As has been widely reported this morning, the Metropolitan Opera has reached a tentative agreement with two critical unions at the heart of its labor dispute, and has thus pulled back its threat to lock its workers out.
I think we heard the collective sigh of relief all the way here in Minneapolis.
It is far too early to comment what is happening—as of this writing, the deal hasn’t yet been ratified, its contours have not been revealed to the public, and negotiations with some the other unions involved are still ongoing. But rest assured I will have something to say when it’s appropriate to do so.
In the meantime, let me offer up something different—a memory of my first experience to the Met, and why this labor dispute has resonated with me personally.
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First, let me say that I have never lived in New York. As a result, most of my interactions with the Met were all done remotely, either through televised specials, videos, or CDs. These are invaluable links to the outside world, which allow the wider public to have a taste of the magic of what happens there on performance nights.
But as fine as they are, these remote interfaces cannot capture the totality of the Met experience. I learned this first-hand when I finally arrived and took in a performance live—an Otto Schenk production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra back in the 1990s.
Now, I fully understand that if the Met were to raise one single production as the signal achievement of its long and illustrious history… it would probably not be this one. But for this reason it was a perfect example to show the inspired professionalism that runs through the organization, top to bottom—a professionalism that is evident even when the performance itself isn’t creating headlines around the world.
And let me tell you, all parts of that performance were lovingly tended to, so that together the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. And that was a testament to the skill, dedication, and expertise of everyone involved… not just the stars onstage.
For example. That perfectly crafted set delivered exactly the message it was supposed to—a broken, ruined world that corrupted all who came into contact with it. But this was not some otherworldly realm like Tolkien’s Mordor; it was a ruined human world that humans had let fall into decay. The tortured physicality of that set was perfectly executed by the scenic designers, carpenters, scenic artists, and all the other workers who completed it. Yes, the concept may have originated by Jurgen Rose, but it was these workers—these professionals—who actually brought it to life and allowed it to have its intended impact. And it’s interesting to note that the set’s ponderous, overpowering menace was all an illusion, as it had to be disassembled and carted off at the end of each performance. It is rare skill to make something so ephemeral feel so monstrously heavy. As the saying goes, God is in the details… and that was certainly true in these details.
But there were other brilliant details as well. The orchestra, for example, could not have given any more of themselves in that performance. In Strauss’s score, the orchestra all but becomes another character that stands apart from the characters on stage. It comments on the action, mocks, snarls with irony, and screams with rage. This adds to the instability of the piece, and is in fact crucial to the overall effect. The Met orchestra performed this task magnificently—all opera houses should have such an orchestra!
And the front of the house staff contributed to the overall experience, too. Everything was handled with crisp professionalism as the staff maneuvered the crowd to where it needed to be and tended to its various needs. But there was still a human warmth to it all, driven by a passion for the art form, a commitment to the institution, and a desire to get things right.
And of course there were the costumers, wig makers, make-up artists, lighting designers, and many, many other brilliant professionals who made this performance soar. Each contributed brilliantly, as they do for every single performance.
In the end, I both loved and admired the performance, and the hugely famous singers on stage more than earned their ovations. But what made that Met experience an experience was the combined efforts everyone involved. Together, they elevated that performance into an Event. Every part of that evening was handled with not just professional skill, but élan. From my experiences as both a performer and an arts administrator, I know how critical this is to an arts organization. And once an organization creates such a culture of professional excellence, it mutually reinforces itself and becomes self-sustaining… with glorious results.
The Met has such a culture, and the results are magical.
So let me take a minute to thank all the hard working professionals who make the Met’s productions happen, whether you work backstage, in the costume shop, in the rehearsal room, in the administration, or anywhere else. You work magic. Please do not think your efforts go unnoticed.
I am hopeful that this labor dispute is drawing to a close, and the Met’s wonderful culture of artistic excellence can be restored. I’m hopeful that the solutions being hammered out can effectively deal with some of the ongoing financial difficulties, and strengthen the organization to make it stronger in the years ahead.
And most of all, I’m hopeful that the Met can go back to creating art as no other organization can.