Thursday, July 03, 2014

Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera Contract Talks

Months ago, I'd opined that Peter Gelb would not destroy the Met with a lockout. The contract negotiations have now been in full swing for months, and you could say that I am no longer sure of this. The public war of words has gotten to the point where it's a little tough to tell the rhetoric from the reality.

Both sides are guilty. Alan Gordon of AGMA started with the inflammatory public statements back in February. He has continued with them ever since, to the point that his union members might consider taking him aside and suggesting he back off.

The Metropolitan Opera's musicians, whose union is the AFM, hired a publicity firm, Geto & de Milly, that has been sending me sundry press releases and reports. Here's a link to their report on "Peter Gelb Mismanagement," which they delivered to the Met Board of Directors.

On the other side, Peter Gelb has made his share of stupid remarks to the press. Here's a paragraph from a New Yorker article by Alex Ross (make sure you read the whole eloquent thing):
Especially disheartening is the fatalistic tone that Gelb has struck in discussing the Met’s biggest crisis, “Klinghoffer” notwithstanding: the ongoing negotiations with the sixteen unions that represent the Met’s great beehive of performers and workers. Gelb has said that expenses have become ruinous and that employees must accept cuts. The unions have responded by blaming Gelb for rising expenses and diminishing receipts. The underlying financial situation is difficult for an outsider to assess, and Gelb may have valid points to make. But he loses credibility when he blames wider cultural trends for the Met’s particular problems: “There aren’t enough new audience members replacing the older ones who are dying off. It’s no secret that the frequency of operagoing in the U.S. is decreasing.” Such actuarial language is unworthy of the leader of one of the world’s largest arts institutions. Incidentally, Gelb has revealed that seventy-five per cent of the Live in HD audience is sixty-five or older. “Those are people who are so old that they can’t go the Met, to the theatre, anymore,” he has said. This, apparently, is the same audience that would have become bloodthirsty after a viewing of “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
I'm going to be a little less polite that Alex is in the above: Insulting your audience members is a really, really bad thing to do. The HD broadcasts are known to be a profit center for the Met, so it is especially bad to insult them. Also, you know, with 1,500 theaters showing Live in HD, most of the audience members live too far away to attend the Met on a regular basis.

As Alex recounts, this isn't the first of Gelb's PR blunders. He's still defending the Lepage Ring. He tried to ban Opera News reviewers from reviewing the Met.

The Met has a communications department, and I'm willing to bet that the folks there are competent, and that they'd be happy to help keep Peter Gelb's foot out of his mouth. I have to conclude that he is either not consulting them or not listening to them.

At a time when tense contract negotiations are going on, he really ought to consult them and listen to them. (And Alan Gordon should get some help too, before the chorus smothers him under their costumes o keep him from making things worse.)

Lastly, there are a couple of things that I hope everyone will keep in mind as the contract negotiations continue:

  • The Met's annual budget has gone up by approximately 50% since Peter Gelb took over from Joe Volpe.
  • Somebody signed those contracts that Peter Gelb now says are killing the Met.
  • That person's name is Peter Gelb.
He should be taking some responsibility for the current situation, in other words.

I said a while back that the Met board couldn't really replace Gelb, given that people who can run a gigantic arts organization aren't exactly thick on the ground. Present circumstances suggests that the Met might, in fact, be better off without him.

And I had a thought the other day: David Gockley retires from San Francisco Opera in two more seasons. He has done a sterling job of controlling costs, working well with the unions, planning for the future, increasing the company's endowment, and hauling in big contributions. If anyone can get the Met under control for the long term, he's the one.


Anonymous said...

The Met Board is loaded with Gelbites...they will do nothing to curb him, nor will they ever vote to oust him.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I have been told this by others as well, alas.

Henry Holland said...

Yes, his bit about "those people are so old...." is bad, but this

"There aren’t enough new audience members replacing the older ones who are dying off. It’s no secret that the frequency of operagoing in the U.S. is decreasing"

may be "actuarial" language, but it's the nub of the gist, as Monty Python once said. It doesn't matter what they put on, doesn't matter who is singing or conducting or directing, if the general populace doesn't give a damn about opera, doesn't even care enough to begin to explore it, it's going to wither away to being a total niche thing, like stamp collecting.

The days of people with a lot of disposable income buying themselves status and "class" by donating to the opera and symphony are ending, if they haven't already. Bill Gates doesn't contribute to the arts much, if at all, neither do the other .com/tech billionaires.

Hell, even gay men, a pretty reliable source of opera fans when I started going (1988) mostly only care if you're of a certain age (I'm 54).