Rather than rehash names and nominees for Joe Volpe’s successor at the Met, I’d like focus instead on the formidable challenges facing the next Metropolitan Opera General Manager. As tough as Mr. Volpe’s job may be, the job of his successor will be even harder. The environment for performing arts organizations in the US is not very favorable and the Met, as the performing arts organization in the US with the largest budget, faces some serious obstacles indeed: aging audiences, bored subscribers, unmotivated donors. Nonetheless, I think a new General Manager with the right priorities and skills can save the met from sinking further into decline.
I’d like to propose a list of things that the next General Manager needs to be able to accomplish for the Met to remain in the ranks of the world’s top opera houses.
1. The next Met GM needs to become a compelling spokesperson for he importance of live opera performance in New York and America’s cultural life. We on opera-l tend to worry that opera is perceived as elitist when the problem is that opera is becoming irrelevant (at least here in the States; in Europe the situation is different). Up through the Bing era, periodic visits to the Met were an essential part of the nation’s cultural itinerary, just as attendance at performances at one of the leading non-profit theater companies or periodic visits to MOMA still are today.
Back then, there was no doubt then that the Met was one of America’s most important and prestigious cultural institutions, now it is simply one of the biggest. There is little going on at the Met that is perceived as worthy of attention by anyone other than the opera-obsessed. While it’s easy to ascribe part of the Met’s fall from relevance to the dismal state of Arts coverage in the US, that doesn’t explain why the Met plays to half-empty houses while the Lincoln Center Theater next door almost always plays to sold-out houses and MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum frequently have lines going down the street. Opera’s invisibility on PBS doesn’t help either; opera, for PBS seems to be the art form that matters only to the extent that it provides the tunes that Bocelli croons and Zamfir tootles. ??In this kind of environment, the Met’s GM needs to a passionate and ubiquitous advocate for opera in performance and someone who manages to get public attention for activities other than firing singers.
Of course it’s unreasonable to expect that a charismatic General Manager could single-handedly restore luster and excitement to opera. However, America loves a great impresario, be it P.T. Barnum, Joe Papp, Sean Combs or Spike Lee. Their enthusiasm and scrappy entrepreneurial zeal brought new audiences to their chosen art forms. The Met needs an audience builder like this, a folk hero if you will. After all, for the Met to perform at capacity every night, it needs to sell a million tickets a year. It’s been many years since the Met sold all those tickets by subscription and such an era is unlikely to return. The Met needs someone who can build a new and dedicated audience.
2. The next GM needs to have a set of artistic goals that motivate both donors and the public. Ambitious programming convinces the public that opera matters and opera is important. For me, the biggest flaw of Volpe’s reign has been that he has never put forth an artistic agenda, even though the Met has admirably expanded its repertoire during his tenure. Perhaps, in an ideal world, artistic goals would be the province of the Artistic Director, but in the absence of a charismatic communicator like Leonard Bernstein running artistic matters for the Met, the GM is the person who can sell these programming ideals to the board and to the public. Of late, Joe Volpe’s goals have mostly been financial, killing new productions or James Levine’s pet projects (Mahler 8, Messiaen’s St Francis).
Even though the GM has a responsibility to keep the Met on budget, conservative uninteresting programming with few highlights or challenges for the company ultimately undermines the company. Would donors want to support the Met if the tens of millions of dollars that they collectively provide just go to keep the massive beast on autopilot? Imagine, if you will, that the Met’s next General Manager announcing that the Met would do 250 (or 300) different operas over the next 10 seasons, and that each opera would be done in only one season over the next decade. This would not be impossible to do because of the number of productions that the Met already owns and the ready supply of operas worth doing in a house of the Met’s size. Each season would require a manageable number of new / co-productions along with some clever scheduling.
This would generate some artistic excitement. ??Pundits and music critics would argue over which operas belong on the list. Audiences would be less sanguine about missing La Boheme if they knew that they wouldn’t see it again for a decade. Subscriptions would increase because subscribers would never be stuck with the same operas year after year and would know that they would see their beloved stars in a different opera each year. Donors would be more motivated to donate money for a great effort of this kind. Warhorses could have multiple casts and there would be a certain competitive excitement as one tried to pick the best Tosca of the season (and the decade) It would supply the Met with some much needed excitement. The Met is one of the few companies in the world that could pull this off — why not show off its depth?
3. The next GM must be able to hire someone who can figure out how to market opera. Is there a better paid sinecure in NYC than the head of Marketing for the Metropolitan Opera? What does this person do? Choose the photo of the chandeliers to run on the cover of the subscription brochure? Conduct focus groups on the font used in the Sunday Times ad for the Met? Decide between excerpts from Carmen or Boheme to run in the background of those annoying ads for the Met on WQXR? The Met’s marketing preaches to the converted and not very well at that.
Has anyone who has never been to an opera before rushed to the phone to order tickets because the Met ran an ad listing a bunch of operas with a lot of names underneath? Has the Met done anything innovative such as using members of the younger generation of famous opera lovers like Rufus Wainwright as part of their advertising in publications like Time Out or the Village Voice? Would they convince MTV to have Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson attend the opera on an episode of the enormously popular Newlyweds? It would be great publicity for the Met even if Jessica hated the opera. Could Joe Volpe do a guest firing on NBC’s The Apprentice? Arts marketing, for the most part, is an oxymoron; the Met must show a better way.
4. The next GM must demonstrate his commitment to artistic excellence. For a company of the Met’s self-professed artistic stature, there is a lot that is mediocre. Too many new productions have flopped or have been dull. Too many nights are devoted to unmemorable performances of Puccini operas. The Met adult chorus is as scandalously bad as the children’s chorus is good. The only skill the chorus has left is singing loudly — frequently too loudly. Otherwise, the chorus is no longer capable of tight ensemble, nuance, or singing on pitch. The men are an embarrassment; the women caterwaul most painfully.
The next GM will have to take some tough corrective actions: rescoping James Levine’s role by bringing in stronger individuals to handle casting and choosing production teams; risking labor unrest by dismissing many members of the chorus. These difficult steps will be necessary if the Met is to retain its artistic credibility and justify its ticket prices.
5. The next GM must create a stronger board of directors. It’s no accident that the Metropolitan Museum and Carnegie Hall, two of the NYC arts institutions with the strongest boards, have been able to weather the city’s severe fiscal downturn much more easily than the Met did. It’s also no accident that these institutions were able to complete major capital campaigns during the recession. These organizations have active boards that wealthy members of the city’s elite strive to get on. New York City heavyhitters eagerly pony up the big bucks to get on the board of Carnegie Hall in part because the chairperson of the board is Sanford Weill, one of the most important figures in New York’s financial community.
Contrast the situation at the Met. Has the Met’s board been known to make tough recommendations? What leadership does “Baby Jane” Sills bring to this group? Now Ms Sills, as New York’s hometown opera diva and an experienced arts executive may bring a certain credibility to her recommendations and may be able to extract funds from selected donors with more proficiency than a schoolyard bully shaking down classmates for lunch money, but does the Met really want a chairperson of the board who happily proclaims on national radio that she has no idea what an e-mail or a website is? Can you envision her making a pitch to some New Economy honcho to join the board?
Try to picture Ms. Sills in a meeting with the extremely wealthy Barry Diller, Chairman and CEO of InteractiveCorp (owner of Expedia amongst many other web enterprises). Can she attract a young, vibrant board that might tolerate and fund more experimentation and innovation? Is it any wonder that the Met couldn’t find a new corporate sponsor for the radio broadcasts? Of course, the General Manager works at the mercy of the board and not vice versa. However, governance is at the top of every CEO’s agenda and the same should be true of the Met’s CEO. The best companies in America have the best governance; the same principle should be true at the Met.
This list of to-dos could be a lot longer: take more risks on younger singers, build a partnership with the NY City Opera, get better food to serve at intermission, fire the rude ushers, but I tried to limit myself to those things that the general manager must personally do and which I see as critical.
As I think about the Met and its future, I don’t see how it can survive in its current form for too many years beyond the scope of Bradley Wilber’s Met Future page. It won’t be long before the Metropolitan opera becomes a boutique rental venue or a house devoted to long runs of a shrinking repertory. What future can there be for an opera company designed for a world with an overflowing supply of great talent and a ready supply of wealthy patrons in need of expensive parterre boxes? A great leader with the right priorities can and I hope will prove me wrong.
Dawn Fatale is the author of parterre box’s most widely-read rant, The Volpe Era. He was most recently seen rolling his eyes at the set for the new Salome.