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.
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“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.
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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.