Amidst a tough climate, the Met faces calls to implement a safer business model.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of the Metropolitan Opera has confirmed fears that programming decisions are at the heart of the organisation’s financial woes. The report has been released in the wake of the Met’s own attempts to reduce labour costs, and harsh questioning from union leaders about the company’s investment in new works.

The box office data collected by the Wall Street Journal has highlighted the Met’s struggle against increasing costs and declining audience numbers. The analysis also suggests that productions staged by General Manager Peter Gelb have generally had a poor reception. In response to the claims, Gelb said that it is not possible for an arts organisation to simply “coast along”.

“We are obliged to continue to take artistic risks,” he said. “Since there is no safe programming harbour for grand opera, particularly when you are talking about the Met and its 220 some performances in a 3800-seat house.”

When he began in 2006, Gelb specifically programmed new works and live broadcasts. While this initially contributed to increased attendance, box office numbers began declining again from 2009. Adding to this problem was the increase of ticket prices in 2012, and a tough economic climate. “The greater risk for the Met would be to become artistically cautious or stale,” said Gelb. “That is a certain recipe for losing the audience altogether.”

To remedy the financial concerns, Gelb has proposed changes to work rules and benefits, making an approximate 15 per cent saving in labour costs. Union leaders have instead suggested the temporary suspension of new productions.

In 2012-13, the Met spent $21.8 million to create seven new productions. During this time, the staging of Wagner’s Ring earned just 48 per cent of its expected box office earnings. In comparison, the new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin achieved 87 per cent of its potential and filled 93 per cent of the house. Another bestseller was Julie Taymor’s family-friendly production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 2004.

“The answer is not in simply playing La Bohème to death, night after night,” Gelb said. “This is why it is important to continue to attempt to expand the repertoire with new productions that can capture the public’s imagination. Opera will have no future if we don’t present new work and expand the bounds of the grand opera repertoire.”

While Gelb is most concerned about artistic integrity, others are worried for the sustainability and longevity of the organisation. In June, the orchestra union wrote to the board members of the Met, presenting its own analysis of the company’s financial situation. It claimed that new work fared worse than revivals.

“Peter [Gelb] is saying that new productions sell. That’s not in fact the case, and now he’s asking us to pay for his mistakes,” said clarinetist Jessica Phillips, who is a participant of the orchestra’s negotiating committee. “We’re for risk, we’re for innovation, for new productions, but it needs to be tempered with things that sell well.”

Interestingly, in other figures released over recent days other opera companies seem to be prospering. The Lyric Opera of Chicago reported increased ticket sales at the conclusion of its season. This was partly due to the staging of The Sound of Music, which was the top-selling production in the company’s history. While it might be outside the traditional operatic canon, General Director Anthony Freud said that the company is committed to wide-ranging appeal.

“[The Lyric Opera] encourages new audiences to enjoy all the resources that a major opera company can bring to these great works in the American Musical Stage,” said Freud. “The Sound of Music achieved that in remarkable fashion, with 58 percent of the ticket buyers experiencing Lyric for the first time.”

Similarly, the Vienna State Opera has seen increased profits. Since French director Dominique Meyer took to the helm, the company has seen increased box office and audience numbers. Of the profit, Meyer said: “We should count ourselves lucky that we live on a sort of island where culture is still considered important.”

Clearly, there is no one factor that contributes to the success of a production. But, amidst a tough climate, the Met may need to resort to the safety of audience pleasers and a more feasible business model. Otherwise, the opera house may be without its company.

Subscribe to Limelight - AWO Offer