Reflections on Anthony Tommasini’s Piece in the Times

New York Times arts writer Anthony Tommasini has written an important piece on the Met dispute, particularly examining the issue of new artistic productions. Interestingly, this subject was also covered by James Jorden yesterday, too (my response to Jorden’s article is here).

By and large, Tommasini brings up good points, and in broad terms I agree with him (and Jorden) that an arts organization must engage in new productions and perform new works. The artistic mission and artistic strategic plan are every bit as important as their financial counterparts.  And in fact, I argued this again and again during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

That said, there are a couple of areas where I believe we part company.

* * *

“Who could have imagined that when the labor talks got underway this summer, one small scenic element of this alluring “Prince Igor” — the magical poppy field that covered the stage during the Polovtsian scene — would be seized upon to the point of absurdity by union members as evidence that the money woes of the Met came not from unsustainable labor costs, but from the general manager Peter Gelb’s spendthrift ways in mounting lavish new productions? That those in-house satin poppies cost $169,000 was decried. Did they have to be satin? How about pre-made plastic ones?”

Indeed, the debate that has broken out is surprising. It is even more surprising to see that we’ve now moved past the original debate about the poppies’ worth, and are now debating… the debate surrounding the debate of the poppies’ worth.

For what it’s worth, I think the poppies are important to the discussion. The unions are not arguing that this poppy field by itself broke the bank; instead, they see it as something that illuminates Peter Gelb’s priorities, budgeting processes, and management style. Coupled with other examples such as the moving monoliths in the Ring cycle, it helps show a pattern of behavior. And as such, it remains fair game.

“The formidable Met orchestra players and choristers, who occupy the top tiers in their field and are paid accordingly, should be careful of debunking the importance of new productions.”

Well… are they fully against new productions?

Let me speak from my own experiences. As a singer, I am happy to perform the regular ol’ warhorses, but I am thrilled to perform new works, as well as less familiar works. I like the challenge of learning music I don’t know, with all the ups and downs along the way; these are the kinds of artistic challenges that get me out of bed in the morning. And to be blunt, having these off-the-beaten-track works in my portfolio gives me street cred with other singers and conductors. I imagine all artists would say the same thing about their chosen art form—the routine can get routine. We crave artistic excitement.

So from this perspective, I’m confident that the Met choristers want to do new productions, new works, and ambitious projects. I’m similarly confident that the wig makers, costumers, and carpenters want to do new productions, new works, and ambitious projects… who wants to make yet another nondescript peasant frock? I’m sure the workers who created that poppy field were fascinated by the unique challenge it presented, and at the end of the day looked upon it with pride and said “I created something remarkable!”

But at the same time, they want financial stability. If they are forced to choose between having a chance to create a dazzling set or making their house payment, I’m fairly sure the workers will choose their house payment.

So, I’m not sure that the unionized workers are against new productions per se.  I think the more accurate assessment is that they are against a pattern of extravagant new productions that cripples the organization’s budget and forces them to take large pay cuts to make up the difference.

And they are not wrong to make this case to the public.

“Some of the recommendations from the unions on other ways to trim the budget without cutting salaries and benefits would compromise the artistic ambition of the house, especially the stupefying suggestion that the Met should not present so many long operas.”

As I mentioned above, when presented with the choice of taking part in an ambitious new production or paying their kid’s college tuition, most people will choose the later.

And from my perspective, the unions have signaled their willingness to negotiate and take cuts—they just don’t want the entire budget to be balanced on their paychecks when there are other areas that could be cut.

And the thing with longer operas. As others have pointed out, sometimes there are ways to cut running times, making it possible for longer operas to fit into the prescribed time frame. Plus, I don’t see any indication that the unions are advocating that Parsifal, Les Troyens or similar operas be abolished forever, or that they wish to turn the Met’s season into a festival of one-acts. Their argument is that it makes no sense to schedule several long, chorus-heavy productions together in a season… and then blame the unions for the resulting cost overruns.

“If the Met cannot present ‘Parsifal’ in a performance and production as ambitious as this one, then what is it for?”

I’m not sure it has to be either/or. The “New Bayreuth” productions of the 1950s were critical and commercial successes. Not that we have to go back to that extreme, but extravagance alone does not create great performances.  There are many ways to be ambitious.

“Mr. Gelb rightly points to the serious structural challenges that have long been undermining American opera companies and orchestras.”

“Structural challenges” was a phrase bandied about all the time during the Minnesota Orchestra’s labor dispute… and I lost all patience for it. As Michael Kaiser from the Kennedy Center stated:

I think the term is overused, and misused, and is simply a cop out in most situations. It allows a group to rationalize reducing fundraising and ticket sales requirements. It provides a guilt-free excuse to do less to achieve the organization’s mission.

Arts organizations may be earning deficits but they are doing so because they have not created the art, pursued the marketing, built the boards, or created the fundraising mechanisms that are required to sustain the organization.

I can point to dozens of arts organizations that are balancing their budgets. Why can they balance their budgets while others in the same art form cannot? Why don’t they have structural deficits when they have the same structure as their less fortunate counterparts?

As a result, I’m not convinced that Mr. Gelb has “rightly” pointed out the serious structural challenges facing the Met, or opera in general.

“On the whole, one hopes that the unions will tone down the rhetoric. In his public statements, Mr. Gelb has consistently praised the artists and technicians at the Met, whereas many company members have denigrated their boss as overbearing and clueless.”

I find this statement astonishing. From my perspective, Gelb has done nothing of the sort. On the contrary, in his interview with Paula Zahn he laid 100% of the Met’s financial difficulties on the unions with their unsupportable salaries, and implied that unions simply couldn’t understand the need for cuts. In an AP interview, he said that a lockout was necessary to make the unions “take this seriously.” His interview with Maureen Dowd, contained this nugget, “ ‘They’re surrounded by too much gold leaf,’ Gelb says of the 15 unions — from wigs and makeup to a union consisting of one house painter. ‘It’s delusional.’ ” (For the curious, my responses to these interviews are here, here, and here respectively.)

I would hardly qualify that as consistent praise.

The praise that he has provided has almost always come off as perfunctory and paternalistic—essentially a disclaimer added onto long bout of criticism to avoid potential legal action.

* * *

Anthony Tommasini’s love for the Met bursts forth in every paragraph of this work—it is obvious he wants it to prosper for years to come. And he is correct that the Met, along with every other arts organization in the world, has to grow its art, developing new productions, nurturing new talent, and presenting new works.

But on some of his other points, I’m afraid we disagree.

 

Xochipilli

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10 thoughts on “Reflections on Anthony Tommasini’s Piece in the Times

  1. “In his public statements, Mr. Gelb has consistently praised the artists and technicians at the Met”

    This was the line I quoted when I posted his piece to Facebook and Twitter. Followed by “Seriously? I must have missed it.”

    Good for you. If only we could get the Times to publish anything from the unions’ points of view. But with the whole ‘Gelb’s daddy’ thing, it’s not going to happen.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Re: the issue of longer operas. I replied similarly to Mr. Tommasini’s piece on the Times website. I see nothing that the musicians or chorus have said that indicates they are against longer operas or don’t want to perform them. They have said that a more careful scheduling of the season could help to avoid avoid the problem of overtime. In 2012-2013, Mr. Gelb scheduled an unprecedented 7 long operas. Now he doesn’t want to pay the price. Mr. Tommasini either didn’t read the musician’s proposal that you posted or he is being disingenuous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “sometimes there are ways to cut running times, making it possible for longer operas to fit into the proscribed time frame.”

      Gelb has already instituted changes that make longer operas fit into the, uh, prescribed time frame. “Aida” and “Manon Lescaut” now play with two intermissions instead of three; “Traviata, “Carmen” and “Trovatore” all now play with a single intermission. The Met’s new “Manon Lescaut” a couple of seasons from now is designed to be played with a single intermission, and when and if the Met gets around to a new “Aida,” that will surely also play with only a single interval.

      There are places in the world where such very long works as “Don Carlos” and “Les Troyens” play with only a single interval, but that time savings would be difficult to institute at the Met with its rather old audience: they already complain when they have to remain seated for anything more than an hour.

      In general (though not with 100% consistency) Gelb-era productions seem to cut down on “stage waits” for scene changes. For example, in previous productions of “Il trovatore, there were mid-act pauses for changes of locale which are now accomplished seamlessly with a revolving stage. For older productions such as “Simon Boccanegra,” there’s little that can be one to expedite the changes, so the clock has to tick while one heavy, literal set for the city square is changed to another representing the garden of the Grimaldi estate, and then yet again more expensive time has to elapse while the Council Chamber is set up.

      The decision to present the “Polovtsian camp” in “Prince Igor” impressionistically created another sort of large economy: since the chorus was singing from offstage, there was no need to costume or stage them. That savings in labor costs surely more than offset the price of that scandalously opulent poppy field.

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      • Gah. Yes of course, “prescribed.”

        [hangs head in shame]

        More to the point. What I appreciate about the examples you provide is that they serve two important functions. They help reduce the running time and the overall costs, but they do so in a manner that supports the overall artistic vision.

        Related to this, I can’t help but reflect on Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, which I recently re-watched. There was a crucial scene where Colonel Brandon relates the tragic history of his young ward, who was seduced by Mr. Willoughby. As originally conceived, this crucial scene was supposed to be played out as a series of flashbacks. Budgetary concerns ultimately forced changes, and it was decided that Brandon would simply relate the story aloud. The scene works brilliantly, carried by the superb acting of Alan Rickman. As he tells this tale, we see all the complex emotions on his face, and deeply feel his pain.

        Again, budgetary concerns forced changes to the scene…but the final solution was profoundly moving, and still in keeping with the overall artistic vision.

        I hope more such solutions can be found—solutions that help save money but maintain the artistic vision.

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  3. “The ‘New Bayreuth’ productions of the 1950s were critical and commercial successes.”

    You do realize that what made these productions possible was the fact that everyone involved worked for a fraction of their usual fee, right? What made the Wieland production work was not the superficial quality of “minimalism” but instead many long hours of rehearsal, much more rehearsal time, in fact, than any other opera house in the world could afford to devote to productions. Or, to put it another way, the secret ingredient of “New Bayreuth” was…. low labor costs.

    Even in as large-scale a production as Girard’s “Parsifal,” most of the production budget is spent not on materials but rather on labor: the sets have to be built and painted by union craftsmen; the elaborate lighting must be meticulously rehearsed with a large crew of highly-skilled union technicians; the costumes must be cut and dyed and sewn and fitted by members of a union costume crew. Meanwhile, union chorus members have be be rehearsed to perform their stage movement. The reason a new “Parsifal” is so expensive is that it requires so many thousands of man-hours from so many highly paid workers. The piece could be done on a bare stage in jeans and tee shirts and it would still be expensive.

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    • Random thoughts.

      Absolutely, I agree 100% that lower labor costs were instrumental.

      But I would take a step back further and look at the larger picture, and why they were able to secure those low labor costs. Yes, in mid-century Germany wages were generally low, and the post-war economy was in bad shape. The only way to produce Wagner’s operas was on a shoestring budget and a lot of goodwill. Everyone knew that going in. But they were inspired, and committed to the shared vision of making the music happen, whatever it took. New Bayreuth was driven by necessity… and recognizing that fact, everyone sacrificed towards that shared end.

      This was also the case with the San Diego Opera earlier this year—an opera company that was truly facing an existential crisis. To stave off total oblivion, everyone from the board on down came together and agreed to cuts, reductions, shared burdens and creative solutions. And right now, the entire organization has bought into that vision, accepted the risks and consequences, and moved forward on a much smaller budget.

      This is not what’s happening at the Met. I don’t think that Gelb has successfully sold the idea that the Met is really looking into the abyss. He hasn’t established that same absolute necessity. Or convinced people that he has a viable plan for the future.

      Gelb has undermined himself in a variety of ways. Before offering to take a solidarity pay cut, Gelb gave himself a raise. He has only offered to implement a capital campaign after the union workers accept substantial cuts. In fact, he seems to argue that the only way to bring the budget into line is by labor cuts. There doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan to find other cuts, or to increase earned revenue and donations, which would seem to be obvious steps to take if the situation were as dire as he suggests. And, he hasn’t been wildly forthcoming about the budget. Maybe these are perfectly normal hardball actions in the lead-up to a labor dispute… but from a distance, it doesn’t look like he’s desperately trying to save the organization, but simply trying to break the union.

      I could be wrong, but I suspect that if Gelb had made a more credible case for the organization’s dire need, and been more effective on selling a shared vision for the future, the union workers would have been much more willing to take cuts.

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      • Once again, Scott, you have done a superb job of reminding people, in a polite and thoughtful manner, of the larger picture and context. No one seems to recall ancient past events such as Minnesota, Detroit, or San Diego. The idea that “l’état, c’est Gelb” is both peculiar and wholly unsupported.

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    • Canard. Gelb did not “give himself a pay raise.” Gelb was awarded a pay raise by the Board. He serves at their pleasure; they decide how much he is paid and (in broad terms) how much money the Met has to spend each year. The fact that they have been so willing to donate money (or convince others to do so) during Gelb’s term means that the Board approves of the work he’s doing. Right now it seems that it is the sense of the Board that spending is increasing too quickly (especially given the tough market for opera generally in North America) and so they want to try to rein it in.

      Right now it is time to negotiate contracts representing 2/3 of the total budget and so, not surprisingly, the focus at the moment is on what cost savings can be made in this area. That Gelb is asking for reductions in compensation in these contracts does not mean he is rejecting the idea of economies elsewhere; rather, those economies may have to be devised based upon what sort of savings can be derived from the new contracts. (That is, if the original goal of 17% reduction in labor costs can be achieved, that represents a savings of about $36 million a year; if, on the other hand, the reductions were only 5%, that would amount to savings of about $11 million a year. All other things being equal,that would mean having to find $25 million more in cuts from other areas than in the “17%” scenario.)

      It stands to reason, then, that the Met management can’t commit to cuts of specific amounts or percentages in non-labor areas until they have a better idea just how much money they have to cut.

      The problem here is that you are choosing to believe sources that are anything but disinterested, i.e., the unions, whose function, after all, is adversarial, to extract the greatest possible compensation for their members. Naturally they are going to spin the story so that there’s really no big financial problem at the Met and dropping one of those silly productions a year would balance the books handily, and so now that all that nonsense is done with, give us a raise, please. I’m sure it the wolf told the story of “LIttle Red Riding Hood” he could easily enough depict himself as the victim.

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      • Most sources are “disinterested” – and Gelb has said that he “needs” to break the union. That’s kind of “adversarial” in tone and intent, and obviously in function (as the Board has rewarded him for this role).

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  4. I’m having a Facebook conversation with an opera-going (real-life) friend who lives in Manhattan, and she has this to say regarding my points on musical performance versus a glitzy new production:

    “You are so right! It’s always the quality of the music and the performances that create transcendent moments for the opera audience, that we remember and talk about for the rest of our lives, not the fancy sets or costumes, although they do contribute to the overall experience. Stephanie Blythe performing in the Ring will get me there way before some fancy overwrought new production or machinery to create a spectacle.”

    When I asked if she minded if I quoted her anonymously, she replied:

    “Sure, use my initials [TR] and you can describe me as a regular attendee who is very discriminating in what she chooses to spend her money to attend, and it is rarely the production that lures me.”

    Like

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