NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera said Monday that the coronavirus pandemic would force the company to cancel its fall season, thrusting the Met into one of the gravest crises in its 137-year history and leaving many of its artists, who have not been paid since March, in dire financial straits.
The announcement by the Met, the nation’s largest performing arts organization, is sure to be watched closely by other presenters who are trying to gauge when it might be safe to invite audiences back for live performances, and how to survive in the meantime.
The company, which last performed live March 11, now hopes to return with a gala on New Year’s Eve after its longest interruption in more than a century. It is a gap that is projected to cost the company close to $100 million in lost revenue, a figure that will be partly offset by lower costs and emergency fundraising efforts.
“It’s transparently obvious that social distancing and grand opera cannot go together,” Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said in an interview. “It’s not just the audience; it’s the health of the company. You cannot put a symphony orchestra inside a pit, and performers and a chorus in intimate proximity on the stage of the Met.”
And even if all that were possible, he added, it would be impractical to perform for the 400 or 500 people who could sit at safe distances in the Met’s gilded 3,800-seat auditorium. “How do you get them in?” he said. “How do you get them out?”
The cancellation poses a major threat to the company. “The Met’s financial position was somewhat fragile before the pandemic,” Gelb said. “This has increased the economic risks significantly. On the other hand, it has become a rallying cry to the Met, and to its supporters, of the urgent need to address it and come up with solutions. Because nobody wants the Met to fail.”
Gelb added that he was already thinking about how a post-pandemic Met might change. “The future of the Met is going to be very different,” he said.
The months of cancellations will be especially hard on the company’s employees, including the members of its world-renowned orchestra and chorus, who have not been paid since March, when the company furloughed them but agreed to keep paying for their health benefits. Most have gone on unemployment, and several members of the company said that some of their colleagues have had to give up their homes.
All were hoping to be back at work by the time the additional $600-a-week unemployment benefit that Congress approved as part of its pandemic relief package is set to expire, at the end of July.
“The real scare for us now is what happens after that,” said Ned Hanlon, a chorister who is the chairman of the Met’s American Guild of Musical Artists committee, which negotiates with the company on behalf of its choristers, stage directors, dancers and others.
The chorus recently set up an emergency relief fund to help artists struggling to make ends meet at a time when usual sources of extra income, such as singing in churches or taking freelance work, have dried up as well. “I don’t know how we get through those next few months,” Hanlon said.
And it is not just choristers: Soloists, including some of opera’s biggest names, are essentially freelancers, and they are struggling without work or pay. Hardship has hit the Met’s orchestra, too, whose members, unlike their peers at many other major American symphonic ensembles, have gone unpaid.
“With the latest news of an extended shutdown and the orchestra continuing to be furloughed without pay, we fear that our members will be prevented from supporting their families, communities and the local economy with what they do best: make music,” the committee that represents the players in union negotiations said in a statement.
The virus has already claimed lives at the Met: Vincent J. Lionti, a violist in the orchestra, died of it, as did Joel Revzen, an assistant conductor.
Gelb said the loss of the beginning of the 2020-21 season — including over three months of performances, several Live in HD cinema transmissions and its lucrative opening night fundraising gala — is projected to cost the company $54 million, on top of the tens of millions that were lost this spring. He added that people who have already bought tickets for the canceled performances could exchange them for other performances, donate the money or get full refunds.
The Met has struggled at the box office in recent years while maintaining an annual budget of over $300 million. But the pandemic struck at a moment when several big artistic and box-office hits — including new productions of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” and Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten” — had put the company on track for one of its most successful seasons in years.
The company has an endowment valued at $270 million, down from close to $300 million before the pandemic — a fraction of the size of the funds at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The opera has bonded debt; relies on a letter of credit that is backed in part by the enormous Chagall murals that hang in its lobby; and has been chided at times by ratings agencies for not keeping enough cash on hand. Now it is fighting for its financial life.
The Met still enjoys strong philanthropic support, and it has raised $60 million over the past two months, as part of an emergency campaign. Marc A. Scorca, the president of Opera America, an industry organization, noted that one of opera’s perceived weaknesses — that it does not get enough box-office revenue to come close to covering expenses, making it reliant on donors — could help it weather the current waves of cancellations.
“It has always been a disadvantage of opera that so little of its income comes from box office,” he said. “But in comparison to sectors like the theater, some of these opera companies are less fragile — provided that they can hold on to the philanthropy.”
The Met’s digital outreach — a necessity at a moment when live performances have been restricted — has been strong. The company has been streaming free operas from its extensive video catalog each night, an endeavor that has helped it attract 20,000 new donors. And Gelb said the At-Home Gala it streamed in April, with live performances filmed on smartphones from the homes of opera stars around the world, was watched by 750,000 people and raised $1.5 million in small donations and another $1.5 million from large sponsors.
But Gelb said that the Met will have to think and act differently in the future if it is to survive. “It’s really going to ultimately require an economic reset of the Met,” he said, declining to elaborate.
The pandemic will keep audiences away for longer than the labor unrest that halted weeks of performances in 1969 and 1980 — two interruptions that the Met took years to recover from, with some audience members not returning after the gaps. Gelb is already thinking about how the company will change.
“We’re going to have to be more nimble and more flexible,” he said, “and if anything we’re going to hope to have even more new productions, and more new experiences, to try to stimulate more interest.”
The abbreviated season to come will look very different from what was planned. Because of the lack of time for mounting technical rehearsals, which are usually held in the summer, the Met is postponing planned new productions of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” and “Don Giovanni,” and will stage revivals of their old productions instead. Two new productions that had been planned for the fall, Verdi’s “Aida” and Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel,” have been postponed until later seasons. In February, when the house had been scheduled to be dark, the Met plans to stage popular titles, including Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Bizet’s “Carmen” and Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
To make attendance as appealing as possible, most show times will be moved to 7 p.m., and the company will explore cutting some operas, the way Shakespeare plays are typically cut in performance. Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” will be trimmed to 3 1/2 hours, with one intermission, from 4 1/2 hours, with two.
The Met does plan to go ahead with Ivo van Hove’s new production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” which is to be conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, who is still scheduled to conduct 26 performances, including a highly anticipated revival of Strauss’ “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.”
This week Gelb, who is usually found at the Met at all hours, returned to the mostly empty opera house for the first time in 10 weeks to film a message to the company announcing the extended closure.
“It felt quite desolate,” he said. “But the ghosts of the past performances are very much present. The Met is an amazing house, and because I started out there as an usher in my teenage years, it’s part of me. And I know I’m not alone in my commitment to saving the Met for the future.”