A Cyberattack Shuts the Met Opera’s Box Office, but the Show Goes On
It had been a full week since a brazen cyberattack had hobbled the Metropolitan Opera, taking its website offline and paralyzing its box office, and hundreds of opera lovers were waiting patiently in line Tuesday evening, fluctuating between anxiety and anticipation.
The curtain was set to rise on the Met’s grandiose old-school production of Verdi’s “Aida” in 45 minutes, and 300 audience members had managed to score the sold-out $50 general admission tickets that the cyberattack had forced the company to offer as a workaround until its computer systems are fully restored.
Some had feared a “running of the bulls” situation, with opera lovers jockeying for prime seats that ordinarily cost as much as $350 apiece. But the human choreography amid the technological mayhem was fairly seamless. The general-admission hordes, who had bought their tickets on a hastily assembled page on Lincoln Center’s website, were directed to side corridors of the Met’s 3,800-seat auditorium. There, ushers handed them improvised tickets, their seat numbers handwritten in black magic marker, distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.
“It’s frightening that a cyberattack can happen at a place like the Met,” said Mike Figliulo, 42, a technology director on Broadway, as he marched triumphantly to his $50 seat in row M of the orchestra.
The attack on the Met, the largest performing arts organization in the United States, knocked out a ticketing system that typically handles about $200,000 in sales each day at this time of year, and took down the company’s payroll system, forcing it to cut checks by hand for some of its 3,000 full- and part-time employees. It was the latest major disruption for a company struggling to lure audiences back to prepandemic levels, and it hit just as the lucrative holiday season was getting underway.
“With this attack, it feels like we have entered the ninth circle of hell,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said Tuesday during a pause in a rehearsal for an upcoming English-language holiday production of “The Magic Flute” that is popular with families. “It adds strain on a company that has suffered innumerable strains and challenges since the pandemic from which we are still recovering.”
The Met’s outspoken support for Ukraine — it presented “A Concert for Ukraine” last season; helped arrange a tour by the newly formed Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra; and parted ways with one of its reigning prima donnas, the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, after she declined to distance herself from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — led to speculation that Russia could be behind the cyberattack.
Gelb tamped down that theory, saying that the attack appeared to be the work of an organized criminal gang. He said the Met had informed the F.B.I. of the attack, and that he hoped that the box office would be running as early as Wednesday.
“I can understand why there might be conjecture that Russia is behind this, given the Met’s strong condemnation of Putin and defense of Ukraine,” he said. “But we don’t believe Putin is masterminding cyberattacks on opera companies. And if he is, that is a good reason that the Russians are losing the war.”
Gelb declined to elaborate on who was behind the attack. But cybersecurity experts said that, given how long it was taking the Met to get back online, the attack bore the hallmarks of an increasingly prevalent type of modern-day piracy that has targeted businesses, local governments, hospitals and even hotels. The weapon? A type of software known as ransomware.
The crime is as simple as it is effective. In some cases victims receive an email with a link or attachment that contains software that encrypts files on their computer and holds them hostage until they pay a ransom.
Ransomware has become a global scourge. A ransomware attack this fall disrupted the government of Suffolk County, on Long Island, forcing it largely offline. Five years ago, one of the largest ransomware attacks in recent memory left thousands of computers at companies in Europe, universities in Asia and hospitals in Britain crippled or shut down — in some cases, paralyzing hospital equipment before patients were poised to go into surgery.
Justin Cappos, a cybersecurity expert at New York University’s department of computer science and engineering, said hackers who carry out such attacks frequently operate in Russia and Eastern Europe, and often demand a ransom in Bitcoin, a digital currency that is hard to trace. A Bitcoin payment also can’t be rescinded once it is made.
He said that the targeting of cultural institutions like the Met was surprising, given that they typically have limited financial resources. Nevertheless, he said, the attackers might have been motivated by the audacity of targeting such a global and glittering brand.
“Every organization needs to care about cybersecurity, even cultural organizations like the Met,” Cappos said. This attack, he added, underscored that “nobody is safe.”
The Met — which never missed a curtain last year, even when the Omicron variant shut down wide swaths of Broadway, dance performances and concerts — has managed to proceed with all of its performances through the current cyberattack, staging Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and “Aida” and its new production of Kevin Puts’s “The Hours,” starring Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara and Joyce DiDonato, which was simulcast as planned to movie theaters around the world on Saturday as part of the Met’s Live in HD series.
With war raging in Europe, record inflation and the continuing effects of the pandemic, cultural institutions across the world, including the Met, have been struggling economically. But Gelb said the Met was resilient.
“Our lives have been turned upside down,” he added. “But we’ll get through it.”
The operagoers who went to the Met on Tuesday evening were transported back to a grand operatic vision of ancient Egypt, with soaring arias and choruses telling a story of doomed love and divided loyalties. One scene stealer was an unruly pony named Sandy who stomped its hoof and shook its head aggressively during the larger-than-life Triumphal Scene, eliciting nervous laughter from the audience.
The audience was able to forget, at least temporarily, that it was at the center of an opera house under siege.