Merry Christmas [sic] from the MET

Merry Christmas! What better way to celebrate the joy and wonder of the season than by… picking a mean-spirited labor fight, when everyone is reeling from the pandemic!

And that’s just what Peter Gelb is planning for the Metropolitan Opera in New York: an aggressive labor action to lock out the MET’s stagehands. In a piece in the New York Times today, Mr. Gelb lays out the plan: he seeks to lock out its stagehands at midnight after the union representing the workers balked at the company’s demands for pay cuts.   

First, I want to say that as someone who is on the Board of an important arts organization, and as someone who is a professional fundraiser, no one is more aware of the financial challenges groups are struggling with right now. The pandemic is clobbering the arts world.

But it is… grating to have the MET generally, and Mr. Gelb specifically, arguing that the only way to meet the ongoing storm is through draconian cuts. Which will conveniently come exclusively at the expense of the workers trying to make the MET a success. And just as conveniently are a carbon copy of the arguments he made to force union concessions during the last MET labor dispute in 2014.

As a counter argument, the Minnesota Orchestra, which faced a major labor dispute of its own at nearly the exact same time as the MET’s last one, has gone on in a completely different direction. In response to the pandemic and the financial challenges it has unleashed, the Orchestra has made changes, negotiated cuts in good faith, and still gone ahead with presenting arts programming and delivering it to the community. No universal furloughs at all.  Moreover, the Orchestra has worked with our local PBS station and public radio to deliver performances live, in a virtual format. And best of all, the Orchestra has completely overhauled its programming so that it is much more innovative; each performance includes works by composers of color and/or women. They have done heroic work to keep their musicians and staff engaged… and paid.

So, it can be done.

The MET, however, gone in a different direction. It has furloughed everybody, and has once again decided that it’s going to cut its way toward prosperity. To justify this, it has pulled out—in some cases literally—the exact same talking points from the last major labor dispute in 2014. The weakness of the arguments back then made it clear that Mr. Gelb was interested not in sustainability, but rather in extracting union concessions as an end goal. And it seems that that is the same plan this year, too.

A few observations.

Continue reading

About Leonard Slatkin’s New Book…

Years back, I had the pleasure of singing Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky with the Minnesota Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. It was a pure delight.  Prokofiev’s music tells the story about crusading Teutonic Knights attacking Mother Russia, causing death and destruction until they are annihilated in the Battle on the Ice. One of the highlights is a choral scream, given when the Crusaders charge the Russian forces. Prokofiev doesn’t give the Knights real words (thus dehumanizing them); instead, their battle cry is just a jumble of nonsensical Latin words, belted out at top volume over the orchestra. The effect is staggering in the concert hall, and a bit ironic. It is a thundering sonic blast that sounds portentous, powerful, and authoritative, but for all that is ultimately a bunch of howling gibberish signifying nothing.

Which brings me to Mr. Slatkin’s new book. Continue reading

Yet Another Feeble WSJ Article on the Met Opera

Goodness.  I don’t have the time to comment on every weak article to come out on the Metropolitan Opera.  By my count, I’ve missed two that have been published in the last six weeks or so.  But a new one has just appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that absolutely demands a response.  While purporting to celebrate a great financial milestone, the piece goes on a rampage of negativity, punctuated by one jaw-dropping statement after another.

Really? Continue reading

Clichés Abound in WSJ’s Analysis of the Met Opera

And I have officially had it.

Yesterday Terry Teachout published a story in the Wall Street Journal that casts a long glance at the problems the Metropolitan Opera is currently facing.  And I’m fairly confident my scream of frustration could be heard all the way in Manhattan.

I don’t want to bash Mr. Teachout, whom I’ve never met.  I don’t wish to disparage his writing, his obvious experience, or even knowledge of the arts.  I should also point out that we’re in full agreement that Mr. Gelb has run out of ideas about how to run the Met, either artistically or organizationally.

But I must take issue with this article.  Unfortunately, it tosses around every wrong-headed cliché about the arts and arts management that I’ve been trying to put to rest since my blog’s inception, including Baumol’s cost disease, an outdated report from the NEA, and the use of paid capacity to measure financial success.

How is it that demonstratably false ideas can take such a powerful hold on our collective consciousness?

While I can’t take up this larger question, I can certainly rebuff the points of this specific article. Continue reading

Thoughts on the Met’s “Box Office Slide” and its Implications

Last week the New York Times’s published article on how to fill the empty seats over at the Metropolitan Opera—a piece that I responded to yesterday.  Shortly after the original article appeared, writer Michael Cooper published a companion article in the Times to give a bit of context to the situation, and provide a deeper analysis about why those seats were empty in the first place.  Based on the Met’s financial data, interviews with the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb and Opera America’s Marc Scorca, and reports by the National Endowment for the Arts, he sees the Met’s drop in ticket sales as part of a larger decline in participation in the arts going on across the country.

I greatly respect his writing and his sourcing, and fully understand his point.  But based on my own experience, and my own dives into the data, I have a somewhat different take on the situation. Continue reading

On Filling the Met Opera’s Empty Seats

Last week, the New York Times featured a major piece looking at the ongoing challenges facing the Metropolitan Opera.  The key question it tackled—a question that perennially haunts the dreams of all performing arts organizations—was how the Met could fill all those empty seats, performance after performance?  Most of the Times’s top critics weighed in, offering a lightning round of suggestions on how to put “butts in seats.”

Sparked by the Times’s article, many others took up this question as well.  For example, La Cieca over at shared some additional recommendations of how to increase ticket sales.  The discussion has continued among groups online, via Twitter, and even here in Minnesota; one local news organization, MinnPost, actually put forward a hilarious parody video showing what happens when an orchestra follows the advice of consultants to boost ticket sales.  Days later Times itself published a follow-up article by Michael Cooper, purporting to look at the root causes of the Met’s box office woes.  Everyone seems to have an opinion on this topic.

Well, the Met Opera hasn’t asked for my thoughts (this isn’t entirely a surprise—due to my coverage of the Met’s contentious contract negotiations a few years back, I’m sure Peter Gelb thinks of me as The Harlot of Babylon), but since everyone else is chiming in, I feel like I should add my two cents too.  Continue reading

A Texas Brawl Is Brewing

Another day, another orchestra labor dispute.

I have to say, this continues to astonish me. Here we are, yet again, with the classical music ensemble of a major metropolitan area facing yet another labor battle with its management. Once again, the same tired arguments are dragged out, based on the same murky numbers and the same sloppy appeals to conventional wisdom—classical music is dead and there’s no money for the arts.  Once again, we’re told that only by imposing sacrificial cuts on unionized musicians and workers right this very minute can management save the organization from bankruptcy.

It wasn’t enough that we saw this exact same pattern happen with the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, San Diego Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Binghamton Philharmonic…

…now we’re seeing it happen in Texas, with the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO).

I’m losing patience. And my willingness to be polite.

A news story in the Ft. Worth Weekly has a useful account of what’s happening now. Allow me to share a few thoughts. Continue reading

A Confounding Development in Philadelphia

I’ve seen a lot in my time as a classical music writer/blogger. I’ve covered a number of labor disputes involving orchestras and opera companies, and have seen a number of bone-headed, tone-deaf actions as a result. As this point, I assume I’ve pretty much seen it all.

And yet, I continue to be surprised.  It seems that there are still plenty of labor disputes plaguing the world of classical music, and they continue to generate breathtakingly bad ideas.

Let me share the most recent—one that unfortunately has transpired in Philadelphia, the home of one of the United States’ most celebrated, venerated orchestras. This one is a whopper. Continue reading

Great News for the Met (and a Few Questions for Peter Gelb)

There is some very good news today about the Metropolitan Opera—the Met announced Wednesday that it closed its most recent fiscal year in the black, with a $1 million surplus and a balanced budget. This is a fantastic development, and I congratulate everyone who made it possible.

But I must say, today’s announcement is all the more remarkable in that just over a year ago, the Met was claiming its finances were in catastrophic shape; as a result, General Manager Peter Gelb demanded that its unionized musicians and workers take sacrificial pay cuts to keep the company afloat. Gelb was most clear and insistent on this point, arguing that the unionized workers needed to take cuts totaling $35 million or else. This wasn’t a one-time claim… he made this point in a variety of interviews throughout the summer of 2014.

Well, today’s announcement makes a mockery of everything Mr. Gelb said during those contentious labor negotiations. Several statements he made (along with other statements from the Wall Street Journal article that reported the good news) have raised some serious questions, as well as my hackles.  I’d like to respond. Continue reading

Yet Another Tiresome “Death of Classical Music” Article

Oh boy. I think my last flicker of patience has finally burned out.

This week, USA Today published an article by Matt Daneman that once again trumpeted the death of classical music (“As Interest Wanes, Classical Music Hits Sour Note.”) The core of the piece was an interview of Robert Freeman, who previously served as director of University of Rochester’s Eastman School and president of the New England Conservatory, before moving to his current position at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Fine Arts.

With respect to Freeman’s enormous contributions to music education, and his familiarity with the classical music world, I have to take issue with many of his points… along with Daneman’s overall framework of the article.   Continue reading