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.
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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.
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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.