Opera Impasse! Unions and Management Clash at Witching Hour Negotiations

George Steel

The long Puccini-worthy saga of the New York City Opera has came to a serious head in the wee hours this morning. Since last Spring, the Opera’s management has been bickering with the unionized musicians and singers in a story story rife with baroque intrigue.  George Steel, the managing director of the Opera, has tried to cut performers’ pay in an attempt to save the institution from financial ruin. While the Opera has accumulated over $44 million in debt over the past decade, musicians and singers are clamoring inguisto!

The trouble started last May when the Opera’s management announced the institution would be leaving Lincoln Center, it’s home of 44 years. Vagabonded and virtually indigent, the Opera set on a path of infighting that climaxed this week.

After long negotiations on Monday and an agonizing 14-hour session Wednesday, the Opera’s management and their lawyers left the table last night around midnight, declaring an impasse to the discussion. Mr. Steel has expressed a desire to dissemble the storied orchestra, employing musicians on an ad hoc basis instead to cut costs.

The Observer spoke to Don Batchelder, the principal trumpet player for the Opera’s orchestra, who claimed that the “freelance” musician concept was unscrupulous at best. “We are not a freelance, pick-up orchestra,” he said indignantly. The issue is not only one of pride, he explained, but a matter of living wages. Before Mr. Steel took the helm of the City Opera in 2009, financing the orchestra consisted of about 13% percent of the organization’s total operating budget. As their final offer in the most recent round of negotiations, the Opera suggested allotting 9% of the budget to the musicians’ pay, with rates around $700 per week. “You cant even like for a month on that kind of money,” Mr. Batchelder said.

The musicians understand the dire financial straits, but don’t believe that the management’s proposal was fair. “We were aware that there is a smaller pie to divide,” Mr. Batchelder said. “But the fact that they’re not willing to pay us anything close to the same percentage that they used to, of even the much smaller budget, makes it very clear to us that their agenda is to get rid of the entire orchestra.”

In an effort to compromise, the orchestra offered to work without pay for a year, on the condition that their collective bargaining rights would be preserved in the future through a partnership with the management. “They told us that they didn’t want to abdicate their responsibility for running the company,” Mr. Batchelder explained.

For their part, the management claims that the musicians are being unreasonable. The company’s survival is contingent upon a “new economic model,” according to a statement released today. “We did everything we could to attempt to meet the needs of the unions but we simply do not have the money to pay for the guaranteed salaries or the full year of health insurance for everyone,” Mr. Steel said in the statement.

The musicians, however, blame Mr. Steel. “I’ve come to think of him as an incompetent guy,” Mr. Batchelder said. Citing poor ticket sales and subscriptions since Mr. Steel came on board to years ago and the abrupt decision to leave Lincoln center, he said the director’s tenure has been marked by a “Failure of marketing, failure of leadership and a failure of planning.”

But it isn’t over until the fat lady sings. Both parties hope to return to negotiations, hopefully avoiding strikes or a boycott. Either event would prove disastrous for the institution and could easily deal a death blow to the Opera.

Lorry Newhouse expressed such fear last Monday evening at the Opera’s fall gala. “If the unions don’t cut them down they’ll  be very much alive and well in the future. I hope,” she said of the labor dispute.

The good news? If you still have your clarinet from sixth grade and don’t mind living without health insurance, you may be eligible to play in the reorganized orchestra! We expect an open call for musically-inclined scabs in the near future.


Opera Impasse! Unions and Management Clash at Witching Hour Negotiations