The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Go inside the Money Opera at the Met with the Pulitzer Prize-winning financial reporter James B. Stewart. | March 30, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

It is no secret that the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City has been having major financial and labor problems during the tenure of its General Director Peter Gelb (below).

Peter Gelb 2.jpg

But it is hard to find a better researched or more detailed account of what is going on than the account that was written by the journalist James B. Stewart and appeared in the March 23 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

A graduate of the Harvard University Law School, Stewart (below), you may recall, is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and currently a columnist for the New York Times. He has also written best-selling books. Such qualifications give him added credibility when reporting on the fiscal state of the arts.

James B. Stewart

Plus, Stewart got access to documents and records as well as to members of the board of directors. His account is filled with specific details about costs and fundraising that are convincing.

The discrepancy, for example, between what the Met said was the official cost of its recent and controversial “Ring” cycle (below) by Robert Lepage of Cirque du Soleil and what others say it cost is both astonishing and appalling.

Lepage Ring set

In an interview with Jim Zirin, Peter Gelb defends himself and his tenure in a YouTube video at the bottom.

To The Ear, the larger question is whether some of the same criticisms apply to other large performing arts groups, opera companies and symphony orchestras in other cities.

But that is another story for another day.

Here is a link to the story about the Met by James B. Stewart:



  1. Here’s a terrific article from the Washington Post comparing and contrasting the fate of the MET and some less prestigious, more local opera houses that unlike the MET, are doing quite well financially.

    The article centers on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Some of its conclusions:

    1. The St.Louis group is in its 39th year and has strong local ties.

    2. Unlike the MET, its donations are up (26% over the past 5 years); retention ticket sales are at 89% (the MET’s are about 70%).

    3. The Opera is not sitting back on his heels. It commissioned and premiered Ricky Gordon’s “Twenty Seven”. It gave a successful (without controversies) performance of John Adam’s opera, “The Death of klinghofer” in 2011 (well before the MET and all the problems it had with this production. One of the reasons they had no problems: an advisory committee drawn from people in walks of life.

    More: ” Last year, the company presented the successful world premiere of “Champion,” an “opera in jazz” by Terence Blanchard co-commissioned with Jazz St. Louis, which represented a serious attempt to open up the operatic format and reach new audiences. This year’s “Twenty-Seven” was less path breaking. Ricky Ian Gordon is a much-commissioned opera composer who produced a tuneful, energetic and likable score, resulting in a pleasing 90-minute show in which great 20th-century artists appeared like bits of local color in a skit, leaving viewers on the outside, looking in. The next new commission, by Jack Perla, will open in 2016; it is based on Salman Rushdie’s novel “Shalimar the Clown.”

    4. All of the operas they perform are sung in English.

    5. St. Louis cultivates new(and young) talent and lures big names with operas specially written for them (and where they perform for much less than their normal fees).

    6. St. Louis has a very successful outreach program to bring in younger people to the audience.

    7. The opera “year” is built in a festival style with far fewer performances than a company like the MET.

    Another article in the Washington Post by the same writer, Anne Midgette, focuses on the successes of the Glimmerglass Festival. It too has no where near the number of productions the Met has but instead of making cuts it has gone from 3 operas to 4 and ticket sales are up 20%. Some of the ways this has been done:

    1. Bring in an experienced hand at operas, who has had success elsewhere. In this case, Francesca Zambello, who incidentally, was with the opera house in Milwaukee for 7 years. Gelb, in contast, had zero experience elsewhere before taking over the Met! His daddy, however, was the editor of the NYT!

    2. In 2011, its offerings were: “Annie Get Your Gun,” are Bizet’s “Carmen,” Cherubini’s “Medea” and a double bill of contemporary operas, “Later the Same Evening” by John Musto and “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” by Jeanine Tesori. Note the mix of new and old, far different from most MET seasons.

    3. Here are some of Zambello’s other innovations: “Zambello’s innovations are lower-key — adding cabaret-style performances in the theater’s open-air pavilion; creating the position of resident artist for a big-name singer (this year, Voigt) every summer. She’s rewritten the mission statement to emphasize education; one-quarter of Glimmerglass’s budget goes to its 30 young artists (who perform small roles and do double duty as the opera chorus) and 50 production and administrative interns. She’s reaching out to the community: holding a free concert for the wives of inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame; getting local kids on stage in the children’s chorus in “Carmen.”

    Zambello, by the way, is also artistic director of the Washington National Opera. See:

    A much larger company, in fact the second largest in North America after the MET, is the San Francisco Opera Company with the budger of $71 million a year. Some observations:

    1. They share a lot of opera sets/directors with other opera houses. For instance, Francesca Zambello (written of above) designed and directed the company’s Wagner Ring (shared with the National Opera).

    2. High use of tehnological innovations. San Francisco sids astride the Silicon Valley so this should be no surprise. Highlights include use of simulcasts of performances to other large theaters (like Stanford University’s Frost Ampitheater and to other theaters in Northern California; these broadcasts are in high definition;

    3. The above program was extended nationally and indeed internationally to universities, theaters, concert halls.

    4. Shared music director with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Donald Runnicles) thus achieving costs over the Met’s stand alone orchestra and conductor.

    5. Innovative programming. Including John Adams’, Nixon in China, including 6 world premiers of commissioned works. 2 more commissioned works are coming up.

    6. Yearly programs include a mix of broadway shows, traditional opera, and newly commissioned works. The 2014 season included 70 performances of 10 operas including:

    Hector Berlioz’s
    Les Troyens(The Trojans);
    the Company premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s
    “Susannah” in a new production; the Company premiere of Handel’s
    Partenope; the world premiere of Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara (Two Women); a new production of
    Vincenzo Bellini’s
    Norma; as well as productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s
    Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked
    ; Giacomo Puccini’s, Tosca; Gioachino Rossini’s
    La Cenerentola (Cinderella); Wolfgang Amadeus
    Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro);
    Puccini’s La Bohème and a special presentation for families of the latter.

    So we have a model (San Francisco) for a more ambitious, highly funded Opera house, and others for more local companies.

    Comment by fflambeau — March 31, 2015 @ 1:07 am

  2. James B. Steward’s article for the New Yorker is as insightful, and as even-handed and informative as any I’ve read. But it offers neither conclusions nor solutions and very few opinions.

    From my vantage point, my conclusion is that the MET’s days are numbered, and the solution is but one: buy Gelb out of his contract and get an interim management team with one representative from each of the three basis unions (stagehands, chorus, orchestra), one top-level administrator, and one board member. Set them to work on radical – even surgical – measures to be applied immediately.

    The MET is suffering from a form of Cancer that can be arrested with urgency and speed and radical measures. Anyone with any experience in the non-profit world will tell you the same thing: a deficit of 22 million (roughly 10% of the MET’s annual operating budget) will dig a grave for the organization in no time. That grave is gaping open right now and Peter Gelb has acted as gravedigger.

    Ours is a rapidly-changing world – I’ll grant you that – and the circumstances that surrounded prior administrations before Gelb’s were radically different. I’ve been attending MET performances since my early twenties and watching the goings on during the final days of the Bing administration and the subsequent days of the triumvirate (Crawford/Hall/Levine) and the stillborn Gentele regime that never was and on through our days.

    I’ve also worked inside other opera companies – City Opera, for one – that poor long-range planning and idiotic boards brought to their knees. I think the symptoms are there, right on the stage of the MET. The failure of the revivals of new productions, as very well detailed in the New Yorker article, are symptomatic of on-the-cheap casting.

    The MET audience is not particularly resistant to innovative productions, but it is adamantly opposed to wrong-headed productions. And guess what! They are voting with their feet.

    Take the MET to the ER at once and save its life.

    Comment by Rafael de Acha — March 30, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

  3. The LePage Ring cycle was a life event for me. I will never think of German opera as musically or emotionally inferior to Italian bel canto ever again. The five DVD-set is worth every penny, I just watched the entire thing last month. its initial broadcast was five entire nights out of my life, and well-spent, and I DO mean Spent!
    People in power tell lies all the time to get their goals met. Were Mr. Gelb to be fired for this is hypocrisy of the first water. Also, the Met is NOT a training ground for new conducting talent. It is THE Premier opera house in America, and one of the five great houses in the world. A Big Name, with Big Ideas, is the only thing NYC opera fans will accept.
    Think of how the opera fared in Mozart’s time, or how many money troubles Wagner himself had in getting these mammoth dramas staged in the first place. And, with contemporary composers choosing the most expensive and elaborate form to write in more and more, expect digital sets, sacrifices all around, and more and more emphasis on the presentation of the opera as a concept, not because the music is secondary, but because it deserves the most up-to-date and glorious settings available, for it to continue to be culturally relevant, albeit to only a relatively few wealthy and obsessed afficianados.
    Opera will survive only by doing what Gelb has done, which is follow in the Machaivellian footsteps of many impresarios of the past, and using “any means necessary” to get the ideas of cutting-edge techno-visionaries onto the public stages of the world.
    And, public funding, what’s that?

    Comment by 88melter — March 30, 2015 @ 11:37 am

    • The problem, 88melter, in your Love Ode to the MET and Mr. Gelb, is that the MET is going broke. Read the article. Things have to change or it will be history.

      If you read the article (which I suspect you have not) you will find out that it is not the music but the lavish productions that are costing so much. As someone who loves the music, I could really care less about the sets (I am perfectly willing, in fact, to buy a good recording of an opera, listen to the music, and imagine the sets in my mind). Mozart didn’t need a million bucks to stage his operas (and he was a relative outsider, by the way). And bringing in younger maestros to conduct does not necessarily undercut a production (there is plenty of very good young talent out there; Levine and Bernstein were once young themselves, as was Mozart when he was working on his operas).

      One other thing: You haven’t addressed Andras Schiff’s comments about directors. In my opinion, he’s spot on. His comments are aimed squarely at the likes of Mr. Gelb, who should have been fired.

      The MET for all of its wonders, has NOT been selling its seats. If you look at the numbers presented in the article, you will see that Covent Garden has 100% sell outs; so does the Vienna Opera; and “lesser” operas in St. Louis and Chicago are doing very well. The seat sale rate for the MET is now only about 70%.

      Finally, public funding is what helps great companies like the Gewandhaus, English National Opera the Paris opera (60% funded from the State) and the Vienna Opera (about 55% publicly funded) be what they are. Germany gives 2.4 billion euros every year to their classical music programs including opera houses. We do have a problem with politicians funding arts in America; but sadly, “liberal” (like Obama) and “progressive voices have not pushed much of a progressive agenda at all, including in music. We need more money spent on arts and education, not less. It not has been done effectively, it IS being done effectively in Paris, London, Leipzig, Vienna and elsewhere.

      Comment by fflambeau — March 30, 2015 @ 10:19 pm


    Comment by Rafael de Acha — March 30, 2015 @ 8:57 am

  5. Great article. From it, I took away a couple of key points.
    The first, a red flag, is that Gelb had never run an opera company or a nonprofit cultural institution, let alone one as large and complex as the Met.

    Second, his proposals were almost entirely anti union and anti orchestra (lower their base pay; make cuts in the orchestra).

    Third, Gelb himself took a pay cut of 10% (to a mere $1.4 million a year).

    Fourth, most of the cost overruns appear to have come about because of lavish directorial demands and expenditures on sets and staging (not the music).

    Here is what pianist Andras Schiff has written about this trend (quotation is from the article):

    “What does the director do? He thinks he has to assert himself—he understands nothing about the music, he can hardly read music (yes, I know, there are notable exceptions)—and rages that much more wildly onstage. He changes everything about the piece: the plot, the setting, the time period, and moreover regales us with sex, violence and a surfeit of tastelessness.”

    I agree completely with Mr. Schiff.

    Some suggestions:

    1) begin with firing Mr. Gelb. An institution with as large as an endowment as the Met that is having trouble making ends meet is in REAL trouble.

    2) give the orchestra their old contracts back to make them happy and don’t make them bear the brunt of cost cutting as Gelb has done. Mr. Levine, who is a terrific conductor, will probably retire soon due to age and health problems. Do not replace him with another big name. Bring in someone young, who will be willing to work for the experience and at a greatly reduced salary. Perhaps more than one person on a rotation basis.

    3) replace Mr. Gelb with some members from the executive committee and perhaps a secretariat (to handle day to day details). That would be much cheaper and likely the Met would get better results.

    4) seek public funding. Most opera/orchestras in Europe receive substantial government subsidies. The Met is a resource to NYC and the nation. I can remember seeing an opera not long ago at the Leipzig Gewandhaus; it was very good and extremely affordable, about $30.00 for a good seat. Those kind of prices are unheard of in the USA for opera. You cannot set ticket prices at $495 as the Met has.

    5) when you have a terrific set and stage (as the Met does from F. Zeffereli’s Tosca, use it. Why the need to completely change it? Maybe in small ways. That would save a lot. Concentrate more on the music and the singing and less on the lavish sets (which are very expensive).

    6) cut down staging and directorial fees and expenses substantially (in line with the above).

    Comment by fflambeau — March 30, 2015 @ 7:14 am

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