Criticism on Fridays: Re: Metropolitan Opera Outsourcing

Support & Donations Without Hope of Fighting for Real Changes

Polina Lyapustina
Jan 8 · 6 min read

This essay originally appeared on Operawire.com on January 8, 2021

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most sensitive topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

The way you enter the New Year sets the tone for the whole year ahead, the old superstition said.

And I wonder whether we should then expect this year to be indifferent, treacherous, insulting, and almost hopeless for the musicians and the whole opera industry after the Met Opera’s management left its musicians out of work during the holiday celebrations?

Photo by Dmitry Lyapustin

One of the most powerful opera institutions in the world was finally officially accused by their employees of indifference and immoral behavior when an ongoing pattern of outsourcing the Met’s major events to non-Met musicians reached its climax with the New Year’s Eve Gala. The fabulous event was held without a single Met musician — once again “off-shored” to Europe.

Together with the American Federation of Musicians Local 802, the members of the orchestra, who have been furloughed without pay since March, issued a statement “On the outsourcing of musicians for tonight’s Metropolitan Opera Gala” where they pointed that “It is artistic malpractice and unacceptable that non-Met musicians are being hired to perform under the banner of the Metropolitan Opera.”

The root cause of tension between the musicians and the Met was well known for months before the event, yet after the public accusation, it finally requires a public reaction of stakeholders and those who influence them.

And here comes the question — what must be done in this situation and who can force these changes?

American Federation of Musicians Local 802 and Theatrical Stage Employees Local One supported the musicians and accused the Met on this matter. But we should remember that those organizations are involved in the discussion of the pay-cuts agreement with the Met for months already, and it seems like Peter Gelb is not going to listen to even the most reasonable arguments.

The Met’s major patrons, like the Bank of America, who declares their aim to support arts and music in the US, might find the off-shored event that left American musicians out of work inconsistent with their principals, and yet they remain the main patron of the Met’s fundraising campaign to support the company. Bank of America refrained from comment on the situation.

Once Local 802’s statement was issued on Dec. 31, 2020 the audience began to demand a reaction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The musical world’s sweetheart is not just a talented conductor, but a major professional whose word counts for all parties involved. And even when, after five days of silence, Nézet-Séguin announced his special fundraising matching campaign, I felt a deep disappointment. At the risk of sounding unpopular, I can explain why. Yes, there can be no doubt that it’s a very generous move, which will support both the orchestra and chorus now. But it came without a single word of criticism on Gelb’s politics, the outsourcing of musicians or the general mismanagement of the situation by the Met Opera.

In a recent interview with Le Devoir, Nézet-Séguin did note that “It’s unacceptable and painful that a chorus and an orchestra of this caliber have been unpaid since March.” He also noted that he “believed in dialogue” and expressed that “the dialogue is too slow. I can’t believe it…” But he also ended this statement with firm solidarity and belief in the Met Opera, stating that “The Met will come through like the others.”

While one can understand his words, especially given his importance to both the Orchestra and the Met Opera, this kind of ending to a statement doesn’t help matters in the big picture as it suggests that the last nine months can be forgiven because the institution will eventually do the right thing. In the meantime, what will motivate it to do it? And when another situation like this one arises, do we just wait for the company to “come through” while musicians struggle?

Meanwhile, the orchestra members will need such fundraising campaigns until the full recovery of the industry. Their situation will remain distressful, while the unwieldy and heavy infrastructure of the Met will only feed itself without supporting its workers. And I still believe that the open criticism from those in power would work better for the musicians than the silent money they have received.

In the last days, the public on social networks widely declares that they stop their donations to Met and shame on the Gelb’s decisions. That would be easy and even partly fair to say that the audience has nothing to lose in this situation, and it unties their hand. And I’m asking, what’s so important limits the goodwill of the Met’s board, whose members are supposed to work on behalf of art and artists? Why is it that only those who have nothing to lose can cooperate in a just cause?

Opera stars have been encouraging people to donate to the orchestra, but there are loads of mistakes and confusion on where to donate. Many people are still donating to the Met, not the orchestra, while the correct address for the donations is www.metorchestramusicians.org. Those donations will be matched dollar for dollar by the contribution from Nézet-Séguin and his life partner Pierre Tourville.

And again, behind these talks and donations, the criticism on what’s happening is very rare from the opera professionals. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard shared a modest and yet pro-active thought: “It’s perhaps time to have a large conversation where we explain and pull back all the many layers of what’s been going on collectively. Lots of issues! We can do this!” It immediately triggered a wave of support. The need for change is obvious, but who can start a real dialogue?

The Met itself, for one, can start that dialogue. By at the very least explaining its choices. There is no doubt that given the structures of the organization, there are probably major challenges that the Met is facing in the current situation. That’s not a justification of its choices with regards to musicians, but at the very least some transparency might allow for the conversation that Leonard’s statement suggests. OperaWire reached out to the Met Opera regarding the Met Opera Orchestra’s initial statement on New Year’s Eve but never received any reply. The company and its board have issued no official statement since. Without such a statement, the organization leaves itself completely open to outside judgments from everyone around the world. That will not serve the Met Opera in the long run.

And what can we ascertain from this silence at this very moment? Indifference. Simply put, the board of the Met feels quite safe, keeping silent. Surely, anything anyone from the organization says now will trigger a protest, but it seems like from the leadership’s view, there is no need for a reply because leaders are likely confident that over time they will simply wait out this desperate situation, introduce another agreement with minor improvements that will be signed despite the fact that no one is happy about it simply because the waiting game will increasingly limit options.

And if you ask why is it so, I’ll give a sad but obvious answer — because nothing of what’s happening now (in this struggle for life and well-being of one of the most talented orchestras on the planet), nothing forces the Met Opera’s management and board to change the general approach in which they put the company (not art, not people) first.

Opera Criticism in a Modern World

Opera reviews, interviews, and essays.

Opera Criticism in a Modern World

Editorial materials, reviews, interviews, and essays. My way to improve the opera industry. I’m Polina Lyapustina and I’m currently writing for operawire.com. No story is a part of Medium’s metered paywall.

Polina Lyapustina

Written by

Journalist, Opera Critic, Essayist, UX and Product Designer, Heavy Reader

Opera Criticism in a Modern World

Editorial materials, reviews, interviews, and essays. My way to improve the opera industry. I’m Polina Lyapustina and I’m currently writing for operawire.com. No story is a part of Medium’s metered paywall.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store