The Metropolitan Opera’s ongoing labor dispute has hit a bit a lull—there is a freeze in negotiations while an independent financial analysis takes place.
As both sides prepare for the next round of negotiations, a new article has appeared—a piece by James Jorden in the New York Observer. Jorden’s stated goal with this piece is to show that the maligned Peter Gelb is not as bad as we think. Gelb has, Jorden argues, enjoyed many successes over his tenure. Fair enough. I’ve been strongly critical of him here in my blog, but I’m open to hearing a different perspective… particularly from someone who knows him far better than I do.
That said, in reading through the piece, I’m not sure fully agree with Jorden. Let me explain.
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“It’s not hard to understand how the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager Peter Gelb got a bad rap.”
First, I appreciate the honest assessment of some of Gelb’s potential drawbacks in this section. As both sides become more and more entrenched, nuance and balance can go flying out the window. Thank you.
“…as one member of his administrative staff puts it, ‘Nothing can change his mind.’ ”
This hits on a major issue…one that may overwhelm all the others. The problem is that the Met is heading into a tough series of negotiations, and I think it’s fair to say that neither side is going to get everything they want. The union representatives have acknowledged this, with D. Joseph Hartnett of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees stating “We feel that, just as any family that has a budgetary crisis, everything needs to be on the table. And that includes Mr. Gelb’s spending. And if we’re being asked to tighten our belts, Mr. Gelb is gonna have to cut up some credit cards.”
But it is somewhat alarming to see that those closest to Gelb freely state that “nothing can change his mind.” Does that mean he is willing to fight to the death for his positions? Does that mean nothing will convince him that his data could be off? Or there might be better options than the ones he has already chosen?
As I’ve mentioned many times on my blog, this whole situation has an eerie parallel with the Minnesota Orchestra dispute. There, too, leadership simply refused to budge from its pre-established position and never developed a “plan B.” The management’s intransigence was ultimately its undoing—after 16 months the state government had enough, and the City of Minneapolis came within a hair’s breadth of taking over Orchestra Hall.
Refusing to budge can make you look strong, but it can also make you look stubborn… and unsympathetic.
This goes beyond being obstinate in labor negotiations; in general, it is dangerous to have an inflexible leader running a large, complex arts organization. Yes, a strong leader can sometimes be an asset, and sometimes an organization needs an indomitable force of nature to get things done. But it is dangerous to fetishize this autocratic approach to leadership, as there are other ways to push through difficulties and achieve organizational goals.
As I discussed in a previous post, the Harvard Business Review ran a fascinating article that looked into autocratic vs. collective management styles. “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight,” by Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy and L. J. Bourgeois III, suggested that the most effective approach to running an organization was one that encouraged dissent, healthy conflict, and finding win-win solutions. The authors concluded:
[T]eams whose members challenge one another’s thinking develop a more complete understanding of the choices, create a richer range of options, and ultimately make the kinds of effective decisions necessary in today’s competitive environments.
That is not what Peter Gelb seems to be encouraging now.
“When Mr. Gelb defends his management of the Met, he tends to lead with less than his strongest card. Since his first season in 2006-2007, he has doubled the number of new productions the company presented to six or seven a year. Unfortunately, the quality of these has been uneven….”
Agreed, this is a mixed bag at best, and is probably not Gelb’s strongest card. In fact, the varying quality of the productions is most worrisome, and has long-range implications for the future of the Met. For example, these productions may be fully funded by private donors (and a full financial review may help determine if the productions really were fully funded, as Gelb claims), but they also represent a huge drain on the organization’s overall capacity—taking time, attention, and resources from other projects. Plus, as has been pointed out, many of these new productions have fared poorly in revival, meaning that they will remain expensive albatrosses around the Met’s neck for years to come.
I would toss out a different question, too: should new productions be Gelb’s top area of concern right now? Are they providing the strongest possible return on investment, relative to the resources expended? I absolutely agree that new productions are important, if not critical, to the Met’s overall success. But Gelb claims that the Met is in a precarious position right now. Could limited resources be better applied elsewhere, where they might make a more positive impact? Is this emphasis on new productions putting undue strain on the organization’s human resource capacity, and forcing it to rely too heavily on overtime to get things ready on time? Would a scaling back on new productions reduce the overall strain on the Met’s capacity and give it breathing room? Could new productions be done smarter, so that they are cheaper and easier to pull off?
These are honest questions… I don’t have answers. But I think the questions have to be raised.
“It’s going to take the Met’s audience a while to catch up to European sophistication about stage direction…”
This is a curious statement, and one I’m surprised to read. Taste is, of course, a highly subjective thing, and for everyone who lauds current European productions as avant-garde, I can find several more who reject them as “Eurotrash.” Even the Germans seem to have lost patience for over-sophisticated productions; for example, stagings of Wagner’s Ring have drawn raw derision at the Bayreuth Festival for the last two years. While I speak only for myself, I can appreciate both cutting-edge and traditional stagings—as long as they serve the opera itself. The problem with avant-garde productions is they can be so concerned with making a statement about, say, “patriarchy as hegemonic discourse” that we never get a sense why the two characters standing in front of us fell in love in the first place.
“[I]n the meantime, though, they might keep in mind Mr. Gelb’s greatest triumph at the Met. His comprehensive media initiative is spearheaded by the HD program, which transmits 10 Met performances a season in real time to cinemas across the United States and internationally.”
This is again a curious point to make. I personally think the HD telecasts are great, and many of my friends here in Minneapolis mob the theaters where they are shown. But why are they successful? Based on what criteria? There are concerns that they are not financially self-sustaining, and have not helped diversify the audience by attracting younger viewers. How specifically do they help the organization? What is their goal?
This is important to clarify, because it is possible that this specific initiative could technically be considered “successful,” yet still be a drag on the organization as a whole. Is it a loss leader, and is that sufficient? Or is this program distracting the organization from its core mission? This is, after all, the position of Gelb’s critics, who argue that the telecasts are siphoning off audience members from the live productions…and this is negatively impacting the bottom line. The critics also point out that more and more resources have to be expended to make the costumes, sets and makeup look acceptable for the HD presentations. As a result, workers have to work overtime, blowing a huge hole in the budget, and siphoning off resources that could be used elsewhere.
So again, while I think the HD telecasts are great, I can see the counter-argument that they represent a net drain on the Met’s resources.
“Mr. Gelb has also proven himself adept in the more traditional skills of the impresario. He has introduced to the Met conductors Daniel Barenboim, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Riccardo Muti and William Christie.”
I agree that it is important to bring in new talent… and concur that these conductors are certainly important artists. And yes, an arts organization has to concentrate both on its artistic product and its finances to thrive. I wish, however, there was more of a sense of how these conductors fit into a strategic plan, even an artistic strategic plan. How does bringing them in add value, or help with the Met’s overall mission? Were they scattershot one-offs, or did they build off each other’s strengths? Did these conductors create buzz, and attract audiences? Will they be back? Were they worth the investment, or did Gelb break the bank by bringing in expensive talent with little to show for it?
I am all for bringing in new talent, and can be persuaded that this is indeed one of Gelb’s areas of strength… but I’d like more proof that bringing in these conductors clearly helped the artistic and financial bottom lines.
“The Met’s top-line casting is unrivaled, with practically every important star singer appearing annually.”
This is indeed a current strength… but it has a fragile base. Great singers might be attracted by Gelb’s managerial skill, but I would guess that the more important lures are the Met’s reputation, its reach, and its pay. And if a prolonged, ugly labor dispute breaks out, these incentives will go away. For example, singers (or critically, their agents) may decide it isn’t worth the bad publicity to appear onstage. And while some top performers might be happy to take a pay cut, others may not, particularly over the long-term. And in these cases, it wouldn’t matter how persuasive Gelb is—the singers still probably won’t come.
“Of all Mr. Gelb duties, though, probably his most important, and perhaps his area of greatest success, is development, the art of getting donors to contribute to the not-for-profit company. With less than half the Met’s annual $300 million budget covered by ticket sales and other revenue, that means going hat in hand to donors for more than $150 million.”
Again, curious. I congratulate Gelb on raising this sizable sum, and recognize how much effort it must have taken. That said, I don’t know that I’d call this a unique strength or consider this a unique success—as I’ve mentioned before, the Met is classified by the IRS as a 501 (c) 3 not-for-profit organization. This means that by definition, it relies on fundraising for its budget. So really, raising money is one of his most fundamental job duties. I’m also curious as to how Gelb stacks up to his counterparts at similar-sized non-profits, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, PBS, or the Art Institute of Chicago. Does he stand out from his peers? Gelb is described as abrasive in this articles first paragraph—this coming from someone sympathetic to him. Would someone with more charisma enjoy better success with donors?
“And right now Mr. Gelb performs that role better than anyone in the world.”
Well… perhaps. Although I suspect that if that was the case, the Met wouldn’t be in the situation it is right now, and we would not be having this conversation. If things were going great, there wouldn’t be deficits, there wouldn’t be demands for huge budget cuts, there wouldn’t be a decline in ticket sales, there wouldn’t be threats to Opera News to stop publishing negative reviews of the Met’s performances, there wouldn’t be donor fatigue, and there wouldn’t be friction with the unionized workforce.
Since we do have all these problems, I think it’s safe to conclude that Gelb is not doing the right things, or he’s doing things badly. Or both. As I mention throughout this response, many of the initiatives Gelb is pursuing such as the HD simulcasts or the focus on new productions are not necessarily bad, but I’m not convinced they’re the right ones he should be pursuing right now. And based on the Met’s drooping numbers, I don’t know that he’s excelling at them.
Moreover, other opera companies are having banner years, including companies in Chicago, Houston, and St. Louis. If leaders in these companies are enjoying record ticket sales, increased donations, and high levels of community engagement—and Peter Gelb is not—I’m not sure how we can say that “Mr. Gelb performs that role better than anyone in the world.”
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In the end, I hardly begrudge the press for taking a deeper look at Peter Gelb, or pointing out his successes as part of a broader examination of his tenure. I’m still not convinced, however, that his successes have been all that successful.