I have just been reminded of a certain scene from Christopher Marlowe’s classic play, Doctor Faustus. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the play follows the life of a medieval scientist/philosopher who sold his soul to the demon Mephistophilis in return for knowledge and earthly power. But Faustus repeatedly finds that all of his questions, and all of his requests, somehow get twisted around so that he never quite gets what he wants… or expects. In exasperation, Faustus finally asks the most difficult question he can imagine, a problem that confounded the scientists of his day—how do the planets move? What dictates their actions? Why is there no apparent pattern to eclipses, conjunctions and such? He demands a real answer from Mephistophilis: How does this happen? Mephistophilis complies with Faustus’ direct command by giving a sly non-answer, one that is so vague as to be meaningless. Defeated, Faustus gives a sardonic chuckle and responds, “Well, I am answered.”
At that moment, Faustus knows the gig is up. No matter how specific his queries, no matter how straightforward his demands, he realizes his hellish companion will always wriggle out. He sold his soul for knowledge… but he’ll never actually receive it.
* * *
With this in mind, I can’t help but reflect on the ongoing labor dispute that’s slowly engulfing the Metropolitan Opera.
Yesterday, I posted an entry here on my blog showing that the union had greatly bolstered its position in the dispute by presenting a vast pile of charts, graphs, and analyses that helped prove its case. At the same time, I called out the Met for not supplying similar information to bolster its own case. Without this supporting documentation, it seemed that the steep cuts and sweeping structural changes proposed by the Met’s management were necessary… simply because the Met said so.
And now, the Met’s management has responded. It has provided its own documentation to prove the rightness of its case.
Sadly, the Met’s response is just as vague and unhelpful as the answer provided by Mephistophilis.
Allow me to provide a few comments. Note that the Met’s management inserted its 50 pages of responses directly into the 80-page document originally created by the union, creating a 150-page document. Fair enough—that’s a good way to track the points and counterpoints. But unfortunately, the version I have is a copy, meaning everything is in shades of gray. It might be that the Met’s original document was color-coded so it stood out from the union’s, but in this version it is difficult to tell the pages apart and see who is saying what. Note that the Met’s pages are indicated by the words “Met document page XX” in the upper right hand corner. Flip through… you’ll see what I mean (link is below):
And to begin.
* * *
Met document pages 1-4
The original document provided by the union begins by setting out to show that the Met’s productions under Peter Gelb have received poor reviews—much worse than those of his predecessors. The union argues that these badly-received performances are a significant cause for decline in ticket sales at the Met.
The Met, then, seeks to rebut these charges.
But it does so in a hasty, clumsy manner that doesn’t really help its case. It essentially blusters, yes we did too have some positive reviews!
Obviously, everything submitted for public approval will probably get a variety of good and bad reviews. That point is not disputed—it is true of all aspects of life. For example, if you go to websites like Rotten Tomatoes that provide aggregate information on how movies are reviewed across North America, you will find that even the most popular, most beloved movies of yesterday and today have some nay-sayers. Companies or with great customer service records will still have disgruntled reviewers, and fantastic products will still garner negative reviews on Amazon.com.
The point isn’t that there are good reviews out there. The point is that when compiling aggregate totals, the new Met productions have gotten overwhelmingly bad press. And no one is interested in forking out the money to see these shows. Why isn’t the Met addressing that point?
I’m also intrigued at the disparity between the Met’s and the union’s data. The union provided a page full of productions, listed in specific detail. The Met, however, counters this by tossing out a few shows from a handful of specific years: 2013-14, 2003-04, 1993-94, and 1983-84. Why only these shows? Why choose these dates, decades apart? Are they particularly representative? Are the 10-year gaps problematic? And, if the union can compile loads of data, why can’t the Met?
To further its point about positive reviews, the Met then gives information about how the productions were rated in the New York Times over the last six or seven years, and accentuates the positive. Well, okay, but I’m not sure what the Met’s point is here. Is the Met challenging how the union classified the shows in the union’s original analysis (positive, negative, neutral)? Is it suggesting that the Times alone is the benchmark about how a production is reviewed—how do reviews from other publications factor in? For that matter, what are the criteria the Met uses to determine whether a performance is rated highly or poorly?
And I can’t help but find it comical that Met is trying to bolster its position by showing the positive reviews its productions have garnered. After all, Gelb was so dissatisfied that his shows were receiving poor reviews in the publication Opera News, that he forbade it from reviewing Met productions altogether. Opera News protested, but ultimately the publication was forced to comply. So… are all those “positive” reviews the Met is crowing about real, or are they the result of whipped-dog reviewers who are afraid of losing their careers?
* * *
Met document pages 5-6
A new section begins where the union argues that by raising ticket prices, the Met was losing audience members. The union argues that lowering ticket prices could lead to growth in ticket sales.
I am struck by the Met’s response to this. It’s verbatim reply: “Lowering prices means sales have to be significantly better in order to make up the difference in order to have a positive financial impact.”
Yes. Yes it does mean that. That’s the whole point. That’s why the union is suggesting it.
Then, the Met then tries a “gotcha” moment by suggesting that ticket prices were reduced—and reduced dramatically—in the last two years covered by the graph, and sales only ticked up slightly. Aha! It seems to be saying… See? We tried lowering ticket costs and it didn’t help!
This is disingenuous. There is a difference between reducing prices as part of a pre-determined, season-long marketing strategy… and papering the house because ticket sales have tanked. Yes, in both cases tickets are discounted, but there is a world of difference between the intent, the rationale, and the overall goal of these actions. One is done as a deliberate, strategic attempt to meet consumer demand, and the other is a desperate bid to stave off humiliation. Very different things.
Then, the Met tries to further rebut the union’s point about how lowering ticket prices could lead to better overall numbers by saying, “that’s incorrect economics.”
Well. That’s a comprehensive rejoinder.
That’s it? Nothing more to add? No further justification, or explanation?
Unfortunately, the Met does have something else to add. Immediately following that statement, it provides a bullet point that says, exasperatedly, “Total revenue may or may not increase as a consequence. That depends on something economists call elasticity (‘the price elasticity of demand.’)”
Thank you for the condescending macro-economics lesson.
First, let me point out that this is, by all accounts, a public relations document where the Met is attempting to persuade readers about how it’s position is correct, wise, and forward-looking. In such a document, it is not helpful to scornfully quote a textbook definition of an abstract economic principle. Many would read this as a veiled insult to your readers’ intelligence.
But it also shows the Met is losing the PR game. Who cares about the abstract rules of supply and demand? What does the Met’s research specifically say about this specific topic? What does it indicate about the optimum price point for tickets? Is there one price point for all shows, or are there variations depending on type or projected audience? What has the Met done in the area of dynamic pricing? Rather than discuss this incredibly important topic in the abstract, why isn’t the Met getting into the specifics of its own scenario to show whether or not this will work? It would be far more convincing than what the Met provides here.
So again, these statements don’t address the union’s point.
* * *
Met document page 7
To bolster its previous claim, the union offers up several examples of orchestras that have tried lowering their ticket prices in order to boost overall sales.
And the Met responds: “The comparisons offered are all to regional symphony orchestras, which may or may not be relevant to the Met, an opera company with numerous full-time employees.”
Well… yes. These comparisons may not be relevant. Or they might be relevant. This is a philosophical point, yes? Again, it might help the Met’s case to actually explain why these comparisons have no bearing on this situation, rather than to make some airy pronouncement.
And I’d also like to point out that if the Met is only willing to look at models arising from identically-sized opera companies, it’s going to be waiting for a long time for data. Perhaps it should expand its field of vision.
And finally, I again question why the Met is adopting such a condescending tone in a public relations document.
* * *
Met document pages 8-14
The original union document moves into a new area of analysis, essentially arguing that Gelb’s shows did far worse than his predecessor’s, particularly in revival.
Unfortunately, this is where the Met’s response seems to run out of steam. The next many, many pages of the Met’s response consist of the repeated statement that revivals that originally opened before Gelb’s tenure ultimately sold better under Gelb’s leadership. Presumably this is to prove that Gelb is actually a skilled arts marketing guru.
But this completely misses the point.
It is more accurate to remove Gelb entirely from the equation and simply say that these older revivals are doing better right now than they did in the recent past.
Gelb had absolutely nothing to do with their success, either then or now. He didn’t supervise or design the original productions, but is only capitalizing on their success. Could it be that these older revivals are doing better because the newer, Gelb-led productions have completely bombed, and patrons are flocking to the earlier productions as a result? Are these revivals still trading on good word of mouth and good reviews that have held over from the original productions?
I would need to see significant proof from the Met that it was Gelb’s personal marketing finesse that boosted attendance, or in any way contributed to the shows’ successes. And the Met isn’t providing this kind of proof.
* * *
Met document page 15
In response to union comments about how expensive the new Ring production was, the Met responded: “As stated numerous times before, the Ring productions were fully funded by a generous gift from the Ziff family.”
First, a heartfelt thank you to the Ziff family for supporting the arts, and particularly for supporting new productions. This is an act of great generosity, and I am grateful for their vision.
But to the Met I say: as stated numerous times before, it is widely reported that the Ring productions went far over budget, and were not “fully funded” by the Ziff’s $20 million gift. That’s one of the union’s key points—Gelb’s cost overruns are crippling the organization’s finances. The Met has no credibility in this area until it fully opens the books and allows for an independent financial analysis.
* * *
Met document pages 16-25
More about how pre-Gelb productions did better under his tenure than they did in their original runs. Which I covered above.
* * *
Met document page 26
In response to the union’s commentary about how Gelb’s productions have garnered negative reviews, the Met puts forth a profound statement that will endure for centuries: “Reviews, good or bad, do not necessarily translate to box office success.”
Yes. Yes we know.
This is staggering. Really? That’s how the Met rebuts all the evidence of Gelb’s artistic failures? By saying that it doesn’t matter, because well-received shows don’t necessarily bring in money?
What an astonishing philosophy for a performing arts organization.
And really, is anyone saying that a good review would cause a box office success, or that at bad review would preclude one? This feels like a straw man argument.
* * *
Met document page 27
The original union document listed that many large opera companies around the country—and the world—have done quite well over the last few years, refuting Gelb’s oft-repeated claim that opera is “dying.”
And here, the Met rebuts those claims by saying… well yes, but the Lyric Opera’s success over the last few years doesn’t count. The Met’s key argument? The Lyric Opera’s biggest show was The Sound of Music.
I was waiting for someone to try to make this weak argument.
On the one hand, who cares? The Lyric was responding to consumer demand. Good God, everyone tries to end the budget in the black by scheduling a beloved warhorse. What’s the problem?
But let’s dig a little deeper. Musically, what is the difference between The Sound of Music and Gelb’s English-language production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, which the Met keeps crowing about? Both shows were written for the popular theater, composed in a populist musical idiom, and contain a mixture of singing and spoken dialogue. If musicals are taboo, what about other singspiels? Zarzuelas? Operettas?
I’m astonished that Peter Gelb—who has been so studiously promoting popular entertainment, and so vehemently declaring that opera is dying—is writing off the Lyric Opera because it dared to perform a musical.
* * *
Met document page 28
The Met goes on to say that the successes of three other opera companies don’t count because their ticket sales declined… a whopping 0.6%, 1.3% and 5.1%, respectively.
That 0.6% decline in ticket sales is a national tragedy, to be sure, but this argument misses the point. Ticket sales will always fluctuate. In the case of these three companies, ticket sales did decline slightly this year. But these declines didn’t impact the bottom line—the companies found ways to cover those costs, offsetting them elsewhere. So as a whole, each company had a great year.
The lesson is that other companies survive by living within their means, and skillfully managing their resources. Perhaps the Met could emulate these trends.
* * *
Met document page 29
And the argument continues with a parade of horribles—all the companies that have experienced problems.
First, as a general observation, let me make a point. If General Motors has a bad year and sees its stock price collapse, as it did in the 2008 recession… do we assume that the entire automotive industry is collapsing? Do we assume that the automotive culture that has built up in the US over the last century is collapsing? For example, gas stations, insurance agents, detailers, repair shops… are they, too, about to go under as part of a generalized “death of cars?”
I don’t think so.
So can we stop seeing single examples of opera companies going under as proof of a global “death of opera?”
Yes, the City Opera closed—but is that because of the “death of opera” or the specific issues the company was facing? Many view Philadelphia’s bankruptcy as part of an underhanded attempt on the part of its management to avoid pension payments and other various financial obligations.
And so on. I’ve already dealt with this “issue” many times on my blog, so let me direct readers here.
* * *
Met document page 31
At this point, I admit I’m losing interest in the Met’s document, in part because it is so laughable. Here we get to a tired argument that the workers and artists are terribly overpaid. Again, this has been delved into before, and it’s clear that the Met is inflating numbers and removing context to make them as high as possible. So it is wearying to read the Met go on and on about how the unions are misstating the budget numbers.
And as I have argued many times before, the Met (and Gelb himself) consistently ignore the notion of agency. The workers, singers, and orchestra musicians are not flash mobs that run on the stage and then shake management down for cash—they are doing the work that the management has hired them to do. So if overtime or production costs are spinning out of control… that’s the fault of management.
The Met has no credibility here.
* * *
My analysis has gotten over long. But this would seem to be a good place to stop, at least for now. After this section, the document moves into the give and take of the various proposals, and the conflicting accounts of what these proposals really mean. As that gets into the actual negotiations taking place (I believe) as we speak, I will hold off on commenting further until we see what’s happening on the ground.
So. Overall, I was surprised by the Met’s response. In sharp contrast to the union’s clear arguments, which were supported by solid data, the Met essentially provided a list of vague comments and weak justifications, which were bolstered by little hard data.
And to be honest, I’m irritated that in a PR move like this that the Met would be so… condescending. Many of us in the arts world battle with these same issues every day. We’re well aware of the challenges. We know the value of looking at outside models for ideas, and are wise enough to know these models are never an exact fit for our organizations. So give us some credit.
With respect, I think the Met can do better.