The Peter Gelb furor (2)

Deadline approaching, as most of us know — July 31. Armageddon day. If Peter Gelb and the unions can’t come to an agreement, Peter says he’ll lock them out. How much of next season could that kill? Since rehearsals have already started.

My first thought is that they’re acting like kids at a playground. Not that they’re the only big-time players doing this in our world. Politics. Cable companies/networks.

ticking clock blogSo my second thought is that Peter and the unions should just cut it out. Like when CBS and TimeWarner Cable were feuding. For quite a while, TimeWarner subscribers couldn’t watch CBS shows. While both parties, reaching mighty heights of bullshit, claimed to be acting in the interest of viewers.

Since they knew they were going to reach agreement sometime, I thought back then, why not just do it now? Same at the Met. Just settle it. You know you’re going to.

Important issues

Though the issues at the Met are important. Here we have a nonprofit company, central to classical music in the US, where finances are strained — no surprise, since that’s currently true for almost all big classical music institutions — despite a $327 million annual budget. And on the other side we have unions representing chorus singers, orchestra players, and backstage staff, who’ve been making the kind of good professional incomes we’d like to see people in classical music make. (Or better than that: chorus and orchestra members average $200,000 a year, with long vacations. There are three stagehands who, thanks to lots of overtime, made close to half a million.) Peter says the unionized employees have to take less, which (again no surprise) they don’t like.

Is he right? When I look at how this is discussed, I thInk we in classical music should take some deep breaths. Peter says that the biggest increase in his costs in recent years has come from the unions. They say that’s not true, and that the budget is bloated because of expensive new productions. There are no ambiguities in this dispute. Either one side or the other is correct. The answer lies in the Met’s budgets from recent years. Get these budgets, look at the expenses, and see how salaries and new productions compare.

So that’s what we should do, instead of hurling accusations, or seizing on tiny details, and — like the blind man in the old story, touching an elephant’s tail, and thinking he’s found a long and ropy animal — shouting “Gotcha!”

A big red herring

The unions found a gotcha, or thought they did. They seized on the cost of one set in the Met’s new Prince Igor production — the spectacular poppy field — as if it was a wild extravagance, because it cost $169,000. Others also widened their eyes at this cost.

But what does that number mean? $169,000 was just 0.05% of the Met’s $327 million total budget. And so it’s affordable. Like one of the $200,000 choristers buying a nice sweater on sale for $100. Hard to see why the Met shouldn’t spend the money, if the set otherwise makes sense.

And by what standard is $169,000 a lot to spend on a set? We haven’t set any baseline. What does a single set in a new production at the Met usually cost? What do sets cost for new productions at other big opera companies? We’re flying blind here, some of us, taking sides in a dispute when we have no context for the numbers involved.

And a second context would be to look at the cost of the poppy set against the background of cost control for the entire production. As Jennifer Maloney, writing in the Wall Street Journal, did.

Looking at the whole picture

So what do we see when we look at the total budget? I’m going to quote figures from 2007 to 2013, mostly taken from the annual reports the Met publishes.

These could be more detailed and more consistent — sometimes they list new production costs, sometimes not; sometimes they list compensation costs, sometimes not — but at least they give us a ballpark to play in. (If you want to join the game yourself, here are links to the reports: 2008/20092010/2011, 2012. The 2012 report include 10-year summaries of income and expenses, and of paid attendance. 2013 figures are here.)

What do these annual reports tell us? The cost of new productions jumped a few years ago, from $12.8 million (which was 4.5% of the Met’s budget) in 2009 to 21.5 million (7.2% of the budget) in 2010. Take that out of context, and it sounds like a gotcha. But in fact the numbers jump around. The Met spent less on new productions in 2009 than it did in 2008, and in later years the new production cost fell in 2011, rose in 2012, and fell again in 2013. It’s hard to see a pattern there.

But compensation and employee benefits rose in every year the Met gives us figures for. And never varied from 75 to 76 percent of the Met’s total budget. Which is a lot.

Of course the figure isn’t only for unionized employees, because it also covers the Met’s administrative staff, including Peter Gelb, who makes well over $1 million each year (though he took a 10% pay cut recently). But common sense would tell us that the unionized employees would have to be the bulk of it. The Met, after all, employs a full-time orchestra (to look at just one area)that’s notably larger even than the large US symphonic ensembles — the Boston Symphony, let’s say — since the house gives seven performances a week, and the same people can’t possibly play all of them. And in fact Peter Gelb says that pay to unionized employees makes up two-thirds of his budget.

The annual reports, then, tell us that new production costs don’t seem to rise inexorably, but that pay to unionized employees does seem to. And amounts to two-thirds of the budget, so if the company is caught in the same squeeze that’s hurting so many classical music institutions — costs rising, income falling — what sane manager wouldn’t cast an eye at the biggest single expense he or she has, if something has to be cut?

Dawn Fatale, in the first part of her widely acclaimed deep study of the Met’s problems (which I’ve linked to before), comes to the same conclusion.

And even if new productions cost quite a lot, aren’t they the flagship of the Met’s performances, some of the company’s biggest news each year, and also a key investment in its future? (As the HD streams to movie theaters were at first, when they were hugely expensive and lost money.)

The problem, I’d argue, isn’t that the new productions cost a lot, but that so many of them — especially the Ring — haven’t been good. Which helps drive ticket sales down, and makes Peter look bad. Wouldn’t the unions’ claims look hollow, if the new productions had been triumphs, and a whole new audience — as was the original plan — came flocking to see them?

Which brings me to Peter’s two big failures, as I see them, which I’ll write about shortly.

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  1. Alex says

    As the linked post points out, new productions receive a big chunk of their funding through targeted contributions, so cutting them would also cut down on donation revenue.

  2. BobG says

    It seems to me that the “new productions” issue is a catch-22. Gelb’s intention was to attract new audiences, but the avant-garde productions simply turned off a very conservative audience base. We must assume that the new audience didn’t come, and regular members stayed home. (I skipped the new Traviata myself.) . But, indeed, why would a new audience come, just to see a different interpretation of a familiar opera which didn’t interest them in the first place? (Would newcomers even know that the production was innovative?) Even better productions would run into the same wall of indifference.

    If you compare the sound of singing (or “singing”) in popular music (I’m forced to hear it at my gym, which pipes it in) with the sound of singing in opera, you can see why pop music fans find operatic singing incomprehensible. How to bridge that gap is the problem.