Contract Talks + Field of Poppies = Met Bankruptcy?

Janos Gereben on June 10, 2014
<em>Prince Igor</em>'s $169,000 poppy field Photo by Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Prince Igor's $169,000 poppy field
Photo by Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

In the gathering storm over the Metropolitan Opera's labor contracts, the latest headline scare is company General Manager Peter Gelb telling the BBC that without wage cuts the Met will "face a bankruptcy situation in two or three years." On the other side, unions have threatened a strike if proposed pay cuts remain on the table before current contracts expire in just seven weeks.

With an annual budget of over $300 million, significant deficits, a $20 million Ring, and male chorus members' salaries averaging around $200,000, the Met is both big business and a major headache for administrators and donors to keep it afloat. In the management-union dispute, the spectacular poppy field in Prince Igor has become one of the bones of contention: The $169,000 price tag has been pointed out as an example of excess.

Gelb defended that and other production expenses as necessary to attract audiences, and once again, he pointed to labor expenses he says are responsible for two-thirds of the budget: "Putting on productions is expensive. What we have to do it make it less expensive — not by going back to the stone ages of opera theatre and having productions that no one will want to see, but by cutting down on the labor costs."

He added: "Even if I was the worst manager in the world, if two thirds of the cost structure is going to the unions, clearly that's an area that has to be cut ... What's at stake, ultimately, is the future of the Met."

One specific item Gelb wants to change in contract rules is the one that currently guarantees members of the orchestra and chorus getting paid for at least four performances a week, when they usually perform less.

As for audiences and box office income, Gelb pointed at the reason for the popularity of HD simulcasts in movie theaters:

At a cinema in America showing opera, 75% of the audience are over 65, and 30% of them are over 75. Those are people who are so old they can't make it to the Met any more, so instead they're getting a chance to extend their opera going in these cinemas.