A major labor lock-out looming, a famous composer’s opera facing scrutiny from those fearing it will incite anti-Semitism abroad: these days, the majority of the drama at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City seems to be happening not onstage, but offstage.
Thursday night, the Met’s contract with 15 unions will expire, and the organization’s general manager, Peter Gelb, has threatened to lock out many of the company’s workers–among them musicians, singers, and stagehands–if they do not acquiesce to new contracts with pay and benefits cuts.
The Met’s already facing weak box office sales, and a delayed start to the new season starting September 22 could be very troubling for the financially struggling institution. And, as the New York Times points out, the potential for damage lies not only in single tickets, but in the loss of subscriptions–a similar lockout in 1969 led to a major dip in subscribership.
The 60-year-old Gelb looms large over the entire issue: a Yale dropout, he worked as an usher at the Met in his teens and then as an office boy for impresario Sol Hurok. Last season, he cut down the number of productions at the Met from seven to six in response to criticisms that the opera was biting off more than it could chew, and he is also a huge force behind the Met’s successful Live in HD productions, in which performances are beamed from New York all over the world. As we noted earlier, the Met has plans for this summer to screen several productions, including "Rigoletto" and "Otello."
This coming season, the Met will produce minimalist composer John Adams’s "The Death of Klinghoffer," written originally in 1991 about the 1985 hijacking of the passenger ship Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American passenger confined to a wheelchair. The work has faced accusations of anti-Semitism since the start, and last month the Met announced that it was canceling the planned simulcast of "Klinghoffer" due to concerns that it might incite anti-Semitic violence overseas.
That may indeed be the right move given the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East (and its repercussions in Europe and elsewhere), but it is nevertheless a blow to Gelb’s vision of a Met that is interested in expanding its audience and getting its productions in front of more eyeballs than the traditional New York literati.
As 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon put it in a must-see behind-the-scenes report on the Met from last October (see clip), Peter Gelb "wants opera to become as popular and populist as it was a hundred years ago. This coming week may be Gelb’s greatest challenge yet. Livestream or no livestream aside, he’s going to have to make sure he can keep the lights on in the first place.