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A Magazine of Ideas

Melodrama at the Met

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The 130-year-old Metropolitan Opera is under threat from unions – and philanthropists.

With emotions reaching Wagnerian proportions, the storied Metropolitan Opera has arrived at the penultimate act of its latest melodramatic production: contract negotiations with the 16 unions currently holding sway over the 2,000-plus employees who bring each opera to life. The current labor contract expires on July 31, but as early as this past February, American Guild of Musical Artists Executive Director Alan Gordon was advising members to prepare for a lockout and a cancelled, or partially cancelled, 2014-2015 season.

The leitmotif running through the labor discussions has been the possible death of the 130-year-old Metropolitan Opera.

Out of a $327 million budget for fiscal year 2013, $215 million was spent on pay and benefits for the opera’s union employees and performing artists. The average singer in the Met’s 80-person chorus makes between $145,000 and $200,000 annually. Some stage hands end up making upwards of $450,000 a year. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, wants to cut between 16 percent and 17 percent of the union costs. Similar cuts might have saved New York’s other famous opera company, the New York City Opera, which closed in October 2013.  And similar cuts are hoped to be the saving grace for the San Diego Opera, which earlier had announced its imminent demise (though it’s currently planning to stage productions for the upcoming season).

More than half the members of New York’s City Council signed a letter to Wal-Mart demanding it stop donating to New York charities.

Gelb has been criticized for the money he has spent on sets and production, and that certainly seems to be a legitimate object of scrutiny. Yet opera (or at least, grand opera) is just that — opulent, lavish, expensive. It’s eye-candy on a scale Louis XIV couldn’t have dreamed of. It’s also a refined expression of the heights of human achievement and understanding.

But the storyline, as many are in opera, is a little more complex. Though the Met is under threat, unions aren’t the only aggressors — and opera, despite its seeming outmodedness, not only remains popular, its audience is even growing.

The art of opera is not dying in America, contrary to numerous epitaphs. As Mark Swed points out in a piece in the Los Angeles Times, opera is “growing, uncontrollably, by leaps and messy bounds.” Last year, the Dallas Opera’s simulcast of “Turandot” at Jerry Jones’ Cowboys Stadium (AT&T Stadium now) drew 14,000 guests — who were not all the uber-rich elite, either. “Opera has never had a wider or more anarchic reach… There have been opera performances of late in grocery stores and banks as well as at a wax museum in New York and Union Station in Los Angeles. Symphony orchestras everywhere do it. Hipsters in Brooklyn do it,” adds Swed. And opera today offers more than the old tried and true repertoire — new works, such as the Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer “Moby-Dick,” are being commissioned and performed across the country.

The average singer in the Met’s 80-person chorus makes between $145,000 and $200,000 annually. Some stage hands end up making upwards of $450,000 a year.

But something else is happening at the same time: the very philanthropy that has traditionally funded and enabled artistic innovation and expression is now being attacked, and also shifting from arts funding to medical research. Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal reports that more than half the members of New York’s City Council signed a letter to Wal-Mart demanding it stop donating to New York charities. He also reports business leaders such as Bill Gates increasingly criticize donors who chose to fund art over hospitals. The presumption seems to be that such art is an elitist luxury; frivolous and inherently purposeless.

The narrative of the Met Opera’s current struggles with its unions approaches tragedy. Union negotiators embrace salaries over existence, while society fails to preserve the culture in which it used to pride itself, denying the long tradition of celebrating art as the highest expression of human understanding.

The criticisms raised by civic governing bodies and prominent individuals such as Gates can provide an important counterweight in discussions about best practices in philanthropic giving. But philanthropists who seek to preserve art, music, and even opulent grand opera are hardly damaging the fabric of civil society. Medical science is of course vitally important, as it can provide a cure for human ill. But art, and music especially, is unique in providing moments of rest and peace, allowing the suffering soul healing and relief. We would do well to heed Shakespeare and to “Mark the music.”

Rebecca Burgess is the manager of the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on American Citizenship and a doctoral candidate in politics at the University of Dallas.

FURTHER READING: Arthur C. Brooks offers “A Nation of Givers.” Roger Scruton contributes “The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty” and “Soul Music.”


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group