Cher Public

The Met: what’s really wrong?

The 2012-13 season at the Metropolitan Opera was a financial disaster, with the company taking in only 69% of potential total box office revenue—a troubling 13 percent decline from the previous season and the lowest box office percentage in over a decade. Thanks to discounting, the Met did manage to sell 79% of total seats but that, too, was another low.  

The official explanation, as proffered to the New York Times, cited three factors: the disruption caused by Superstorm Sandy, an ill-advised 10 percent price increase in a sputtering economy that undercut sales far more than forecast, and the ongoing problem of the Met’s aging subscriber base continuing to buy fewer tickets while younger opera goers still didn’t find their way to the Met.

However, the Met’s challenges are not meteorological, demographic, or cyclical; they are structural. The fiscal trajectory of the Met makes an economic crisis inevitable. Even after accounting for the cost of media efforts such as “Live in HD,” the cost of presenting a season at the opera house has increased at a rate twice that of inflation during the Gelb regime. During that same period, box office revenue was basically stagnant until it plunged last season.

No one expects income to cover expenses at an opera company, but the difference between income and expenses has more than doubled in the past decade, culminating in a staggering $161 million gap last season. The Met’s donors actually ponied up a remarkable $158 million towards filling this hole.

To put the Met’s annual fundraising obligation in perspective, here are two sobering facts. In a single season, the company requires more in donations towards annual operating expenses than the New York Philharmonic, BAM, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The New York City Ballet, and Lincoln Center Theater combined! Or, to put it another other way, the Met’s fundraising obligation of $161 million is more money than the National Endowment for the Arts disperses in a single year.

While that fact is certainly a painful reminder of the pathetic level of arts support in the US, it’s also an indication of just how massive the Met’s fundraising needs have become. Not surprisingly, the company finds itself backed into a very uncomfortable corner.

It can’t continue to count on this level of donations year after year, let alone on the increased level of donations current budget projections would suggest it requires. It has little financial flexibility to offer interesting repertoire or take risks with the directors it chooses. It can’t impose on those same tapped-out donors to raise much needed funds capital for renovations or a healthier endowment. And most critically it, gives the Met precious little room to maneuver in this year’s union negotiations.

In late February, the press reported that the Met was seeking significant cuts from its unions. Soon after, AGMA Executive Director Alan Gordon fired back with an ominous letter to music agents that suggested a lockout was inevitable. Furthermore, he claimed that Met’s problems were likely due to “[Gelb’s] failing business model and unregulated waste”. He then took issue with the Met’s contention that labor costs were too high by adding, “When Peter arrived at the Met, he inherited from Joe Volpe a balanced budget of $209 million. Last year, his productions had swollen the budget to $311 million, with a $2.8 million deficit, and a shrinking audience. “

There is much to unpack in those two statements—but let’s begin by correcting a glaring factual error. According to the Met’s own annual report the company outspent income and donations by $4.5 million during Volpe’s last year as general manager—far from a balanced budget. In fact, the company overspent during 4 of his last 5 seasons as General Manager and it was on his watch that the Met set in place the spending patterns that have so compromised the company today.

Next, there is extremely disingenuous implication that the $102 million growth in the Met’s budget over the first six years of the Gelb regime was due to new productions and waste. Conveniently, the Met provided the cost of new productions for last season in a recent regulatory filing—$21.8 million—or roughly $3.1 million per new production. This is a fairly consistent figure over the past few seasons. So, by going from the four new productions of Volpe’s final season to the seven last year, the Met increased annual expenses for this line item by roughly $9.3 million dollars.

Another source of increased expense was Live in HD Series, SiriusXM channel, and other media initiatives. Their cost was $33.9 million; However, the Met earned $34.5 million from its media programs, so this is in fact a wash. The argument has been made that the Live in HD series cannibalized box office revenue, but only anecdotal evidence suggests that is true. I would instead contend that the audience for the HD series is not people who chose to attend an HD instead of attending in person, it’s people who went to the HD as their way of going to the Met.

The HD audience consists of older opera patrons in the greater NY metro area who don’t venture into the city as frequently as they once did, opera fans around the world who might make it to the Met once every couple of years, and people who feel that spending 20 bucks to see an opera on a big screen is better than the equivalent experience in the cheap seats and standing places at the Met. Only the Met has the data to confirm or disprove either hypothesis and they’re not sharing.

Continuing our exercise in forensic accounting, one can use the data in the Met’s published annual reports and a little modeling to determine that the remaining $59 million of the $102 million increase in spending stems from increases in “Compensation and other benefits.” This is the cost of the Met’s spending on its largely unionized employee base and performers covered by union contracts.  Based on the information available on these contracts, it appears that most of the rise in spending on compensation and benefits was due to contractually mandated increases

Without more fiscal transparency from the Met, it’s impossible to know how much of this was due to the most common source of labor spending going over budget, unplanned overtime. When the Robert Lepage Ring production was introduced, excess overtime was a serious problem. The production required additional technical rehearsals and performances ran way past the scheduled end times because of the long breaks when the Machine had to be rebooted.

During Gelb’s second season, the stagehands were complaining that they had to put in too much overtime because changeovers between overly complex productions required extra labor. However, recent backstage gossip from the Met recently suggests that unplanned overtime is not nearly so significant a problem as it was in those earlier years. In fact, Vladimir Jurowski noted in his talk to the Wagner Society that the Met only let him due an uncut version of Die Frau Ohne Schatten if he could finish in less than 4 hours with intermissions. He made it in time.

In their discussions with the press: the union sources have cited three wasteful items.

The first is rehearsals held on Sundays, when union members make double time. This season, the Met scheduled just two Sunday rehearsals, with piano only.

Next is new productions that in the union’s view had needlessly lavish sets and costumes. They cite the example of the silk flowers used for the poppy field in Prince Igor. Now, honestly, how much more could silk flowers have possibly cost than the alternatives (plastic? paper?) and would the substitutes have been as convincing under the glare of theatrical lighting and the scrutiny of HD cameras? Has everyone forgotten the risibly cheap spring-loaded flowers that went boing-boing during the Good Friday Spell in the first season of the Met’s previous Parsifal production?

More importantly, new productions are almost always fully funded by gift from board members and other major donors. That is to say, money for new productions is held in a different account from funds for operating expenses. If new productions don’t happen, the Met doesn’t automatically get those extra funds to use towards general expenses.

Last in the union list is international airfare for artists travelling to the Met. This is, perhaps, a cost center where savings can be found. Anyone who’s been hanging out here at parterre box knows that smaller parts are frequently cast with foreign artists, chosen by our post-Colonial overlords operating out of secretive arts management companies in London.

In difficult financial times, it should be possible to cast these parts with fine local singers and avoid travel expenses while giving American singers needed gigs and exposure. But, even if every comprimario role went to a US-based singer, what would be the potential savings?

Taken together, I guesstimate that all three of the union proposals would result in savings of not much more than a couple of million dollars annually, barely enough to provide the unions with a one percent increase in compensation.

Now if AGMA were serious about allegations of waste, it would help if to provide more concrete data on potential cost savings. Otherwise, they are starting to sound like the Republicans who argue that food stamp spending can be cut because they read a story on about people trading food stamps for alcohol. Their only substantive proposal has been to set up a financial oversight board with union representation to provide oversight over spending on new productions and the like.

Frankly, I think this would be a nightmare. No self-respecting director would tolerate that level of hostile micromanagement. A more workable approach might be to let the unions have a single representative on the financial subcommittees of the Board of Directors. It would also help the unions cause, if they offered their own suggestions for simplifying work rules. Less complicated work rules don’t necessarily lead to cuts in pay if they are pegged to appropriately calculated pay rates.

For its part, the Met, has done itself no favors in the early chess moves of the contract negotiations either. Sure, there were sympathetic news stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that laid out a case for requesting concessions from the unions, but those stories ignored the most obvious question: Why the urgent need for cuts right now?

The last contract negotiations, which took place without any suggestion of the need for drastic cuts, were just three years ago during one of the worst years of the fiscal downturn. In that year, the Met needed $140 million in donations to break even. The fiscal picture was only marginally rosier than it is now, yet the company granted increases.

True, Volpe was doing the negotiating but he was operating under the direction of the Met management and board. What financial model could have possibly led them to think increased expenses were justified?

When Gelb took over the Met he stated that increased attendance and new sources of revenue would restore the company to fiscal health. Wasn’t it obvious three years ago that the plan wasn’t working?

Early proposals from Met management suggest that they want to roll back labor expenses to what they were before Gelb even started as General Manager. As draconian as that may be, I’m not even sure that is enough. It’s very difficult to judge because the Met management has been just as guilty of tossing around numbers without context as the unions have been. They cite the Met’s massive annual fundraising obligation but give no indication of what they think a healthy annual fundraising goal should be.

In a sure sign of institutional cowardice, the WSJ has to resort to citing an anonymous “person familiar with the matter” for the information that the Met would like to refocus its fundraising to building an endowment and reducing the need for annual giving.

That’s an admirable plan, but it’s one that should be shared with the unions and eventually the public that is providing those donations. Nowadays, donors expect unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability from the organizations they support. So it does not sit well that the most recent published annual report from the Met is from two seasons ago. Even then, that financial document reveals as little as possible. Nonprofits that don’t provide a full view of spending and revenue are viewed with suspicion and distrust.

The Met seems to forget that the NY opera public is still recoiling from the demise of the New York City Opera. The City Opera gave the impression that they were slowly recovering, then suddenly they needed $8 million… and then they were gone. City Opera never adequately explained their pressing need for this large amount and as a result they couldn’t raise it. While the Met is in not in the precarious straits of City Opera, their endowment could quickly be drained by a few more years of lackluster box office and slackening donations.

Moreover, no one at the Met has shared their ideas for how they will get box office and attendance back to healthier levels. The Met can’t succeed through cost cutting alone; it can only slow its own demise. What in the Met’s future artistic plans is intended to generate interest or excitement? Where in the programming are there the productions that might lead curious music lovers to find their way to the Met for the first time or inspire someone who hasn’t been to the Met in a while to return?

On paper at least, next season promises to be mind-numbingly dull. It’s not the season of an opera company that aspires to generate interest or increased attendance. In fact, it is the perfect season for a company that is anticipating a lockout as there is little that will be missed if it doesn’t happen.

Peter Gelb promised to revitalize the Metropolitan Opera through an increased number of theatrically exciting new productions, better casting, and innovative media initiatives. He had the right ideas, but has been largely unable to execute on them. The media initiatives have been a notable success drawing attention, if not attendees, from well outside the operasphere.

New productions of core repertory works have largely been serious disappointments that rarely improved upon the tired productions they replaced. Productions of works new to the Met have provided more artistic successes, but not enough to inspire any confidence in the company’s ability to nurture a great opera production. Casting has been equally exciting and bewildering, with an over-reliance on singers that appear to have been chosen for the Met rather than by the Met.

To return to the union’s complaints about his stewardship of the Met, they had it almost right. The problem isn’t that Gelb’s business model is failing; it’s that he’s failing at his own business model.

In part 2, we’ll have some ideas on how to get the business model back on track.

  • opus

    Fantastic article! How refreshing to read a perspective based on actual metrics and not someone’s uneducated hunch.

    “Nowadays, donors expect unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability from the organizations they support. So it does not sit well that the most recent published annual report from the Met is from two seasons ago. Even then, that financial document reveals as little as possible. Nonprofits that don’t provide a full view of spending and revenue are viewed with suspicion and distrust.”

    I was surprised to see that you are correct -- the Met doesn’t post their audited financial statements on their website. Interesting.

    Can’t wait to read the next post and hear more of your thoughts and ideas.

    • Dawn Fatale

      To be fair, the Met posts its annual reports and they include financial statements. However, the most recent one is for the 2010-11 season. Those statements don’t include a helpful level of detail. One of the expense line items is a $201 million entry simply labelled “performances”.

      • opus

        Thank you for pointing this out. Financial reporting from the opera companies I am used to seeing will break down Annual Reports and Audited Financial Statements into different categories.

        Continuing this thread, what is the level of detail you would be satisfied seeing? And can you cite an example of an opera company posting financial statements that provide that level of detail? Their financial reporting seems to meet the standard for what one sees throughout the field. Or am I mistaken?

        • bachrocksmysocks

          Opera Philadelphia does an extremely detailed job on their taxes, check their 990s. Also, just because an organization doesn’t post their 990s on their own website, doesn’t mean you can’t find them easily by searching on google. Websites like GuideStar make it easy to get financial information, too.

  • danpatter

    Extremely interesting! Thanks for posting this. When I lived in Philadelphia, I attended the Met regularly. Now that I live in Houston, I have enjoyed the HD Live Broadcasts very much indeed, and I would hate to see those ended. (By the way, I wonder what the five minute outage at the end of WERTHER cost the Met? Many theaters refunded the full ticket price.)

    As far as I’m concerned the real problem is this country’s failure to fund the arts at even a minimally acceptable level.

    • Alto

      I agree with your last sentence. But it could also be read as “The Met can’t get enough people to attend, therefore every American taxpayer should be made to pay.” I know that’s a blinkered view, but it would have just enough truth in it …

      • Regina delle fate

        Every European taxpayer contributes, to a greater or lesser extent, but it’s peanuts within the overall budget. The US raises far too little tax for important things, and spends too much on wars in foreign countries, with our country, unfortunately, as its obedient poodle. But at least some of our hard-earned cash goes towards making life more cheerful through the arts. :)

        • A couple of Paris Opera figures, for anyone interested:

          Taxpayer’s contribution: “La subvention pour charges de service public accordée à l’OnP s’élève à 109,4 millions d’euros”.

          “Le budget total de l’OnP est de 177,8 millions d’euros”.

          Ticket sales: “Ajoutons que les ressources propres de l’établissement proviennent essentiellement de la billetterie, à hauteur de 71 %. Elles s’élèvent à 68,44 millions d’euros, soit 38,5 % du budget de l’établissement public.”

          (Figures from a French Senate report about 7 years back:

  • skoc211

    Personally I would attend more frequently if it was more affordable. It cost me $70 for two tickets in the Family Circle to La sonnambula on Friday. It was worth it, but that adds up very quickly for this twentysomething.

    • Henry Holland

      It’s not any better at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the old days at the Dot, I’d pay $12 to sit up in the balcony, the sound was fine and visuals are unimportant, plus the bathroom lines were shorter.

      Even when Disney Hall opened, I could still go to a routine subscription concert for a $35 seat in the back balcony. Great sound, comfy seats, it was worth it for good programs.

      Now those seats are $65. Even adjusting for inflation, I simply said “No” when I checked about a ticket for a concert of Bartok’s 2nd Violin Concerto and the Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony. With most of the concerts ending up on KUSC a while later, I haven’t been to a symphony concert at the Disney Hall since 2012.

      • havfruen

        Henry did you attend the LA Philharmonic concerts when they were held in a hall by Pershing Square?
        I can’t remember what the place was called, but I remember attending some fantastic concerts there.

        I’ve not been in Disney Hall, but friends have said that the leg room is horrid. Presumably you didn’t have that problem. Where did you sit?

        The ticket price story seems to be universal, unfortunately.

        • Henry Holland

          Ah, Clune’s Auditorium, no, that was before my concert-going time. I first started going to Philharmonic concerts as a 15 year old in 1975, my Dad took me to the Bowl a few times. I started going regularly to the Dot in the mid-80’s, during the depressing Andre Previn days, went all the time during the Salonen era.

          If I go to Disney Hall, I sit in the upper balcony, the upper tier with four rows:

          The sound is incredible up there.

          BTW, I’m waiting to hear if a friend was able to get tickets for Kraftwerk at WDCH tonight. They’re doing a residency, it’s the “one album straight through + hits per show” thing, all eight of their albums. Tonight is the Radio-Activity album, last night was the kickoff to the Minimalist Jukebox festival.

  • grimoaldo

    Very interesting. However in my opinion the real problem at the Met in recent seasons is that they have been shoveling dreck on to their stage, they have just put on one terrible show after the other.
    “a truly superb opera performance is exceedingly rare. The Met…..manages perhaps once per season….Opera audiences are resigned to slogging through dreck”
    Just as an example, the Faust was a production from ENO that had already flopped in London, everyone hated it which was entirely predictable, and had a leading lady who couldn’t sing.
    Imagine a donor who had put up a million dollars so they could put on that dreck. Why would they ever do it again?
    Why would anyone who paid hundreds of dollars a ticket to sit through dreck cough up again to repeat the experience?
    If the Faust had been an exception it would not be so bad but as the NY Observer article says, it just a slog through dreck all the time, with an average of one superb show a season, no wonder they’re in financial trouble.

    • Our Own JJ

      You’re reading that wrong. I didn’t qualify that “exceedingly rare” with “at the Met,” because I think truly great opera performances are very rare wherever you go. I went on to use the Met’s recent seasons as examples of how rarely what I consider true greatness happens, i.e., not very often at all. But I did not intend in any way to suggest that this phenomenon is only true at the Met, or that this “slog” is something new.

      The Met did a lot of routine in the 1990s, in the 1970s and in the 1950s, and all the opera houses in the world do quite a bit of routine. That’s the “dreck” I was talking about, and it’s the price an avid operagoer has to pay for finding the great stuff along the way.

      And I would not include as “dreck” a production of Faust that featured Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It was not a night of greatness because the soprano and the production were off-kilter, but you don’t get to define it as “dreck” just because it happens to push a couple of your bête noire buttons. So stop trying to put words in my mouth.

      • Porgy Amor

        And I would not include as “dreck” a production of Faust that featured Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It was not a night of greatness because the soprano and the production were off-kilter

        Even so, while giving the last satisfactory vocal performance, she provided my only lasting positive memories of that production. She was the only one who seemed able to rise above a poor production and make powerful theater of it. The guys were stymied.

        • Loge

          I keep reading that she is a fine actress but I have yet to see proof of it. She seems to have one facial expression--that of “poor pitiful me!” and that also pretty much sums up her posture. With her hair down she is not unattractive but so often she has it up in a bun to emphasize her small features in the middle of a huge face. I don’t know if that is personal choice or the designers but I would think someone at the Met could make her look more attractive. So I am baffled as to why this woman who can’t sing the roles, is an extremely limited actress and is unattractive onstage gets all these new productions, opening nights and HD’s.

          • PetertheModest
          • Porgy Amor

            In my first line above, of course I meant “the least satisfactory vocal performance,” rather than “last.”

            I keep reading that she is a fine actress but I have yet to see proof of it. She seems to have one facial expression--that of “poor pitiful me!” and that also pretty much sums up her posture.

            It is fine that you do not enjoy her, but…no. If she has one facial expression, then the general run of opera performer must have one-fifth of one facial expression. Thinking of Don Carlo alone, she showed a wide and vivid range, and while some of it was “poor pitiful me” because how does one play that role without a certain amount of it, she was nothing like that when demanding justice of the King, when mockingly telling Carlo to kill his father and lead her in blood to the altar, when consoling the Countess, and in the first act before things go south. There are reasons not to like the woman, but an inexpressive face and poor posture are not where I would expect someone to go with it.

    • redbear

      In fact, it was not a “flop” in London. Either Grimoaldo is fabricating facts to support his particular point of view or he simply does not know what is going on. I was at the first performance a bit across the isle from Gelb. The audience reception was warm.
      If anyone would like to actually know what the reaction was here are available reviews:

    • Regina delle fate

      I doubt if ENO would have signed up to this Faust if it hadn’t been for the “special relationship” between Gelb and John Berry, ENO’s artistic director. And at least you got a better cast, Popsy notwithstanding, at the Met. We had “ENO favourite” Melody Moore as Mags, and Toby Spence, not ideally cast as Faust.

  • Jamie01

    I just don’t find most of the Met’s productions all that compelling. There might be three to six shows a season I feel I must see, but otherwise I prefer to get my opera fix via the unstaged performances at Carnegie, Les Arts Florissants’ annual visit to BAM or Alice Tully, Gotham Chamber Opera, etc.

    Now that I am aging into the core Met demographic and can afford something other than standing room, I find myself there less than when I was in my twenties.

  • Alto

    Not content to have history’s best drag name, La Fatale is shown to have a keen head for business and polemics.

  • operaassport

    Fantastic factual article. And it proves what many have been saying: the biggest area for potential cost savings is wages/benefits of the MET’s unions. It’s the biggest line item in the budget. If substantial savings are not realized in this area then one of two things happens: the MET becomes a smaller place or it goes the way of NYCO.

  • What an excellent piece. Brava!

    I’m particularly glad for the context provided for the amount of fundraising the Met currently does. That’s an awful lot of money and should be kept in mind next time someone says: “Why don’t they just get a donor to pay for [fill in the blank]”.

    It is curious that during the last set of union contract negotiations, cutting costs was not a pressing issue when the figures suggest that it should have been. I wonder what the back story is on that. Gelb and the Board must have had some reasoning for their approach. Volpe may have been doing the negotiating but he would have had to get approval from Gelb and the Board.

  • redbear

    It is a wonderful, and vitally important, work of journalism. Bravo. I shames the “regular” press and magazines who should be reporting on one of America’s most important cultural institutions.

    • antikitschychick

      excellent point redbear. Shame on them indeed…the Met may not want to have publicity on these matters but no publicity is bad publicity as they say.

    • Regina delle fate

      The New York Times isn’t going to dish this sort of stuff on Gelb, though, is it?

  • peter

    I just don’t see a long term solution to the Met’s financial woes other than to scale back its unbelievably long season and/or move to a smaller theater. Audiences are diminishing and I don’t think it really relates to the quality of performances being offered. Whether it’s the lack of public arts funding, the absence of music education in public schools or the aging demographics, I don’t know if we will ever return to an age when the Met has full houses except on a few nights when superstars are singing. I’m not always Gelb’s biggest fan but I do admire him for trying to cultivate new audiences. I just think the Met is too big a theater to fill on a consistent basis in this day and age, especially in a season that lasts from September to May.

    • messa di voce

      Agree with a lot of what you say Peter. The audience for all serious performing arts in this country is declining. People are quickly losing the habit of going out in the evening: they’d rather just sit in front of their computers.

      • peter

        Messa, I’ve noticed recently that people don’t even go to the movies like they used to. An independent film in San Francisco will get good reviews in Friday’s paper and the audience on Saturday night is maybe half full.

        • messa di voce

          I think the work rate-race in this country (longer hours, less vacation) has everyone in a state of continual exhaustion. I think back to my parents at my age: my father coming home from the office still relaxed, my mother having been in the house all day, eager to get out. And off they’d be, 5 or 6 nights a week (not the opera, but concerts, movies, plays, parties). Now everyone crawls home and just wants to collapse on the couch and stare at the ceiling.

          • Henry Holland

            Messa, that’s a good point about wanting to collapse, but it’s also that stuff is just outrageously expensive to attend these days.

            I’m a big Neil Young fan, he’s doing some solo acoustic gigs at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood (where the Academy Awards are done). The “cheapest” tickets are $82.00, so when you add in all the odious fees, it’s close to $95. I love Neil, but no way.

            I’d love to see The Book of Mormon at the Pantages in Hollywood, even though it doesn’t have my future boyfriend Rory O’Malley in the touring production. The cheapest tickets at the Pantages for a Tuesday night are $61 + fees downstairs under the overhang (= shitty sound), the balcony seats are $108 + fees, the orchestra $185 + fees. That’s unreal.

            Of course, in Los Angeles you also have to figure in the freeways/travel time & parking, so there’s that too.

            I have a limited budget for entertainment, spending $33 to go to the Long Beach Opera’s Death of Klinghoffer this Saturday is more my budget.

          • Batty Masetto

            Messa, work is definitely an issue for my partner and me. What with the commute, he’s doing 12-hour days, and I’m doing something similar at home because now there’s a mortgage to pay.

            We went more when we lived within walking distance of Davies Hall and the opera house, but now the time investment is so much greater – and as Henry points out, even in classical music venues, it seems as though audience manners have gotten a lot worse: at the Dessay recital, the two oldsters in front of us spent a substantial portion of the second set futzing around looking under their seats for something or other that she had dropped out of her purse while she was fiddling around in it during a song (why?). She found whatever it was eventually and stuck it back in the damn purse, so it’s not like it couldn’t have waited for a break between sets.

        • Henry Holland

          There’s a very good reason why me and most of my friends refuse to go to a movie theater any more, preferring Blu-Rays on my HD TV: the movie going experience sucks and it’ll end up on DVD/Blu-Ray/cable eventually.

          The last movie I watched in a theater was the 2nd Hobbit movie and it sucked. Expensive ($15 for the ticket, plus $9 for a watery soda and bag of stale popcorn), the people around me were effing texting and talking the entire movie. When I asked one person to stop, I was told to fuck off.

          The sound was also deafening (and this from someone who loves going to hear loud guitar bands in concert), when my friend complained, was told there was nothing they could do, it was pre-set. I suspect that was BS, but still.

          Movie theaters are dinosaurs, no matter how much they try to stave off their demise with with 3D/HD/IMAX technology and since I don’t give a damn about the whole “magic of movies with a crowd sharing in the experience of a great movie!!!!” thing, I’m quite content to never go to one again.

          • armerjacquino

            Utterly depends on the film, surely? I’ll happily wait for something character or dialogue driven to come to TV, but there’s not much point watching something like GRAVITY outside a cinema.

            • peter

              Was there any point to “Gravity”, even on a big screen?

            • Gravity was all about the craft of filmmaking. There was really no point to it. I can’t think of another film in recent memory where the journey was so much better than the destination.

            • Henry Holland

              I got the Blu-Ray of Gravity last week, it looked great on my HD flatscreen system. I loathe the 3D effect of things flying at me, which apparently the 3D version of this movie had a bunch of, so no loss not going to see it in a theater.

            • Henry Holland

              Maybe it’s because I’m one of those kids that were big fans of the whole Apollo mission, but I liked Gravity as something other than a virtuoso exercise in filmaking. I was 8 when this first came out:


              It totally blew me away seeing that, I’ve been a science and space geek ever since. Sure, there were parts of Gravity that I was all “Oh, come on, she’d be deader than a doornail if that really happened”, but I thought they had just enough human foibles in it to make it reasonable. A towering masterpiece of world cinema? Nah, of course not, but great eye candy, Sandra Bullock was terrific and best of all, they didn’t have any sound in space.

    • I agree that the Met has an inventory problem — too many tickets to sell. But moving to a smaller theatre (putting aside all that it would imply!!) is not the answer. Larger theatres are actually better from a financial perspective. Artists are paid per performance, not by the capacity of the hall. The solution is to offer fewer performances so that the Met can have a reasonable chance of filling the hall to capacity.

      • oedipe

        Peter and Kashania,

        I agree with both of you. The problems are SECULAR. The measures addressing them should be of the same nature, otherwise it will end up being just a slow demise.

      • peter

        Of course, what general manager, especially one at the helm of the largest performing arts organization in the U.S. is going to want to preside over the downsizing of his organization?

        • Peter: I think the negative connotations of a reduced season can be mostly mitigated by maintaining the same number of new productions per season, and only reducing the number of revivals by one or two and instead focusing the reductions on fewer performances of each production.

          • I think it might be workable to leave the theater dark for around three to four weeks in midwinter, say late January/early February. That hiatus could be spent on preparation of the productions for the “spring” portion of the season as well as offering an opportunity for the chorus and orchestra to take a week or two off in midseason. An extra two weeks of performances could be added in May, taking the company’s season up to Memorial Day. (There’s no particular reason ABT needs to get into the house so early — their season could easily run from the June 1 through the first week of July.)

            One of the big problems at the Met is trying to get new shows on while performing repertory six or seven times a week: there’s no time for preparation during regular business hours and so technical rehearsals, for example, end up going into overtime. Having a few weeks without the pressure of nightly performances would mean the spring repertory would be easier to get up and running.

            I am sure Dawn will have all sorts of interesting suggestions.

            • Yes, January is a terrible month for trying to sell tickets. And goodness knows, from a tourist perspective, NYC is at its best in the spring, but the Met season ends too soon. Personally, I try to avoid trips to NYC in the dead of winter.

              And to add to La Cieca’s point about preparing for the spring productions during the dark weeks, the Met might even be able to work in an extra week or two of rehearsals for a brand new homegrown production. We’ve talked before about the Met’s challenges with homegrown productions. Most of the successful new Met productions have been co-productions that have had ample rehearsal time in Europe (like the Butterfly or Parsifal).

            • williams

              Oh No! Selfish I know but some of the few pleasures of spending late Jan. & early Feb. trapped in N.Y.C. with the drifts of grey snow and lousy Knicks are the Met & JJ’s brilliant reviews. How about trimming the performance schedule to three or so a week? Also even in midwinter popular and/or great shows seem well attended.

            • CwbyLA

              How about going dark for 4 weeks from mid January to mid February and renting the space out to Cirque du Soleil/Broadway Show or one of those Vegas shows? I am sure those who think Met is a sacred place will object to it but why not?

          • oedipe


            Next season the ONP is doing exactly that: 6 new productions out of a total of 16, but with the usual number of performances per production. Of course, when they announced it, the whole world criticized them for the reduced season!

            • Feldmarschallin

              Well this January all performances of Forza, Onegin and Babylon were sold out. If operas are cast well and the productions are interesting, people will go. I actually prefer to go in the cold months since I prefer to spend time in the my garden in the spring and summer. I have always said the Met does too many performances of their productions and if they were to do smaller runs they might sell better. There is only a market for so many tickets. Do smaller runs and more operas and you give the audiences more to choose from. It also wouldn’t hurt the Met to get exciting directors. Where is Warlikowski, Kusej and Bieto? Not even the old guard of Neuenfels and Konwitschny have appeared there. Bachler just recently said that the Staatsoper could hardly sell more tickets since most shows are sold out. Perhaps he needs to talk to Mr. Gelb and give him some pointers. Of course he has less seats to sell every evening than Mr Gelb has but still things don’t seem to be working with the status quo in NY. I was appalled at seeing pictures of the new Fledermaus at the Met which looked so überladen and kitschig that I thought why even bother with something new when it already looks old at the premiere.

            • grimoaldo

              ” If operas are cast well and the productions are interesting, people will go”
              Very true, you are lucky to live in the place, which,as far as I can tell, has the opera house with the most consistently well cast and best produced operas on offer. Somehow or other they have managed there to have Harteros and Kaufmann practically as house singers, I think other opera houses could find similar talent if they would only try to nurture it, but instead they rely on other places to create “stars” which they can then import.
              And they have productions at BSO which are excellent theatre and please their local audience. It can be done, it needs administrators with vision and imagination.

            • laddie

              Feldmarschillin: I don’t think we can leave out the infinitely greater quality of the German and, in general, European infrastructure that supports people GETTING to the arts. The points regarding our working environments (Have you seen that Cadillac commercial; such dickness is sickening) here in the U.S. and lack of arts funding are well taken. I also consider our country’s refusal to fund crumbling infrastructure a serious gap in getting us out of our easy chairs in front of our HD TVs.

    • Regina delle fate

      Interesting point Peter -- it sort of mirrors what has happened to ENO in London. It’s season used to be as long as, or longer than, the Met’s but the number of performances has dwindled to about 150 of circa 14 productions at the Coliseum with a short “hors mason” run of a single opera when the ballet moves in around this time of year. When I first started going to the Colly, the only ballet season was during the summer, when the guest companies, including the Bolshoi, moved in. Now ballet takes up six weeks at Christmas/New Year, then four-five in Spring, and again in the Summer. And ENO’s audiences are flatlining around the percentages Dawn quotes for the Met -- around 80% bums on seats, and 60-70% of maximum box-office revenue. Almost everything, including popular titles such as Rigoletto and The Magic Flute is discounted. Last year they posted a deficit of £2.3 million, but that has apparently been reduced, I’m not sure how. Covent Garden seems to be keeping its head above water, partly because the Royal Ballet is much cheaper to present and is virtually always packed to the rafters because of strategic pricing. You can get into a Triple Bill with the companies’ top stars for a top price of £60 which is less than a musical in the West End. And the story ballets for about twice that price, but they too are popular with the once-a-year visitors, young courting or newlywed couples and the old biddies who go to every cast change! Anything with Osipova in it is an automatic sellout, and the RB has several resident ballerinas and premiers danceurs who command a huge following. Like the Met, the Colly is also too big for its audience. It will be interesting to see what kind of season they will announce next month. But v good article, Dawn. Most enlightening.

      • Henry Holland

        I’ve been going to the Coliseum when I’m in London since the late 90’s. I remember one sad occasion where they almost canceled a performance of Busoni’s Doktor Faust because they had only sold 15% of the tickets. It was a good performance, but all those empty seats…….

        To me, the main problem is that the sound in the Coliseum is not good, largely due to that high dome where sound goes to evaporate. I’ve sat on all levels and either the voices are drowned out or the mix between voices/pit is bad. At least they finally solved the cramping of the public spaces and mercifully stopped making us peasants up in the gods enter by a separate door on the side, across the alley from what used to be a gay pub.

        Still, the Deborah Warner Death in Venice with Ian Bostridge in 2007 was one of the greatest nights I’ve had in a theater, so there’s that.

        • armerjacquino

          Yep, the major problem with the Coli is- and always has been- the dreadful acoustics. Critics never address this because the sound in the house seats is fine.

          • redbear

            And it’s a really big theater, right up there with Bastille as the largest opera house in Europe (2558 seats).

  • antikitschychick

    very cogent and well-written piece (save for a few grammatical errors) thank you for this Dawn Fatale.

    “To return to the union’s complaints about his stewardship of the Met, they had it almost right. The problem isn’t that Gelb’s business model is failing; it’s that he’s failing at his own business model.”

    This is indeed the most telling and perhaps the most troubling statement. I agree that Gelb came in with fresh ideas but its true he hasn’t been able to quantify them (monetarily speaking) as he would prob like to. Its very difficulty to come up with any sort of informed opinion on the matter though because, as Dawn Fatale points out there is very little transparency with the numbers. Do we know at this point which performances/productions sold well (aside from the Parsifal) and which ones didn’t and why? Without knowing which funds are being allocated for this or that the specific details become speculative. There is also the taste factor which is highly subjective…I myself can’t be certain if, aside from the lack of time, Ive been attending less HDs because the casting is good but not great or if I’ve just become more selective. I do think that casting for the standard rep with older productions needs to improve, but I cant really back it up with any substantive evidence without sales figures and whatnot. One can certainly get a good sense of the overall picture but other than that we’re sort of left in the dark conjecturing. “Forensic accounting” indeed lol.

    Given the current situation, I best get my butt to the Werther encore and the rest of the HDs (if I can find the time!) :-P. Will also try and make a donation if I can.

    Looking forward to part two.

  • grimoaldo

    “Audiences are diminishing and I don’t think it really relates to the quality of performances being offered”

    Actually I could go back through the archives here and find a couple of conversations where I remember saying “If the Met keeps putting on stuff like this audiences will decline”, and Dawn Fatale hits the nail on the head in this passage:
    “On paper at least, next season promises to be mind-numbingly dull. It’s not the season of an opera company that aspires to generate interest or increased attendance. In fact, it is the perfect season for a company that is anticipating a lockout as there is little that will be missed if it doesn’t happen.”

    • peter

      Grim, I agree that next season looks pretty bad on paper but we’re hardly the typical opera goer. Yes, you and I would go to the Met more often if there were more interesting things being presented but I don’t think that has anything to do with the long term financial health of the Met: cultivating new audiences to replace an aging demographic is the challenge.

      • Uncle Kvetch

        Grim, I agree that next season looks pretty bad on paper but we’re hardly the typical opera goer.

        That brings up a point I’ve been curious about — does anyone know the breakdown of the Met’s ticket income in terms of frequent attendees vs. less frequent ones?

        I only started getting seriously interested in opera about 5 years ago. For the first couple of years I attended most of the HD broadcasts, plus one or two visits to the Met per season. This season I will have been to the house a good half-dozen times and I hope to attend at least as many times next season, if not more.

        I still consider myself a novice because there are large swathes of the operatic canon that are as yet unfamiliar to me, and there’s no single work (or singer) that I’ve seen enough times to say “been there, done that.” So I can’t join in the yawns that have greeted the 2014-2015 schedule among more seasoned opera-goers. I enjoyed Ildar Abdrazakov’s performance in Prince Igor and look forward to seeing him in a completely different context as Figaro. The full-length, German-language version of Julie Taymor’s Zauberflöte with René Pape is enticing, as is La Donna del Lago with Joyce D (even if the production is, as many here have said, a dud). I haven’t seen a Cav/Pag staging to date and I quite liked Marcelo Alvarez in the recent Ballo. I’d like to see that grand, old-fashioned Aida once before it’s finally retired. And so on.

        So in reading this discussion, I wonder what portion of the Met audience is accounted for by people like myself, as opposed to the cognoscenti (or, for that matter, as opposed to the “once a year/decade splurge” crowd), because each segment of the audience is going to have its own particular demands and expectations. Case in point: the new Fledermaus was pretty much universally loathed here on Parterre, but how did it sell? Without data like that (and it sounds like the Met doesn’t make it easy to find out), it’s pretty near impossible to say where the Met should go artistically.

    • RamiroNYC

      Excellent article, and well said on all points.
      I was at Saturday’s Werther at the Met. It was heavily sold. JK was sensational as Werther, and the audience went crazy for him.
      Even family circle standing room was heavily sold.
      If the Met puts on a star singer, more people will come.
      I think Gelb needs to realize that the Met audiences are by and large very traditional (OK, maybe generalizing a bit).
      We want the best singers in nice productions.
      Simple, no?
      I have no interest in the “Regie” or “Eurotrash” style productions. I hated the new Tosca, Ballo, Manon, Traviata,Faust etc.
      And speaking of sales, the Wozzecks are selling horribly.
      Wozzeck is just not for the average operagoer, so why do they insist on doing it every so often?
      I agree also that the union’s pay takes up a large chunk of the Met’s budget, but Gelb is in for a colossal fight with them if he really thinks they will take a pay cut.
      Just my opinion…

      • Henry Holland

        Wozzeck is just not for the average operagoer, so why do they insist on doing it every so often?

        Because James Levine loves it. I hope you enjoy the new Lulu that’s coming in 2015-16!

        • papopera

          Because I love it too and will look forward to the Lulu.

      • messa di voce

        The best singers in nice productions for the average operagoer. Got it.

  • RosinaLeckermaul

    Excellent article. After going to the Met a good deal through the 1980s, I did most of my opera going in London for twenty years or so, returning to regular attendance at the Met in 2011. I have been dismayed by the low attendance even in the cheap seats for many performances.
    What can be done to make young people put the Met — anything at Lincoln Center, for that matter — on their radar? This should be the goal of the marketing office. It will also mean planning a more exciting season than 2014-15. And doing something about user friendliness front of house.
    I have also noticed that the Met is making more seats in sections like the Family Circle “Premium” next year, as opposed to “Prime” or “Balance.” In other words, there will be fewer cheap seats. Not good for those of us who like to go often on a tight budget. Also why not lower the price of the seats in the side rear Dress Circle. They’re usually empty. Wouldn’t it be better to fill them at a lower price?

    • antikitschychick

      “What can be done to make young people put the Met — anything at Lincoln Center, for that matter — on their radar?”

      Get some hot & talented tenors on that stage, that’s what!!! :-P.

      • Personally, I don’t think it’s just “the young,” it’s people generally interested in what’s going on in the arts. I have friends in NYC no younger than myself who take an active interest in the arts -- but don’t see the Met as being part of a “living” art scene. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Sellars’ production of Tristan, with Viola’s videos, or Warlikowski’s productions, for example, draw in customers who don’t otherwise come.

  • Interesting article! I just found this:

    Look at how many rush tickets they are giving away on a Friday night and Saturday matinee.

    The fact is discounted tickets are easier to get than ever. There are ways of seeing the Met often without spending much money.

  • doktorlehar

    Extremely interesting, Mme Fatale. Looking forward to Part II.

  • la vociaccia

    As far as inspiring a younger audience, I think the most important thing to do is keep it in schools. And not just have singers visit elementary schools; every grade level, especially middle and high school, should get better exposure to opera. I was the only person in my third grade class who became an opera fan after our trip to NYCO, but I became a fan for life then and there. I don’t think opera needs to be packaged differently in order for modern audiences to consume it; I just think people need to see it, period. Think of all of those people crying in front of the TV watching Paul Potts bleat through Nessun Dorma. Are you telling me that those multitudes (even a fraction of them) wouldn’t be interested in seeing the real thing, if they were given the opportunity?

    • antikitschychick

      I agree but the issue with arts education and exposure is a national concern that goes beyond the scope of the Met, since the Met alone cant ensure that kids in school are exposed to Opera. This is something that will take a larger collaborative effort across the country which will not happen overnight. What the Met needs to do right now is some financial restructuring revitalization in terms of casting. Production-wise there have been some hits and misses but that pretty much comes with the territory.

    • Henry Holland

      Think of all of those people crying in front of the TV watching Paul Potts bleat through Nessun Dorma

      That’s the problem though: you end up with people thinking that opera is like pop music, 3-4 minute chunks of catchy tunes. I’ve had it happen to me a few times, friends I took to an opera (usually Puccini) were utterly put off about how long they are, how much effort you have to put in to it to even begin to grasp the art form. One friend complained that the story was happening in slow-motion, he knew what was going to happen long before it did because the characters spent all their time singing about their damn feelings. :)

    • rudy

      One thing that must be realized is the dumbing-down of society as a whole, and especially re: the arts. In my day (the ’50’s and early ’60’s) we had an actual CONCERT NETWORK with affiliates in all the major northeastern cities! Today not only is that long gone but classical music stations are either degenerate (WCRB Boston) or “countrified” (an L.A. station whose call letters escape me, for good reason). In fact, the only remaining ones are university-related. Some relief is thankfully offered by the Internet.

      So the demise of real opera is probably inevitable. I personally would not care to zee & hear what they’ll substitute for it. Or, I should say, what has already been substituted for it. Regietheater-plus, I guess.

  • Jim

    Living in Texas I can only access Dallas and Houston opera venues. San Antonio is on the cusp of starting a new world class company with the able help of Tobias Picker.

    But hats off to Peter Gelb whose outreach with HD performances was a genius step on his part in developing new and younger audiences. Now it’s our turn…

    Here’s an idea or two: sponsor an arts or music high school school class (or middle school) to attend one performance per year AND grab your kids or grandkids and bring them along too.

    Promise everyone all the popcorn and coke they can eat and drink. Bring a parent too…buy their ticket to help out.

  • decotodd

    Dawn, great article! Wonderful to hear from you again as I was a fan of your contributions to the pink ‘zine.

    I recall reading Patrick Smith’s book A SEASON AT THE MET in the early ’80s. It profiled 1981-82 season (I think; the project was supposed to cover prior season but the strike hampered it). At any rate, the concerns were much the same 30 years ago — aging demographics, mediocre casting, dated productions, even the “You should have heard Flagstad/Rethberg/Ponselle’ in my day” complaints from old-timers. I do believe however that the capacity was around 89%.

    So the aging audience seems to be an evergreen concern. Of course, as audience members ‘age up’ hopefully they can afford to attend more often. Of course the key is the initial exposure and making sure the experience causes them to want to return. For folks outside of NYC, I think the HD’s are a great way to test the waters, and hopefully inspire attendance at one’s local company or the Met when visiting NYC.

  • rudy

    Here’s my reason for not going to live opera any more: Regietheater and all its less vile offsprings. A semi-nude Parsifal? Costumes and in fact the entire staging a total trashing of the libretto? Even boing-boing flowers (Act 3 Parsifal) are better than that!

    Opera is false-advertised if the libretto is not observed. Might as well go whole-hog and change the score and text also. So goodbye Met and all the other fraudulent productions.

    OK, you want new and exciting productions? Think what modern lighting technology alone could do. Let Hollywood show you how if necessary. Even holography presents fantastic opportunities. And all could be done tastefully and without mauling the libretto which is the composer’s creation, not some pseudo-intellectual’s wet dream.

  • Fidelia

    Very interesting and well-written, Mme Fatale. I’m looking forward to part II.