Much has been written, and rightly so, about Peter Gelb’s folly — his moves to censor writing that strongly critiques his reign at the Met. As I’m sure most of us know, Peter got so much protest that he had to reverse himself.
And there’s much to discuss here. My take — beyond all the strong points my wife made in her blog post (where my first link takes you) — goes beyond the perils of suppressing discussion. What I’m wondering is whether, despite all his famous innovations, Peter really has a strategy for moving the Met into the future. The connection here? If he did have a strategy — and if it was working — he wouldn’t need to worry about what anyone wrote.
What would a strategy be? A coherent plan for survival. And, beyond that, growth. What makes a plan coherent? First, a clear and measurable goal. For instance, not just to sell more tickets, but to develop a new audience. And, second, rigorous work to make sure that all your innovations contribute to your goal, and that each of them supports the others.
Does Peter have a coherent plan? I’m speculating here, I should quickly say. I haven’t discussed any of this with Peter, or with anyone else at the Met. And I’m not privy to backstage information. I’m just looking at what I see. And would be happy to be wrong!
Behind this, I should say, lies my strong, strong belief that classical music needs to reach out proactively. It’s not enough to change our ways, and hope a new audience comes to us. There’s too much competition (as there is for every form of art or entertainment). And people won’t rush to us, because they’re not, as yet, committed to classical music. We have to go to them, inhabit their cultural space, enter their lives, and entice them.
With that in mind, here’s what I see when I look at the Met:
The HD streams to movie theaters
Clearly a success, at least in some ways. A substantial audience. Income (after some years of losses, perfectly natural when you’re investing in something new). And buzz: So much talk about the Met’s success, and even the notion — often repeated — that the success of the movie showings proves that opera is popular. Or even that classical music isn’t in trouble.
But what’s the reality? The audience is large, but limited. According to figures the Met released some time ago, 95% of people attending had seen an opera live on stage. So this isn’t a new audience for opera. And it seems to be elderly. (I haven’t seen stats, but I and others, going to theaters outside New York, can confirm this anecdotally.)
So the buzz, while helpful to the Met’s image, isn’t altogether accurate. The streamings work wonderfully now, but won’t work in the future, unless there’s a new audience. And what’s the Met doing to find that new audience? Not much, as far as I can see. So the screenings — from what I see — don’t have a strategy. They have short-term success (sell tickets, make the company look good), but may not, as yet, do much for the Met’s future.
One striking move the Met made in New York was to take out ads on city buses. The ads, which hype the new production that debuts on opening night, couldn’t be simpler. They feature a striking photo of whoever’s singing the lead, and no words at all, other than Met Opera.
And when I say the photos are striking, that’s an understatement. The best of them rank with the best fashion photography, or with the photos you’d see in Vanity Fair. So they enter mainstream cultural space. And the lack of fine print — the name of the star, the name of the opera, dates of performances, words like “Buy tickets now!” — gives the ads impact. “We’re the Met,” they say. “Things are happening here!”
Which all is terrific. But now what? People see the ads. Do they rush to buy tickets? Maybe not! Again, I don’t see a coherent strategy. What else is the Met doing, to enter the mainstream cultural space? The ads talk to people at a distance. In my idea of a coherent strategy, they’d reinforce other efforts, which would be made more directly.
For instance, the Met could start groups at colleges, or in neighborhoods (the upper west side, let’s say, or Tribeca, or Park Slope or Williamsburg). These groups would reach out to people around them, the way orchestral musicians at the University of Maryland reached out to students in their classes, and in their living spaces.
So now you’d have people being reached more directly, and the bus ads, all over the city, would reinforce that more powerful work.
But the Met, from what I see, doesn’t think that way. It puts out the bus ads, and then lets them sit there. Yes, they look great, and they help to generate fabulous buzz. But, by themselves, they might be too passive to pull people in. And especially might not pull in that crucial new audience.
I could say much the same about billboards I’ve seen in Times Square, on which the Met advertises itself to tourists, who buy a noticeable percentage of the Met’s tickets. Are there more direct tourist appeals that these Billboards might reinforce?
Maybe the Met ads I’ve seen in Broadway program books would count. The ones I saw didn’t use the word “opera.” The appeal, quite clearly, was to theater fans, or out of town visitors making a Broadway stop. The message? If you like what you’re seeing, you’ll like us, too.
But this, too, seems passive. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. Do out of town visitors find a Met brochure — or even a packet — in their hotel rooms? Has the Met made arrangements with hotel concierges, as restaurants do, to encourage hotel guests to think a Met evening will confound their current thoughts about opera?
Maybe they do these things. They did something like these things once, when they produced Satyagraha, the Philip Glass opera about Gandhi. When tickets at first didn’t sell, they reached out to people interested in Eastern religion and meditation. ADDED LATER: And placed targeted ads in downtown NYC neighborhoods, where they might expect Philip Glass fans to live. All these things, I’ve heard, got terrific results.
But I’d think they need to do things like these — or some equivalent — all the time, for every opera they do.
One more example. Opening nights, at the start of Peter’s reign, were glamorous. Celebrities. Gowns. A buzz of excitement. Now they seem more drab, more predictable. Less glamorous. Less buzzy.
After Peter’s first opening, the page in New York magazine that reports on parties had a fetching item about the Met’s opening night. They talked to a model, a woman in her 20s. She’d never been to the Met before. Why not? Because no one she knew talked about the Met. Now, though, she’d be going. Because now the Met was on everyone’s lips.
How that happened that night — how much of the buzz the Met deliberately fed, and how much simply happened, because the Met, for the moment, was in the news and seemed glamorous — I don’t know. But I do know that buzz like this won’t continue unless it’s fed.
And to feed it, it’s not enough to do the same things year after year. You have to find new things to do, things that show that there’s always a reason to pay more attention. And — returning to my overall point, about classical music’s future — you need to get into people’s life and entertainment and art space, not just hover above it, flashing your message. If you want to keep reaching the model New York magazine talked to, you have to create Met events in her world. And even recruit people in that world to talk about what you’re doing.
If the Met had these strategies — and if they were reaching people, keeping them interested, filling the house with them — then who cares what critics write? The Met would be a success.
Though there’s one more dimension. The productions have to be good. And, too often, they haven’t been. So the strategy, no matter how well implemented, might not work. You can get people coming once. But if they don’t love what they see and hear, they won’t come back. And they’ll tell their friends to stay away.