News on the boil in the World of Classical Music

Controversy and a milestone at the MET; Trouble in Atlanta

By Peter Alexander

It’s the unwatched pot that boils, and if you haven’t been watching, there’s been lots of boiling going on in the classical music world this fall.

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

This summer I reported several times on the labor dispute that threatened to cause a lockout and the cancellation of the season for the Metropolitan Opera. Happily, the lockout was averted, but that has not kept the Met from being a center of controversy.

As part of their season, the Met had announced performances of The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams. This opera was composed in 1991 on the subject of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship the Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound 69-year old Jewish American tourist whose body was dumped into the Mediterranean.

Klinghoffer protesters

Protesters outside the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center

The opera was originally created with the cooperation of Klinghoffer’s family, who later objected that it glorified the hijackers. Nevertheless, the opera has been performed uneventfully in several locations—but the Metropolitan is not just any opera company, and New York is always in the spotlight. And it is an especially important location for American Jews. So when Met General Manager Peter Gelb announced that The Death of Klinghoffer would be featured on the Met’s Live in HD series broadcast live to movie theaters around the world, there were protests and loud criticism of the Met. The claim was repeatedly made that the opera, by humanizing, or glorifying (depending on your point of view) the killers, was anti-semitic.

Scene from 'The Death of Klinghoffer.' Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Scene from ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’ Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Eventually, The Death of Klinghoffer was dropped from the Live in HD broadcast series, but it remained on the Met season. It opened last Monday (Oct. 20), with a phalanx of protesters filling the Lincoln Center plaza, some minor disturbances inside the house, and generally glowing reviews for the work and the performance.

For anyone who cares about opera, or gives much thought to contemporary art forms, The Death of Klinghoffer has been a remarkable case study. Regardless of your personal opinion, the decision to write an opera on such a volatile contemporary subject, and the decision to produce it at the Met, are worthy of serious consideration and discussion. Rather than reconstruct what people who have seen the production have said, here are links to more about this remarkable opera and production.

Just about the best review and report of opening night was that written by Alex Ross for The New Yorker.  Anthony Tommasini wrote an even longer report in the New York Times.  And David Patrick Stearns had a slightly different take on the events for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There are many more reviews. The Chicago Tribune complied a handy list of reviews and articles. Almost all are worth reading.

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in 2013. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in 2013. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

But not all the news from the Metropolitan Opera has been disturbing, or even controversial. This past weekend, James Levine conducted his 2,500th performance at the Met—a staggering number that is just about beyond comprehension. It is more than twice as many as the next most prolific conductor in the Met’s history, the long-forgotten Arthur Bodanzky. The milestone performance was Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro) Saturday night—only the 77th time he has conducted that particular work. (Those and other numbers from Levin’s remarkable Met career were reported by the New York Times.)

This would be a remarkable milestone for any conductor, but in Levine’s case, it is especially noteworthy since it was only two years ago that it appeared his conducting career might be over. But he has come back from serious injuries, and is back at work in the opera house—to the relief of his fans and fans of the Met who have a hard time imagining how anyone can follow him and maintain the reputation Levine has created for the Met and its orchestra.

Daniel Laufer was among the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians who was picketing outside the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

Daniel Laufer was among the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians who was picketing outside the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

While the Met was resolving a labor dispute and averting a lockout this summer, the Atlanta Symphony has been dealing with a lockout and at least a partial cancellation of their season.

The sticking point in Atlanta is the proposal by management to further cut the size of the orchestra, which had previously been reduced to 88 musicians from an original compliment of 95 players. As a means of fighting deficits, the management wanted full control of the orchestra’s size and proposed cutting the orchestra—largely by leaving positions unfilled—to 76 players. Both the players and the orchestra’s conductors said that the Atlanta Symphony, an honored ensemble that has counted Robert Shaw and Yoel Levi among its music directors, could not maintain it’s standing with only 76 players.

After a bitter battle that eventually led to mediation, this one issue seems to have brought all negotiations to a halt. After the 15-month lockout nearly closed the Minnesota Orchestra permanently, this is very disheartening news. The most recent news about the ASO comes from the Atlanta Arts and Culture Blog, here and here. Earlier articles from NPR and the Washington Post provide more of the background.

A second major orchestra lockout in only a few years is bad news for America’s musicians, and those who support them and their work. The only silver lining from here is that we are not facing a similar crisis in Boulder, and we still have great riches of orchestral music to chose from. But it is interesting background for the still unfolding issue in Denver, concerning the Colorado Symphony’s future in Boettcher Concert Hall—where the pot, watched or not, boils on.

Winners and Losers

One last assessment of the Metropolitan Opera’s labor agreements

By Peter Alexander

Who won and who lost at the Met? It depends.

THe Metropolitan Opera House (interior)

The Metropolitan Opera House (interior)

On Wednesday (Aug. 20), the New York Times reported on the agreement that was reached with the third of the Metropolitan Opera’s three major unions, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, representing stagehands, carpenters and electricians.

The other two major unions, representing the orchestra and the chorus members, had reached agreement with the Met early on Monday. (See my post on that agreement here.) And an agreement with the remaining unions at the Met was reached on Thursday night, as reported again by the New York Times. These include unions representing scenic artists and designers, the costume department, and others.

These agreements end the conflict between management that has raged for several months and resulted in Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, withdrawing the threat of a lockout. He has confirmed that the Met will open its fall season as scheduled on Sept. 22, with a performance of The Marriage of Figaro conducted by James Levine.

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

The deal with the musicians’ unions called for an immediate 3.5 percent pay cut, followed by another 3.5 percent six months later, and no raise until the fourth year of the contract. The agreement with the stagehands has been reported to provide comparable cuts in labor costs, although the deal had to be written differently because of the different work rules and benefits packages in the contract with that union’s workers, and because their agreement is for six years instead of four.

But if it sounds like the concessions from the unions—the first pay cut accepted by the Met’s union workers in many years—represent a win by the management, that would be a hasty conclusion, for three reasons. In the first place, Peter Gelb had demanded a 17 percent pay cut from labor, and said that the Metropolitan would have to close otherwise. So the much smaller size of the pay cut than what Gelb was demanding makes his “win” look much less significant.

In the second place, the unions won some battles as well, in that the settlement calls for management to make its own, comparable cuts in the budget. The unions had argued that extravagant production expenses were part of the problem, and while there simply were not enough savings to be made in production costs to solve the Met’s budget woes, the fact that the final agreement took the form it did implies that the federal mediator for the negotiations with the musicians found merit in the union’s complaints. (The stagehands had separate negotiations that did not involve a mediator.)

Finally—and this speaks directly to the union’s complaints about Gelb’s leadership—the deal calls for an independent

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

monitor to keep an eye on the Met’s budget and expenses. This must be a particularly galling concession for Gelb, whose rather freewheeling, pop culture approach to opera was supposed to bring in larger, younger audiences and save the Met.

Apparently he has not accomplished either of those goals.

The question remains what effect this will have on regional opera throughout the country and here in Colorado. Will this settlement make it possible for other companies to ask for pay cuts from their employees, and to reign in costs in other ways? Will it put pressure on other companies to trim their production costs, or to make their finances more transparent, as the Met was forced to do in the course of negotiations?

For now, leaders of opera companies in this area have declined to comment on the Met’s settlement, although they do say they are keeping an eye on the situation.

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For other perspectives of the Metropolitan Opera and it’s labor settlement, read these articles:

Jennifer Maloney’s highly complementary evaluation of Peter Gelb’s leadership of the Met can be read here.

Her previous, more balanced, assessment of the deal is here.

Blogger Greg Sandow’s more critical take on Gelb can be found in three installments linked from here.

The cheeky opera-fanatic blog “Parterre Box” has posted a copy of the agreement between the Met and the American Guild of Musical Artists, representing the Met Chorus, here.

The gossipy blogger Norman Lebrecht’s take on the settlement, which he sees as a “surrender” and a “humiliation for Peter Gelb,” can be found here

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.

The Crisis in Classical Music: Latest thoughts and developments

The future of classical musicians and institutions and why we should all think about it

By Peter Alexander

In 2014, almost all stories about classical music have a subtext: crisis.

The crisis boils down to two trends: the increasing cost of doing business—salaries, facility and production costs—combined with decreasing income—aging and shrinking audiences, loss of revenue from tickets and recordings, declining contributions. Just about all of our classical music institutions have to address both trends.

Sometimes the crisis is the actual subject of media stories, as in my earlier post about financial issues at the Metropolitan and other opera companies around the country. But whether previewing concerts at the Colorado Music Festival, discussing candidates for CMF music director, or previewing the 2015 season at Central City Opera, that crisis is always part of the story.

Several recent articles I have seen touched directly on the crisis and the future of classical music:

Controversy continues to rage about the claim by Metropolitan Opera general director Peter Gelb that the Met has to retrench because opera attendance is falling everywhere. While Gelb’s remarks are partly a negotiating tactic aimed at the powerful musicians’ and stage hands’ unions, they touched issues that many people have been thinking about.

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

They also aroused a whole hornet’s nest of responders. One commentator known for his gossipy style, Norman Lebrecht, even accused Gelb of lying. Arts blogger Greg Sandow, who writes explicitly on the “the future of classical music,” gave a measured response to the furor that—having actual facts and figures about classical audiences—is definitely worth a read.

Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal had its own appraisal of Gelb’s remarks, and several other bloggers joined the fray, here and here. There’s more, if you are willing to search the internet.


Colorado Symphony in Boettcher Concert Hall

Closer to home, Colorado Public Radio reports that the Colorado Symphony has found a creative way to cover some of their overhead costs: paying the rent for Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall in part with tickets that the city’s arts agency, Denver Arts and Ventures, can distribute to people who would otherwise not be able to attend symphony performances.

On the basis of CPR’s story, this appears to be a classic win-win. The orchestra saves on their costs, they likely don’t lose any ticket sales, and the city has the opportunity to increase the reach of one of its flagship cultural institutions.

This is a promising idea. We should all watch how it plays out for both the orchestra—which faces a new challenge in 2015 when Boettcher Hall is closed for renovations—and the City of Denver.

UPDATE: Read this story by Ray Mark Rinaldi in the Denver Post on the future of the Denver Perfroming Arts Complex and  Boettcher Concert Hall.

Apart form these two organizations, the question remains just how much of a crisis classical music faces in 2014. First some perspective on the question. As long as I have been working in classical music, there has been talk about crisis. The audiences have been getting older for so long that, Lazarus-like, the thread of their lives must have been retied by someone.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that audiences have been shrinking for some time—shrinking more in some places, less in others, and in a few happy outliers, growing. (The figures graphed by Greg Sandow are particularly illuminating.)

The shrinkage has reached the point that directors of classical music institutions are talking openly about it—whether it’s Peter Gelb saying the Metropolitan Opera is facing bankruptcy, or Central City Opera’s Pat Pearce seeking ways to find new audiences, or Andrew Bradford, the new executive director of the Colorado Music Festival, saying “I don’t buy at all this argument that . . . classical music is dying.”

Time for Three at Colorado Music Festival

Time for Three at Colorado Music Festival

The critical word here is institutions. Young musicians are finding exciting and creative ways to reach audiences. Of the many examples I could cite, look at Time for Three: This young alternative trio of classically-trained musicians who mix anything and everything into their repertoire without compromising their standards has been very successful in Boulder and around the world.

Composer Michael Daugherty

Michael Daugherty

Or Steve Hackman, the director of CMF’s “Musical Mash-up” series, who combined his conservatory training with a love of popular music to build a whole career around various ways of crossing musical boundaries. (Or in a similar vein, think of the many composers who have successfully incorporated popular idioms into their work, including George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein in earlier times, or Michael Daugherty and David Lang today.)

But the large institutions—symphony orchestras, opera companies, music festivals—with their extensive costs for personnel, facilities, and logistical support, are struggling to maintain their financial viability. Part of the problem is that most of those institutions do only one thing well: present performances of a very specific repertoire. That one thing is what their founders wanted, so that’s what they were meant to do. But now that we are in more eclectic times, with all of us sampling from a wider pool of entertainment choices, musical styles and cultural trends, the large institutions can come across as Johnny One-Notes, and that is no longer enough.

We know that large institutions are rarely nimble. And nimbleness is required to respond to changing times. Obviously, individual artists and small, self-contained groups, can be more nimble. That is why Time for Three and Steve Hackman and Michael Daugherty can more easily build their own individual careers.

What all of these success stories have in common is the blurring of the line between classical and pop styles. I have written about this before, and it is the whole basis of CMF’s popular “Musical Mash-up” concerts.

If the one mashup performance I have attended at CMF is any indication, it is a very successful venture for the festival and may be a harbinger of things to come. I was impressed by three things: Chautauqua Auditorium was sold out; the audience included all ages, with people that looked like the typical symphony audience alongside much younger listeners; and the audience had an almost rock-concert vibe, with cheering and applause throughout.

Apart from the artistic validity of the mashup enterprise, that was an audience that any orchestra would love to have. So much so that at some point, artistic validity becomes, not irrelevant, but something that has to be addressed within the mashup genre, not from outside of it.

I believe that point has now been reached: the mashup (or crossover, or whatever you want to call it) horse is out of the barn, and it’s not going back. CMF is not alone in this enterprise—look at the program of symphonies around the country, playing film music, sometimes live with films, bringing in pop artists, commissioning new works that cross boundaries.

Like it or not, mashups of one form or another will be part of the future of our musical life. And not only for orchestras and festivals: opera has embraced a similar aesthetic by presenting Broadway musicals. The use of popular idioms in opera is as old as Porgy and Bess and as new as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking presented this summer at Central City. (And that is overlooking the fact that for most of its life, opera was a popular idiom!)

The more you consider these trends, the more you realize that any decision made by our classical music institutions—programming, hiring, choice of soloists, venues, the pricing of tickets, outreach programs, and so forth—is, or should be, made with eyes on the future. If the directors of those institutions are thinking that way, shouldn’t we, the audience, think that way, too? After all, they are asking for our financial support, not the other way around.

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To explore the subject a little further, here are two excellent articles by Sandow again: “Pop Fiction” and “Why Classical Music Needs Rock & Roll.” I think both are important reading for anyone thinking about the future of classical music.

Is the Metropolitan Opera in danger?

Opinions vary, but some details emerge.

By Peter Alexander

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Anyone who follows the world of opera has noticed the news.

First, the San Diego Opera was going to close. Then it was saved by a public groundswell, and the longtime artistic director, Ian Campbell, was gone (and his massive salary as well). The company has announced a three-opera season for 2014–15.

Here in Colorado, Denver’s Opera Colorado had to cancel the anticipated premiere of Lori Laitman’s Scarlet Letter. The company was left with a two-opera “season,” including a bare-bones presentation of Carmen with the orchestra on stage and tickets prices up to $167.60. In case you have missed this saga, the various missteps by the company have been dissected by the Denver Post music critic, Ray Mark Rinaldi.

The troubles these two companies find themselves in are clearly financial. Unlike Broadway, where only most investments fail, opera has never been a money-making proposition; it has always depended upon financial support way beyond the cost of tickets, either from the court (early opera in Italy, 18th-century Versailles or Mozart’s Vienna, for example), or wealthy aristocrats (18th-century London), or the government (all across Europe today), or private donors (in the United States). To music historians, the financial ups and downs of opera in London are famously convoluted, with one scheme appearing after another, and all of them failing eventually. Handel, after all, turned to oratorios like Messiah because they were essentially opera on the cheap—all the singing, fewer singers and none of the sets and costumes. Similar histories crop up over and over again, wherever opera is produced. The culprits are usually the salaries of super-star singers, or the cost of fantastic productions, or sometimes the ineptitude of the management. Or all three. But the result is always, and always will be, the same: Opera costs way more to put on than any business can sustain without massive subsidies.

Here in the U.S., we like to imagine that our leading cultural institutions are rock solid. They have a dependable donor base and they are well run within a reasonable budget.

Dream on.

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

There is no larger or more established or more revered cultural institution in the country than the Metropolitan Opera, but its history is not one of outstanding management. (If you want details, read this fascinating, and disheartening, account by Johanna Fiedler.) And now Peter Gelb, the current general manager, says the company stands “on the edge of a precipice.” This comes after several massively expensive new productions mounted by the company, including one that required a $1.4 million investment just to reinforce the Met stage so it could support the set (Robert LePage’s Ring cycle; the cost of the reinforcement has been variously reported, up to $5 million), and another that included a $169,000 poppy field (Prince Igor). But amid criticism of his spending on those productions, Gelb says it is the labor costs that are out of control. They may or may not be, depending on your perspective, but it seems that is not the only problem.

It is no accident that Gelb is raising the alarm just when the Met is in negotiations with unions whose members make the company go, most notably the musicians’ union. This being New York, it is hard to separate facts from negotiating tactics, but a new analysis of the Met’s finances by the Wall St. Journal brings a few facts and some clarity to the issue. For one thing, we can learn that some of Gelb’s expensive and highly promoted new productions have not done well after their first year. But read the whole article to get the full meaning.

Another analysis can be found in The Guardian.

And just to put all of this in an even more interesting light, two of the world’s other major opera companies—the Chicago Lyric and Vienna State Opera—have recently announced that they have completed very successful, even record-breaking, seasons. The timing is at least inconvenient for Gelb and the Met management.

CCOperaLogoPreferredI will have more to say about the current condition of opera in a future article on the announcement of Central City Opera‘s 2015 season, which is going in an interesting new direction. In the meantime, for some perspective on the San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan’s various concerns, I recommend this article written by Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed. Google searches on the principals and the organizations involved will turn up many more.