It’s about to get even nastier at the Metropolitan Opera

General Manager Peter Gelb threatens a lockout

By Peter Alexander

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

The New York Times reports today that Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb is threatening to lock out workers from the Met within a week:

The labor strife at the Metropolitan Opera took on a new urgency Wednesday when its general manager, Peter Gelb, sent the company’s orchestra, chorus, stagehands and other workers letters warning them to prepare for a lockout if no contract deal is reached by next week.

This is a continuation of the struggles at the Met that I reported earlier. This is in part a New York labor dispute, in which every side will act tough up to the last minute. But in the case of the Met, it is more than that.

In fact, a lot of the fight is about Gelb himself. There has been criticism of his leadership almost from the day he took over as the Met’s general manager in August 2006, particularly over the lavish productions he has mounted. These have included Robert Lepage’s mechanically lavish but visually dull staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle—a production so immense that the Met had to spend something between $1.5 and $5 million just to reinforce the floor. The production as a whole cost something around $16–20 million.

A scene from Wagner's "Das Rheingold" in Robert Lepage's production. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Criticism of the production has been harsh, with the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini calling it “the most frustrating opera production I have ever had to grapple with” and The New Yorker’s Alex Ross declaring that “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” And those were among the kinder assessments.

As a result, many critics and others have called for a return to the Met’s more traditional Ring staging by Otto Schenk—a move that would concede that the Lepage staging was a a $16-million gamble that failed.

Rigoletto, production by Michael Mayer at the Metropolitan Opera. Piotr Beczala at the Duke of Mantua. Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times.

Rigoletto, production by Michael Mayer at the Metropolitan Opera. Piotr Beczala as the Duke of Mantua. Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times.

Another controversial production was of Verdi’s Rigoletto, placed in Las Vegas. Featuring a Sinatra-like lounge singer for the Duke, a Don Rickles-like insult comic for Rigoletto, and even a gratuitous pole dancer in the final scene, it became known as the “Rat-Pack Rigoletto.” 

Gelb justified his approach as a way of attracting new, younger, affluent and more hip audiences to the Met. But the history seems to be that these splashy productions attracted a lot of attention when they opened, but audiences fell off significantly when they were revived a year or more later. And that represents a situation that a major opera house like the Met cannot sustain. Productions of the standard operas have to remain profitable, year in and year out.

So there are legitimate questions about the direction of the Met under Gelb’s direction. And all of that controversy is coming to a head as the union contract deadline approaches. Gelb is not one to back down, especially with his own reputation part of the battle, and New York unions are not known for their compliance.

It’s hard to foresee an easy settlement. But it would be a great shame if Gelb’s tenure as director, which was supposed to “save” the Met as it faced changing demographics and an uncertain future, were to end up damaging one of the country’s most esteemed cultural and musical institutions. And while none of this has direct impact on Colorado’s musical culture, any longterm troubles at the Met will assuredly affect the entire operatic world, both nationally and internationally.

Stay tuned.

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