Wall Street Journal
New York’s Metropolitan Opera Opens Its Budget Curtain
Questions Raised About How the Opera Spends its Money as It Seeks Labor-Cost Savings
As the Metropolitan Opera seeks labor-cost savings in difficult contract talks, a broader discussion has emerged about how it spends its money. While Met officials argue that they must cut labor costs as revenue plateaus, union leaders say the opera company should rein in spending on costly new productions.
Take, for example, the $169,000 poppy field used in this season’s $4.3 million production of “Prince Igor.”
How does a flower patch cost $169,000? To explain, the Met pulled back the curtain on the five-year process of developing and budgeting “Prince Igor.” A sweeping Russian drama composed by Alexander Borodin, the Met’s “Prince Igor” runs more than four hours and employs a cast of over 200. In 2009, when the Met was planning its 2013-14 season, it budgeted $3.8 million for the production.
This was on the pricier end of its productions. This season’s “Eugene Onegin” cost $2.7 million, while “Two Boys” cost $1.8 million. By contrast, the Met’s biggest investment in recent years, its four-part “Ring” cycle, cost $19.6 million, or an average of $4.9 million an opera, underwritten by a $20 million gift.
A common refrain among union members is that the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, gives directors blank checks.
“What we see is pretty much whatever Peter Gelb wants, whatever the director deems necessary, it’s done,” said Belinda Oswald, a chorus member who sits on the singers’ union negotiating committee.
Met officials say the process is more complicated than that, a negotiation in which artistic vision must be tempered by financial constraints.
“One of the things we try not to do is tell a designer no,” said John Sellars, the assistant general manager for production.
Instead, he said, the company proposes work-arounds—outsourcing some costumes, creating scenery illusions and reallocating money from costumes to sets—to keep costs in line.
For “Prince Igor,” the Met hired the Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov, who co-created a new version based on Borodin’s incomplete score.
His first design presentation to Met officials, at a meeting in Brussels in June 2012, didn’t go well. His proposed design called for a city scene that was too bulky to fit on the Met’s stage. At the Met, productions must be easily moved and stored, because one set is taken offstage each night while another is erected for the next morning’s rehearsals.
Mr. Tcherniakov went back to the drawing board—twice—as Mr. Sellars and a staffer flew periodically to meet with him in Moscow and Madrid.
By February 2013, Mr. Tcherniakov had a workable design, calling for a great hall instead of the cityscape. But it would cost $5 million, more than $1 million over budget. A period of intense negotiations followed, Messrs. Tcherniakov and Sellars said.
Time was running short. The Met had hoped to start building sets months earlier.
In an email, Mr. Tcherniakov called the negotiations “complicated and ornate” and said he did his best to accommodate their budget.
“I had to watch out and stay faithful to my idea at the same time,” he added. “Sometimes, we were in a state of war, almost.”
The Met and the director outsourced some costumes to a shop in Russia, saving $505,896. They eliminated a pattern on the floor of the great hall, and replaced some of the solid ceiling beams with painted panels that created an illusion of solid beams.
Some decisions were more difficult than others.
Mr. Sellars argued that the director should divert resources from the poppy scene to the great hall set, where roughly 80% of the action takes place.
They reduced the footprint of the poppy field by 20%, so it could fit on a wagon and be moved quickly on and off the stage. And Mr. Tcherniakov sacrificed a video he had planned to project behind the poppy field.
It was a necessary but painful concession, he said, as the scene lost “expressivity and effectiveness.”
Mr. Tcherniakov was afraid to see the poppy field for the first time, “but after the first setup I calmed down. Even with the smaller size, the illusion of the immense space was there, and I was happy at the end.”
Union members have argued that the Met should have bought basic artificial flowers, rather than fabricating them in-house. Labor costs for assembling the poppy field were $148,000.
Mr. Sellars said many of the pre-made poppies the company evaluated raised safety concerns for dancers because the stems were too stiff or would kink when bent, rather than springing back into shape.
Some nights, when there was no room to store them in the wings, the poppies had to be trucked to off-site storage. They filled eight trucks. The Met didn’t disclose the cost of that storage, saying it wasn’t part of the production budget.
“The poppy field, although a visual highlight, is a relatively small portion of the budget,” Mr. Gelb said in an email.
The final cost of “Igor” was $4.3 million, subsidized by $780,000 from the Dutch National Opera, a co-producer. The Met spent $300,000 less on the production than originally budgeted.
Mr. Gelb has said that investment in new productions pays off at the box office, where ticket sales have lagged in recent years. The Met sold 81.5% of available seats for “Prince Igor,” compared with the season average of 79% of house seats sold. The HD transmission of “Igor” sold more than 200,000 tickets.
One late change resulted in $4,364 in extra costume-cleaning costs: Chorus members’ costumes had been fireproofed to protect them from open flames in an apocalyptic scene during the third act. When the plan changed—the flames were moved upstage and extinguished before the choristers entered—the fireproofing treatment, which causes irritation to mucous membranes, was removed.
“It actually was a huge amount of labor for so many people,” said Arlia Wilks, a draper and union member at the Met.
“Staging invariably alters when production is in rehearsal on stage,” Met spokeswoman Lee Abrahamian said, adding that the move was driven by the choristers’ safety.
Write to Jennifer Maloney at email@example.com
Oksana Dyka as Yaroslavna in the Metropolitan Opera’s $4.3 million production of ‘Prince Igor.’ Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
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NOTA DEL BLOG: A pesar de no ser un teatro privado como el Met, sino un teatro público, el Teatro Colón no informa a los contribuyentes de la Ciudad sobre sus costos. No existen informes públicos sobre el presupuesto del Teatro Colón y en qué se utiliza. Cuando encontramos información parcial en el Boletín Oficial la publicamos.