Hope for the Met’s Future

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.

* * *

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.

 

Xochipilli

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Hope for the Met’s Future

  1. dear Scott- For clarification the “other workers” that make the details happen start with the Scenic Designers and their assistants who design and oversee the scenery for the carpenters to build . Then come the Scenic Artists who paint, sculpt and do various treatments to the bare walls that age the scenery and make it come to life as per the Designers instructions. Let’s also mention the incredible Costume Designers who design and oversee the construction of the beautiful garments that help each character fulfill their role. And the Lighting Designers whose creative ability is so important to the final look. Thanks for adding this info to your comments .
    bev at USA829 IATSE

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the clarification! You are of course correct, and I’m happy to give them the recognition they so richly deserve. I’ve tweaked the text above to be more inclusive. My apologies…it was entirely an oversight caused by haste.

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  2. Scott,

    I hate to bring up this detail, as you have been so incredibly supportive and insightful through this entire ordeal. However, I must point out that AGMA does not represent just the chorus. We represent all the singers, Principals and Chorus alike, as well as Stage Directors and their assistants, Stage Managers, Choreographers, Dancers, and the Staff Artists (those non-singing performers who appear on The Met’s stage). Perhaps I am over-sensitive regarding this distinction, but over the last several months, commentators who were clearly anti-union repeatedly denigrated AGMA by implying or stating outright that the union does nothing for anyone other than the Chorus.

    Again, thank you for your marvelous insight, and for speaking out so clearly over the last few months.

    Jimmy Odom
    President
    American Guild of Musical Artists

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    • Thank you for your response. As I mentioned in Ms. Miller’s comment above, I don’t want to slight anyone, nor to mischaracterize anyone’s contributions. But since I didn’t mention AGMA or the chorus, I admit to being confused. Let me say categorically that I support all the workers who contribute to the Met’s extraordinary productions, in all capacities… and if I’ve mischaracterized any group’s contributions, I apologize. Thank you to everyone for your hard work!

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      • I’m sorry, Scott, as I said, I’m probably being oversensitive about this, and you are not the problem. But you did say “…the unions representing the orchestral musicians and the chorus…” in your opening sentence.

        Please, please, please do not think that I’m upset with you. I say again that you have offered careful, insightful commentary on this situation, and it is much appreciated. My only concern here is that OTHERS have implied that it is only the instrumentalists and choristers who were affected by this situation and that the other performers were being dragged along or not represented. That is not the case, in spite of one or two “big name” people who chose to take a different stance that that of the vast majority of their colleagues, and in spite of other commentators who bought into the concept of the unions being separate from the people they represent.

        It is not lost on me that you do go into detail about the experience of opera at The Met (and anywhere else, for that matter) is a cumulative effort on the part of everyone who works for the company. Since that is a point I, too, have been making for the last six months, I’m glad to see you state it so very eloquently.

        Again, thank you. Your contributions to clear thinking over the last months have aided immeasurably in the quest to help people understand the deeper implications of this situation.

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      • Ah, gotcha. I was looking further down in the post and blew right by that sentence. My apologies… that line came from my reading of the story in the Times, that reads “The Metropolitan Opera reached tentative agreements early Monday morning with the unions representing its orchestra and chorus after an all-night bargaining session…”. My understanding was it was specifically those two unions that settled, and that others involved in the dispute (like the stagehands of Local 1) were continuing their negotiations. I’ll tweak that sentence.

        And not to worry, I appreciate the feedback and absolutely strive for accuracy—these things do make a difference. Thanks for the clarification!

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      • I don’t seem to be able to respond to your last response to me, so I’ll just do it here. We’ve had this discussion about who AGMA represents with Cooper, too. Multiple times. Also the discussion that singers are musicians, too. So it’s easy to see how you’d get, shall we say, incomplete information.

        Thanks so much for tweaking your statement. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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  3. How right you are Mr Chamberlain about the palpable cohesiveness one has felt watching performances at the Metropolitan Opera Company.
    As wonderful as this recent news is for the artists of the Met, and hopefully for those still negotiating, there is a culture at the Met which was set in motion a few years back which has and may continue to have a tremendous effect on the very thing you and everyone cherishes about the Met.
    You mentioned “combined efforts” of everyone from the top to the bottom of the building to create a magical experience. The very lifeblood of what once constituted the cohesive quality of the Metropolitan Opera, the men and women who toiled lovingly day after day is still in danger. These were people who worked together for years in every department. They knew each other, they knew their craft, they knew the Met. That’s why one had a genuine feeling of family. It wasn’t a trite commercialism, it was quite real. Many craftsmen have been cut from each department. Those who had been there the longest were the first to go, of course. Some of those who are left (or even more strikingly, some newly hired) are quite young and less experienced. Not less talented, but with far less time in the trenches. In an opera house with a revolving rep the size of the Met season, experience matters.
    The Met now outsources so much of its work – from costume design and fabrication to the building of the now infamous Ring set in Canada. While craftsmen outside the Met are immensely talented, they are not OF the Met. There isn’t the sense of what’s what and who’s who. They don’t know the physical building. They don’t know the people inside of it. This has led to enormous and expensive problems.
    My point is this. The very thing you and many love about the Met is still in danger. The Met is being dismantled and arguably, destroyed, from the inside by a misguided desire for cost savings and excitement for the new and different simply because they aren’t homegrown.
    Don’t take your eyes off the Met for an instant.

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    • Thank you for your support, and rest assured I’ll keep my eye on things. For that matter, I’ll be keeping an eye on several organizations that are going through similar troubles, as this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart!

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  4. It was a sad day when the Met announced that it would no longer tour. You must not have been around when they came to Northrop every May,for a six days, seven different shows.I had the great pleasure of being the ‘stage manager’ at Northrop for several tours and then I worked each Met week as a Local 13 stagehand. Oh, such memories!
    And thanks for your blog support during the Orchestra lock out. I was the Northrop ‘stage manager for several years when it’s home was Northrop. And as a member of Local 13, I worked the Orchestra and so many events at the Hall. Again, such memories.

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