The Metropolitan Opera’s New Business Import

Puccini. Verdi. Wagner.

When New York City’s grand Metropolitan Opera wishes to pack its Lincoln Center home with an enthusiastic audience, what does it do? It follows the time-tested tradition of importing the great European classics that were written by these composers and customizing them for American audiences.

Sometimes, American composers become so enthralled with these European classics that they transform them into uniquely American standards. Giacomo Puccini’s 19th century La Boheme, for instance, was originally written as a paean to the starving Parisian artists who lived in unheated attics in the Latin Quarter and died of tuberculosis, sacrificing their lives for their art.

In the hands of the New York Theater Workshop, though, Paris became the Big Apple. The Latin Quarter became Alphabet City in the East Village of Manhattan. Unheated attics became uninhabited, deserted buildings. And tuberculosis became HIV / AIDS.

The result of this transformation was Rent, a “rock musical” on stage and on film that won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Musical. At the time of its closure, it was the tenth longest running Broadway show ever.

Last week, the Metropolitan Opera of New York City announced a different kind of high-profile European import. Faced with the same financial pressures that drove its sibling New York City Opera into bankruptcy, the Met and its labor unions jointly announced the importation and adaptation of Germany’s famed business – labor collaboration business model.

In essence, management and labor each agreed — in accordance with a principle entitled “equality of sacrifice” — to absorb several painful financial reductions and restrictions, while granting unions “a voice in decisions” regarding future business practices. Each side also agreed to welcome an independent financial analyst to the management table to help monitor the Met’s fiscal budget.

In the United States, of course, the power and influence of labor unions has long been in decline. And even during the heyday of the labor movement, critics of American unions charged that they focused mostly on negotiating more lucrative compensation terms for their members, instead of demonstrating concern for their employers’ economic competitiveness.

Will the German model of business – labor collaboration actually succeed in its original form at the Met in the United States? Or, like La Boheme and Rent, will it be transformed into a uniquely American model that is based on an original European foundation, but that is thoroughly customized for a different culture?

Apparently, the Met and its employees have decided to take a chance on a new European model. If Rent was able to succeed with an American audience, perhaps there is reason to hope that this newly transplanted business model will succeed as well.