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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lockout Threat Looms for Metropolitan Opera

Labor issues may disrupt 2014-15 season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This may be the scene at Lincoln Center next year if the Metropolitan Opera locks out its artists.
Photo elements from the motion picture Lock Up © 1989 Tri-Star Pictures and the Metropolitan Opera's
2013 production of Parsifal. Image of Jonas Kaufmann © 2013 by Ken Howard. Photo alteration by the author.
This is the time of year when opera lovers (and bloggers) look forward to the Metropolitan Opera's release of its upcoming schedule. With its Peter Gelb-mandated slate of six new productions and 20+ revivals building eager anticipation for the coming year, the schedule release is one of the more eagerly anticipated events of the winter season.

However, according to an e-mail obtained by the website parterre box the opera company's 2014-15 season may be in serious jeopardy. This year, Met is scheduled to negotiate new contracts with a number of unions for next year, including the American Guild of Musical Artists, who represent singers, dancers, and production staff at America's largest opera house. (In a correction from the earlier version of this article, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra is in a different union: they are members of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.)

In the e-mail, AGMA executive director Alan Gordon warns his membership of the possibility of a fall and winter lockout at the Met should negotiations fail between the opera house and the union. The letter mentions falling attendance numbers at the Met and the termination of former Metropolitan Opera general manager Joseph Volpe as chief negotiator of the new contract.

The letter warns that current Met general manager Peter Gelb, who dismissed Mr. Volpe recently, stating that he wanted to conduct the negotiations himself, may take a hard-line stance with the musicians. The letter speculates that Met management may be seeking cuts and concessions including a 10% to 15% reduction in the fees paid to artists.

Mr. Gordon writes that Mr. Gelb may be planning to contact singers and artists directly without going through proper union channels. He states that this is an "unfair labor practice." The letter concludes by stating that AGMA faces an "epic battle" to protect its members' contracts.

In a press statement published earlier today on WQXR, the Met said: "The Met’s primary goal is to safeguard the long-term future of the institution, while maintaining its strength and stability, protecting the livelihood of our employees, and doing all we can to best serve opera lovers."

"While negotiations have yet to even begin with the unions representing our employees and no proposals have been made, there are significant economic challenges that we face, including a recent decline in ticket sales – an unfortunate situation that we share with other opera companies across the nation."

Under Mr. Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera has pursued an agenda of new productions that have met with mixed or negative reviews from the opera-going public. The company has also strived to turn itself into a sort of minature television studio for the popular Live in HD broadcast series, shown at movie theaters around the world.

However, it has been speculated that opera goers in the New York area have been choosing the watch these electronic reproductions from the safety of their local movie theater rather than venturing forth and experiencing the real thing in the splendor of the Metropolitan Opera House. The empty seats this season may prove grim testament to the success of this program.

Another problem for audiences at the Met in recent years has been caused by changes in the company's ticket policies. By introducing so-called "Broadway-style" "dynamic" pricing (with no less than ten levels of opera prices that fluctuate from opera to opera) and subdividing the smaller upper levels of the house in to "Premium" (the first two rows, center) "Prime" (the decent seats) and "Balance" (the crappy seats), the Met at once confused and alienated its once-loyal subscription base.

Given the state of the Met's current box office (reported in the New York Times to be at a low--79% of capacity) and the number of empty seats at last night's performance of Rusalka, both opera house and union have good reason to be concerned for the future. The Met may join the Minnesota Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Carnegie Hall on a growing list of arts organizations that have their seasons darkened and livelihoods threatened by problems at the bargaining table.

More on this story as it develops.
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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.