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An empty shell? The façade of the Metropolitan Opera House, designed
by Wallace Harrison in 1966 (©Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera)

Towards the end of January, with Broadway theatres breaking all records and tickets for Hamilton unobtainable for months, a mole in the Metropolitan Opera began feeding me the nightly box-office returns. The numbers were dismal, shocking even to this hardened observer of fallen hype.

Thirty-two per cent of seats were sold one night, 34 the next, much the same through the run of Cav and Pag, normally a steady sell. Other failures included La Boheme, Don Pasquale, l’Elisir d’Amore and The Pearl Fishers.

Now something has to be seriously wrong if America’s greatest opera house cannot fill two-thirds of its seats in a month when it presents standard repertoire, performed by the world’s best singers. Nor was January a casual dip. Across the 2015-16 season, now ending, the Met has been forced into an admission that it achieved 66 per cent of box-office potential. In plain words, it plays one-third empty.

Twenty years ago, the Met was running at 90 per cent. Twenty years earlier, you could not buy or beg a seat most nights, such was the crush of seasonal subscribers and the force of their loyalty. So what has gone wrong? And, critically — for this is a crisis — what can be done about it?

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, puts up three defences, equally flawed. Gelb says his audience is dying faster than he can renew it. This is half-true: the season’s hair colour may, indeed, be silver but it’s Gelb’s decision to hike seat-prices to an average $158.50 — a move forced on him by box-office crash — that deters young Metro couples from attending. Do the math, as New Yorkers say. Twice times $158.50, plus dinner for two, interval drinks, parking and baby or dog sitter leaves small change from $700. A night at the Met can cost a week’s wages.

Gelb’s second line is that 66 per cent full at the vast Met is more than most European opera houses can cram in. True again, up to a point. The point? Berlin has three opera houses and most other European capitals have two which together draw more nightly customers than the Met.

Gelb’s final claim is that opera everywhere is struggling to find an audience. False again. Vienna and Berlin posted 99 and 98 per cent attendances last year. Covent Garden is on a record high. Country house opera festivals are selling out all over England. La Scala is playing a longer season than before. Last winter Munich sold out the entire run of a new opera before anyone had heard a note played. Only in America is opera in retreat. Why is that? Look no further than the embattled Met manager.

Peter Gelb, silver-spoon son of a New York Times culture editor, had the best time of his life producing documentary films with the Maysles brothers. He sold himself to the Met board in 2006 on a strategy to engage cutting-edge stage directors and screen their shows live into cinemas. The first part of the plan foundered on Gelb’s choice of radical directors. Once-loyal patrons drifted away from Robert Lepage’s $16 million Ring cycle and Mary Zimmerman’s relocated Sonnambula.

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Eli Bensky
May 15th, 2017
6:05 PM
The obvious solution - hire Mr. Lebrecht as the Met's general manager. Then you can resurrect all of the dead "greats" of the past, then each person could pick the Opera that they want with the cast and production that they prefer with a top ticket price of $20.00. As an added feature you would get free parking and two free dinners and drinks. Have I failed to answer all of the Met's problems? One other change. The world reverts to 1950.

Pavel Svinchnik
March 28th, 2017
10:03 PM
I haven't attended a live performance for about twenty years. I prefer to buy them on DVD and play them in my own living room, avoiding the crowds and commute. Plus I can pause to mix a fresh drink or take a bathroom break.

Barry Wood Johnston
June 2nd, 2016
5:06 AM
Several years back, I, as a sculptor, was invited to exhibit at the Lincoln Center Arts Festival. I had created an over life-size ballerina, which has a lot of energy and was envisioned with in mind the Lincoln Center. So, as an offering, I wrote a brief note to Mr. LeVine merely informing him of my bronze would be on exhibit at his Center. For having written that note, I was kicked out of the show and told I would never be allowed back by the exhibit manager. To be frank, their reaction had no effect on me because I have long known since living in NYC in the late 60s, the situation was becoming impossible for a figurative artist such as myself. The same happened with the National Arts Club, under Aldon James, who turned the esteemed artist’s club into his own private fan club. This lack of human, in general, is the trend that has been and is killing the arts. The arts, throughout history, have served as a bridge between reality and possibility. Today’s commercialism, the mass-media messaging, the emphasis on glitzy entertainment rather than substance and content has, since WWII, slowly eroded away a concern for substance, for values and has driven a wedge between those of us who recognize the visionary alternatives that will bring about positive change and those pragmatists that wield and insist on displaying their show of power. Opera, throughout the most fertile eras of modern history have served progress by fostering insights into heart of humanity. The force of humanity is driver for cultural change and growth. Opera, as well as all the arts, must be allowed to breathe again.

May 29th, 2016
12:05 PM
Three words: Bare Stage Productions I love Cav & Pag, especially the displaced Zeffirelli production, but I just won't pay to see the new production that replaced it. I don't want to see productions where the chorus has to bring their own chairs on stage. (Ballo and Hoffmann). I don't want pay big bucks to see sets that could have been constructed for a high school production. (Barbiere) Nor do I want to see stupid productions like Manon, Ballo, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, all much worse than their respective previous productions. Traviatta is another disgrace. So that pretty much leave Pearl Fishers, Zauberflote, and a few others.

Lon LeVine
May 28th, 2016
5:05 PM
Start by using some of the fantastic English translations, and do a opera for beginners series introducing the classics to a new audience that can appreciate the art form as musical theater. I'm a professional stagehand, who has made part of his living with opera companies for decades, never enjoying the medium. THEN, I worked for a company who;s claim to fame was that they did the classics in English, and over 10 seasons, grew to love opera, but in english. I have since read that in most countries, all opera is performed in the native language, only in America, do we insist on opera in German, Italian or French, that reduces the experience to caterwauling and bellowing. With a change in artistic management, the company I worked for went back to performing in foreign language, and they lost enough audience that they had to go from three productions per year, to two. Wake up opera world, one more generation, and opera in America will be lost as an art form if not made approachable to the general public..

Don Drewecki
May 28th, 2016
4:05 PM
I agree with everything said above. The novel productions are a disgrace. The sycophancy and chattiness of the radio broadcasts is wearying. And -- most important -- there really is no middle class in the US anymore, and I just can't afford to go to opera and concerts the way I did even just ten years ago. Plus, Americans really don't care about so-called High Culture as they did 60 years ago. It's a perfect storm of ego, greed, ignorance and the decline of the United States. Finally, it's all about cell phones and iPhones here. Never have I seen more people looking down every day than now. And in opera, you have to look up, and take in the big picture. Too hard for Americans, the dumbest, most self-absorbed people on the planet.

May 28th, 2016
4:05 PM
GET RID OF PETER GELB : there are plenty of family and friends of Met employees and international soloists who have heard of nothing but disgust of the Metropolitan Operas current General Manager. He is completely bereft of the gifts necessary to manage what used to be arguably the worlds greatest opera house. His " business model" has FAILED. The Board of directors that ushered him into his lofty position in that back room deal with Beverly Sills ( helping out a man who had just run SONY CLASSICAL into the ground and was unemployed) have almost all gone. Anyone who doesn't see things Gelbs way can leave or is fired. Everyone is replaceable. That would be fine if his vision had merit but it doesn't. He is replacing the most popular Zeffirelli / Schenk type productions with bland grey box sets and Good- Will couture instead of costumes. Bart Schers OTELLO may have looked great in the cinema: it was largely static and dull in the house. The new Elektra had wonderful singers but a dismal set : when I go the the Met I want to hear and see and have the MOST FANTASTIC OPULENT OPERA EXPERIENCE POSSIBLE ... Because that is what I paid for and that is what the Met used to deliver. The productions are shock value for its own sake ( which doesn't have a shelf life) the chorus is clean but rather inaudible and bland and I sit in a section which is sometimes only half full and it is frankly depressing. Peter Gelb apparently blamed the " unions" for his struggles to save what he has described as a " dying art form "( can you imagine trying to find any inspiration in a leader like this one ?) and cut the salaries of every single employee in the opera house. HE STILL MAKES OVER 2 MILLION DOLLARS ! The chorus master makes at least half a million : it remains to be seen what the new Artisic Director will be paid. The problem has never been with the talent backstage at the Met: for the first time in history the we can honestly say the only problem at the Met is Peter Gelb: pity the poor GM who replaces him and is saddled with hideous unpopular productions and gnawing debt .

Puzzled operagoer
May 27th, 2016
10:05 PM
Not sure why hiring a dogsitter is such an integral part of attending the opera, or, assuming this practice is in fact, customary, why one would need to hire a dogsitter when attending the Met but Fido could somehow take care of his own needs when his master is attending "Hamilton."

May 27th, 2016
10:05 PM
One other problem is the tired, narrow repertoire the Met presents. It's fine to anchor a given opera season with classics and perennials, but come on! The Met is far more conservative than most other major European opera houses, and more conservative, despite its array of offerings, than the opera houses in San Francisco, Houston, or even the tiny one in St. Louis. One middling Muhly opera, strong Adès one, or stellar offering from Saariaho, along with 2-3 modernist gems (by Berg, dead over eight decades ago, or Strauss), is not enough. *Hamilton* is a historical work that uses the music(s) of TODAY. As do many less galvanizing offerings on Broadway. The Met seems to have cordoned off most of the 20th century, however, and I don't just mean serial operas that few people want to hear. What about the vast number of engaging works written from 1950-2016, the lifetimes of the people who could be filling its seats? Gelb seems not to care. Oh well.

May 27th, 2016
7:05 PM
How stupid. Met HD is keeping Met from insolvency. The revenues from HD are keeping them afloat as all the folks in Boise who go to HD are never going live. There is a long, pretentious, tendentious, Met culture that actively discourages popularizing opera. All the time I was in NY it was well known that any singer who was a popularizer would be black balled at the Met. They were one of the last to have titles because they thought it terrible that opera might be approachable. There is so much of a culture of control that many of the great singers who have sung there ended up hired as emergency replacements, and otherwise would never been hired. It is the largest musical organization in the world, and can thrive on mere momentum, but it is historically mismanaged. Where I live we merely have incompetent reviewers; NY has a flat out sycophants (remember effort to forbid negative reviews in Opera News.) What they will never admit is that the board has too many spineless, ignorant, dysgenic trust babies who will not make the tough decisions needed. Met HD is Gelb's one truly saving innovation, but it still rubs many the wrong way as it challenges the pretentious exclusivity that is harbored at the core of the Met audience and board. It is a true shame, as this is an organization that has thrived in spite of itself, was founded to challenge an earlier "elite" social clique, and should be the jewel in the crown. It is encouraging that City Opera may make a come back, as that organization always kept the Met honest. There is a longer story, but it will sound like a rant, and it isn't. The problems of the Met are the result of many years of bad choices. As to City Opera, there is a long list of great singers who were black balled by the Met because the started at City. Nonetheless, the mere existence of City was the thumb in the eye that always challenged mere expensive as the standard of excellence. "cutting-edge" directors is a euphemism usually for someone who substitutes outrageous for creative or insightful. But even there, the Met's "cutting-edge" directors are fairly tame. At least at the last Beyreuth Siegfried the audience booed when Erda gave oral sex to Wotan. At the Met "cutting-edge" directors means a jerk who casts Prince Igor as "The Wizard of Oz" and spends a a small fortune of silk poppies which prevent the ballet troupe from dancing during the most famous part of the opera. Nothing that gets the audience to boo any more, they are just too stultified. In essence, the Met has always thrived on the edge of elitism that is denied by the people who are elite. Since they never resolve the tension, they are always in a compromise mode where they act in a exclusive, elitist manner, while saying they don't. As a result there is always incoherence. Because of its size, it could just flat out say we are the best, and we will attract the best, and come here so you can here the best, and the quality will always be the best; but they pretend otherwise and become more incoherent, and drive away potential audience.

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