How New York’s opera companies treat their fans
There’s an opera to be written here somewhere: a man devotes 15 years of of his life to an unpaid labor of love, and when he finally gets noticed by the object of his affections it’s when he’s told to go away and stop what he’s doing forthwith.
Zachary Woolfe has the backstory. Brad Wilber’s Met Futures was a regular destination for opera lovers around the world, including those who worked at the Met: it aggregated all the information available about who was going to be appearing in future productions at America’s greatest opera house. And then, suddenly, it didn’t:
In May, Mr. Wilber was contacted by the Met for the first time. He received a phone call from Sharon Grubin, the company’s general counsel, who asked Mr. Wilber to take down Met Futures…
Mr. Wilber agreed to remove the list, which he did early last week. “I’m not by nature an especially subversive person,” he said. “And I always told myself that if it got to the point where the Met expressed concern I would take it down.”
Representatives from the Met’s communications department offered him some CDs, which he accepted, and they spoke with him about the tone and content of his farewell post.
This is the best-case scenario as far as what the Met thinks it wants is concerned: Grubin clearly gauged her approach to Wilber perfectly, and couldn’t be happier with the outcome.
Whether the Met was right to try to take down Met Futures is another question entirely. Whether you’re making books or music or films or musicals or Broadway shows or operas, you’re generally going to have a substantial staff of people, armed with a large budget, devoted to trying to create advance buzz for your product. Brad Wilber, singlehandedly, and at no cost to the Met, did a better job in the advance-buzz stakes than most Met staffers. They should have been showering him with love and attention — and given the accuracy of his listings, it’s entirely plausible to believe that he had a few back-channels open for much of Met Futures’s existence.
There are two stated reasons why the Met wanted Met Futures taken down: that sometimes there were errors; and that it “muddied negotiations with artists”. Given the large disclaimers on the site, which in no way looked officially affiliated with the Met, I can’t believe that either was a particularly big deal. But organizations like the Met tend to attract control freaks, and it was probably inevitable that if Met Futures caused even a little bit of trouble for someone senior enough in the organization, that this day would arrive. A small but salient immediate problem is a lot more noticeable than a significant long-term benefit which is hard to notice or quantify.
And so Grubin was charged with approaching Wilber with the intent of getting the site taken down. As Woolfe says, she had no legal leg to stand on — but when the general counsel of the Met talks to someone with no legal training, her position alone gives her a lot of authority. My guess is she didn’t belabor any legal points; she just introduced herself and asked nicely. In my experience that’s by far the most effective tactic to take if you want someone to take something down. Nastygram cease-and-desist letters can work, but people don’t like bullies and if the letter gets made public it can be highly embarrassing for the company which sent it out.
The Metropolitan Opera, then, has proved itself surprisingly adept at taking down one of the most effective promotional mechanisms it had. Very silly. But at least that’s better than moving out of your home and then socking subscribers with a 400% hike in subscription prices when you ask them to travel all over New York City to see your productions, as New York City Opera seems to have done, even as it seeks to turn its orchestra into a freelance band with no vacation pay, tenure, leave, health insurance or instrument insurance.
All in all, it’s hard to get excited about New York opera these days; the last opera I went to was actually in Philadelphia. The creaky subscription-based ticketing architecture at these companies is so old that it can’t even encourage people to go to smaller or more experimental pieces by lowering the prices for them. And although the new-music scene in New York feels extremely vibrant, none of that excitement ever seems to spill over into the opera world. If the Met is actively shutting down expressions of fandom by devoted opera lovers like Brad Wilber, I don’t see that changing any time soon.