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Labor days

In an email obtained by parterre.com, AGMA’s Alan Gordon warns his membership of a possible lockout by the Met if contract negotiations break down this summer, blaming “failure at the box office, over-reliance on High Definition theatercasts instead of audience growth and a gross waste of millions of dollars on unnecessary and avoidable expenses” for the company’s current financial woes.

72 comments

  • pasavant says:

    I live in Philadelphia and know a number of formerly loyal met attendees from my area who now go only , or almost only , to the HD broadcasts. I almost abandoned attending live opera after a serious cheap attack, which fortunately, has passed. I think there may be many other non- Manhattanites, ( North Jersey, Westchester County, etc. ) who have similarly stopped attending live performances at the Met. The movies may indeed be hurting box office. IMHO.

    • operaassport says:

      Even if that’s true, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to how many people are attending the HDs who’d never go to the MET.

      • armerjacquino says:

        Yes. Growing audience vs HD broadcasts seems like a false opposition to me.

        I don’t know why the HDs at the Met are so controversial. Seems like everywhere else they’re done they’re unequivocally seen as a good thing. I may be biased but I’ve never heard a bad word about NT Live.

  • johns33 says:

    That article in the NYT about stagehands’ salaries and the grip the unions have on negotiations will come up again, rightly so I believe. Having seen my subscription costs climb over the last few years, and everyone I know take pay cuts I am ready to see some hardball negotiations.

    • olliedawg says:

      “hardball negotiations”?

      You bet there’s going to be much tougher negotiations this year. There has to be. Knowing that fact of life, everyone (Gelb, AGMA, who knows who else) is now posturing. This is a typical tactice before negotiators come to the table. Mr. AGMA’s email is intemperate, to be sure, even over the top, and he might regret taking such a bellicose stand when Gelb and his assistants point him towards reality. Like most arts/nfp (even for-profit) institutions, the Met can no longer afford to continue exempting unionized employees from these realities.

      (BTW, before anyone accuses me of anti-union sentiment: My dad was a union guy from way back inthe old days, and spoke bitterly of those years when bosses could force line speed-ups, fire anyone summarily, announce blatantly discriminatory policies and tactics. Unions were necessary then, and are mostly necessary now…)

      • I’m just guessing here, but there is some basis to think that, barring limitations of geography, there are opera lovers (myself included) who go to Live in HD because it is $25/pop vs. $250/pop. Using the HD broadcasts as the pinata for (some of) the Met’s financial issues is, in my opinion, a red herring. To use it as a bargaining tactic will be (again guessing) a non-starter. The program is in place, it is successful, it has garnered praise from the public and press alike, it brings opera to a larger audience, it will no doubt continue, it might even expand.

      • I’ll also guess that unions will find not a lot of sympathy from the public-at-large if they do strike. As one parterrian noted, many of us have taken cuts in pay, seen their hours reduced or their benefits cut (or been asked to donate more to their benefits package). The NY Times article, I suspect, had many shaking their heads asking why someone who moves music stands around and helps bring a piano onstage makes $200K. Many of my colleagues struggle with their careers, and these are all professionals in their fields with decades of experience. My business is in a slump, and I’ve cut my pay in half (it wasn’t high to begin with, and certainly not even within shouting distance of $200K). The reality is that the unions can ask for 100%, or even 90%, of what they believe they deserve, and get 0% of work, or they can look towards their future, and negotiate in a reality that the rest of us understand. I doubt Gelb will try a Scott Walker type tactic, but he probably will press the realities and public perception issues hard.

      • Has Gelb made costly errors? I don’t know that for a fact, so here again I can only speculate. He might have put a few bets on the table that went sour on him. If he’d done enough of those, however, I think the Board would be looking for his successor (and maybe not too subtly). But, from where I’m sitting, it seems to me that Gelb is getting support from the Board for a harder line, or he wouldn’t have planted those stories in the press, nor would he have dismissed Volpe from his negotiator position. The Board must be (again, pure speculation) looking at the numbers, the trajectory of those numbers barring any unexpected windfalls, and has made a decision to get costs under control. That starts with overhead — and that means payroll. Is there anything startling about this? If you’ve run a business, or been on the operations side of a business, you know this drill.

  • grimoaldo says:

    “Asking for a reduction in AGMA members’ compensation and working conditions is simply an attempt to shift the real focus of the negotiations away from failure at the box office”

    Is it unequivocally true that the Met has “failed at the box office” or is failing at the box office? I would like to see some analysis to show this rather than a mere statement.
    And if so there may be more significant reasons than the HD broadcasts. In the last three or four seasons the Met, judging mostly from audio broadcasts in my case, has put on a lot of dire, dire, atrocious performances judging from a musical point of view and a lot of those that have not been abysmal have been mediocre. Excellent musical performances have been few and far between though there have been some.
    Also whenever I talk to people in the US about opera or the Met, the first thing I hear from the majority of them is “I don’t like updated productions” or “I only like traditional productions”. I don’t care about that myself but it seems to me undeniable that the switch from the pictorial “traditional” productions which used to be the norm at the Met has lost them audience, a lot of people tell me they don’t go any more for that reason.

    • olliedawg says:

      Interesting points, grimoaldo, especially about obtaining proof of the Met’s alleged box office “failures”, which brings me to my first question for you:

      • Who are the people who don’t like updated productions or prefer traditional productions? What’s the demographics on those folks (age, income, etc.)? In addition, how many people have you spoken with? Because those comments, while interesting, are anecdotal evidence of resistance to change. I wonder what stats the Met has in its arsenal.

      • Atrocious/bad performances all the time? Really?? I just heard portions of a Butterfly that nearly took the top of my head off — Hymel was on another planet for that broadcast. Can anyone else point to a string of shitty broadcast performances?

      Honestly, I don’t think it’s the new productions, or crummy media events, or failure at the box office, etc. I think it’s the economy in general, and the difficulties in keeping costs at a reasonable level (not low or poverty-level). While there are individuals who are living as if the world is their oyster, most of us live with stagnant wages, extraordinarily high housing costs, to say nothing of rising health care and food costs. There is the 1%, and then there are the great unwashed (of whom I am a member) who are struggling with priorities, of which donating to the Met or buying a full-price ticket or subscription becomes a harder choice.

      • grimoaldo says:

        olliedawg of course I have not done a scientific poll, it is just chatting to the people sitting next me at opera performances or at the intermissions or acquaintances when I mention opera etc., almost always the first thing they say without me asking them is “I only like traditional productions” and different ladies in SF LA and DC have told me, unasked, that their husbands now refuse ever to go to the opera with them again after sitting through a “modern” production they hated.
        I did not say “Atrocious/bad performances *all* the time”, my perception is that over the last three years or so, from a musical POV only, about 80% of the performances I have heard from the Met have been mediocre or worse.

        • olliedawg says:

          I remember sitting through productions in the house, asking myself why so-and-so was singing such-and-such a part (or why they were singing at all), or where exactly I was supposed to look because I couldn’t see a darned thing, or there were a gazillion people (per Zefferelii) up there with 10 million watt bulbs (remember “Turandot” anyone?) and I was blinded, or I couldn’t hear/see them because gargantuan sets dwarfed everyone (Ponelle RIP)…I’ll bet many parterrians could enumerate the shlock they’ve seen and/or heard at the Met. I suspect (again, total speculation) that audience members at other opera houses could list their disappointments, too. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there, and then, there is/are the occasional “wow” moment(s).

  • Will says:

    olliedawg, the alternative to a $20 HD Telecast ticket doesn’t have to be anywhere near $250. I get very annoyed when people quote the top prices of any theater as if that were the only choice. For my upcoming performances Of Werther and Prince Igor I am paying $40.50 and $45.50 for second row Family Circle dead center with full view of the stage and the best acoustics in the house. Also, I don’t have to put up with a video director telling me where to look and a sound mixer falsifying balances. There are even cheaper seats available.

    • olliedawg says:

      Will: I was speaking metaphorically. I agree cheaper seats can be had at the Met. And, I never use a comparison to rock concerts or sporting events — season tix to the Knicks are pretty stiff, too. For some people, however, $45 might be a financial or psychological barrier when the “same” (at least as perceived by the buyer) performance is available at $25. For others, there might be a geographical barrier to traveling to the Met. Live in HD is a reality that is preferable to some, or an alternative to others, or a new experience to even more, and it’s still revenue into the same pot.

      • Will says:

        OK, but I found nothing metaphoric in your “there are opera lovers (myself included) who go to Live in HD because it is $25/pop vs. $250/pop.” That was the comparison offered, in which you specifically included yourself.

        I live in southern NH and could drive 30 miles to Portsmouth for the HDs, but I drive to NYC and back for my opera live because there’s nothing like the live performance experience. I think to make it seem that the only choice at the MET is a $250 ticket is a big misrepresentation — a comparison between a $25 ticket and $40 or $45 ticket is a radically different situation from the $25 vs. $250 split you proposed. And there are something like 800 or more tickets at the level I pay.

        The geographic issue would exist no matter what the price was, of course. But the people who are too far away from NYC so they go to an HD, wouldn’t have gone to the MET in any case; their HD experience actually expands the MET’s audience and income. If the MET can prove that HDs really do result in lower box office, then they should have a 50 or 75 mile blackout zone around the opera house the way some sports teams blackout telecasts of their major home games.

        • olliedawg says:

          The geographic issue would exist no matter what the price was, of course. But the people who are too far away from NYC so they go to an HD, wouldn’t have gone to the MET in any case; their HD experience actually expands the MET’s audience and income. If the MET can prove that HDs really do result in lower box office, then they should have a 50 or 75 mile blackout zone around the opera house the way some sports teams blackout telecasts of their major home games.

          Couldn’t agree more…but the point of this thread was labor negotiations…and you and I are both saying that the Live in HD program, on its face, is a red herring in terms of upcoming contract talks.

  • Lalala says:

    Nobody should be surprised by this. The Met started asking for singer’s to cut their fees (even after the contracts had long been negotiated and signed) around 5 years ago. Let’s just say that this didn’t go over very well. And, as far as how the HD broadcasts have hurt in-house attendance, I warned of this when it all first got started (and many thought my prediction would be wrong). The broadcasts have not only hurt attendance at The Met, they have also affected opera companies elsewhere (I’m sure they aren’t very thrilled about that).

    • La Cieca says:

      I’d love to see your documentation of these claims. It surely couldn’t be that the worst recession in 80 years would have anything to do with a drop in ticket sales, could it?

      • Lalala says:

        The recession has something to do with it, of course—but, if you can see the Met productions for $25 instead of $250, you’ll go for that. People will continue on this path even if this recession ever ends. The HD broadcasts are not putting people in the Lincoln Center seats as had been promoted. And smaller companies are complaining because people are now paying those smaller fees for the movie theater presentations rather than supporting their own local companies. As far as the Met asking artists to cut their fees (even donate 10% back), this has been noted numerous times by artists since 2009. The Met, even in a letter to the artists, offered to put the names of the artists who “donated” back, into the program. Few took Mr. Gelb up on that offer.

        • La Cieca says:

          So you’re just guessing, then, about the HDs. Why didn’t you say that in the first place?

          • olliedawg says:

            My esteemed La Cieca: Spot-on!

          • Will says:

            AGAIN with the $250 seats! I guess the old folk saying is right: olliedawg said it a couple times and now it’s true. Do look at the Met’s ticket price structure, people.

            • grimoaldo says:

              Actually the prices go up to $430 a seat! the mind boggles at the idea of a couple going to Die Fledermaus or The Enchanted Island and paying $860 for the experience. Does anybody really pay that or are those seats in parterre boxes kept for Met staff or visiting celebs or something?

            • olliedawg says:

              Will: I’m so glad to have my 15 min of fame…but, seriously, the $250 seat meme is one that is a constant in so many conversations about the price of opera tickets. It may not be true over the spectrum of ticket prices, as you so rightly point out, but there is that PERCEPTION in the public domain. Perhaps the Met needs to find ways of changing that perception through marketing, education, outreach, if they aren’t doing so already.

            • La Cieca says:

              In fact, those premium seats are among the first to sell out. You can look at the Met’s seating charts on their website if you don’t believe me.

            • Lalala says:

              The $250 isn’t just for the seats.

            • olliedawg says:

              La Cieca: Tell me about it — it blew my mind that a March matinee had precious few $200+ seats available back in OCTOBER. Maybe it’s the tourists, maybe it’s the Wall St. moguls, maybe it’s the…

            • kashania says:

              I think that instead of being shocked and appalled that people are willing to pay so much for a pair of tickets, we should just be grateful! Those are probably the only people in the audience whose ticket price actually covers the per-seat cost of putting on that performance.

            • olliedawg says:

              I’m amazed that those tickets sell out so quickly, since it’s out of my general price range, just I am also encouraged to see that price point hold up, not to mention its benefit to the house.

          • Batty Masetto says:

            If we’re going to argue from anecdata (or even less), I can add that since the HDs have started my hubby and I have actually been going to more performances at our local company (SFO) and elsewhere.

          • Lalala says:

            Not guessing at all. Even the Met has stated as much.

    • olliedawg says:

      Lalala: The Met is the gorilla in the room. For better or worse, they get a lot of attention. And, sure, if given a chance to see the big names live in the biggest opera house around at a reasonable price, why wouldn’t you go? But, that doesn’t preclude seeing a live performance in your local opera house — no one’s locking people out b/c they have a ticket stub from a Live in HD performance. I really don’t think the Live in HD program is what’s affecting the Met’s box office — it’s called a major recession/quasi-depression, stagnating wages, and rising COL. Most people make choices based on their checkbooks, and something has to “go” in order to pay the rent. It might be the local opera house, it might the gym membership. Whatever…It’s Personal Economics 101.

    • olliedawg says:

      Asking for a break on fees is also a reasonable request for management to make in a time of financial difficulties. I have had to do that with my subcontractors, but we work out a way to make it less painful — maybe we pay their expenses (always based on actuals, and with a cap) and do a revenue split. We can do our business and make some $$, and the subbies are made whole and make some $$. We both win. IF the Met used that type of negotiation strategy and agents/union reps gave them the finger, then those representing the artists are being unreasonable, maybe even greedy. Better to get something of what you want of that 100% vs. 100% of $0, is my philosophy. There’s got to be something in it for everyone. But, there’s no accounting for dumb or greedy or shortsighted.

      • Lalala says:

        A break in fees was a ridiculous request when the General Manager was getting a large raise. He then said he’d take a pay cut but it was still a huge raise over what he was brought in at. The Met wasn’t offering to pay the singer’s expenses. The singers weren’t getting much of a share in the new media deal (in fact, the amount singers was given was diminished over previous deals). Sure, the Administration could request the “break on fees”--but there was no gain for the singers. The singers weren’t guaranteed any future employment or any perks. So, cut your fee on a contract that had been negotiated and singed years before and, oh, by the way, we have nothing for you in the future, just wasn’t going to work. Indeed, there was no accounting for being shortsighted.

        • olliedawg says:

          Perhaps we should focus on risk management. This is a conversation I’m in every day at work. I, by no means, want to lecture or condescend…just thinking about Lalala’s comment “out loud.”

          A singer signs a contract with the Met for a series of performances, and that series could be years in advance. Let’s say the guarantee is $10K per performance x 8 performances = $80K. The manager and PR people will take their cut, to be sure, and the singer needs to pay his/her own expenses, unless there is a clause worked out that picks up a portion of those expenses.

          Let’s then say the singer soldiers some of the risk of that gig — that their voice will be in sterling shape at the time of performance, their personal life is in good order (no divorces, separations, injuries, etc.). They perform, they get paid, they walk away.

          On the other hand, the Met GM is responsible for negotiating that contract, and hundreds of others, to ensure a cast for many performances, not to mention the orchestra, the dancers, the crew, etc. The GM is also responsible for tasks assigned by the Board, which can include fundraising, public speaking, insurance coverage for the house, officers, property’ provisioning the house (like those brownies), and many other duties too numerous to mention. Of course, s/he has assistants and department heads, but ultimately everything points back to the GM.

          Let’s now say the singer is sick, or not in the best condition. The singer can, of course, choose to sing because the show must go on, their contract might contain clauses/penalties for no-show, etc. Again, let’s say the singer chooses to back out — there usually are penalties for doing so, so that’s the risk the singer takes. But, owing to the cancellation, the GM can lose donations, must refund tickets (many at full freight), deal with poor PR, answer to an irate Board. On the other hand, if the singer chooses to sing while indisposed, there may be poor notices or disappointed ticket holders, but the singer will most likely continue to get paid for X number of performances regardless of the blowback. The singer leaves with a paycheck, or not; their reputation might take a hit (but is that the GM’s fault?), their fans might be disappointed. But, the singer moves on to the next gig, the GM does not.

          As far as I can tell, and I say this knowing full well that I am outside the loop of negotiated contracts, it’s probably the GM who takes the greatest part of the risk in this deal.

          Moreover, contracts always have lots of clauses with mutuality — if this happens, then you get this, I get this — and many conditions about cancellation or changes. That’s why contracts are written and changed.

          Singers are generally freelancers and, like all of us who are self-employed, there are no guarantees abut future employment. If there were, freelancers would be employees and, even then, there are no guarantees.

          • Lalala says:

            Actually, not all of this is true for the kind of contracts signed at te Met…and remember not all of the singers who were asked to give back were anything close to being a star. A 10% give back to them is a lot more of an issue than it is to others. A singer is lucky to walk away from a performance run with 50% of the fee. If she’s working overseas, it’s more like 40%. And the singer takes risk at every performance and rehearsal (for that matter). If the singer gets sick and has to cancel the singer is out of luck concerning far the fee…so cutting the fees of other performances makes no sense. In the end, however, this contract negation with AGMA is far more about the chorus and less about the soloists. AGMA is not a strong union for the soloists--ask any of them. However, the union has more of a voice with the more unified chorus.

  • Ilka Saro says:

    The opening of the email seems to be some kind of attack on Gelb himself. I don’t know enough about the finances of the Met to say, but I really don’t buy that profitable HD broadcasts are putting the Met in the red. And I don’t know the reasons that Gelb is replacing Volpe with himself. But I know that Gelb has a higher public profile than Volpe did, and that he is a more “controversial” figure with the public.

    It seems like a shaky strategy for AGMA to challenge Gelb’s apparent mismanagement, unless they are afraid that they really will lose. We saw the same thing at City Opera, and it didn’t work. The old union tactic was “Pay us what we demand. You have the money, or you need to raise it.” Now it’s “We shouldn’t take a hit because you are bad at what you do”.

    • olliedawg says:

      AGMA’s playing offense, I suspect, because that’s worked in the past OR they want to intimidate Gelb as a “newbie” negotiator. It’s a classic negotiation tactic, albeit rather ingenuous and noxious. I don’t get the sense that Mr. AGMA believes he’s going to lose, because if you’ve been through enough lawsuits, you know that this is but the opening salvo to soften up your opponent. Of course, if AGMA would see management as part of the solution (as I wish most unions and those inclined to adversarial relationships would), the conversations can be kept short, civil, and constructive. But, disseminating an intemperate, over-the-top message to your constituents hardly helps put things right.

  • Jamie01 says:

    At least with regard to the orchestra, I would think it’s very much a buyer’s market. Conservatories in the US and elsewhere turn out highly skilled players year after year after year. And for someone hustling between free-lance gigs, part-time regional orchestras, and maybe a straight job or two, a seat in the Met pit would still be very enticing at $85 or $90k/year rather than $150k or more.

    Would they lose players to those few orchestras who would continue to pay more? Possibly. Would 98% of the audience notice or care? Probably not.

    • olliedawg says:

      It IS a buyers market, Jamie01. And you have demonstrated precisely supply outstripping need. If there are segments in the arts world wanting to stand pat on their demands, there are many struggling who would gladly take their place. Even in the trades, there are many looking for a foot in the door. $100 of 0, or 75% (or name your percentage) of $large pot.

    • -Ed. says:

      A few years ago I sat in the side terrace in Davies Hall for the SFS. I was immediately struck by how young the orchestra was as they came out onto the stage. We joked that MTT must’ve recruited from local high schools. The orchestra performed an astonishing concert and sounded amazing, even in that odd hall. Does youth equate to lower wages in this business? It does in most businesses, but I don’t know anything about the business side of orchestras.

      • m. croche says:

        The San Francisco Symphony went through a strike last year. Their (comparatively handsome) wages were the subject of public discussion. I don’t remember the exact figures, but the upshot was that SF Symphony wages were on par with top-tier orchestras in the U.S.

        I agree that the musicians look younger and younger every year. Sadly, the conclusion I’ve drawn is that I must be getting older.

        • -Ed. says:

          Long and hard I’ve seriously considered getting older, but ultimately I decided against it.

      • Jamie01 says:

        Salary is based on seniority. Additionally, each section’s principal gets more, but is responsible for staffing -- i.e. figuring out which flautists play which shows. A Met orchestra member would also be able to teach at Julliard, Mannes, etc., and get as many private students as she wants, and can pick up plenty of summer chamber music festivals, etc. Like much of the current economy, those at the top do very well, while the rest struggle to make ends meet.