City Opera, New York’s No. 2 Troupe,Is Belting for Diva-Size Wages

Tired of living in the formidable shadow of the Metropolitan Opera, top administrators at the New York City Opera decided that this year would be their breakout season. With a new artistic director in Paul Kellogg, a newly polished image as the “New City Opera” and an expanded production schedule, the company sought to put the other Lincoln Center opera on the cultural map.

But as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Kitty Carlisle Hart, journalist Abe Rosenthal and others arrived for an opening-night gala on Sept. 11, a small cadre of performers gathered in Dante Park in front of Lincoln Center to stage what surely was the most artistic labor rally of the year. The company’s chorus sang pieces from Macbeth and dancers pirouetted for passers-by, all in an effort to draw attention to stalled contract negotiations between the company’s unions and management. But with the exception of a brief acknowledgment from the Mayor, who nodded and waved on his way to the theater, the protest was a washout. The performers assumed their places on stage by 6:30 P.M., no closer to new contracts than they were before the demonstration.

Effective or not, though, the protest was hardly an auspicious beginning to City Opera’s ambitious plans for the 1997-98 season. It shed light on management-labor tensions-and on tensions among the performers themselves-that are complicating Mr. Kellogg’s effort to bolster the company’s prestige. “We wanted to send a message to management and to the public to say, ‘Hey, we don’t have a contract in place and we’re about to debut,'” said Jamie Van Bramer, a spokesman for the American Guild of Musical Artists.

Apparently, the union had something more drastic than a sing-in in mind. According to several performers, only a technical snafu prevented an all-out walkout on opening night: The union was late in filing the paperwork necessary to call a legal strike.

But shared grievance and common cause are not doing much to improve harmony among the performers themselves. Bickering among various groups of the union-which include the chorus, dancers, their associates, the directors and staging staff, and the stage managers-has divided the troupe. One particularly bitter dispute concerns the use of the associate chorus. Associates generally are called on to supplement the regular choristers for especially large chorus operas, and are only occasionally given their own performances. But because of Mr. Kellogg’s addition of eight new productions-some of which are replacing already-learned repertoire-associate choristers have been given three productions of their own for the 1997-98 season, reducing the regular choristers’ pay.

“Regular choristers are complaining about the shows guaranteed to associates,” said Michael Ross, himself an associate chorister. Mr. Ross added that the casting director has chosen to fill small parts with principals this year, another source of contention. “It gives more principals roles, which costs more, [and] it detracts from choristers getting extra money,” he said.

That isn’t exactly what Mr. Kellogg, his top administrators and his well-connected “general director’s council”-featuring Brendan Gill, Terrence McNally, Carolyne Roehm, Brooke Hayward, Peter Duchin and Susan Sontag-had in mind for this fall.

Mr. Kellogg was installed at the head of City Opera in January 1996, after a couple of rocky years under the late director Christopher Keene-who attempted to run the company despite severe illness. Mr. Kellogg’s much-touted success with Cooperstown’s Glimmerglass Opera, which went from a minor-league, $70,000-a-year operation to a $3.5 million showcase under Mr. Kellogg’s 17-year stewardship, boded well for the troubled Lincoln Center company. And although Mr. Kellogg is not a musician-prior to his work at the Glimmerglass, he taught French-he is known for his administrative savvy and knowledge of opera.

Mr. Kellogg immediately brought some of his former colleagues to help with the transition. Perhaps foremost among them was Sherwin Goldman, a colleague from Glimmerglass, as executive producer. As Mr. Kellogg told Opera News , “I knew we would never be able to raise artistic standards unless we could get the general business elements in place, and I needed somebody who was fully aware of the problems of arts organizations, strong and an excellent businessman. Happily, Sherwin … agreed to come along.” Mr. Goldman’s résumé included more than 10 years as a producer on Broadway and a Tony for his revival of Porgy and Bess in 1976. Colleagues in the art world vouch for his skills as an arts administrator. “Sherwin is really first class,” said Mr. Duchin, who knows Mr. Goldman both from the City Opera and the board of Glimmerglass. “And he and Paul have a very good, symbiotic relationship … in the sense that Paul is a kind of artistic concept man, and Sherwin is a person with great appreciation for music. He goes [to the opera] every night, not because he has to, but because he wants to.”

Artists who worked with Mr. Goldman during the contract discussions, however, were less satisfied with his professional modus operandi. According to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity, it was not uncommon for Mr. Goldman to lose his temper during the sometimes rocky contract talks, which began April 30 and continued throughout the summer. The source said that Mr. Goldman was particularly loath to be asked for proof of his statistical assertions. On one such occasion, he lost his cool in front of half the chorus, the source added. Another source who was present at the negotiations described a “tantrum” Mr. Goldman threw over this very issue, screaming at the questioner and storming out of the meeting room. In addition, Mr. Goldman is seen as secretive and guarded.

The performers assert that they are underpaid, especially in comparison to their peers at the Met, although they acknowledge the Met’s far superior financial resources. “One would assume that we’d have some kind of parity with rest of Lincoln Center,” said dancer William Ward. “That’s not a reality, I guess … If I just did my City Opera and collected unemployment in the off-season, I could survive. But I imagine it would be only slightly above the poverty level.” Chorister Madeleine Mines agreed. “I do not make enough money to support myself,” she said. “I stay where I am because I love it.”

Mr. Van Bramer, the union spokesman, compares the City Opera to urban houses like the Chicago Lyric Opera and the San Francisco Opera. While a first-year chorister at the Chicago Lyric makes $830 a week, the same chorister at the New York City Opera makes $564 a week under the old contract, according to Mr. Van Bramer. (Although the old contract expired on May 25, it remains in force.) Mr. Van Bramer would not disclose the union’s negotiating strategy, but he said that the union is attempting to come as close as possible to parity with comparable opera companies.

Martin Oppenheimer, management’s lawyer and a vice chair of City Opera’s board, disagreed with the union’s citation of other urban companies. “The amount spent per performance by Chicago and San Francisco is much higher than the amount that we can afford and do spend … so in a sense that comparison is not fair,” he said. Mr. Oppenheimer has been designated as the company’s sole spokesman; Mr. Kellogg and Mr. Goldman could not be reached for comment.

It’s unclear how high management will go in offering the performers a raise, but the artists aren’t particularly optimistic. Despite a Sept. 30 agreement to move contract issues through mediation and, if necessary, arbitration, opera employees believe the discussions have taken too long already.

But the dispute has called the union’s power and competency into question. From the aborted strike to the announcement that both parties would submit to mediation and arbitration, the union has been plagued by insufficient staff and-according to members-a sense of apathy.

Brandon Saxon Skolnik, an associate dancer, believes that City Opera’s new administrators would like to do away with weekly salaries altogether-ridding themselves of long-term contract headaches. As he put it, “If the New York City Opera [managers] could have [their] way, they would get rid of all weekly artists, and turn the opera into what is called a roadhouse-a place where artists come in, per performance, at the management’s decision. And on the flip side, it looks like A.G.M.A. is going to let this happen.”

Mr. Van Bramer vehemently disagreed: “I would argue that we’ve fought tooth and nail. Not only are we not apathetic, we will continue to spend a great deal of time and energy making sure that [the performers] are protected.”

Eva Chrysanthe contributed to this story.

City Opera, New York’s No. 2 Troupe,Is Belting for Diva-Size Wages