As the COVID-19 epidemic continues to spread across the globe, arts companies at the highest levels are fighting to survive. In a bid to stave off financial ruin, A-level opera companies like the Metropolitan Opera are invoking Force Majeure measures in contracts with hired freelance artists, allowing them to cancel artist engagements at the last minute and refuse payment to their performers. For the artists involved, who book contracts years in advance, who have no recourse for repayment or chance of other engagement, and who, as contract workers, may not have access to health insurance or unemployment benefits, this is an existential crisis.
Some have come to the defense of organizations invoking Force Majeure. With ticket sales decimated, donors on the back foot from shaky market investments, and the enormous monthly cost of running a major house, they cite the limited and dwindling pool of money to pay artists. Those defending non-payment say, we don’t like it any more than you, and we know artists are struggling, but everyone is struggling. For the arts to survive, contractors must make deep sacrifices for the greater good.
In response to this argument, when it comes to the Metropolitan Opera, Middleclassartist would like to quote our 43rd president: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice….won’t get fooled again.”
The following article will lay out a deeply sourced timeline of the last eight years at the Metropolitan Opera, showing a pattern of financial struggle in the administration, and a pattern of sacrifice on behalf of the artists that extends well before the current financial crisis.
We will show that, under the AGMA union leadership of Alan Gordon, musicians made tremendous sacrifices in the Summer 2014 negotiations to keep the Met afloat, sacrifices they are still paying for today. Sacrifices that were made in good faith and, in 2020, are not being honored.
We will show that, even before those negotiations were finalized, at least one Met soloist was asked to sing a role in the 2014-2015 season, accepted, and then, weeks later, pressured into a new offer for 10% less, for the greater good.
We will show that, after the agreement was completed, Peter Gelb reached out personally to soloists in November 2014 to ask for a donation of an additional 7% of their fee back, as much as 14%, according to one Met soloist, of their total fee including the union-negotiated cut, and those who volunteered to pay their fees back to the house did so for the greater good, including Met stars Piotr Bezcala, Joyce DiDonato, and Renee Fleming.
We will show that Peter Gelb requested again in 2015 in a personal letter to soloists for a donation of 7% of their fee back for all seasons up through 2017-2018, and according to his personal letter, by then at least 200 soloists agreed since November 2014 to donate partial fees back to the house, for the greater good.
The Leap of Faith
Back in 2014, the Metropolitan Opera faced dire financial straits. According to publicly available 990 documents, the Met lost $28 million dollars in 2012, $12 million in 2013, and it ended 2014 with a loss of $24 million dollars: a net loss of $64 million in revenue over 3 years.
Over the course of these three years when the Met lost $64 million, General Manager Peter Gelb made $5.3 million, with an increase in total compensation of 26% in 2013 and 15% in 2014, when his total compensation exceeded $2 million.
In the spring of 2014, leading up to the Summer 2014 Union negotiations, at least one soloist was pressured to accept a reduced fee after the initial offer. One Met soloist received an offer in the late spring for a 2014-2015 season role. He accepted the offer. Over the summer, his agent came back to him with a different offer: 10% less than the Met’s first promise. The Met cited financial struggle as the reason for the reduced fee. The Met singer’s agent told him at the time, “it’s the Met”. The singer agreed to the second offer. In his words, “Of course. It’s the freaking Met. I’m not going to say no to anything”.
By the summer, the Met was facing a lockout for the 2014-2015 season. The company’s survival was riding on the success of negotiations to reduce musician pay to “counteract slumping ticket sales and mounting costs” (Maloney, 2014).
Over the summer, the singers and orchestra unions negotiated with the Met Opera administration under the guidance of federal mediator Allison Beck.
The administration’s first offer asked for aggressive cuts to performance fees. In 2014, the year Peter Gelb’s compensation increased by 15% to over $2 million, the administration initially called for labor cuts of up to 16.4%. Unions countered that “the administration should curb spending on new productions” (Maloney, 2014).
On August 18, 2014, after an all-night bargaining session, a 4-year agreement was reached. And on September 12th, the members of AGMA approved it. This deal involved at least in part the following two financial conditions, one on the part of singers and the other on the part of the administration:
An immediate 3.5% weekly pay cut for singers and orchestra members with an additional weekly cut of 3.5% in six months, for a total overall 7% cut in wages through the 2017/2018 season.
The Met accepted an equal cut in administrative staff costs and in addition cut $11.25M out of annual operating expenses.
Alan Gordon, the Executive Director of the musicians’ union AGMA at the time, called the agreement “a leap of faith on both sides” (Maloney, 2014).
The Peter Gelb Letters
On November 11, 2014, Peter Gelb sent out a letter to principal artists, requesting they “voluntarily agree to reduce contractual fees by 7% to help the Met’s finances”. The letter referenced “conversations with Ildar Abdrazakov, Piotr Beczala, Joyce DiDonato, Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Zeljko, Lucic, Peter Mattei, Anna Netrebko, and Rolando Villazon” who, according to Gelb, “have agreed to accept this reduction.” A screenshot of the letter, provided by a Met soloist, is pictured below:
In a strongly worded response sent to all Metropolitan Opera principals on November 17, 2014, Alan Gordon pleaded with soloists not to take the cut, essentially calling it a bluff:
“We are, obviously, aware of Peter Gelb’s recent request that you voluntarily agree to reduce your contractual fees by 7% to help the Met’s finances.
Our advice is simple and straightforward. Decline Peter’s request and DO NOT reduce your fees. It may well be, as Peter’s letter says, that some very highly paid artists have agreed to do so. But that’s no reason whatsoever that you should do so as well.
Your talent justifies the fees that the Met has agreed to pay you for performances and there is no valid reason for you to reduce them. Unless and until there’s demonstrable evidence that the Met has taken steps to end the legacy of excess and extravagance that has existed over the past few years, reduction of your fees will not make any difference in the Met’s fiscal viability.”
At least two Met soloists confirmed they did not offer a portion of their fee to the Met during this time. When asked why, one who did not donate their fee cited his financial struggle:
“It was my first paying work in almost a year and the only significant income I had all season. I knew I wasn't going to qualify for unemployment after the gig ended. I needed every penny of that paycheck just to claw my way out of the debt I incurred in the previous year.”
At the opening of the 2015 season, Peter Gelb sent another letter to Metropolitan Opera principals, urging them to donate 7% of their fee. Peter Gelb stated that, “since November 2014, over 200 Met principals donated 7% of their fees or made a voluntary gift to the Met.” In the letter, he goes on to say, “Whatever you ultimately decide, the decision is entirely yours to make. Should you choose not to participate…that is entirely up to you”.
A highly-placed source has provided Middleclassartist with a copy of Peter Gelb’s second letter, sent on September 24, 2015:
As you know, the Met continues to face significant financial challenges and is, therefore, doing everything possible to reduce its costs without undermining its ability to present the highest quality productions and artists on its stage. Over the summer of 2014, the Met reached new agreements with its unionized employees that called for an equality of sacrifice in our cost cutting. The members of the chorus and orchestra accepted an overall 7% cut in their wages reaching into the 2017/18 season and the Met cut administrative staff costs by an equal amount. In addition, we cut $11.25M out of our annual operating expenses, as mandated in our agreements with the unions.
I am writing to you now to ask that you join in this effort by voluntarily accepting a 7% reduction in your contractual compensation at the Met for your engagements through the 2017/2018 season. Alternatively, if you would prefer to make an annual or one-time donation to the Met instead of voluntarily reducing your fee, that would also be welcomed. (In the event you elect to make a donation, we will be in touch with you about the logistics of your gift.)
Since November 2014, we have had a significant, positive response from over 200 of your colleagues who have agreed to take a 7% reduction in their fees or provide a contribution. I hope you will join them in helping the Met stay strong in the coming seasons. Whatever you ultimately decide, the decision is entirely yours to make. Should you choose not to participate, or should you decide to make a reduction less than the 7%, or elect to make a donation, that is entirely up to you. I want to assure you that whatever your decision, it will have no bearing whatsoever on your future work at the Met, since all artistic decisions will be made solely on the basis of our artistic judgment. I would also like to assure you that the Met will keep your decision confidential.
Thanks for your understanding and help. If you agree, please sign below and return to me.
Best wishes, Peter Gelb
If you would like to participate in this arrangement to help the Met, please check only one box. If you check the first box, please write in the percentage you prefer.
[ ] I voluntarily agree that the gross compensation rates in my contracts with the Metropolitan Opera from now through the 2017/18 season will be reduced by _____% (suggested percentage is 7%).
[ ] In lieu of a voluntary reduction in compensation, I would prefer to make a voluntary gift to the Met, and I request that someone from the Met’s Development Department be in touch with me to work out the details of an appropriate arrangement.
Between 2014 and 2015, total revenue at the Met rose from $288 million to $335 million. With the help of over 200 soloists, and the sacrifices made by the chorus and orchestra in the 2014 negotiations, Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera found their way out of the red, climbing out of a $24.7 million hole in 2014 to a net income gain of $26.2 million in 2015, more than a $50 million swing year-to-year.
In light of the recent closing of the Met and the invoke of Force Majeure on its musicians, one Met soloist responded, “I chose not to contribute the requested percentage of my fee when asked several years ago, because I had witnessed serious mismanagement and waste of money in my time there and had little sympathy for their plight. To now see the way they turn on those who did choose to contribute a portion of their salaries (and many did) is truly heartbreaking. But not a surprise, I’m afraid”.