A ticket to the opera

Karita Mattila and Anja Silja are two of the greatest actresses of their respective generations. You haven’t seen them in the movies, you probably haven’t even seen them on the TV. But if you’ve seen them on stage, the chances are that you haven’t forgotten the experience.

The really amazing thing about Mattila and Silja, of course, is that not only are they superlative actresses but they’re also among the finest singers of their respective generations. Mattila has been taking the Met by storm for the past few years, in Jenufa and Salome and various other roles. Silja has performed for decades in all the greatest opera houses of the world. But having seen her Kostelniƒçka at Glyndebourne, I can’t imagine she’s ever found a more perfect role for her talents.

And now — and now. Well, to be honest, in February. They’re appearing together at the Met: Mattila opposite Silja in one of the most powerful operas of the 20th Century. All I can say is that it isn’t a question of whether I’m going: it’s a question of how many times I’m going. (Or how many times I can afford to go, more to the point. In most operas, I don’t mind if I’m far from the stage, since it’s all about the music. But in this case, I want to be up close, for the acting. And that, at the Met, is blood-drainingly expensive.)

The Met is not going to make it easy for me to get tickets, however. At the moment, the only way to get tickets for Jenufa is to buy a full series: tickets for seven or eight operas, all on the same day of the week. Let’s say I choose Friday nights. The only series incuding Jenufa runs from October until May, and costs $1,600 per seat for prime orchestra seats. (Premium seats in the Grand Tier are already sold out at $1,960 a pop.) Even way up in the back of the balcony you’re paying $544 per seat — well over $1,000 the pair.

These series are like cellphone minutes: you’re forced to buy more than you need. Sure, I’ll go see Jenufa and the Tan Dun opera anyway. But I’m also shelling out for Handel (snore) and “Il Trittico”, a series of lightweight one-act operas by Puccini which one can’t imagine appealing to the Jenufa crowd.

Eventually, the Met will start selling shorter series, and after that they’ll start selling trios: sets of three operas. If I’m lucky, there’ll be a trio with Jenufa and The First Emperor and something non-awful — but by that point the good seats will all have been sold to richer people than I. If I wait until single-opera tickets go on sale, the operas I want might well be sold out completely.

None of this, needless to say, engenders much in the way of goodwill on my part towards the Met. (This doesn’t stop them from phoning me up on a regular basis and asking me to donate money to them.)

The Met isn’t unique in using these tactics: any museum with a membership program does something similar. But the amounts of money involved are larger at the Met than they are anywhere else, and the whole edifice seems expressly designed to make it as hard as possible for people who haven’t grown up with opera to lower themselves gently into its waters.

Indeed, the Met seems to go out of its way to avoid advertising or promoting any individual production: the message it sends out, very consistently, is that the way to see the opera is to buy lots of tickets, as far in advance as possible, for things you think you’ll like and things you’re not so sure about. Which is great if you’re a sixtysomething lady of means on Central Park West who can happily organise her calendar a year in advance. But it’s not going to attract a younger, poorer, hipper crowd — the kind of people that the Met increasingly needs as its subscribers move either to Florida or to that great parterre box in the sky.

As Peter Gelb takes over from Joseph Volpe as general manager at the Met, he should shake up the box office. First, and most easily, he should accept returns. New Yorkers are busy creatures, and sometimes, through no fault of their own, they find one or two of their party unable to make it to the opera on a night booked months previously. Often, the tickets are great ones, for a performance which has been sold out for a long time. The fair way to deal with the situation is familiar to any theatregoer who’s lived in England. There’s a line for returns, and anybody with an extra ticket takes it to the box office, which then sells it to the first person in line. The original ticketholder gets the face value of the ticket back, and makes an opera lover very happy in the process.

But the Met won’t let that happen. If you try to return a ticket you can’t use, the Met will gladly accept it — but only as a donation. In other words, if you want your ticket to go to the first person in line, then you have to let the Met sell the same ticket twice, and keep all the proceeds both times. So instead you have to stand outside like some kind of furtive scalper, trying to work out whether and which people might be interested in your ticket. It’s a nasty, unpleasant experience — especially since you’re likely to be sitting next to the buyer of your ticket for the next five hours, as you both pretend you didn’t just engage in a vaguely illicit-feeling cash transaction.

A lot of people, understandably, don’t want to stand outside the Met scalping their own tickets. But because the Met won’t pay the owners a penny for their tickets, the owners have no incentive to return the tickets to the box office. So even as opera lovers desperately try to get their hands on tickets to what could be the experience of a lifetime, other tickets, unusable by the original owners, are being desperately given away to people who barely care about opera — or, worse, are simply wasting away in a drawer somewhere as the likes of Mattila and Silja play to paid-for but tragically empty seats.

Once Gelb has figured out the returns fiasco, he can then turn his attention to the subscriptions. I know that the Met values its subscribers, but ultimately it needs to meet the needs and desires of as many operagoers and would-be operagoers as possible. If it treats New Yorkers well, they are much more likely to repay the goodwill with goodwill of their own. So the Met should make it possible for people to buy good tickets to any opera in the season without having to wait for the monied classes to have their pick first. (The fact that they’re monied should be advantage enough.)

The current Met system is weird: it’s in some ways the opposite of the way that other wasting assets, like airline seats or hotel rooms, are sold. With airlines and hotels, the earlier you book the less you pay. With the opera, you end up paying the Met much more money if you book early (since the only way of doing so is to buy a big subscription package) than if you try to buy a premium ticket at the last minute.

On the other hand, no one is surprised that good hotel rooms cost more than crappy hotel rooms. At the Met, by contrast, any given seat costs the same amount, no matter what the opera is or who is in it. That’s why the Met needs the subscription packages: so that it can fill seats in the less popular operas.

There’s a better way, though. Put all seats on sale at the same time, and charge more for the in-demand productions than for the ones that fewer people want to go and see. Verdi will subsidize Monteverdi either way, but this way is much more democratic. It also gives the Met the opportunity to put on really interesting and experimental opera at low enough prices to attract the downtown art-music crowd.

The Met has had a high-handed attitude towards its patrons for far too long, which is one reason it’s perceived as snooty and elitist. It’s time to break down those barriers.

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7 Responses to A ticket to the opera

  1. Lance Knobel says:

    Excellent ideas. The cul de sac that the Met and other, principally American opera companies have driven down is to position opera as a validation of the audience member’s elite cultural and financial status. Nothing to do with a vibrant, living art.

    That’s one of the reasons why the Met, with such extraordinary resources, has had such a famously conservative repertory. It keeps their wealthy patrons happy.

    Is it really true, as you write, that the Met charges the same price for every production and every cast? Covent Garden certainly jacks the price way, way up if they have a superstar in the cast.

  2. Felix says:

    It’s a function of the subscriptions. Even the Met can’t expect people to be able to make every single one of eight pre-picked performances (and no, of course you can’t pick your own eight). So they allow a bit of tinkering at the edges: you can swap your tickets for other performances. But in order to make that possible, all performances have to cost the same. Or I guess that’s part of the reason, in any case.

  3. jen says:

    Thanks for this post. I love opera but I can’t afford more than one in a blue moon. All those old rich people will die one day and if the Met doesn’t encourage younger poorer people to love opera, they won’t have a future subscription base.

    the returns is the very least they can do.

  4. Paul says:

    Major League Baseball figured that one out a long time ago – it makes sense to charge more for tickets against visiting teams people are more anxious to see. Here in Colorado, it’ll cost you more for Rockies tix against the Cubs than it will against the Marlins or Phillies. The only downside? You’re still paying to see the Rockies! As with the Met, Opera Colorado charges the same price for a ticket (depending upon location) regardless of the production, but they only put on three operas a year. Under those circumstances, it’s not as hard to select pieces that folks want to hear.

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