An Orchestra on the Brink
On March 19, as the COVID-19 virus spread rapidly in New York City, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it was suspending paychecks indefinitely for its orchestra, chorus, and stagehands, effective March 31. One month later, the members of its renowned orchestra are staring into the financial abyss. Just two days after the furlough was announced, a young wind player canceled the lease on his New York apartment, moved his possessions into a storage unit in the Bronx, got on a plane, and flew home to live with his parents. He is no longer able to support them, as he did previously, with a portion of his paycheck. Hunkered down, the family is making sure to purchase only food and medicine. The orchestral musician is also teaching online lessons at a discount.
For the older members of the orchestra, moving back in with their parents is not an option. One instrumentalist, who has been performing with the Met for 25 years, has been living on a combination of unemployment benefits and his savings. He’s currently in the process of liquidating his retirement assets for use during the crisis. The Metropolitan Opera has canceled the remainder of its 2019-20 season; a restart in September may be overly optimistic. “If [the crisis] goes until January or February, I have to rethink whether I can stay in New York or even come back to the Met, or just seek employment elsewhere,” the veteran musician told me. “We’ve got children in college.” He added, “If it comes to keeping a roof over our heads and our bills paid, then I will take any job possible. Including non-music jobs.”
Two other musicians estimated that their cash reserves would be exhausted by the fall. “We’re good for a few months for sure,” a veteran string player said. “Maybe four to six [months], and then basically our savings are wiped out.”
I spoke to five musicians from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra for this story. All are living on some combination of savings, unemployment benefits, and the occasional teaching job. The performers, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about their employer, feel abandoned by the Met, which is the largest performing arts institution in the United States. While musicians have only retained their health and instrument insurance, other workers at the house have been continuing to receive their salaries. (As the New York Times reported, senior management employees have taken pay cuts of 25 to 50 percent.) Peter Gelb, the institution’s general manager, is forgoing his compensation—but, according to the New York Post, he earned $2,169,487 in 2017, the last year for which federal tax filings are available.
Other major American orchestras have also been deeply shaken by the spread of the novel coronavirus. But many have managed to cut musicians’ pay without suspending it completely, or have set an end date for cost-cutting measures. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s furlough is set to last between April 13 and June 1. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic are receiving 65 percent of their weekly minimum scale; the New York Philharmonic is paying out minimum scale to its musicians in April, and 75 percent of minimum scale in May. The Boston Symphony Orchestra negotiated pay cuts averaging 25 percent per player and restructured vacation time. No such compromises are appearing on the horizon at the Met. It was one of the first American institutions to react to the COVID-19 crisis, and its reaction was severe. “The solution was to suspend pay” for the orchestra, the chorus, and stagehands, a musician said. “That’s a lot of employees. It’s pretty radical.” The Met furlough applies to some 700 people. (A Met press representative didn’t responded to a request for comment sent yesterday.)
The sense of drift has been compounded by what musicians call a lack of communication and leadership from the Met’s management. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has sent the group hopeful video messages, but updates from Gelb and the house’s human resources department have been practically nonexistent. The orchestra committee, staffed by players, has taken up such practical tasks as helping members to fill out their unemployment forms and apply for mortgage forbearance and interest-free credit card debt. “The Met management has given us very little information as I’m sure they are monitoring the changing situation daily,” one musician said. “Everyone is treading very lightly on reopening in fear of a second wave of infection.” Another player, from the brass section, was more blunt. “I consider it an abdication of responsibility,” he said.
On April 25, the Met’s digital At-Home Gala assembled an array of star singers for performances from their homes. The orchestra also contributed selections from operas by Wagner, Verdi, and Mascagni. The event was hailed as a success: in the Times, Anthony Tommasini called the remote concert “a charmingly informal yet profoundly moving marathon.” For orchestra musicians, it was also a powerful, if occasionally disorienting, experience. (They each played at home with a guiding track and a video of Nézet-Séguin conducting, then sent their recordings to be edited into an orchestral collage.) The musician who moved back in with his parents recalled watching the concert with them—all three teared up. “It was an opportunity to stay connected as an orchestra,” he said.
But the gala also barely concealed the tension between Gelb, who praised the orchestra as “incomparable,” and the performers. The last few years have seen contentious labor negotiations, with the Met claiming financial hardship in order to secure pay cuts from the musicians’ union. “The past two contracts have been anything but harmonious with management. We’ve given concessions, and now we’re being asked to not be paid,” a wind player said. “I think this orchestra has shown a lot of good will over the years to the institution. Including during the most recent gala fundraising benefit while we’re not being paid.”
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated an already precarious situation at the Met. In the last decade, the institution has often been thrust rudely into the public eye: a 2012 debate over blackface in opera; the 2017 allegations of sexual abuse against former music director James Levine; the institution’s confusing about-face on star singer Plácido Domingo, also accused of sexual harassment; and, most recently, the layoffs of singers via Twitter. “The morale is definitely as low as it can get, for sure,” one musician said. In particular, the Met’s sometimes lavish spending, revealed in part by Levine’s lawsuit against the house for unlawful termination, has raised eyebrows among the now-furloughed musicians. The conductor was given a “a per-performance fee $10,000 higher than the highest per-performance fee paid to any singer: $26,000 a night,” as Ben Miller reported in VAN. (Levine and the Met later agreed to a settlement of an undisclosed amount.) In 2011, the Met spent $16 million on a widely panned “Ring” cycle directed by Robert Lepage; in the 2015-16 season, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “paying customers occupied just 72 percent of all seats.” The same year, it reached 66 percent of its potential box office revenue.
Those setbacks set the stage for the current furlough, which orchestra players recognize. “We play night after night after night,” said one of the musicians I interviewed. “We see which productions work and which don’t work. We hear about the lavish amounts of money spent on new productions. I understand. It has to happen, people don’t want to see the same old thing. But one wonders. You walk around the building, and things are kind of crumbling. It seems like there’s neither the money nor the foresight to maintain things. It does not feel rightly balanced.”
The crisis has also revealed deep flaws in the American system of private arts patronage. With its $308 million annual budget, the Met does not qualify for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which only gives grants to “musical groups and artists” with budgets of less than $12 million. (Other major American orchestras which are also not eligible for this program have continued to pay their musicians.) The Met does not receive public money, instead relying on donations, box office receipts, and its endowment, but New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has already proposed cutting other arts funding by 35 percent in his 2021 budget, showing that the idea of public support for the arts in times of crisis is still not being taken seriously in the U.S. At Berlin’s Staatsoper, in contrast, orchestral musicians have so far received their full salaries. (Pay cuts are expected, but will likely be minor.) “A lot of friends and colleagues in Europe, orchestral musicians, are shocked to realize that we’re just completely unemployed, not getting paid at all,” the veteran string player said. “It makes me want to leave and emigrate somewhere else where things are sane.”
As Metropolitan Opera orchestral musicians settle in for what will likely be an extended hiatus, they are preparing to make do without important sources of solace: financial and professional security, and the connective art of live music. A Met violinist has been performing some streamed concerts, but said, “It feels very false and awkward, as there is no energy to feed off of from an audience. You are never sure if anyone is listening.” A veteran wind player compared this crisis to the last great breaking apart in New York City. “It’s like a bad dream that’s just continuing and continuing,” he said. “I was here for 9/11. That interruption we had was awful. We relive it to some extent every year when that day comes up. But this is like that, day after day after day. It’s oppressive, and all-encompassing.” ¶