Modernizing a 16th-Century Tradition

Sharon Grubin keeps The Met apace with the times       

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® 2008 magazine

By Karen Jones on December 1, 2008


Sharon E. Grubin’s post as general counsel of The Metropolitan Opera sounds too good to be true. One might assume she’s constantly surrounded by glamour, romance and luxury. That wouldn’t be altogether incorrect. What would be false, however, is the assumption that Grubin doesn’t get her hands dirty.

For instance, there was the close encounter with a maverick goat named Lulu who nudged her way into Grubin’s office and began munching on a pile of contracts. “It’s a great way to clean up your office,” jokes Grubin, who says Lulu downed only a few snippets before she was marched back to rehearsal for The Met’s production of War and Peace.

And then there was the opening night when Grubin just couldn’t sit still. So after act one of the three-act Madame Butterfly, she hiked up her evening gown, opted out of taking a company car, and in her fancy pumps, jumped a subway to Times Square. “I just had to see what was going on down there,” Grubin explains. The reason for her sudden departure was The Met’s experimental simulcast of the stage production on screens throughout the city.

“After negotiating all the contracts with the various entities who owned the screens and so forth, I wanted to see the simulcast myself. So there I was, in a long gown, high heels, sitting on the subway,” she recalls with a laugh. “Of course, no one notices anything in New York City. I got some snickers on the way back, but that’s all.”

Although she missed all of act two, she was more than satisfied with the scene in Times Square. “There are things on those screens 24/7, but the people watching the performance were just rapt,” she says. “There were chairs set up, people standing everywhere. It was very gratifying.”

Grubin, 59, a music lover, is quite at home at The Met. She acquired her passion for the arts from her mother, whom she describes as “a true music person; she could play by ear and had a gorgeous voice.” Though Grubin did not pursue a career in music—she majored in American studies at Smith College—she did earn a minor in music. After graduating from Boston University School of Law in 1973, she worked at White & Case in New York and later served 16 years as a U.S. magistrate judge in the Southern District of New York.

By 2000, after two terms on the bench, Grubin learned that the position of in-house lawyer at The Met was open. “I interviewed the next day and was offered the job,” she says. “Who could say no?” Though she says her job is difficult to describe, at any given time she could be called upon to handle litigation, contracts, donor and other financial transactions, board and governance matters, labor and employment, tax and immigration, and much more—including any problems that arise from The Met’s newfound presence in the high-tech world.

The Times Square simulcast was only the beginning of a digital revolution for The Met, a vision general manager Peter Gelb has nurtured since he took the position in 2006.

“He is brilliant,” Grubin says of Gelb. “Audience numbers were dropping, perhaps due to the notion that opera is an aging art form popular with elderly people.”

To revamp and redistribute what is already a worldwide brand, The Met also simulcasts in movie theaters. “What started as six performances in 2006 has turned into 11 for this year,” Grubin says.

So although The Met welcomes 900,000 visitors to more than 230 performances and requires 1,000 full-time employees and 2,500 part-time and seasonal workers to keep the curtain going up all year, those figures only account for the people who fill the seats in the house.

Via movie theaters, The Met’s productions are on 900 screens in 30 different countries, directly piped to more than one million viewers, who pay little more than a movie ticket price to see a strictly non-popcorn performance. Want to see The Magic Flute live from a strip mall in Albany? Go for it—Grubin did. She was struck by the audience’s reaction. “They cried, they cheered, they ‘shushed!’ other people,” she says. “It was incredible.”

The Met also broadcasts on PBS, has its own channel on Sirius Radio, and in October, it kicked off an on-demand subscription service on its Web site that charges viewers $14.99 per month to access current and archived productions.

“It has enlivened the opera,” she says of The Met’s innovations. “But it’s also called for unique contract agreements.”

Traditionally, every time a work is translated into a new medium (from stage to television, for example), all of the players involved—from the dancers to the pit—have to be re-compensated. But Grubin spearheaded a new collective bargaining agreement in which all the performers involved get a share of the net profit of the performance. “Think of it as a big pot that holds all the profit,” she says. “A large part of that is allocated to the unions, who in turn allocate it to the dancers, the stagehands, the performers, etc.”

She handles problems in an art form known for its supersized egos, a skill that requires a reservoir of calm and patience, something Grubin acquired during her years as a judge. “You see it all on the bench and you don’t get excited,” she says. “There is a solution to every problem.”

Besides dealing with 18 unions and 21 collective-bargaining agreements, she has been called upon to explain to an irate Russian singer that taxes must be taken out of his check, and to read through late artist Marc Chagall’s letters to The Met, in French, to find out if The Met owns the famous Chagall paintings in the lobby. (It does.)

Though she will not reveal any peccadilloes regarding opera’s boldface names, she brightens at the mention of superstar tenor Plácido Domingo, whom she calls “absolutely delightful.”

In what little spare time she has, Grubin enjoys hiking at her country home in upstate New York, playing the piano, running and playing tennis. And, yes, she does attend the opera. “When I first came here, if you told me I would sit through all [18 hours] of the Ring Cycle, I would have said you are out of your mind,” she says. “Two years ago, I watched it and loved it.”

Next on her list? Act two, Madame Butterfly.        


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