Clocked In … Or Locked Out at the Metropolitan Opera

Mark MacNamara on August 7, 2014
Peter Gelb
Peter Gelb
Photo by Julie Jacobson

“The archetypal Met show involves a gold curtain, several zoo animals, and Franco Zeffirelli,” wrote the British music muckraker and gadfly, Norman Lebrecht in 2004. And he added, “When the Met sneezes, the rest of the opera world catches pneumonia.”

In the same article Lebrecht suggested that Peter Gelb, just then standing in the wings to replace Joseph Volpe as the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, would be a howitzer cannon of a sneeze, and finished the report on the leadership changeover with a rant, writing that Gelb’s, “contempt for artistic values and his adulation of mass entertainment point to an historic shift in Met priorities — and hence in the agendas of opera singers and opera houses the world over … This is the dawning of a new age of Popera.”

Putting aside how accurate Lebrecht’s artistic critique might be, if the current Metropolitan Opera management-union dispute leads to a lockout, as Gelb has threatened, and if it followed the arc of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, which lasted for 16 months, then that would certainly be an omen of widespread pneumonias to come.

And how did this all come about? Gelb points to ‘cost disease,’ a term coined by Stanford University professor Robert Flanagan, a specialist in cultural economics, and insists that the 45 percent budget increase in recent years at the Met stems from untenable salaries and benefits — stagehands that make $400,000 a year, for example. Gelb also points to a generally declining opera audience.

Union leaders cry foul on both points, arguing that if there is cost disease, it’s because of an extraordinary amount of overtime resulting from bad management, along with outrageous waste and extravagences. They point to the likes of two $40,000 couches and the $12,000 for the material to cover them.

But Peter Gelb’s greatest fault, according to critics inside the company, is that he has never promoted goodwill as either a leadership goal or an intangible asset. From the beginning, he started fooling with the trust mechanism among many in the company, particularly those who had come to believe, however naively, that you could be talented and work very hard and one day become a singer in one of the greatest opera companies in the world and make a good living, even in New York City, and at the end of each day come home with a feeling of job security and, above all, enormous pride in your achievement.

Now, once more in Met history, for some, there’s a sense of lost security and diminished pride.

A Union Perspective: Karen Dixon

Karen Dixon
Karen Dixon

Karen Dixon first came to the Met in 1985; she was 19 and arrived with her parents, up from Greenville, South Carolina. They waited two hours to get a ticket to Tosca. Her parents finally couldn’t stand the wait and fell out of line, but Karen stayed and when there were no more standing room-only tickets she bought a scalp for $35.

She came away from that matinee so seeded with dreams, that she withdrew from the University of Richmond, in Virginia, and worked her way into the Manhattan School of Music. Then, in 1997, she got a job as an extra chorus member at the Met. No benefits, paid by the performance, but a contract. Five years later, she was awarded a full-time contract.

Now, at 48, and 18 years after she first stepped out on a Met stage, she’s in the midst of her career, and could not be happier. She makes a good deal of money, by any standard, but her income is deceiving. For the last four years she’s averaged about $170,000 a year, although with New York City taxes the ‘take home’ is under $120,000.

A few chorus members, the soloists, make as much as $200,000. Others make $155,000 or slightly less.

Her pay structure is built on a guaranteed base of $102,000. Then add overtime from rehearsals, length of show and day, costume fittings and the like. Karen also serves as a Lady’s Chorus Delegate for her union, and receives some compensation for that administrative role. But then subtract time off for sickness, or family emergency, or if it’s simply a bad year with fewer performances and rehearsals.

“I can go from $150,000 to $185,000 from one year to the next,” she said. “I have little control over how much I make, but it’s that extra income that’s allows me to work in New York City.”

She and her husband own a two-bedroom, one bathroom, 900-square foot apartment in Morningside Heights, a few blocks south of Harlem on the Upper West Side. They own the apartment through one of the city’s middle income housing developments, which means that, among other things, the selling price is capped to prevent flipping properties. The family was on a waiting list for five years to get the apartment.

They also own a car, although Karen uses the subway to get to work, unless she needs to pick up her children; two girls, 10 and 13, who go to private school, albeit on a “healthy” scholarship. To add value, Karen gives 8 a.m. tours of the school for prospective parents and teaches a two-week class on opera and live performance. Dixon shops at Walmart and Costco, and buys her children’s clothes at Target.

The young performer: Dixon as the madrigal queen, third from left, from the 1983 Hellenian

In addition to her job, Karen and her husband own a small children’s shoe store, which Karen says pays its own bills and provides her husband a small income, about what a mid-level receptionist might make. “We live mostly on my income,” she said last week, on the eve of the threatened lockout. “By New York City standards, I would say we’re middle to lower middle class. Of course, outside the city, in Greenville for example, we would be upper middle class. But here, solid middle class.”

In Karen’s day, the alarm goes off at 6:15 a.m.; she arrives with the girls at their school at 7:30 — she takes them because she doesn’t see them at night. She leads a tour, if needed, teaches a class, if scheduled. She returns home, does some chores, and leaves home to arrive at Lincoln Center shortly before 10 a.m. Rehearsals are from 10 a.m. to 2:30 or 5:30, depending on the rehearsal schedule. Then home in the late afternoon; turn around, and she’s back in the subway by 6:30 to get to the hall by 7. Performances start at 7:30 and end at 11. They may finish as early as 10 or as late as 11:30. Then home and the day’s end, coming down from the performance, catching up on the mail and news of the day. She falls asleep no earlier than 12:30 p.m.

This goes on six days a week. There are 26 to 28 different productions every year and about 168 performances between September 24 and May 10. Rehearsals resume on July 21. She works all the winter holidays of course; she is entitled to miss three performances and three rehearsals in a season, with pay. In any given week, there may be three different operas in performance, and so she’s rehearsing those three as well as four different operas.

Between May 10 and July 21, when rehearsals begin — and they are continuing now as negotiators look for common ground — Dixon takes voice lessons several times a week (which cost $150 an hour); studies music for the coming season, works on foreign languages that may be especially difficult, exercises relentlessly, and fulfills her role as bookkeeper for the shoe business.

“Everyone started out to become a soloist, and some have been. You can’t imagine the level of talent. This is no church choir.” — Met chorus member Karen Dixon

“And I spend as much time as I can with my children, because I don’t see them that much during the rest of the year. That’s what people forget.”

In addition to other ‘vacation time’ activities, for a few weeks this last May, Dixon was asked to sit in on auditions for the chorus. In her role as union delegate she was charged with making sure that each applicant was given a fair chance.

There were 800 applications for five spots. Half the applicants were heard. Somebody figured out that it’s 16 times harder to get into the Met Chorus than it is to get into Harvard University. Dixon feels enormous pride in that, and is quick to point out that the chorus includes several former soloists at the Met and elsewhere. “Everyone started out to become a soloist, and some have been. You can’t imagine the level of talent. This is no church choir.”

We Didn’t See This Coming

At stake in management demands for Karen Dixon is an 18 percent cut in salary, including the effects of other provisions in the plan. Under those provisions, overtime penalties would be removed, which would allow for much longer rehearsals. Sunday penalties would be removed altogether, which could mean a seven-day workweek from time to time. Limits on straight hours worked would be eliminated; now there’s a four-hour limit during performance weeks. In addition, pensions would be reduced by 33.3 percent. If that happens, Karen will need to work an additional eight years to reach her full pension. There would also be a 45 percent cut in media payments for the HD worldwide broadcasts. Chorus members in these broadcasts receive a one-time payment; there are no residuals.

“I spend as much time as I can with my children, because I don’t see them that much during the rest of the year. That’s what people forget.” — Karen Dixon

And then healthcare. Now there is no network deductible: That would change to $4,800. Out of pocket deductibles, now at $4,800, would go to $20,000.

What makes this all seem particularly oppressive for Karen is that she wasn’t aware of a shortfall in the budget — the $2.8 million deficit in an annual budget of $330 million — until it was announced this spring. Moreover, as a small businessperson herself she wonders why management didn’t see this coming and hasn’t worked with department heads on ways to become more efficient.

I realize you can’t compare the Met to a children’s shoe store but the business principles are the same. And the one thing you know in any business is that if you have a budget problem it’s never just one thing that’s causing the problem … But this is why you wonder whether there is some other agenda here. From day one, in the very first contract negotiation we had, I remember [Gelb] saying,‘I want 10 percent off your salaries.’

For Dixon and others this is a pride issue as well. Here are 80 singers, including 38 women, who have mastered their profession over many years, who sing in up to seven different languages, up to seven times a week, with a rotating repertoire of as many as 26 operas a season.

Asked for a response to various criticisms, a Met representative replied in an email, “the Met is not commenting further beyond reiterating our hope that new contracts will be agreed upon soon without a work stoppage.”

“Which One Is My Mother?”

“I just love to sing.” Karen Dixon in the Met Ladies Lounge with her daughters

In addition to complaints about management, Dixon and others complain that the Met’s artistic vision has also been poorly managed. They point to the use of theater and film directors who have never directed an opera, which results in less time to prepare new productions and poor communication.

The movie and theater directors who have been hired recently are not used to time restrictions and don't know how to make an 80-person chorus an effective part of telling the story. Often they arrive without specific plans in utilizing the limited time to develop complicated traffic patterns and don’t trust us to create characters that make their vision come to life. More experienced opera directors understand the value of a chorus that works together nonstop for 45 weeks of the year.

Moreover, some stagehands complain that in recent months the rush to take sets down, rebuild them, and then store them in the theater or truck them off to storage in New Jersey or even Canada, has created hazardous conditions and led to more overtime. In addition, there have been many more cast changes in recent years, and often performers find themselves looking at people they’ve never seen before.

On a recent opening night for a soprano coming into the middle of our run of Madame Butterfly,” said Dixon, “she turned to me and quietly asked, ‘which one is my mother?’ of the cast members entering the stage at that moment. She had had no rehearsal with the chorus, or chorus soloists who filled out the cast. I quietly answered ‘the one in the red, go to her.’

The madhouse atmosphere, which is perhaps not so uncommon in any opera company, has been accompanied by questionable artistic decisions, which have undermined morale. For example, there was the moment in April when the lead in La bohème, Anita Hartig, became ill and dropped out. This was a Live-in-HD broadcast. The understudy, Hei-Kyung Hong, is a well-known lyric soprano, and had sung the part 61 times before. But at the last minute, she was replaced by Kristine Opolais who was also accomplished, but had sung the title role in Madame Butterfly the previous evening. Indeed, her first Butterfly. After all the celebrations, Opolais went to bed at 5 a.m.

“Two and a half hours later,” recounted Dixon, “she’s asked to cover the role of Mimi. And why was that? My guess is that while Hong is beautiful and elegant — she’s in her early 50s, although you would never guess that — [Gelb] wanted a young, up and coming superstar to get a flash in the papers. [Opolais is 35.] I just don’t understand why you would have a cover if you didn’t think they could actually do the job. Why are you not using the people you hired to do the job?”

“The one thing you know in any business is that if you have a budget problem it’s never just one thing that’s causing the problem.”— Karen Dixon

In 2007, after similar last minute changes drew attention, Gelb told The New York Times, “Where possible we should have star singers sing in all performances. The public is not interested in someone not singing. They want to hear the stars.”

Interestingly, reaction in the blogosphere to Opolais’ feat was actually more negative than mixed. On the influential, and always colorful opera blog, Parterre Box, this post was typical: “I think putting Opolais on after singing Butterfly the night before may have been a great publicity coup (it made Sunday’s paper), but ultimately I think it was a dumb decision. I don’t know if it was nerves, or lack of rest, especially vocal rest, but she really didn’t sing very well. Of course, the show went on and a lot of buzz was created and a so-so Mimi doesn’t kill a Bohème.”

But What’s the Plan?

Since Peter Gelb took the wheel at the Met in 2006, the company has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows, on many levels. Of course, it’s in the nature of the business and at such a great company, extremes are the norm. Among the more subtle changes, for example, is the effect of Live-in-HD performances, which have demanded a whole new level of excellence and efficiency.

But the greatest change Dixon has noticed in recent years is the diminished presence of the legendary Music Director and Conductor, James Levine. “When I came to the Met, Levine was in his prime. He was a very active part of every production. And still now, when he’s in the building, there’s a sense of music, a feeling of great artistry. When he walks into a room the room just breathes differently. But now he has been ill, you don’t see him often, and Gelb has taken over the artistic direction. It’s just not the same; there’s a lack of cohesiveness.”

One image of Peter Gelb is of a man always with his hands in his pockets, in an office with windows frosted over; even the webcam on his computer is covered over. In meetings he seems uneasy, and sometimes tongue-tied. Some say he’s reluctant to look you in the eye, and when it comes to leadership has only one imperative.

One crew member will never forget the meeting Gelb convened in the auditorium several years ago. He began by asking, “Can you help me out?” Someone replied, “But what’s your business plan.”

“To spend less and make more,” replied Gelb.

“But that’s not a business plan,” someone else shouted out.

“What he’s asking us to do,” Karen says, “is to think of these cuts as an investment in the Met, but to be a smart investor you have to have some faith in management and we just don’t have that.”