If you keep a close eye on the news of the classical music world, you may have heard about the financial crisis that have stricken the Metropolitan Opera. This week, the New Yorker published an article that describes the origins and the current status of the Met crisis. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/a-fight-at-the-opera
It is clear that the Met’s finances are not healthy. According to the article, in 2013, the Met ran a deficit in the amount of 2.8 million dollars. A number of big donors are withdrawing their donations, because they don’t want to invest in a bottomless pit without a clear prospect of healthy recovery. In fact, many suspect that the Met would go bankrupt in a couple of years, if the current condition persists. Now, who is responsible for this insolvency, and what should be done about it? Answers to these question are not clear. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, suggested cuts in the salaries of full time orchestra members, singers and dancers, and stagehands. These workers, however, emphasize more efficient and responsible management of the company’s economy.
I don’t know every minute detail about the Met, and I may change my view as my knowledge gets updated. But as I read the New Yorker article, I imagined a man who makes, let’s say, $500,000 a year but still worries that his income is not large enough to cover all the expenses. He may say, “my wife wants to buy a new yacht this summer, each of my children wants to go on Caribbean vacation, using their own helicopter, and I want to buy a new house in Monte Carlo. How can I pay for all of these?” I will say, if this is the scale of his consumption, no income is large enough. He will always feel poor, whether he makes $50,000, $500,000 or $1,000,000.
Roughly put, this is the Met’s situation, I think. I don’t have all the numbers on hand, but it is safe to say that the Met has a large economy, large by most – I am tempted to say “all” – opera company’s standards across the world. Despite the large scale economy, the Met is still crying poverty. Why? Partly or mostly because the Met puts on a number of new productions each year. It sounds exciting in theory, but in reality, new productions often call for new equipment, new technologies, new artists and more production time, which means more money. This is where I think a serious problem lies. One of the key words for Peter Gelb seems to be innovation, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing artistic innovation. I fully support it. What I am questioning is if artistic innovation is necessarily synonymous with costly new productions. Gelb says that La Boheme is one of the ever popular operas that the Met stages. The Met is one of the best opera companies in the world, and I am sure their La Boheme is fantastic. But does this necessarily mean that another La Boheme produced by a smaller and less expensive opera company is inferior to the Met’s in terms of artistic integrity? I doubt it. Money certainly helps to execute an artistic vision, but good artworks don’t necesarily require a lot of money. I can easily imagine a La Boheme that is produced on a smaller budget but still offers fresh insights.
As I mentioned above, the Met is one of the best opera companies in the world. It gets support from a number of rich and generous donors. But more importantly, it has a rich reservoir of operatic knowledge, skills, and insights accumulated over multiple generations. When the Met pursues artistic novelty and innovation, I hope it draws more on the second resources than on the first. Breaking new paths does not always require money. It often requires creative thinking, though. To use my crude analogy once again, you can earn $500,000 and still feel poor. However, if you reduce the scale of your consumption and find alternative methods to make yourself happy, you will find that $500,000 a year is a lot of money indeed.