Met Manager Keeps Calm, Unions Threaten War: Hoelterhoff

We all love vacation, but 16 weeks fully paid? Really?

Perhaps it’s time for a reality check at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where the orchestra enjoys long summers.

The chorus does nicely, too: Nine weeks, plus a work schedule that would please Wagner’s Fafner, a homebody who likes to sleep a lot in his gold-filled cave. Met choristers are guaranteed four performances a week, even if they don’t appear in four operas because Mozart, just for example, thoughtlessly forgot to work 80 of them into say “Cosi Fan Tutte.” There’s extra pay for rehearsing.

Now the lavish contracts are running out at the 3,800-seat house, which is rarely filled to capacity. The three major unions -- of the 15 at the table -- are Local 802 (musicians), AGMA (chorus) and IATSE (stagehands and technicians).

General Manager Peter Gelb is demanding a change in work rules and benefits that would bring a savings of 16 percent to the Met. Good luck with that. So far, the unions like things the way they are. The orchestra has issued a strike warning.

I spoke with Gelb, 60, a fit-looking tennis nut despite three hip replacements, in his sleek office where a huge collage by South African artist William Kentridge recalls a hit production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose.”

‘Unsustainable’ Model

Hoelterhoff: The head of AGMA says you’re plotting to destroy the Met. He’s bringing out the nukes soon.

Gelb: You need two sides for war. I’m not challenging that everyone works hard or that they aren’t the best.

But we need a rational, modest cost reduction. Else we’re facing bankruptcy in a couple of years.

The percentage of operating costs covered by donations is 48 percent. That’s unsustainable. It’s not a business model.

Hoelterhoff: What’s the budget now?

Gelb: Our most recent budget was $327 million. Unionized labor compensation was about $214 million.

Hoelterhoff: Let’s take the choristers. They’re complaining about health plan changes.

Gelb: We need a higher deductible. The health plan is unequaled anywhere in the U.S. Health and pension benefits add another $100,000 per person to an average salary of $200,000.

Hoelterhoff: AGMA has accused you of blowing up the budget with wasteful spending. Shrinking the budget, however, means less for unions. Seems an odd thing for them to argue for! But let’s move on. Attendance could really be better.

Shrinking Audience

Gelb: We’ve embarked on a strategy to make the Met more accessible, including last season’s abridged “Magic Flute,” for families.

The audience is shrinking. I fault our times and short-form entertainment. The days of Pavarotti standing center stage and selling out are gone. Then opera still had a foothold in popular culture. It’s a niche now.

But to get back to that budget: New productions are paid for by donors.

And some productions were much less expensive than the shows they replaced -- for example, David McVicar’s “Il Trovatore” replaced several expensive, laughable productions that came before.

Hoelterhoff: Speaking of attention-span disorders: Why not cut some operas that need it. The new production of “Prince Igor” was seven hours long.

Expensive Poppies

Gelb: It was not. Dmitri Tcherniakov was driven by a creative spark I wanted to encourage and was not going to interfere with.

Hoelterhoff: How expensive was that immense field of poppies that filled the stage? There is now an anti-poppy plank in union land. You spent too much on the poppies!

Gelb: We did not. And if Dmitri had wanted to have a house instead of a stunning poppy field, it would have cost more than 169,000 bucks.

Hoelterhoff: Work rules at opera houses baffle other humans who think, for example, that rehearsing is a natural part of performing. Please explain.

Gelb: Base pay for orchestra and chorus is predicated on a guaranteed minimum of four performances a week. With a changing repertoire, the actual average is three. So every rehearsal in the season is paid on an overtime basis.

We’re proposing that the base pay cover four services a week -- they could be performances or rehearsals.

Rabbit Hole

Hoelterhoff: So you’re treating a rehearsal like a performance.

Gelb: Yes. Donors will not keep throwing money down the rabbit hole.

Hoelterhoff: Since the last strike in 1980, the unions have pretty much gotten what they want. That’s why your predecessor Joseph Volpe was so popular. What makes you think you can prevail?

Gelb: I am not anti-union. They need to look at the situation. We are living in perilous times.

Hoelterhoff: The latest attack from AGMA says you are also looking to slash soloist fees.

Gelb: That’s not true. They have contracts.

Hoelterhoff: The costume department objects to any reductions because they are working harder than ever creating costumes that are, in effect, clothes for close-ups on HD, not for massive stage formations.

Tiny Truths

Gelb: Pardon the pun, but that is a complete fabrication. They are latching onto a small truth and making it the overwhelming story. I do not ask any director or designer to design for video cameras. We do make scratch tapes before a transmission to correct for small things which might be a button, a wig line or color.

We all started working harder six years ago with the live transmissions, which by now have been seen by some 15.3 million people.

Here’s an interesting statistic. When “La Boheme” was transmitted earlier, 75 percent of the viewers were 65 and older. They might find it easier to attend a telecast than the Met.

Hoelterhoff: And cheaper. As everyone lives longer, so do opera goers! How about making this place more appealing to young people? The restaurant is ridiculously formal and expensive, just for starters.

Gelb: I once had ambitions to change things, but the recession made it essential to focus limited resources on the product. I’ve wanted to create a terrace cafe. And with a sustainable business model, we can do that.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor for art at Bloomberg News. All opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)