Behind the veil

A week ago, the fabulous opera blog Parterre Box ran a study of the Met Opera’s shaky finances. Which was by far the best thing I’ve read on the subject, and the kind of reporting we don’t see nearly enough of in classical music. The writer was Dawn Fatale.

Which of course isn’t his real name. (Or hers, but most likely she’s a man.) Not to go deep right now into the exuberant Parterre Box opera queen culture, but the doyenne of the blog, James Jorden (one of the sharpest observers of opera around), goes by La Cieca, a character in La Gioconda. So for those not steeped in all this, Dawn Fatale is a nom de blog taken from “O don fatale,” the big mezzo aria in Don Carlo

If you have even the slightest interest in the Met, in performing arts finances, or in the financial part of the future of classical music, you should read this piece. Here’s an excerpt:

behind the veil blogThe 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.…

But that’s just the start. Dawn Fatale goes deep into the numbers, working through what she says are misrepresentations in public statements by the Met’s unions, and also obfuscation by the Met, which she says has released numbers without proper context, and, as she notes, about some aspects of its finances won’t say anything at all.

Using what seems to be expert accounting knowledge, common sense, unofficial sources, and deductions from numbers that have been released, she concludes that increases in pay to unionized employees — solo singers, chorus, orchestra, stagehands (my list, not hers) — is the biggest component of the Met’s increased expenses (even if the unions claim otherwise). I’ll note that cuts in musicians’ pay have been common for orchestras, and so when Peter Gelb, who of course runs the Met, says he wants cuts, he’s not doing anything unprecedented.

But Dawn Fatale says these cuts won’t be enough, and that

[The Met] can’t continue to count on [the current] 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.

The ultimate reason for all these problems? That Peter Gelb is failing to carry out his own business model, which, as he said years ago, was to sell more tickets and find new sources of income. My own instinct would be to put more weight on demographics, especially since Peter went on record in the New York Times saying

We have been, I think, successful in getting younger, newer audiences to come to the Met. But there’s no question that our older audience is aging, and not attending as frequently as they once did.

Which I take to mean that the new, younger audience isn’t large enough to offset the falloff in the older one.

And beyond that, both Dawn Fatale and I come back to something very basic. Are the performances good enough to excite an audience, either an old or a new one? Not from what I’ve seen in recent years. Maybe the Met knows, behind the veil, that audiences in fact aren’t excited.

And as Dawn Fatale says,

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?

Please don’t think that my extended quotes have told you everything you need to know about what Dawn Fatale says. Read her piece.

 

If we had reporting and analysis as good as this about other aspects of classical music, our discussions of the crisis would lead, I’ll bet, to more unanimous agreement. We’d know much better where we stand.

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for drawing attention to this, Greg. It is so refreshing to see such clear-headed financial analysis. Even the speculations seem level-headed. In classical music, most of the people releasing figures have some agenda (usually to find fault with somebody else), so it is extremely valuable to have this overview from somebody without an axe to grind, who seems genuinely to want the company to thrive.

  2. Douglas Bartolme says

    Just a thought, and stating the obvious, but it’s the music. If we want younger adults in those chairs, contemporary composers need to write actual melodies that mean something to the average person; the music has to be something that’s fresh and takes popular culture into account: film and video game music has already given us a style to work with. If it’s money they’re worried about, get Justin Timberlake to sing. There’s also too much singing. I feel that the 21st century opera should probably have dialogue like musicals. Otherwise, opera is an outdated form of entertainment and Universities should stop encouraging composers to write for it.

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