Orchestra and unions accuse Peter Gelb of long-planned cynical strategy.

In an increasing game of brinkmanship, Metropolitan Opera boss Peter Gelb has written to his employees warning that the house may go dark at the end of next week if agreements on proposed budget cuts are not reached. The American Federation of Musicians and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in turn have blasted Gelb for what they maintain is his “cynical strategy calculated to result in a lockout of his artists and craftspeople and imperil the upcoming Met Opera season.”

Gelb’s letter threatens that the iconic opera house will shut down operations on July 31 unless the unions reach agreements “that would enable the Met to operate on an economically sound basis” and warns employees that they should “plan for the likelihood of a work stoppage beginning August 1”.

The orchestra’s response has been to accuse Gelb of a “long-planned” strategy to draw attention from what they see as managerial incompetence. “His callousness, combined with his attempt to cover up his failed management and lack of artistic vision that has resulted in declining audiences and plummeting ticket sales, jeopardizes the livelihoods of his employees and the many businesses in New York City’s cultural sector and the Lincoln Center area that depend on the Metropolitan Opera for their incomes,” they maintain.

Negotiations over Gelb’s proposed cuts have bogged down and grown increasingly acrimonious of late. “For months, Gelb has purposely refused to provide essential financial information that would have allowed substantive, good-faith negotiations to proceed, instead making erroneous claims in the press in the run-up to his long-planned lockout,” say the unions. Gelb’s strategy of late has seemed incresingly negative, stressing the need for cuts due to what he sees as a general decline in audiences for opera – a phenomenon he has claimed is a worldwide one, despite upbeat statistics of late from the likes of the Royal Opera House, the Vienna State Opera and Chicago’s Lyric Opera.

Last month the Met Orchestra employed a private firm to analyse box office data during Gelb’s tenure and that of his predecessor. The statistics support their claim that new productions have been poorly received, especially when brought back as revivals – the controversial Met Ring being a key case in point. “If the Met in fact is facing financial difficulties it is due to Peter Gelb’s lavish overspending on productions that have been poorly received by critics and audiences,” say the unions and orchestra in their latest press release.

A last ditch negotiating session is scheduled for July 25 at which the musicians will make counter proposals that they say will allow the Metropolitan Opera to realize over $20 million in cost-savings and avoid draconian cuts to its artists. They see Gelb’s suggested lockout as a pre-emptive strike designed to undermine the talks. “That Peter Gelb would announce the prospect of a lockout before the start of negotiations with the musicians, choristers, stagehands and other segments of the workforce is indicative of his disrespect for his audience, his artists and the City of New York,” they say, adding that the economic fallout of closure will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. “First, the $327 million that the Met spends on salaries, sets, costumes and on many other vendors/services will be lost; on top of that, the losses to restaurants and hotels, especially those in the immediate vicinity of Lincoln Center, will be devastating given that the Met has 3,800 seats and its audience represents a high proportion of local restaurant and hotel patronage during the opera season.”

They wind up by suggesting that Gelb should “engage in good-faith negotiations with the intent of salvaging the upcoming season rather than moving to arbitrarily shut down the iconic and beloved Metropolitan Opera.”