The Metropolitan Struggles to Keep Opera Alive

by Andrew Wagner on July 21, 2014 Newswire

According to Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, opera is at war: “There is a battle to be waged and fought for the survival of this art form.”

That quote comes from “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a 60 Minutes segment that originally aired last October and was re-broadcast last night. The segment is worth a watch, providing a look into the Met’s struggle to remain relevant to younger, broader audiences. In spite of these attempts, however, the Met still appears to be struggling financially.

Over the past few years, under Gelb’s management, the Met’s performances have become increasingly high-tech spectacles. “The Greatest Show on Earth” focuses on a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto which updates the opera’s 16th-century setting to 1960’s Las Vegas. With its glittering neon signs and showgirl outfits, this is probably the closest the Met has come to Broadway. (It was directed by Spring Awakening’s Michael Mayer.) Other high-tech productions have famously included the staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which made use of complex machinery and a 45-ton set.These performances are not in any way cheap: According to 60 Minutes, the Met spends a million dollars a day on its productions.

Financially, it remains unclear whether the Met’s attempts to keep opera alive are working. Last year, the Met instituted a ticket price change, making its best seats more expensive while decreasing the price of its cheapest ones. The move backfired, leading to a decrease in audience attendance from 84 to 79 percent of the opera’s capacity. And while the Met’s fundraising has grown from $150 million in 2012 to $158 million in 2013, the opera house also had a budget deficit in 2013 of $2 million—its largest in the past five years. In general, revenues are down from $184 million in 2011 to $166 million in 2013.

Perhaps the Met’s most well-known move towards wider audiences has been its live HD broadcasts of performances, which are shown in theaters in over 60 countries. While the Met’s revenues from the HD streams and other media (including DVD sales) have grown from $22 million in 2009 to $35 million in 2013, an article published today by Crain’s New York Business reported that last year, the profits from the broadcasts themselves have fallen by 10.5 percent.

The Met has attempted to fix its budget woes through instituting labor cuts to union personnel: $200 million of the Met’s $327 million budget goes towards union laborers salaries. The unions, however, have balked at the Met’s proposal, and with union contracts expiring on July 31, 2014, the Met is facing the possibility of a shutdown.

Gelb is right in saying that “There is a battle to be waged and fought for the survival of this art form.” Opera does need to adapt if it wants to stay relevant, but given that its high-tech, flashy performances have been met by lukewarm responses at the box office—and major salary cuts seem imminent—it remains to be seen whether expensive spectacle is the best means of keeping opera alive.

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