Another summer, another lockout looming!
This time it’s the Met’s. If you’ve been following my Twitter account, you know my thoughts. (There I’ve posted such in-depth analyses as Who looks at the Minnesota Orchestra negotiations and says, “I want THAT for my non-profit”? and I don’t think Peter Gelb got the memo about the power of audience advocate groups. Anyone want to deliver that memo? It’s kinda important.)
But as the deadline grows nearer, it’s time to dig deeper into the story. Let’s turn to the New York Times‘s July 23rd article, “Met Opera Prepares to Lock Out Workers.” Met General Manager Peter Gelb, here’s your chance to convince me you’re not Michael Henson 2.0. As you speak, keep in mind Song of the Lark Lockout Tip Number One:
When you’re preparing to initiate a lockout, don’t come across as a dick.
So. The floor is yours.
In letters to the company’s unionized workers, Mr. Gelb, who is seeking to cut pay and benefits, wrote that “if we are not able to reach agreements by July 31 that would enable the Met to operate on an economically sound basis, please plan for the likelihood of a work stoppage beginning Aug. 1.” He added, “I sincerely hope to avoid such an unfortunate event.”
An unfortunate event? An “unfortunate event” is having to take a detour during construction season. An “unfortunate event” is getting caught in the rain without an umbrella. An “unfortunate event” is going into a bakery craving cherry doughnuts and finding out the guy in front of you just bought the last cherry doughnut.
Those are unfortunate events. But here’s one thing an unfortunate event isn’t: choosing to shut down the United States’s largest opera house for an undetermined length of time for vague and unsubstantiated reasons, in the process threatening to upend the lives of hundreds of hardworking American workers and their children. Referring to such an abomination, such a catastrophe, such an artistic and human tragedy, as an “unfortunate event” tells me a lot about Peter Gelb. In fact, that one sentence tells me so much, I genuinely don’t know what more I need to know about him.
Another Lockout Tip: Adding the word “sincerely” to a statement doesn’t actually mean you’re sincere, and when you’re not sincere, the word tends to add to your general air of dickishness.
How do I know Peter Gelb is not sincere? Next paragraph:
Mr. Gelb said in an interview, “If we haven’t reached agreements, the Met really has no option in my opinion but to impose a lockout.”
Yes, that’s right: no option. No Other Option. No play and talk. No mediation. No outside consultants. No change in negotiating personnel. And that’s just off the top of my head. Those options are not options because….well, because. For reasons.
Peter Gelb is indeed Michael Henson 2.0. Or maybe Michael Henson 1.1: it’s not much of a change over the original version, and clearly there are still some bugs.
“I don’t know what the operatic equivalent of it taking two to tango is, but that’s sort of where we are,” Mr. Gelb said.
So…he’s basically saying the musicians aren’t negotiating (sound FAMILIAR?), and that he doesn’t know why. Insinuations:
- The musicians are greedy
- The musicians are selfish
- The musicians are childish
- The musicians are petulant
- The musicians are stupid and don’t have the mental acuity to realize their long-term job security is at stake
And as we all know, those kinds of insinuations always increase employee morale and productiveness. /sarcasm
Mr. Gelb’s record earnings in 2012 reflected a raise that he was given that March when he signed a new 10-year contract
Oh joy. So either this story ends with Gelb sticking around for another decade, or it ends with a massive golden parachute. He really is Henson 1.1, isn’t he?
which brought his base salary to $1.55 million, the Met said.
More than half of the last deficit. (Shades of Bonusgate…)
They also reflected $177,000 in retirement and medical benefits, which included what the Met described as an unsolicited gift from a donor to create a supplemental retirement plan for him.
Okay, so I have to stop here. Can we all collectively pause for a minute to appreciate that somewhere in New York City there is a donor who, as the Met is supposedly facing a fiscal apocalypse, is concerned that Peter Gelb has an adequately comfortable retirement? May I add, a retirement that is not slated to occur until (AT LEAST) 2022? That is hilarious. It’s also so sad I’m going to cry. But here’s another tip: When you’re torn between laughing and crying, laugh.
I encourage y’all to click through to the NYT article to read more context about Gelb’s pay.
It is increasingly obvious that Mr. Gelb believes that “once we get worker cuts, everything will be fixed.” He sees worker cuts as the equivalent to a magic pill. (A Viagra, maybe.) You pop the pill, the pill works, the institution’s symptoms are cured, and you can proceed with your evening’s plans. And you know what? If Mr. Gelb succeeds in getting those cuts, they might indeed help the Met’s bottom line…for a few seasons. But without a guarantee that soaring production costs will be reigned in, in about three years’ time (when the next contracts are up for negotiation, probably) the Met will start running deficits again. And the cycle will repeat itself. You can keep cutting and cutting and cutting the pay of unionized employees all you want. But if you have a serious revenue problem, or a serious production cost problem, as I would argue the Met does, then cuts to workers are not going to singlehandedly solve your long-term problems. You’re just kicking a very expensive can through a field of poppies. And I haven’t even touched on the costs of alienating donors and audience members during a lockout, or the costs of not offering a product for months on end, or the costs of dragging employee morale into the pits.
And one more thought: shouldn’t an art that is dying or declining constrict? In all ways, not just in worker compensation? Peter Gelb has said that opera is in a decline. And Michael Henson held this view about orchestral music, too. (Just look at the first few pages of the Minnesota Orchestra’s last Strategic Plan, or the half-pops 2013-2014 season he had planned pre-lockout.) And Mr. Henson actualized this worldview by slashing the number of classical concerts and shifting the Minnesota Orchestral Association’s attention away from orchestral music, to the point where the word orchestra was actually removed from the organization’s mission statement. I think that whole premise is unspeakably dumb, but at least there was a kind of internal logic to it. Gelb, on the other hand, is saying that opera is declining, and that workers’ compensation must also decline…but that production costs (not to mention, his long-term compensation) don’t need to. Is this a tacit admission that costly spectacle is more important to opera than paying competitive wages and retaining top talent? If so, what does that mean for the art, practically and philosophically? How else do you interpret these insinuations? And may I say, if the leader of the Met can earn well over a million dollars a year while presiding over a declining art form, then that’s one hell of a cushy decline.
So where do Met lovers go from here? Assuming that future negotiations will indeed prove fruitless, and assuming that the lockout will indeed begin on August first, the attention ought to turn now from the quarreling musicians and management to…New Yorkers. So, New Yorkers. As Jon Stewart would say, meet me at Camera Three.
Hey, New York. During the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, I heard many comments from the East Coast, like: “why doesn’t Minnesota do something?” The New York press covered our story with an air of incredulous sadness. One got the vibe that big city writers were frequently thinking to themselves: such clusterf***ery would never happen here. Ha. Well. Lucky for you, though, New York isn’t the first to deal with the problem of orchestral institutions intent on suicide. There is now a newly emerging tradition of effective audience advocacy: a tradition that has developed within the last few years and has proven exceptionally successful in Detroit and Minneapolis. If Gelb’s vision for the future for YOUR opera house is unappealing – and make no mistake, it is YOUR opera house, because the Met belongs to anyone who loves opera – start writing about it, start investigating it, start sharing the story with your friends and family, read about the Detroit Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra meltdowns, form a Save Our Opera coalition, and work your hind ends off to somehow fix the problems. I have faith that, if New Yorkers care about culture as much as they say they do, this mess will (eventually) (eventually…) (eventually……….) get straightened out in an equitable manner.
New York audiences not caring about the Met enough to protest its going dark would be the most unfortunate event of all.