“We greatly appreciate the valuable efforts of our employees over the years, but it is no longer economically viable for us to continue in our current form,” lamented the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s chairman Winthrop Rutherfurd, Jr. and president Richard J. Miller, Jr. in a joint statement announcing that the organization “will scale back its operations” this fall. Founded as a standalone nonprofit by Mrs. August Belmont in 1935 to help the Met recover from the Great Depression, the Guild for 88 years has supported the Met by raising money from donors, who, under the most recent guidelines, paid between $85 and $2,000 annually to belong. In addition to offering such member benefits as early ticket ordering and access to dress rehearsals, the Opera Guild conducted educational programs to introduce opera to children and published Opera News, a monthly magazine covering the art form in America, since 1936. At the time of the announcement, the Guild had some 28,000 members, with an additional 15,000 nonmember subscribers to Opera News.
Some Guild programs will reportedly remain intact under the Met’s direct administration, and some board members may transfer to the Met’s board. The Guild’s independent status, however, will end as it gets subsumed within the company as a “supporting organization.” Some of its activities, including its high-profile annual Opera Awards event, will be discontinued. The Guild’s 20 employees will be laid off with severance packages, though some may be reemployed by the Met. Opera News will cease publication and have its American coverage taken over by the British magazine Opera, under a designated U.S. editor and possibly with some of the same writers.
News of the Opera Guild’s demise came on the heels of another catastrophe for New York’s decaying fine arts world. The week before, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival, the city’s signature summer classical music festival since 1966, gave its final performances before it relaunches in 2024 under an as-yet-unannounced new name and with reduced programming as part of the arts complex’s new “Summer for the City” festival. Summer for the City claims to be “designed for all New Yorkers and audiences of all ages” and says it is “working towards greater inclusivity and equity in everything we do.” This summer, its largely outdoor offerings, centered around what looks like a gigantic cage set up in Lincoln Center Plaza, included hip-hop, poetry, Korean art, film, something called “social dance,” and other activities that tested the tolerance of Upper West Siders who haven’t yet moved to Florida.
Overlooking this motley scene from the stately Metropolitan Opera House, general manager Peter Gelb tried to explain away the Opera Guild’s dissolution in a New York Times interview as just another recent sign of “difficulties for nonprofit performing arts companies.” He ought to know better. Under his watch, which began in 2006, the Met’s financial well-being has plummeted, with attendance often crashing below 70 percent of house capacity, as one dull production follows another before rows of empty seats with only a handful of successes in between. In Europe and other parts of the United States, however, opera is thriving. Last season, the Vienna State Opera claimed 100 percent occupancy. Closer to home, Palm Beach Opera, which attracts more than a few relocated Met audience members, has reported record-high attendance and the largest major gifts in its 62-year history.
After losing an estimated $150 million during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Met raided its endowment for $23 million in late 2022 just to meet operating expenses and reduced the number of future performances by 10 percent. Its 2023–2024 season features the smallest number of productions in living memory and leans on an awkward balance between contemporary works that Gelb believes to be “right” for the house and mammoth runs of exhaustingly familiar standard repertoire operas. At the same time, it has raised ticket prices, with no normally priced seat selling for less than $40 and some seats exceeding $400.
For lunkheaded political reasons, in recent years the company has separated from a number of star performers who could fill the house, including former music director James Levine, superstar singer and conductor Plácido Domingo, and the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, among others. These heavily politicized decisions have come with significant cost. Levine, fired in 2018 amid decades-old sexual-harassment allegations that he denied, won a $3.5 million settlement a few months before his death in 2021. Netrebko is currently suing the Met for discrimination, defamation, and breach of contract after winning over $200,000 in arbitration proceedings earlier this year. She and Domingo enjoy steady employment in packed theaters before European audiences with less provincial outlooks, while the Met no longer employs virtually any artist who can sell out the house. Domingo also received a rousing standing ovation at a sold-out February 2023 concert at Palm Beach’s Society for the Four Arts, where the audience included Gelb’s vastly more successful predecessor Joseph Volpe.
As bad as the pandemic was, the Met’s decline has been sad, slow, and steady. Over the past decade—a period corresponding with the widespread introduction of woke sensibilities, racialist ideology, and scabrous identity politics in classrooms, workplaces, and New York City generally—the Met’s sales have especially languished, with some recent productions barely scraping 40 percent capacity. The house’s iconic murals by Marc Chagall, put up as collateral to secure a line of credit in 2009, remain unredeemed. Subscriptions, which guaranteed the sale of 45 percent of seats as recently as the early 2000s, are now projected to account for only about 19 percent. Labor disputes have flared up with an intensity not seen since the early 1980s. A well-regarded foreign soloist who performed at the Met last spring told me that the financials of working there were too burdensome for him to consider future engagements. According to the Times, the Opera Guild itself did not suddenly collapse, but rather trended down, losing about $1 million in annual revenue between 2011 and 2021, when it took in $8.1 million.
The German music magazine VAN titled a recent article about the Met under Gelb “The Problem With Peter,” but there is little indication that things will change. Indeed, Gelb’s administration is both highly averse to criticism and reluctant to admit error. In 2012, Opera News announced that it would no longer review Met performances after the Met objected to the magazine’s negative review of a production closely associated with Gelb and a scathing separate essay about his leadership of the organization. This produced the censorious spectacle of the leading American opera publication offering no comment on America’s leading opera company. According to the Times, a 2011 complaint from Gelb to the head of New York’s classical music radio station WQXR resulted in the deletion of a blog post on the station’s website by contributor Olivia Giovetti, who wrote that under Gelb the Met “bears the mothball-like scent of an oligarchy.” In a February 2022 e-mail, the Met’s longtime director of press and communications Lee Abrahamian opaquely stated in response to a press request from a conservative publication, “We do not provide tickets to all outlets as you know and do not need to explain why.” With public relations like that, who needs pandemics?
Gelb can continue to try to immunize himself from criticism, but unless he takes such feedback to heart, the Metropolitan Opera could soon share the fate of its expired Guild.