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Sunday, January 8, 2012

City Opera Goes to the Mattresses

Negotiations break down (again). Labor lockout begins.
Union delegates Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano, l.) and Paulie Gatto (Johnny Martino, r.)
 attempt to find new, innovative solutions to the current crisis at New York City Opera.
Image from The Godfather © 1972 Paramount Pictures.
11th-hour negotiations between representatives of the New York City Opera, Musicians Local 802 and the American Guild of Musical Artists broke down on Saturday night. According to a report on Parterre Box, the negotiations failed after the New York City Opera rejected an offered wage concession at 9pm on Saturday Night.

In a press release Saturday night, Local 802 stated that the opera company is planning to lock out its musicians starting on Monday. That date marks the start of scheduled rehearsals for the company's season-opening production of La Traviata, slotted for a February 12 premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House.

According to a New York Times report published Sunday by Daniel J. Wakin, the City Opera will lock choristers out of planned piano rehearsals, starting Monday. Orchestral rehearsals are supposed to start on Feb. 1.

The lockout leaves 114 choristers, musicans, and conductors without a salary or health care. City Opera press spokeswoman Risa B. Heller says that the company has no plans to hire replacements in the event of a strike. Ms. Heller also maintained that the company still plans its 16-performance season as scheduled.

At the end of the Spring 2011 season, the City Opera claimed to be operating on the brink of insolvency. General Manager George Steel undertook a tumultuous series of changes. The company left its home at Lincoln Center, announced a drastically reduced budget. The City Opera also released longtime music director George Manahan from his contract.

For 2012, the company has planned four operas, in three different theaters located in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Planned offerings include Traviata, the New York premiere of Prima Donna by Rufus Wainwright, and new productions of Mozart's Così fan tutte and Georg Philipp Telemann's version of Orpheus. But all this may be moot without the chorus and orchestra, two key components of any opera company.

But the big story this year has been the company's reluctance to negotiate a fair working wage with its musicians and choristers. The City Opera has offered to reduce orchestra members from a $40,000/year salary to a reported wage of just $4,000 with very minimal insurance. Musicians and choristers even offered to work for free for a year in order to keep their health insurance. This offer was rejected last year by the City Opera.

This story comes on the heels of an on-line plea from composer Rufus Wainwright to save the City Opera season (and Prima Donna, which bows at BAM on Feb. 19. Mr. Wainwright said: "If talks break down and there's a strike, the company will likely be decimated, thus leaving the city of New York with only one large opera house where as all the great cultural cities of the world have at least two."

After this offer was rejected, the City Opera requested the intervention of a federal labor mediator late in 2011. Negotiations have been held under a condition of press blackout. That blackout may be lifting with tonight's published interview with chorus member Neil Eddinger, which appears in its an entirety on Parterre Box.

Mr. Eddinger has thirty years experience in the City Opera chorus, and is a member of the AGMA negotiating committee. He said: "If you can't afford to pay your employees a living wage, you can't afford an opera company. I'm tired of rich people trying to get something for nothing."

He added: "The board would like to traipse around...masquerading as patrons of the arts but they won't pay their artists. NYCO should put up or shut up. And by that I mean, pay or shut down."

Mr. Eddinger's statement seems to respond to Mr. Wainwright. "If George Steel had started his own company to book interesting musical events (e.g.. Rufus) and try to add another facet to our musical-artistic life, I would say 'Go for it!' But to hijack an existing repertory company with a noble history and so pervert it from its original intention is criminal."

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.