Empty Seats At The Met

Peter Gelb cannot fill New York’s opera house. Can it be saved from terminal decline?

Music
An empty shell? The façade of the Metropolitan Opera House, designedby 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.

The screening, though, is Gelb’s signature success. Almost anywhere in America and most countries around the world you can now watch live opera from the Met in a local multiplex for the price of a family pizza. The Met, globally branded by Gelb, has never been so popular.

The downside is that it has consumed its own audience. Many of the couples going to watch opera in movie houses — especially in the New York commuter belt — are former Met-goers who have got used to watching opera in closeup, popcorn in hand, sitting in Long Island, surrounded by friends and neighbours in jeans and loafers.

There is no easy way to get them to dress up and come back. The sensible course would be for Gelb to cancel Live from the Met in New York area cinemas but he cannot do so without facing financial claims from distributors and complaints from opera houses across America that he has eaten up their audience as well his own. Gelb’s medicine has worked. The patient is now on life-support. And not just at the box-office. For 45 years, the Met’s musical fortunes have been in the hands of James Levine, a Cincinnati-born conductor of exquisite sensitivity to singers’ needs and an innate sympathy for orchestral musicians. Levine, now 72, made the Met a safe place for international divas to try new roles and tenors to strut their high Cs. He was the rock; the rest was tinsel.

Levine’s physique, however, failed. Parkinson’s Disease put him in an electric wheelchair. A related disorder made his arms shake while conducting. Critics began to comment and the board got alarmed. Gelb was sent in February to tell Levine his time was up. The conductor produced a doctor’s assurance to the New York Times that his condition was responding to treatment. He won a stay of execution.

Two months later, Gelb promoted him to the powerless title of music director emeritus. Orchestra musicians were incensed. Gelb could have waited to the end of the season, they said. The musicians called a meeting with Levine, who voiced fears for the company’s future. The players, inhabiting a pit that is raised higher than in many opera houses, look out on rows of empty seats and fear for their livelihoods. Backstage at the Met, the nervousness is palpable.

Gelb wants the Philadelphia conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin to be the next music director but he is not free until 2020 so there will be a four-year leadership vacuum, which is not what the Met needs at a time when confidence is draining in all areas.

In July, Gelb must present a balanced budget. To do so, he will have to pull some cryonic rabbits out of a hat to cover this season’s accumulated losses. One well-informed insider tells me he needs to find $100 million which, even on a board of billionaires, will be a challenge. If Gelb fails­ — well, let’s not go there. Like many in its disappearing audience, the Met has reached the point of no return.