Criticism on Fridays: Can Anything Prevent the Met from Reopening?

Nope, Nothing

By Polina Lyapustina

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

Over the last few weeks, American theatres began to announce their plans for the new season. And suddenly, for the audience, which is still a bit preoccupied with domestic issues like vaccination or (re)newly allowed activities, dawned the new hope of a speedy resumption of cultural life.

But some of the institutions have come to this point with the heavy baggage of unresolved conflict with theirs workers. And you know who I mean. The Met Opera’s management, that has used COVID-19 as leverage to seek long-term wage cuts, locking out backstage workers and outsourcing work overseas, is supposedly set to open in September. And while numerous stages announce or quietly plan their programs, the Met is busy with keeping its business active but unlikely openly or fairly. 

While IATSE Local One proclaims that the Met will never open without its workers, the actual work on the new season has already started. The theater outsourced the preparation for the upcoming “Rigoletto” and “Don Carlos” ( work that would normally done by American workers) to a company in Wales. Sets for “Fire Shut up in my Bones” have been sent to a non-union production operation on the west coast.

The union supporters rightfully ask, who will run those stages? It means that the time when the Met finally needs its employees has come. This moment, as expected, had to force Peter Gelb to make concessions, but it hasn’t happened. Instead, the theater recently had its (still not hired back) workers scheduled to start preparing for the new season on June 1. But so far, none of the members of Local One is willing to accept Gelb’s cuts after he outsourced part of their work. 

“The Met is an outlier,” IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb said. “Gelb has betrayed the stage technicians and craftspeople who are dedicated to the Met—many of whom have worked for the opera company long before Gelb’s tenure. Gelb has denied the workers an income and worse has outsourced their work overseas at a time when they could use employment since they have been unable to work because of the pandemic.”

But the situation remains unchanged, though the circumstances are different. In the slowly appearing post-COVID world where the struggles of the workers are visible for the public to see, where unions write numerous appeals to donors and elected leaders, where the rate of direct donations is high yet insufficient, and where theatres are set to open again — the Met still feels confident enough to betray its workers and violate their rights. 

And it will happen as long as Peter Gelb has the quiet but (now) obvious and undeniable support of the board and strong backing of the lawyers gracefully and certainly professionally manipulating laws for the sake of profit and to the detriment of the morality and people’s well being. 

A very important and short point has become clear in the last 14 months: nothing in this changing reality can affect the work of the Met if we approach the company not like the theatre and its people, but like a profit-oriented corporation. The Met is completely fine, smartly redirecting its cash flows while the pandemic rages, the workers are outsourced, and the unions are angry.

Next week, IATSE, which has 800 members who work at the Met Opera as stagehands, ticket sellers, costumers, lighting designers and technicians, set designers, make-up artists, and broadcast technicians, among other positions, will organize “We are the Met” Rally. And there’s quite a discussion around it. And many people are going to be there and support the important undertaking. But when I talk to people about it, they all ask me, “Do you think it can change the situation?”

Unfortunately, I don’t believe it can. I know, these people will stand to the last minute, but what’s then?

Somebody must run the Met’s stage. And somebody will. Gelb’s actions thus far have proven that there are no irreplaceable people. And those who want to work can fight as much as they can, but will ultimately be forced to accept what is offered or move on. 

I must emphasize that in the midst of all this, I was baffled by the announcement a couple of weeks ago of the “Three Divas” for the Met Stars Live in Concert from Versailles, starring, among others, Isabel Leonard, who called for action and open dialog in January when the Met orchestra started its campaign. I can’t blame the artist, who after months without work is finally allowed to do it and accept the given conditions. When I asked the mezzo-soprano for the comment, she responded honestly, though much is hidden between the lines:

“I am very excited to perform with my colleagues in Versailles. Every performer feels the painful weight of this last year in many different ways. As the business, we are in, works to evolve and create better protections for its artists, it is paramount that we bring our best selves forth and are unafraid to speak up for our worth. Much has to change in the imbalanced structures. Realistic, balanced and respectful thinking is needed all around. This is about the future of the entire business and all its members.”

And this, I’m afraid will happen to all the workers soon enough. The cuts will surely be reduced, as it already happened at the Met in 2014 after the outsourcing of numerous contracts. Some people will leave, but some new people will come. The work will continue. And then, the audience that is standing for the musicians’ rights will also return to the Met. 

And we will not even notice, that celebrating the victory over the pandemic — vaccinated, socialized, and happy again — we lost not a 1.5-year battle, but a war, allowing the Met to create (and prove the efficiency of) a precedent of the practice of constant and legalized denial and violation of workers rights in the theaters of the United States.

A practice that everyone else is welcome to use.