Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb has warned the New York company could face bankruptcy in two or three years if it does not cut the cost of orchestra and chorus wages. Speaking on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme, he suggested cutting 16 per cent of the Met’s $200m labour costs by changing work rules; orchestra and chorus members are currently paid for at least four performances per week when they often perform less.He adds:
‘Putting on productions is expensive,’ he said. ‘What we have to do is 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 labour costs. The box office has not increased, it’s been flat which represents a shrinking playing field for opera – it’s not a secret in the US that the frequency of opera going is going down. We are getting a newer audience, a younger audience, but there aren’t enough new audience members to replace the old audience members who are dying off.’I'm not sure how the typical reader might respond to this. I suspect that Norman Lebrecht over at Slipped Disc, based on past comments, would tend to blame it on Peter Gelb's being incompetent. Ordinary readers might think that the musicians are being greedy or why bother paying so much for a genre that no-one goes to anyway.
The truth is that opera, despite its enormous popularity with many listeners, is a form threatened by cultural trends. In some ways opera is the genre of classical music most likely to appeal to today's audiences because it is the only genre that incorporates the visual element as an inherent part of the art form. New and creative stagings of opera, while certainly attracting a certain amount of criticism, are often stunningly effective as I witnessed with the Teatro Real's production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron last month in Madrid. But the flip side of that is that opera, especially elaborate modern productions, is extremely expensive. That production must have involved rebuilding much of the stage to incorporate a modest swimming pool. And then removing it for the next production, of course.
What the ordinary listener may not realize is that opera is an enormously complex undertaking involving the highly involved skills not only of the composer, the conductor, the leader of the chorus, the orchestral musicians, singers of the chorus and the stars, the soloists, but also the skills of a host of other workers behind the scenes. These include electricians, carpenters, plumbers, painters and all those who build and maintain the sets. Oh, and the designers of the production as well. Hearing that the annual labour costs for the Met are $200 million a year, you almost want to say, "is that all?" After all, $200 million dollars is the cost of one or two upmarket apartments in Manhattan.
Opera houses in Europe are very highly subsidized and always have been. Opera, from its birth in Italy in the late 16th century, was a highly sophisticated entertainment for the nobility. In the 19th century it became popular with the middle class as well, but it has never at any time been feasible economically. Unless you charge a thousand dollars a seat or perhaps more, no opera is going to break even. Opera in Europe has often been connected with national pride, one opera even started a revolution. So while there are certainly economic pressures there, the governments still seem willing to fund operas to a high level of quality. If the European Union succeeds in quashing the nation states still further, one wonders if this will finally abate.
But the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the jewel of American opera houses, has mostly thrived on private patronage. Are Peter Gelb's comments meant to imply that the fabulously wealthy opera-lovers of New York are less willing to donate or that they are dying out? It would seem so. But New York is continually attracting new hosts of wealthy people. Is it that they are less fond of opera? Seems so.
So it comes back, as always, to taste. If the population has little taste for classical music, they won't attend performances and won't support the art form. Educational outreach is important. In the past young people encountered classical music at home. Their parents played instruments or sang. They listened to recordings or the radio. They experienced live performances and listened to, studied or performed classical music in school. A lot of this has faded away leaving a core audience of enthusiasts. But until the culture changes course a bit, I suspect that times will be tough for classical music.
Here is an aria from Act I of Bizet's "Carmen." Elina Garanca (Carmen). Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Production: Richard Eyre (2009). From the 2010 Live in HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera: