Friday, November 9, 2007

Thursday, March 5th

Shortly after 10:00 a.m., the Met’s Music Director, Director of Development, and Director of Marketing and Public Relations were ushered into Drew Gelfand’s inner office by his private secretary (a charming young Puerto Rican man whose soft, doe-like brown eyes glistened with vitality).

“Please sit down,” said Drew as he gestured to several large, comfortable chairs that were upholstered in black leather. “Manuel, tell anyone who calls that I’ll get back to them as soon as this meeting is over.”

Although these intimate conferences involving four or five of the Met’s top staff had become fairly routine events, today – with the company nearly three-quarters of the way through its season -- the people in Drew’s office were beginning to show signs of burnout.

Nan McFarlane’s jaw was thrust forward as she sat with her hands tensely folded in her lap.

Maestro Erich von Blindt looked as if he could use at least a week’s uninterrupted sleep.

Even Frank O’Connor, who was usually so cool and collected, seemed taut and on edge.

These three key staff members (who had been working overtime for the past six months) were each suffering from various degrees of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. By comparison, the only person in the room who seemed to be completely free from any symptoms of fatigue was their boss, Drew Gelfand. Glowing with good health, he was dressed in a dark blue business suit and a pale yellow tie which highlighted his carefully-trimmed moustache.

“Among the things I’d like to discuss with you this morning are the results of a report I commissioned from one of Opera America's professional consultants,” he began.

“As you know, our subscription sales have been steadily dropping and, with the critics constantly raking us over the coals, we’ve had a consistently negative image in the media. Part of the problem is that we seem to have outpriced ourselves from our audience. Lots of Met patrons lost their shirts in the stock market last year and those who still have substantial amounts of money are making some rather curious changes in their spending habits.”

“With the top price of our orchestra seats now resting at $125 per ticket, the only walk-up trade we’re getting at the box office seems to be coming from Japanese tourists. It looks to me as if the era of conspicuous consumption -- at least among New Yorkers -- is rapidly drawing to a close.”

Nan, who had developed a sixth sense for anticipating bad news, crossed her legs and started doodling on her steno pad as Drew continued his speech.

“Back when the company celebrated its Centennial, many of us were shocked to discover a growing resentment toward the Met on the part of opera fans in outlying areas. Many of these people informed us that they preferred to support their local opera companies instead of sending their money to the Met. According to my sources at Opera America,” Drew explained, “this trend will continue as regional companies prosper and keep servicing their local communities."

"To make matters worse, our conservative government -- which, as we all know, couldn’t care less about the arts -- is hiking the cost of bulk mailing rates for nonprofit organizations (a move which, since so much of our subscription campaign depends upon direct mail, is really going to hit us where it hurts).”

“To no one’s great surprise, it’s also very likely that ticket sales could be hurt by the steadily rising cost of living. According to this report, two orchestra seats to the Met, dinner near Lincoln Center, parking and a babysitter will cost a couple a whopping $400 per performance this year. Now, you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to figure out that that amount of money could keep the average Manhattan apartment dweller happily rolling in enough marijuana, pizza, Mrs. Fields’ cookies and Chinese takeout food to get him through a month’s supply of video rentals. If you add in the increased competition we face from personal computers and the home entertainment center, you’ll begin to see that we’re fighting an uphill battle.”

“As if all that weren’t enough to make you weep, we still have to deal with assholes like our friend David Delgado over at The New York Times. Just in case anyone in this room failed to read Mr. Delgado’s latest diatribe against the company, let me quote you from the article he wrote for last Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section:

“Next year’s Met season is so frightfully boring it could force a grizzly bear into early hibernation. It’s bad enough that the company continues to pursue an artistically bankrupt policy of mounting horridly overproduced productions which feature appallingly lackluster casts. However, since the departure of its former music director (the man who once vowed that Supertitles would only be used at the Metropolitan Opera House over his dead body), Drew Gelfand’s administration has steadfastly failed to take advantage of a superb opportunity to drag the Met -- albeit kicking and screaming -- into the latter half of the 20th century. Audiences at the New York City Opera and many other regional opera companies have been aided by the use of Supertitles for more than five years. Recent studies have shown that the popular appeal of these English-language translations (which are projected below a theatre’s proscenium) have enabled the vast majority of America’s opera companies to cultivate younger, broader-based and better-educated audiences while enhancing the fundraising efforts of what must certainly be more astute and aggressive boards of directors than the one currently governing the Met. Therefore, my advice to opera fans who want their money’s worth is to avoid the Metropolitan Opera like the plague. Paying outrageously inflated prices for such pathetically incoherent, poorly-produced artistic slop forces subscribers to buy into one of the highest-priced rip-offs on the nation’s cultural scene. Although New York’s society crowd and the perennial status-seekers who constitute a good part of the Met’s audience will insist on continuing to rub elbows with each other, the sensible subscriber should be capable of showing a great deal more respect for both his intelligence and his pocketbook.’

Does anyone have any questions?” asked Drew.

“Yeah. When was the last time that bastard got horse whipped?” queried Erich von Blindt.

“Knowing this critic’s personal preferences, I’d estimate the exact moment at sometime during the past 72 hours,” Drew replied with a knowing grin. “I think I can assure you that -- at least back in the days when Mr. Delgado and I used to cross paths on a nonprofessional basis -- David never lacked for sexual partners who could give him exactly what he wanted.”

The smile vanished from Gelfand’s face as he looked at the people seated in his room. “Now, let me ask the three of you a question. Did any of you walk across the plaza to attend a performance by the New York City Opera this season?”

Drew’s query was met with a stony silence.

“Did anyone catch any performances in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston or Washington?”

Again, there was no response.

“I thought as much,” sighed Gelfand.

“As you may know, I’ve recently asked several members of our board’s Executive Committee to accompany me whenever I’ve left town to discuss sharing the costs of a new production with my professional colleagues in other companies. While on the road, I’ve noticed something in cities where Supertitles are being used that has really been quite amazing. What impresses me the most is that I’ve seen the same phenomenon repeated with different markets performing wildly diverse repertory -- repertory as varied as Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso, Puccini's Tosca, Strauss’s Salome, and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. For one thing, the audiences in these cities are much more involved in what’s happening onstage. They laugh at the jokes in the libretto and talk about the performance during intermission as if they had been watching a play on Broadway. For another thing, they stay in their seats until the end of the performance.”

“If any of you ever took the time to stand in the Met’s lobby during intermissions, you’d notice our audience fleeing the auditorium like rats leaving a sinking ship. Those of you who have worked here for several seasons may think these people are departing because they have to get up and go to work in the morning but that’s just not true,” sighed Gelfand. “I’m afraid the reason so many people are leaving our opera house before the performance ends is because they’re bored shitless.”

Maestro von Blindt shifted his weight and angrily glared at the man sitting behind the desk. How could Gelfand say such things about the greatest opera house in the world?

“At present, the financial condition of this company is so precarious that I’m considering reducing the length of next year’s season. Although we’re constantly struggling to raise money, for the past few years I’ve suspected that the enemy we face may well be within us,” continued Drew.

“We all know people who live and breathe opera 24 hours a day: the hardcore group which believes that, somehow or other, Maria Callas is going to rise from the grave and singlehandedly bring this art form back to what it was in the golden days before jet travel. Well, that’s not about to happen and, if we don’t start making some drastic changes in the way this company functions, each and every one of us could work himself out of a job sooner than we think.”

Even as he tried to digest what Drew was saying, Frank O’Connor’s intuition told him that the worst was yet to come. Drew continued to speak.

“Last week, I had lunch with the Marketing Director of the New York City Opera who told me that he’s getting substantial numbers of new subscribers who have canceled their Met subscriptions and moved their money across the plaza. I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, have discussed it at length with members of the board’s Executive Committee, and they’ve all agreed to let me make some crucial changes in the Met’s artistic policy before this organization self-destructs. I’m sorry, gang, but no matter how well-informed we’d like to think our audiences might be, we can no longer afford to operate this company as some kind of elitist museum. So, I’d suggest you brace yourselves for what you’re about to hear.”

Picking up a pen from his desk and rolling it around in his fingers, Drew addressed the three people sitting in his office. “Last week I commissioned a translation of Lucrezia Borgia from the man who writes the Supertitles for the Houston Grand Opera. I’ve ordered a computer and lighting setup identical to the one used in Houston’s new opera house and expect to have it installed and on-line within two weeks.”

Gelfand pointed his pen toward the Met’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations. “Frank, I want you to get the word out to the media that, beginning with our production of this rarely-performed Donizetti opera, the Met is going to experiment with English-language Supertitles. The official line is that our audience’s total lack of familiarity with Lucrezia Borgia -- coupled with the fact that the Met hasn’t performed this opera since 1904 -- affords us the perfect opportunity to make a trial run with Supertitles. The unofficial line -- and this news is not to leave my office -- is that without some kind of face-saving gesture, this company is dead in the water.”

Drew next aimed his pen at the Met’s Director of Development.

“Nan, I want you to start finding people who will underwrite the cost of commissioning translations for all of next season’s repertoire. Back in 1983, when City Opera started using titles, Beverly Sills struck paydirt with Manufacturer's Hanover Trust. Our translations are going to have to be better than those currently used in any of the regional houses and there’s no reason why the Met can’t find some corporation to underwrite this project. I’m sure that, with the April 15th tax deadline approaching, you’re going to have to kiss a lot more ass than usual, but I expect to see some big results within two or three weeks. I know you can do it, Nan.”

Drew then turned his attention to the Met’s Music Director.

“Erich, I’ve gone over the casting for next season and, with the dollar continuing to lose strength against the Japanese yen and other foreign currencies, I expect we’ll be seeing a string of cancellations as some of our better paid European singers become overwhelmed by their unbelievable sense of greed. Therefore, I want you to prepare a list of solid American artists who are either making a name for themselves in regional opera companies or have had a healthy amount of media visibility. You’re to be ready to get on the phone to their managers the minute any of our big names start grumbling about the possibility of an inner ear infection which might prevent them from flying across the Atlantic.”

“One more thing, Maestro. During August, when we’re rehearsing for our fall season, I want you to attend as many performances at City Opera as possible so that you can see the difference in audience reaction I’m talking about. And while you’re there, you’d better scout out any singers we might want to bring to the Met for a sudden, unscheduled debut.”

Von Blindt was horrified by Drew’s instructions. In all his years as a conductor at the Met, he had never been ordered to attend performances by a company he considered to be of less than international stature.

But Drew Gelfand wasn’t finished giving orders. Not by a long shot.

“Let’s get back to you, Frank. Since marketing is your jurisdiction, I want you to keep a close eye on subscription renewals. I’m anticipating some major financial cutbacks which are going to take a big chunk out of your advertising budget. You’d better start looking for new ways to get free publicity because I suspect that next season you’re going to be asked to deliver 10% more in both subscription and single ticket sales with a budget that’s at least 15% smaller than this year’s. Better start getting creative.”

Throwing his pen down on the desk, Drew pushed his chair back and smiled long enough for everyone to know that the meeting was officially over.

“That’s it, folks. Since this opera company is one of the largest nonprofit arts institutions in the world, I expect nothing less than a miracle from each and every one of you. And now, if you’ll excuse me, Manuel and I have some work to do.”

As Drew had predicted, von Blindt was the first to react. Rising from his chair like a wounded bull, the Maestro stormed out of Gelfand’s office in a rage. “This is scandalous,” shouted von Blindt. “What kind of an opera house do you think this is?”

By contrast, the Met’s Director of Development was surprisingly soft spoken. As she rose to leave the room, Nan McFarlane addressed her boss in an unusually flat voice.

“Listen, Drew, I don’t know what kind of an ego trip that speech offered you, but the way you treated the three of us just now was totally uncalled for. I can’t speak for Frank and Erich, but ever since Labor Day I’ve been working 12- to 16-hour days, six days a week. In case you can’t tell -- or are just too fucking insensitive to notice -- I’m pretty damn tired these days. During the first week of April, I’m supposed to deliver the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the National Association of Female Executives, be a guest speaker at the American Arts Alliance’s advocacy conference in Washington, and then go to Miami to attend an executive retreat for the nation’s leading fundraisers. The following week, I’m visiting my parents in North Carolina and, on my way back to New York, plan to stop in Cincinnati to share some time with a very dear friend who I haven’t seen in six years.”

“I need some time to prepare for these speeches and conferences and am looking forward to the stroking I get from making those appearances,” she added. “I’ve given many years of blood, sweat and tears to this organization. But this is one time in my life that the Metropolitan Opera -- and the dashingly handsome Drew Gelfand -- can fucking well wait until I get back to town before I lift a finger to help pay for your Supertitles.”

Nan looked at her boss with a combination of fatigue, helplessness and loathing.

“If you think, for one lousy minute, that that assinine little pep talk you just delivered -- which ranks as the biggest heap of macho executive bullshit I’ve heard in years -- is going to cause me to change any part of my plans, then you’ve got your head screwed on backwards.”

Nan closed the door behind her and disappeared from sight, leaving Drew and Frank facing each other in silence. The Met’s Marketing Director spoke first.

“We have to talk,” he said. “I need to know what the bottom line is.”

Drew Gelfand looked up from his desk and stared into O’Connor’s weary face. He knew that, after several years of working in the corporate world, Frank was having trouble readjusting to the nonprofit environment. But at the same time, O’Connor’s knowledge of business as it was conducted outside the arts might be just the thing that could save the Met

“Okay, you asked for it,” he sighed.

“Yesterday, the heads of Lincoln Center’s cluster of arts organizations had lunch at Gracie Mansion with the Mayor. During the meal, Hizzoner dropped a bomb in our laps whose contents were not very pretty. Although what the Mayor said won’t become public knowledge for a few more days, as soon as it does your office is going to be bombarded with calls from the media. Here’s the inside dirt.”

Next: Whose Opera Is It, Anyway?

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