The Metropolitan Opera’s ongoing labor dispute continues to attract attention; yesterday Anne Midgette joined the fray, writing a column for the Washington Post where she grapples with the issues being raised in a cool-headed way.
I greatly appreciate her willingness to add her voice to the discussion—she brings good insights into the conversation, and overall I think her analysis is quite thought-provoking. I’ve been interested to see how writers with a little distance have perceived the ongoing struggle.
But although I agree with much that Midgette says, I believe we do part company in a few key areas. As I’ve done in the past, allow me to share some thoughts about her piece.
* * *
“This is the most heartening progress yet in a negotiation period that has been conducted, throughout the summer, in the public eye.”
I’m also hopeful this can be a good sign. As I’ve said before, my perspective is from the Minnesota Orchestra dispute, and from that perspective I feel a lockout will be a terrible, needless blow to the organization. I dearly hope that can be avoided.
“The Met — in the person of its controversial general director, Peter Gelb — says that opera audiences are steadily declining, donations are down, and cutting salaries is the only way to stave off disaster. (This argument evokes the terms of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 16-month lockout, which started in much the same way.) The unions retaliate by saying that they are experts in their field, work punishing hours, and that their salaries along are not to blame; the Met should take a long hard look at the cost of its new productions — many of which have not been very good.”
May I say how much I appreciate a willingness to try to frame each side of the dispute as they see it? Too many writers have “explained” the two sides by saying something like: “on the one hand the Met is running a huge deficit, and on the other side choristers are protecting their $200,000-a-year salary.” The problem with these analyses is that the info for both sides actually comes from Peter Gelb’s talking points. This gives a more accurate view of the union’s position.
“Both sides are partly right — this is why negotiation is so difficult. But the discourse in the media has amounted to a dust-cloud of response focused on a few constantly rehashed points: Peter Gelb’s statement that opera audiences are declining; the union members’ high salaries; and the idea that Peter Gelb’s expensive and supposedly bad productions are to blame for this mess.”
There is much truth here, but for me Midgette leaves off one critical issue—one I’ve found particularly irritating. Much of the discussion over the last 10 days or so has focused on Mr. Gelb’s direct statements that he is determined to break the unions. As unions. It’s not just an issue of union members’ high salaries, but whether the unions should have any sway whatsoever. In his interview with Paula Zahn, Gelb put 100% of the blame on unions and remarked that they were incapable of understanding budget cuts. Just the other day he told Maureen Dowd that the unions “[have] been calling the shots for decades. And I have to break that up for the Met to survive.”
This is a critical point, and makes clear that union-busting is a goal. That is a key reason negotiations are so difficult—it’s hard to have negotiations when you are looking to make a balanced series of budget cuts, but your opponent is looking to trying to nullify your existence. How do you find middle ground in such a scenario? I think that is why the rhetoric has gotten so heated right now… the unions feel they are facing not just a tough negotiation, but an existential threat.
“The most hysterical response is reserved for Gelb’s statement that opera audiences are declining. In recent weeks, articles and blogs and Facebook posts have repeatedly said that Gelb is lying: opera attendance is just fine, because look, the Chicago Lyric Opera had a banner year this year! This view represents an alarming level of wilful denial.”
Well, as I’ve written extensively about this topic, I’ll assume this applies to me… although I don’t know that I’d consider my posts to be “hysterical.” But then again, I would be expected to say that, yes?
As I mentioned in earlier posts on this subject… yes, I understand. 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. As a board member I have had to make difficult budget decisions for the organization I serve, and as an administrator and performer I’ve had had to live with difficult decisions other boards have made. I am under no illusion that everything is going great.
But some organizations—including those I work with—are doing well right now, both artistically and financially. In a parallel situation, it is also a tough time to run a restaurant or boutique hotel, but people are doing so, and making them work.
I believe that this is very much a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty argument. In the same way that the Lyric Opera doesn’t “prove” that opera as whole is doing great, the Met’s problems don’t “prove” that opera is in decline. Your opinion depends on your data, your observations, and perspective.
“In a recent article on the Glimmerglass Festival, I cited an Opera America study that followed nine major American companies — not including the Metropolitan Opera or the Chicago Lyric — from 2002 to 2012; all declined, but the summer festivals declined the least.”
I wrote about this study in an earlier post. The info is summarized on the following graph:
While some might see a decline, what struck me about the graph is that it shows great constancy, with growth and decline both hovering around 1 million audience members. The decline most evident in the graph comes in 2009, right on the heels of the Great Recession. But even then, after a quick drop lasting one year, audience size quickly stabilized. And may have even recovered over the last two years.
And as I mentioned before, it strikes me that if the last two years showed a return to the baseline, this graph would reinforce my notion that opera is stable. Perhaps this is just me, but I feel that if we were seeing a wholesale decline, the drop-off in audience sizes would be much greater, and more constant over a longer period of time.
For another take on this subject, Andrew Doe wrote a fascinating analysis showing that audiences for classical music were quite strong. The piece is reprinted by the Met musicians, here.
“There’s a lot of talk, these days, about the future of classical music; and in this debate there is considerable blurring — as I’ve said before — of the distinction between the art form itself and the institutions that surround it. Cars are not in trouble every time that automobile manufacturers are in crisis. Similarly, classical music is not in trouble; opera is not in trouble; the news is not in trouble; religion is not in trouble.”
I agree 100%… in fact, I’ve made that point before, including a near-identical comment about automakers just a few days ago. This is a crucial point; the Met’s problems are the Met’s. For example, the fact that the Met can’t quite make its HD telecasts pay off doesn’t mean no one can—a similar program in Dallas has been quite successful. I feel it is possible to believe that the Met can have serious problems, without meaning that opera (or classical music generally) is dying. And other people in the industry have said the same thing.
And a quick word on why I’m optimistic. I work with great professional companies, but I also work with a wide range of wonderful community arts organizations. And I see nothing but strength in these “under the radar” groups, who feed the public’s appetite for music, use music to engage people in creative ways, and keep the performing tradition alive. Large-scale groups like the Met (or here, like the Minnesota Orchestra) are critical for keeping the musical ecosystem alive; they model professional norms, demonstrate how the art form exists at its highest level, and provide a wealth of employment opportunities, which encourages others to pursue careers in the music industry. They are vital. But so are the community groups working at the ground level. They keep people personally engaged in the arts. They provide vehicles for personal creative expression. And they foster community.
During the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, this ecosystem was threatened. But it didn’t die—it actually demonstrated its health and resilience. Deprived of its top-level concerts, the public flooded community performances… many groups reported record numbers of attendees. And the public was engaged as never before; the lockout also forced everyone in the entire network to reflect on why music was important for them. Gathered together, the public fought to re-establish the greater musical ecosystem, and took active steps to ensure it would not be threatened again. These efforts have been hugely successful—concerts at Orchestra Hall have had phenomenal sales, and musicians and the community are connecting in a wide variety of new ways. Audience advocacy groups have sprung up, and music is actively discussed.
That is strength. That is vitality. And I am thrilled to be a part of it.
So yes, we should be realistic about the threats to music; but I don’t believe we should fall into defeatism.
“As for the salaries: debating how much anybody’s work is ‘worth’ is an exercise in futility.”
I agree. I wish this would stop.
“This is not just hype that greedy institutions spin at contract negotiation time, though the Minnesota Orchestra case certainly eroded people’s trust in managements’ good faith.”
This is a bit of an understatement. The Minnesota Orchestra dispute didn’t “erode” trust in management’s good faith, it completely shattered it. Board documents came to light that detailed how the Orchestra’s finances were manipulated for several years to show surpluses when the Orchestra was seeking bonding money from the state, and deficits on the eve of contract negotiations. The Orchestra’s leadership refused to take the offer crafted by its own hand-picked mediator (Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland) because they would “lose leverage” if it did so. The Orchestra’s leadership provided misleading information to the state as part of its application for bonding funds, leading 10 state legislators call for the removal of the Orchestra’s CEO and board leadership. The Orchestra provided such mendacious information to the City of Minneapolis—the lease-holder for Orchestra Hall—that the city was 48 hours from taking over the Hall.
And now the Met’s leadership is following a similar model in New York. Yes, I doubt its good faith.
“As for the question of Peter Gelb’s productions: I don’t know of many cases where a labor dispute bled over into the critic’s terrain and became so focused on artistic quality. It seems somehow extraneous to the argument.”
I disagree with this statement, and think that the discussion of artistic quality is a crucial one. The Met has to be concerned with artistic quality and its artistic product—that’s how it will get its money. Unless something drastic changes, it will always be a 501 (c) 3 organization that depends on fundraising. It is a well-known fundraising truism that people don’t donate money to you because you deserve or need it—they give to you because you inspire them. On a personal level, I check to make sure charities I donate to are using my donation wisely, but that’s not why I contributed… I didn’t do a Google search for the most financially sound organizations, I gave to the organization that touched my heart. Similarly, I don’t go to performances because they sound financially sustainable, but because they sound amazing.
Most people are the same. They want to see something inspiring. They want to see potentials. They want to see the power of your product. They want to be part of a team that is doing great work. And if you don’t give these things to them, they will find some other cause or organization that will. There are too many other options out there.
As a result, the Met has to focus on its art, which is the way it inspires people and shows them its relevant. Yes, of course there has to be a solid administrative structure, yes the finances have to be solid, and yes there has to be a clear-eyed assessment of what the organization’s capacity is. But in the end, the art drives everything. Otherwise, the Met is just chasing money… and anyone who has tried that approach knows it never works.
* * *
All in all, an interesting piece. Midgette and I don’t agree on the state of classical music in this country, and I imagine we’d have very different views on how arts organizations should be run. But I appreciate her perspective, and hope people give serious thoughts to the points she raises—as they go far beyond the current situation at the Met.