Wagons for $4.5 Million, Shrinking Deficit Mark Met Tax Return

The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York. Summer attracts thousands of visitors to performances and dining on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A global oilfield provider of engineering services and products received $4,519,709 from the Metropolitan Opera for replacing the gigantic wheeled platforms that bring the company’s massive sets to the stage.

Houston, Texas-based Oceaneering International, which features hypnotic videos on its website that could pass for underwater scenes from an avant-garde staging of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” also serves the defense and aerospace industries.

And, now, the U.S.’s biggest opera company. How diversified is that?

The platforms, called wagons, haven’t been replaced since the Met moved into its Lincoln Center home in 1966. They’re in constant use, said Peter Clark, the company spokesman. The replacement cost, he said, was covered by special gifts.

According to financial statements the Met released this week for the year beginning August 1, 2008 and ending July 31, 2009, Oceaneering was one of five independent contractors paid more than $100,000 each. Among the others, music director James Levine earned $1,566,921 and advertising agency Serino Coyne received $3,149,812.

Full-ish House

Despite energetic marketing, however, box-office income fell slightly to $93.1 million from $93.5 million in 2007-08, the first decline since 2002-03. Ticket sales remained constant, with the Met selling 88 percent of its seats in the two most recent seasons.

The Met’s operating deficit was $1.3 million, down from $12.2 million a year earlier.

Contributions designated for operating costs rose 6 percent to a record $127.3 million. Metropolitan Opera President William C. Morris credited its 125th anniversary fund campaign, led by philanthropist Mercedes Bass, and a fundraising effort tied to the three “Ring” cycles performed in the spring of 2009.

Confronting a cash flow challenge, the Met also transferred $7 million from its endowment and borrowed another $5 million from it, according to the statements.

Two months later, the $5 million was returned and reinvested, said Clark.

The loan came after the Met requested permission from 10 large donors to “unrestrict” $15 million earmarked for specific projects. The Met also received permission from Chevron Corp. to redirect $7 million the oil company had donated to the endowment. The Met used that money for general purposes in the 2009-10 season.

Peter Gelb

Morris said the opera had “significant financial challenges,” which he attributed to the global recession.

Assets fell by $72.6 million, or 15 percent, to $422.7 million, primarily because of investment losses.

For the 12 months ending next month, the Met estimates its deficit will be under $4 million, Clark said.

General Manager Peter Gelb, whose preference for modern stagings have brought back booing, if not yet vuvuzelas, to opening nights, earned $1.5 million in pay and benefits in 2008, about the same as in 2007-08.

Year-over-year pay comparisons aren’t possible, because the Internal Revenue Service changed its requirement for reporting pay from an organization’s fiscal year to the calendar year. Clark said Gelb’s pay was cut in December 2008.

Big Employer

High-definition transmissions of performances to movie theaters in 35 countries contributed to media revenue that increased 75 percent, to $22 million. Clark said the HD transmissions are profitable, but that radio broadcasts lose money, before accounting for sponsorship and donations. Altogether, the company lost $3.7 million on media.

Underscoring how dependant the Met is on donors and its endowment, the company spent $213.6 million performing in 2008-09 at Lincoln Center, on the symphony concerts it presents at Carnegie Hall and on free opera in New York City parks. Its earned revenue from those performances was less than half that.

The Met, which has approximately 1,500 full and part-time employees, starts its new season on Sept. 27.

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