Friday, February 07, 2014

Metropolitan Opera Contract Talks, 2014

Putting on opera, especially at the international level, is expensive. Think about it all: you have to pay singers, instrumentalists, conductors, prompters, lighting techs, stagehands, dressers, makeup artists, costumers, costume designers, lighting designers, directors, set designers, front of house staff, ticketing staff, the marketing, artistic, and administration departments, and very likely some people I am forgetting. Oh, and you have to pay for space for all of that.

Some years ago, a friend and I started to add up what it would cost to run an opera company if you had permanent singer and orchestral staff and paid the singers a salary rather than on a per-performance basis.  We got to $7 million and quit, and believe me, we had left lots out.

So the contract talks for a big opera company are necessarily complex. A large percentage of those who work to put opera on stage are represented by unions. Labor unrest can affect institutions in the worst ways.

Public pronouncements by those who will be involved with contract talks should always be taken with a large grain of salt. A few years ago, David Gockley of San Francisco Opera rattled his saber very, very loudly in his column in the programs. From what he said, you could tell that there were significant cost issues and that he felt opera could be produced more efficiently / cheaply if certain conditions were met. (I believe he was hinting at a move to stagione system from a repertory system: instead of running two or three opera sin rotation, with sets switched on a constant basis, just one opera would play for its full run, greatly reducing the need for stagehand time between performances.)

This scared a number of people, but, honestly, I thought it was pre-negotiation noisemaking, a strategic attempt to influence public opinion in case of a bad outcome of the talks, i.e. a strike by one or more of the unionized professions.

It's with this in mind that you should read statements coming from Alan Gordon of AGMA, which represents singers in the contract talks. He is warning about a potential lockout at the Met as contract negotiations commence, making claims that Peter Gelb is taking over negotiations from Joe Volpe (Gelb's predecessor) in order to "restructure labor relations at the Met" and pointing to the Met's declining ticket sales and income.

Anyone reading Gordon's comments should take them with about 20 pounds of salt. As a union representative, he's not in a position to put words into the mouth of the Met, and saying that members should expect a lockout (loss of income, etc.) is doing exactly that.

Whatever you think about Peter Gelb's handling of the artistic side of the Met, whatever you think about the HD broadcasts (boon to the bottom line? art-form breaker?), you can bet that he reads the same papers you do. He has seen the tremendous damage done to the Minnesota Orchestra by its lockout, from the complete loss of confidence in board and management to the financial hit they've taken through having no income from ticket sales for 18 months.

The Metropolitan Opera has the biggest budget of any performing arts organization in the world. Ticket sales, fundraising, and public support are crucial to its continued operations. Gelb will negotiate hard for union concessions, but he is not going to destroy the company with a lockout.


Anonymous said...

"He is not going to destroy the company with a lockout."

One wouldn't have thought the Minnesota Orchestra association would do so either, especially after all the specific warnings about what would happen if they tried, until they did.

Lisa Hirsch said...

There are substantial and important differences between the Met and the MOA, including the size of the organizations and the number of unions to deal with. Also, remember who is doing the talking: it's not someone at the Met saying that they're expecting a labor dispute, it's the head of ONE of the several unions involved, and what he is saying is pure speculation.

Also, the MOA lockout shows just how bad the effects would be on an institution. Gelb won't lock out the unions, and if he tried to, the Board of the Met would jettison him so fast he'd be flying over Kansas without a plane by the time the news hit the internet.

Putting it another way, I am so sure there won't be a lockout at the Met that I'd bet up to a thousand dollars against it.