unions to avoid looking at the real problem.”

So you keep saying, but there is much, much evidence to contradict you—which makes it quite easy to flip your argument, and dismiss it as: “unions are a scapegoat used by management to avoid looking at the real problem.”

Look, the issue isn’t that new productions are too expensive, or that new productions may or may not be underwritten by donors. The issue is that the new productions you have presided over have had a horrible rate of return on investment. They have not attracted new audiences, more ticket buyers, or new donations. It doesn’t matter if the one-time costs to launch your new production of The Ring were covered—over the long-term, it remains an expensive albatross that hasn’t appreciably helped the organization drum up new support.

And that is not “the union’s” fault.

“If the unions are willing to show that they are willing to take a sacrifice, in tandem with that the board will work to double the size of the endowment.”

Good Heavens, why aren’t they doing that anyway? Especially if they are so concerned that it is alarmingly small relative the operating budget?

And isn’t it somewhat odd that you’re demanding the union members take sacrificial cuts totaling $35 million… when you point out that the board will subsequently raise $300 million? Is that $35 million really holding them back from raising the $300 million? So $300 million is doable, but $335 is impossible?

Another thought… I don’t want to spend other people’s money, but isn’t it also odd that they confidently state they can raise $300 million, but can’t chip in $2.8 million right now to cover the deficit?

“Unless we cut costs now, our chances for the Met in the future will become even more slim.”

Again, your deficit is $2.8 million. So why are you demanding $35 million in cuts? You need to spell out clearly why the cuts you are proposing right now will directly lead to benefits elsewhere. Otherwise this looks like a purely ideological move.

And it bears asking again: Why are the Met’s chances so slim, when so many other opera companies’ chances are not?

“Between all those things [reduced costs, renewed ticket sales, larger endowment] happening together, we will find a harmonious relationship that will enable the Met to go forward, keep the public interested, and hopefully introduce new people to the art form.”

…into an art form you’ve said repeatedly is dying? How do you—and you personally—think that will happen?

But there’s a larger issue here. You seem to suggest that once you win… everything will come together and you will enter a new era of prosperity.

With respect, you’re mistaking the means for the ends. All those wonderful things won’t happen once you win… making those wonderful things happen will allow you to win.

Starting a new capital campaign now will help you win.

Reining in costs now will help you win.

Creating compelling artistic productions now will help you win.

Working with all stakeholders in your organization, including union workers, will help you win.

* * *

Mr. Gelb, the organization is in trouble. You need to gather in all your resources and get everyone involved in saving the Met. You can’t do it alone, and the path you are on right now will lead to horrific problems. I know, I’ve seen exactly this same situation here with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Please rethink your position before you unleash catastrophic damage on the organization, putting it into a position where no one wins.

 

Xochipilli

A Voice from the Lockout Speaks Up Again

Astounding.

Yesterday we were treated to an interview with Doug Kelley in MinnPost, an online news agency here in Minneapolis. For those not immediately familiar with the name, Kelley was a prominent spokesman for the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) while it locked out its musicians as part of the longest, and perhaps ugliest, labor disputes in the history of American classical music.

While Kelley is amiable and articulate, his previous press appearances were unmitigated disasters.

Long-time readers of my blog will remember my analysis of his appearance on the local news program, Almanac, where Kelley blithely dismissed the musicians concerns as “frolicking detours.” Further, in response to questions about the fact that the MOA had been withholding financial information to the musicians, Kelley remarked that the MOA didn’t need to provide this information because the musicians already had copies of the MOA’s tax documents, and “as everyone knows, you don’t cheat on your taxes.”

Readers may also remember my response to his bizarre interview on Minnesota Public Radio, where he tried to justify Michael Henson’s $200,000 cash bonuses (received at the same time he was laying off staff due to the Orchestra’s financial difficulties) by saying that the CEO position was, uniquely, a “serious position” that required a specialized skill set. He also informed us that because Henson was subjected to public criticism in the media, he should have earned “combat pay.” Conveniently forgetting that the musicians hadn’t had any pay whatsoever for more than a year by that point.

It is puzzling, therefore, to see Kelley speaking out again, and giving his thoughts on the recently-ended labor dispute. And for good or for bad, his answers were precisely in line with what we’ve come to expect.

Fellow blogger Emily Hogstad has posted a full-blown rebuttal over at Song of the Lark, so I won’t attempt one here. But here are some things that I feel I really should call out.

* * *

“I was with Richard Davis [Orchestra board member and CEO of US Bank] and [Orchestra President] Michael Henson as early as 2009 in meetings with musicians. And Richard, who is a great communicator, had all these PowerPoints showing the terrible deficits we were running. And he was telling them, ‘Look guys, we will honor the current contract. Because we have to legally. But this has to change. It can’t go on. And if you don’t come and help us feather this off a little bit now, by the time [the contract ends] we’re going to have to do something shocking. As in large givebacks.’ ”

One of the things that disturbs me so much about this point, Mr. Kelley, is that you essentially telegraph the MOA’s overall strategy—its determination to claw back money from the musicians at all costs. Kelley all but admits that if the MOA couldn’t get “givebacks” from the musicians, the plan was to lock out them out to make up the savings.

This would help explain why, contrary to all expectation, the MOA rebuffed any and all attempts to bring the sides together to work out an equitable solution. As I wrote in a previous blog entry:

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and legendary Orchestra patron Judy Dayton offered to host a celebration concert where the Orchestra could celebrate its Grammy nomination.  The board refused their invitation.  Orchestrate Excellence, a group founded to bring the sides together, created a report comparing the Minnesota Orchestra with the Cleveland Orchestra to help facilitate dialog and present a useful model for future compromise.  Management dismissed it out of hand.  Respected arts leader Alan Fletcher came to town with talk tough for both sides, and offered his views about surviving difficult negotiations.  Management rebuffed him.  Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland, was hired to mediate a solution to the crisis.  Management negotiated around him, and ultimately rejected his recommendations because to do so would cause them to “lose leverage.”  Outside observers called for an independent financial analysis of the Orchestra.  Management hired its own firm to do a targeted analysis based only on information it provided.  Concerned community members launched an “SOS Osmo campaign” to raise money specifically so that the Orchestra’s Music Director Osmo Vänskä could stay.  Management blithely suggested it would roll these funds into its own general fundraising operations, and made callous statements that Osmo was free to move on.

Again and again, people from all parts of the community have made serious offers to resolve this dispute, or to at least address critical areas of concern.  But the Orchestra’s management has rebuffed each and every one.

Now it all makes sense—the reason the MOA kept dismissing offer after offer was that it never actually wanted a resolution.  Its only concern was simply to claw back a pre-determined amount of money. They didn’t care that 10 state legislators demanded the removal of Richard Davis, Jon Campbell and Michael Henson. They didn’t care that the City of Minneapolis was 36 hours from determining the MOA had broken their lease on Orchestra Hall and taking over Orchestra Hall. Or the loss of musicians, the near-permanent loss of Osmo Vänskä, Minneapolis’s projected $2.9 million in lost revenue, or countess examples of collateral damage to the organization.

The only thing that mattered was clawing back $5 million from the musicians, any way they could.

What would have happened if Richard Davis hadn’t come in with guns blazing, but instead called the board, staff, musicians, donors, audience members, and community supporters to create a new shared vision of what the Minnesota Orchestra should be like, along with a new, jointly-created business plan to support it?  My hunch is he could have found the necessary savings, but ended up with a plan with much more buy-in from all stakeholders.

“Was it a huge ask? Yeah, it was. I don’t know how we could have done it differently.”

With respect, Mr. Kelley, your stunning lack vision is not my problem.

Neither is your stubborn refusal to listen to outside advice.

Many, many people gave ideas for how to do things differently. My blog is replete with suggestions on how you could have done things differently, and I was not the only one doing so. Attorney Lee Henderson, for example, suggested many things that could be done differently, and more importantly, found people to contribute money to make his proposals happen. And let me point out that your own hand-chosen mediator—the famous Senator George Mitchell, who brought peace to Northern Ireland—also told you how to proceed differently. And you brushed him off, stating that his ideas would cause you to “lose leverage.” It was abundantly clear that the MOA leadership was not interested in balancing the budget, but breaking the union.

“What we didn’t anticipate was that the union was going to take a stance and make Minnesota a test case for the industry.”

For me, one of the bizarre elements of this whole ugly experience is that you actually seem to believe this nonsense.

First, let me point out something. I’m sure your PR consultants told you to dehumanize your opponents by referring them to “the union.” But they are not some faceless, interchangeable mass of hostile humanity. They are your musicians. The musicians ran this show, only turning to their union for logistical help. This was covered repeatedly in the press coverage. Again, it wasn’t some nebulous “union,” it was your musicians.

To your point. You seem to think the whole reason “the union” fought back was to make a statement. On the contrary, your musicians fought back because they realized the ridiculous proposal you were trying to implement was a fundamental threat to their livelihoods. It wasn’t just the 40% pay cut (which you conveniently round down to 30%), but the 200 changes in the work agreement that would have eliminated seniority, forced compliance into outreach activities, and much, much more.

One could say that it was you who tried to spark a national trend. This explains why you retained the legal firm, Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon, and Vogt, which was also simultaneously engaged by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra during its labor dispute. Also, this is the same law firm that was famously attempting to break the at Crystal Sugar workers’ union at the exact same time. Plus, are you denying that the MOA had a series of collaborative meetings with your peers from other orchestras who had recently engaged in labor disputes? It is widely understood that because of such meetings, you elected to buy up a slew of Internet domain names that included the words “save” and “Minnesota Orchestra” to block audience advocacy groups from getting involved in the dispute, as they had in other locales.

Exactly who was turning this dispute into a test case for the future?

“[T]he local labor lawyer for musicians — he and I had gotten on well in the past— was pushed out and in came Bruce Simon from New York, who was a table-pounder, an in-your-face kind of a guy.  But it was also very counter-productive. Little old ladies don’t like be told, ‘[Bleep] you’ by Bruce Simon, and he literally would do that.”

Do I understand correctly that you’re peeved that the musicians chose not to work with an amiable labor lawyer, but turned to a fighter?

May I remind you that you brought on a law firm famous for its attempts to break the unions. And your musicians were in a fight for their lives.  Just moments ago, you indicated that Richard Davis told the musicians he was coming after them as soon as the contract was over.

And you’re upset that once you backed them into a corner, they reacted by trying to find the fightingest fighter they possibly could?

Also, are you suggesting that the MOA’s negotiation team, which is made up of some of the most seasoned, veteran business leaders in the state (who also happen to be executives at two of the largest banks in the country), had never been involved in tough negotiations before, and were completely undone by… foul language?

And… who are the little old ladies you refer to? How were they involved in the negotiations?

“But overall, I think we did achieve a contract that could be a model for the rest of the industry.”

[…]

Mr. Kelley, whatever one may think of the final contract, the method by which it achieved was a nightmare. That you ignore the serious damage you brought to the organization, and can’t seem to bring yourself to acknowledge the serious work of recovery that still has to happen, is an embarrassment.

“But it was never about breaking the union. That was never even considered.”

Mr. Kelley, your statement is belied by almost everything that happened over the course of the lockout, as well as the MOA’s many statements over the last two years.

* * *

Mr. Kelley, I bear you no personal animosity.  I know you’ve been a strong advocate for the Orchestra in the past, and I appreciate the years of support you’ve given to the organization.

But your statements are wrong, and simply not helpful.

 

Xochipilli

Coming to Terms with Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”

A short time ago, I had written some preliminary thoughts about performing Carmina Burana—a sort of guide for our upcoming concert with the Minnesota Orchestra. But I’d like to point out there is another fantastic work on the program, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. This is a masterwork of the highest order, but it has nowhere near the popularity of Carmina Burana… and in fact I’ve never sung it before. So I wanted to take a moment to share my thoughts about learning this odd, challenging, but mighty choral work.

In fact, the work figures into one of my all-time favorite concerts, although not in a way you’d suspect.

* * *

In the fall of 1993, my stepfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer—a particularly malignant brain tumor. He began chemo and radiation at once. The treatments were quite aggressive, and as the autumn progressed they took quite a toll, affecting his motor coordination, stamina, memory, speech… everything. About a week before Christmas, however, the first round of treatments stopped, and we were astonished at how quickly his heath improved. He reached the point where he was going somewhat house-crazy, and I was charged with finding a suitable outing we could all do together before I went back to grad school after the holiday break.

I suggested a concert at Orchestra Hall as a great solution… it was something where he could sit and not get too fatigued, but still felt like a nice night out on the town.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem was on the program that night, and I jumped at a chance to hear it. I knew and loved his Four Motets Based on Gregorian Chants, which I had performed back in college. In fact, I loved one of the motets, “Ubi Caritas,” so much that I had my friends and colleagues from the Minnesota Chorale sing it at my wedding. The Requiem, however, was somewhat of a mystery to me. I had only heard it in passing, in arrangements with reduced intrumentation that didn’t do much for me. But, I loved Duruflé’s aesthetic generally, and since legendary choral conductor Robert Shaw was on the podium, I rounded up the family and headed over to Orchestra Hall.

That concert staggered me.

Hearing that work, brought to life by a full orchestra was an indescribable feeling. I remember watching our beloved concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis leading the strings in that gorgeous, murmuring open line… and it was like being surrounded with liquid light. The singing by the Dale Warland Singers was altogether magical, almost inhuman in its execution, yet so powerfully humane. Obviously with my stepfather’s cancer, I had been living with thoughts of mortality for some time; yet oddly enough at a concert featuring a mass for the dearly departed, these thoughts were gently melted away. For me, that concert was, quite simply, a religious experience. And I still say today that Duruflé’s setting of the Requiem is more powerful, more profound, and more musical than most other settings written by much more illustrious composers. I ran out the next day to get Shaw’s recording of the work, and it remains to this day one of my most cherished recordings.

Oh, and also on that program, they performed Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

And… perhaps you see the problem. After having a Definitive Concert-Going Experience with Duruflé, there was no way any other piece could possibly compete.  In fact, until I saw our schedule, I don’t know that I’d given Stravinsky’s work a second thought over the last 20 years.

I firmly believe that Stravinsky is the better overall composer, and his work is almost certainly the more important choral work. But Symphony of Psalms was unfortunately relegated, so to speak, to being the “B” side of my favorite album. (Yes, I realize I just dated myself.)

The one good thing about this turn of events is that it gave me a chance to come to terms with one of the 20th century’s most important choral works with no preconceptions. I was able to experience it with fresh ears, so to speak. And while Symphony of Psalms will never usurp Duruflé’s Requiem in my affections, I am thrilled to have this chance to learn Stravinsky’s masterwork.

* * *

Stravinsky is, of course, a singular artist with a singular approach to music. He famously disparaged the notion of portraying things literally in music:

I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.
–Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935, Calder and Boyars ed., 1975, p.53.

He went one step further, and denied that music could ever truly express emotion:

Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions such as joy, grief, sadness, and image of nature, a subject for daydreams or – still better – oblivion from “everyday life”. They want a drug – dope -…. Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order, and they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realise its intrinsic value.
–Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935, Calder and Boyars ed., 1975, p.53.

It seems odd, then, that Stravinsky would compose an overtly religious piece of music— religious music is inherently and thoroughly wrapped up in a whole range of complex human emotions, such as fear, joy, hope, doubt, and love.

But Symphony of Psalms most certainly is a religious work, and a profound one at that.  That said, it presents the listener with a highly unusual religious point of view. The striking thing about it is that it presents religious belief in an objective way. It is impersonal, and non-expressive. It is a ritual.

But paradoxically, because it is impersonal, it becomes universal… and as such it becomes extraordinarily expressive.

Consider the first of the three movements (which are performed without a break between them). The text reads:

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with Thine ears consider my calling:
Hold not Thy peace at my tears.
For I am a stranger with Thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
O spare me a little that I may recover my strength:
Before I go hence and be no more.

In the hands of a 19th century romantic, this could become a cry of anguish—as in the opening chorus of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. But Stravinsky creates a completely different character by making it impersonal and ritualistic.

Let me explain. Oddly enough, Stravinsky’s use of ritualism brings to mind a recent scene in the hit HBO series, Game of Thrones. Without giving away too many spoilers, there was a furious assault on Castle Black, at the outermost fringes of the realm. As the main attack is taking place, the defenders realize that one specific feint, directed at a vulnerable point of the gate, could lead to the loss of the entire fortress. In desperation, a group of six knights are sent to deal with the overwhelming threat. They know they have no hope of surviving, but realize their sacrifice may save the castle as a whole. At that moment, one of the knights starts reciting the oath he took to defend the realm at all costs. He starts out timidly and alone, but gradually the others join in and the oath becomes a defiant battle cry, a repeated mantra that gives them the strength to face their fear. In any other context, the words of the oath seem silly, antiquated, and artificial; but at this moment, chanted in non-expressive monotone, the words give focus, courage, and power.

In the real world, I can imagine D-Day soldiers reciting Psalm 23 to the same effect as their transports approached the beaches of Normandy.

For me, this is the feeling of Symphony of Psalm’s first movement. It is a formalized call, giving strength and clarity to the supplicants, purging other distracting thoughts and steeling the congregants to appear before God receive His answer. The music isn’t imitating emotion—it doesn’t have to. The entire universe of emotions is already contained in that statement.

And, the ritualistic aspect moves the idea away from any one person’s grief or fear. The words are for all of us… for all of humanity crying out to God. This gives the music a powerful feeling of universality that transcends our individual concerns.

This same feeling of impersonal, yet universal ritual continues in the second movement. The beginning of this movement is a double fugue, one of the most rigidly structural forms of music. Each voice part sings a single line of music in sequence, giving the feel of a chanted mantra.

But then Stravinsky gives us two remarkable moments.

At the point that the text reads, “He hath set my feet upon the rock,” Stravinsky completely surprises us. Most composers, reading this line, would compose a strong, sturdy foundation—a definitive Statement indicating we are now on firm ground.

Stravinsky will have none of that.

Instead, he brings the voices together, but has us sing a capella—the solid foundation of the orchestra vanishes completely. It is as if we singers have taken a leap of faith, stepping boldly into the thin air and trusting that God will lift us and keep us steady. It is all the more challenging given the complexities of Stravinsky’s harmonies—we really are taking a leap of faith when we sing that section. It is a riveting moment.

The second remarkable moment comes only a few seconds later. To the text, “He hath placed a new song in my heart,” Stravinsky gathers up all the momentum and creates a swirl of unconventional harmonies. It is a powerful statement that something new, something remarkable, something beyond human understanding is taking shape in God’s mind. It gathers undeniable force…

And then the third movement presents this new song. After the mighty generative power of the song’s creation, the choir gives voice to a simple, delicate, and gentle song of “Alleluia.”

At that point, the third movement begins alternating the gentle, otherworldly Alleluias with rapid-fire, energetic exclamations calling us to praise God with cymbals, trumpets, and other great cries of joy. These joyful shouts are remarkable, bristling with rhythmic drive. It is as if the chanted mantras of the earlier movements have lead to an ecstatic trance that is almost savage in its intensity. To me, this section vividly brings to mind performing Leonard Bernstein’s Mass… particularly in the hard-edged “Gloria” and the frenzied “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

But instead of dissolving into cacophony, Stravinsky’s finale brings us back to a serene chant of praise, untouched by human suffering or doubt. We once again sing out the hushed words, “Alleluia,” and fade into the unknown.

* * *

Symphony of Psalms is a very unusual piece, one that can seem puzzling at first hearing. Even challenging. Listeners conditioned for more overt sentiments, like those found in the Requiems of Verdi or Duruflé, might initially be taken aback. The Symphony is not necessarily overt in its feelings… but in its own way it is immensely moving. As I’ve mentioned, the music’s ritualism gives it a universal character beyond the concerns of any one person. And ultimately, the work ends with an astonishing vision—the repeating cycles provide a glimpse of a kind of musical Eternity in which celestial choirs endlessly sing in praise of God. It is the kind of work that redefines what religious music can, and should, be like.

At the end of the day, Symphony of Psalms has more than repaid all the effort that went I’ve put into learning it. I hope you will come to Orchestra Hall to hear the final results—please visit the box office if you haven’t already.

 

Xochipilli

 

 

Another Case of False Advertising?

It appears the Met’s management is starting to feel uncomfortable. I can see why—over the past few days, there has been a flurry of news stories focusing on General Manager Peter Gelb’s executive compensation, leadership, and vision for the future… and the media attention has not been flattering. In response, the Met’s Board of Directors placed a full-page ad in the New York Times seeking to clarify its position regarding the ongoing labor negotiations and to reassert control over the narrative.

Met NYTimes AdI’d like to respond to this ad.

Longtime readers of my blog won’t be surprised—during the Minnesota Orchestra’s lengthy labor dispute, I posted such rebuttals all the time. In fact, my commentary of a similar, full-page ad the Minnesota Orchestral Association ran on Labor Day last year remains my blog’s most widely-read entry.

Let’s begin.

* * *

“[T]his year, the Met’s strained financial condition has made negotiations more difficult…”

Well, to a degree, yes. But from my perspective, I’m not sure that it is the impersonal “financial condition” that has made things tense—it’s the way that management has approached the negotiations that has made them tense. It’s not just that the Met’s management has thus far taken a hard-nosed approach, but that it has essentially entered in to negotiations with an attitude that the unions must be broken at all costs. That is not helpful. Also, Gelb has repeatedly remarked how opera is a dying art form and its audience is collapsing. That also is not helpful.

In contrast, consider the case of the San Diego Opera, another company that was very much looking at an existential crisis. Facing the Opera’s imminent demise, a new management team came in with a positive, can-do attitude to see if things could be turned around. Rather than to be confrontational, it opted to bring everyone into a collaborative discussion to stave off disaster. This “all hands on deck” approach worked, and in a whirlwind of activity they collectively found a way to save the company. San Diego’s financial condition was far, far worse than the Met’s… but ultimately the negotiations were not nearly as poisonous.

“Difficult financial conditions” do not inexorably lead to difficult negotiations.

“We are increasingly regarded as the best opera company in the world….”

Yes, the Met is the largest, arguably most important opera company in the country… but those attributes can work against it. Here’s something to consider. An article that just appeared in Forbes noted that fairly consistently, the most highly paid CEOs tend to be the worst performing CEOs. Why? Complacency and overconfidence. These are forces that everyone has to fight against; but elite corporate leaders are particularly liable to assume they are better informed and more talented than their counterparts elsewhere. They don’t listen to criticism, and generally refuse to look to their competitors for new ideas. Why should they…they are already on top, right?  Any thing they do must, by definition, be considered a “best practice.”

Sadly, organizations can fall into the same trap. They stop being hungry for success or  willing to try new ideas… and they grow complacent and stagnate. I’m not saying this is the case for the Met, but it is something to guard against.

“Like other opera companies, we face the challenge of gradually replacing an aging audience with a younger one.”

Well, yes… but some of these other opera companies are more successful than you are. Perhaps that’s a warning (see my above point).  But I’m curious as to why you feel that building a “young” audience is such a critical initiative. Do you argue that young music lovers have more capital to spend on tickets or donations? Do you feel emerging executives have greater pull to bring in corporate dollars from their respective companies? Are they more apt to provide bequests or engage in other forms of planned giving? Yes it is important to constantly bring new audiences, but I’m curious to know what kind of return on investment you expect to gain by chasing young audience members at the expense of older ones.

“In spite of our efforts, our New York box office has declined from 92% in 2008 to 79% in 2013.”

Those are, at first glance, alarming statistics. And yet a closer examination reveals that… well, that these numbers don’t reveal all that much. On the one hand, I’m assuming these numbers refer to paid capacity. That is a useful statistic, but it doesn’t necessarily connect with your finances… or inherently relate to your attempts to implement significant cost savings. What are your total ticket sales figures, and what is your overall earned income revenue? What is the average price paid per seat, then and now? Was the reason you sold so many tickets in 2008 because they were substantially discounted?

But there are other problems, too. What is the context for these numbers? What are they based on? What is your evidence, as others have challenged your numbers? Has the seating capacity remained constant during this time? How many performances does each year encompass? Why did you choose 2008 as a benchmark, if this decline is part of a long-term, irreversible trend going back much further? What results did your peer opera companies see during this same time?

And most important, why did your capacity fall? This is critically important. Was it that you produced too many shows, leading to audience fatigue? Did the quality decline, leading to audience apathy? Did ticket prices spiral out of control, forcing potential audience members to economize? Each of these problems would require a very different solution to bring things into balance again.

And to be blunt, cutting union wages wouldn’t do a thing to help with any of the problems I just listed.

Look, I understand… in tough times, there is a need to economize everywhere. So yes, you can squeeze the unions and potentially earn some cost savings in the short-term. But this will only buy a little bit of time until the underlying, structural problems re-assert themselves. If management is presenting unpopular operas in opaque productions, it won’t matter what concessions you get from the unions… the company is still going to be in grave danger. And in the meantime, you will have created a hostile environment that will make it unlikely your workers will work with you to find real solutions.

And finally, I have to point out that Peter Gelb has repeatedly stated that opera is a dying art form, and its audience is shrinking. I’m curious that he’s the person you’ve chosen to solve the problem of declining audiences—a problem that you’ve identified as an existential threat. Does he think this problem can be solved? Or has his talk simply been bluster leading up to a difficult negotiation?

“The Met’s endowment is, unfortunately, smaller than our $300 million annual expense budget.”

I get it, that ratio isn’t ideal. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, there isn’t a magical ratio or a set number that you have to have to keep an organization afloat. Simply doubling the size of the endowment isn’t a panacea—there will still be problems, however much money you have in your endowment. One thing to consider, how much money are you are able to access at any given time? The Minnesota Orchestra, for example has an endowment of roughly $150 million, but only a small percentage of it is considered “board designated” and can actually be used to fund operating expenses. The rest is restricted and untouchable.  Simply stated, if you build up your endowment, but the funds are restricted, you haven’t solved a problem so much as you’ve created a new one.

But I’m surprised you bring this up. After all, the management of the endowment isn’t the responsibility of the union workforce—it is the responsibility of the Met’s leadership. One could argue that the Met’s management has mishandled the endowment, has been unable to secure adequate resources to grow it to where it needs to be, and has made dangerously large draws from it (as you classify them) to keep the organization afloat. Isn’t that a failure of the Met’s management? The union workers had nothing to do with these actions, or the decision-making behind them. Again, I understand in a crisis everyone has to pull together; but as I just mentioned above, extracting concessions from the unions won’t do anything to solve the more fundamental problem of financial mismanagement that’s adversely affecting the organization.

Why are the workers expected to endure sacrificial cuts when they’re not the problem? What are you going to do about the real problem?

“Today the box office is only 27% and annual donations are an alarming 48%.”

With respect, why specifically this is alarming? There is no “standard” ratio of what an arts organization should bring in from donations, earned revenue or investment income—every arts organization has a unique formula. You have to do what works for you. It seems as if you’re approaching this with a for-profit mindset, and expecting opera productions to pay for themselves through earned revenue. But as I mentioned in a previous blog post, an overemphasis on earned income can cause an organization real harm. For one, it sets a trap where the arts organization has to over-perform—constantly producing a barrage of new performances to bring in revenue. This in turn puts a terrible burden on the group’s organizational capacity, and put undue stress on its artists in order to earn cash to pay the bills. Plus, organizations that rely too heavily on earned income can face situations where they have to essentially price themselves out of the market.

I ask honestly:  What are your ideal ratios, what what’s the rationale behind these numbers?

“The Met’s administration has proposed to cut personnel expenses by 16%—reductions that will equally affect union workers and administrative staff.”

This would have more credibility if it weren’t for the fact that executive compensation seems to be outside of this formula. It is curious that Gelb has only taken a 10% pay cut, even though he is the most highly paid employee with an annual salary of $1.8 million (versus a chorister who might only make $200,000).  Why is everyone else expected to take a 16% cut?  It is even more curious that leading up to this year, he received a 26% raise, which makes a direct mockery of the 10% cut he just took. If the Met were truly facing an existential crisis, why wasn’t his salary cut before now?

I’m sorry, but the optics of this are horrible.

“These cuts generally do not touch our unionized employees’ basic wages.”

This is embarrassingly disingenuous. Yes, I suppose in the strictest of senses these cuts don’t affect basic wages, but management’s proposal overturns the entire system of compensation… and completely misrepresents the reality of working at the Met. To successfully do the job that the Met’s management has required them to do, stagehands, designers, prop masters, costumers, and musicians have to work long hours that frequently go into overtime. The higher quality sets and costumes required for HD simulcasts, and the additional performances required to bring in additional revenue have placed increasing demands on workers. And naturally, they have made increasing demands on the workers’ time. Again, this is simply to do the jobs management demands that they do. To rewrite the work rules for how these workers are compensated will have a clear and immediate impact on everyone, and the management knows this. The workers will lose a great deal of money—the entire reason management wants to implement this plan is to reduce payroll expenses. But something else will have to give way. Will management demand the same number of hours, and the same high output, or will those expectations be reduced as well? Will quality suffer? Will top talent leave to explore other career options?

Is this a good idea?

“Two examples of work rules under discussion are….”

Oh boy. This is a classic demagoguing technique that gets used all the time—find a couple of “egregious” examples, remove any context, and squawk loudly about them so we start to think all that all such work rules are ridiculous.

But they’re not ridiculous.

First of all, that “16-week” vacation. Yes, I’m sure most readers see that number, reflect on their own number of PTO hours, and cry foul. But as I’ve argued before… you’re mischaracterizing what “vacation” means in this context. Musicians of this caliber don’t just take a break for 16 weeks—they have to practice daily to keep in shape, keep their endurance up, and keep their skills sharp, whether they’re performing or not. It’s like suggesting an Olympic athlete just stops training for 16 weeks and gets a free vacation. No. A more accurate way to characterize this period is “non-performance weeks.” It is crucial to give musicians these lulls, because they reduce the chance for injury and extends the length of the musicians’ careers.

Plus, the “16 weeks” number you casually mention seems to be inflated anyway, completely undermining your credibility.

And look, have you ever been in an elaborate costume? Movement is restricted, your ability to do many mundane tasks is compromised, and you are quite obviously still on the clock. If they’re still on the clock, why shouldn’t they be paid?

But there’s a larger point here, too. You fail to explain how many work rule changes you want, how invasive they are, and what the financial implication is for the affected workers. Over the course of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, management attempted to implement more than 200 changes to the work rules, including the elimination of seniority pay and forced participation (unpaid) in community outreach activities. Plus, the CEO or board leadership would be able to force musicians to perform at events of management’s choosing, such as private parties. The rule changes, in fact, were more controversial than the proposed pay cut. So it worries me that you gloss over your proposed rule changes so lightly. What are they?

* * *

This is already over-long, but let me close with a few general observations.

● It’s been pointed out that spending $30,000 on an ad in the New York Times is an odd way to try and convince the public that you’re broke. Well… odd and ironic.

● It’s disappointing that this ad had so little new information. Nearly all of this has already been said by Peter Gelb in the many interviews he’s been giving recently. In fact, in some interviews he’s given more specific information than what we get here.

● If you haven’t made your case by now, after multiple interviews and sympathetic stories… you’re not making your case.

This ad does little to change the narrative. My sense is you’re losing the public relations war… and you realize it.

 

Xochipilli