Brian Wise covers the classical music business for WQXR, including aspects of performance, technology, philanthropy and institutional trends. He manages the station's homepage and makes sure what you hear on air is what you see online. Follow him on Twitter at @Briancwise.
Just How Deep are the Proposed Pay Cuts at City Opera?
Monday, January 09, 2012 - 05:50 PM
New York City Opera's musicians say that the cash-strapped company is asking for pay cuts of up to 90 percent, which would reduce their salary from $40,000 per year to approximately $4,900. The company counters that the musicians would actually earn $11,855 under their proposed contract.
The competing numbers emerged during the increasingly contentious negotiations that have taken place in recent months and finally broke down on Sunday with the company declaring a lockout.
So how deep are the proposed pay cuts?
$5,000 is, in fact, the proposed minimum pay based on the fact that not every production will involve all of the musicians, whether because the score doesn’t require a full orchestra, the theater doesn’t have enough space, or a combination thereof. For example, in May, the company will present Telemann's small-scale opera Orpheus at the Museo Del Barrio, where the theater pit can accommodate only about 25 instrumentalists.
But a musician who does perform in all of the services City Opera presents in a given season would stand to earn approximately $10,000 (or $11,855, according to management figures). That would presumably include first-chair string players and other key members. Still, it is a significant drop from the past, when the company presented 12 to 16 operas per season and every musician was guaranteed 26 weeks of work.
Under the current contract, orchestra players earn $1,725 for a week that consists of five performances or twenty hours of rehearsal. Over the course of a year, this can total at least $40,000. City Opera maintains that it can no longer afford to employ the musicians at this rate, and is looking to pay them instead as freelancers on a "per service" basis.
Gail Kruvand, a double bassist and leader of the players’ negotiating committee, said that it's difficult to know who will earn most under this proposal. “Because [the musicians] are not named it’s hard to know who would be working in all productions,” she said. “We don’t control the repertoire or venue, of course.”
Before the lockout, chorus rehearsals were scheduled to start on Monday for a Feb. 12 opening production of Verdi's La Traviata.
21 Musicians Leave Orchestra
On Monday, another wrinkle emerged in the labor dispute. Since the 2009, 21 members of New York City Opera’s orchestra have retired or resigned, including the principal cellist, assistant principal second violinist and several other prominent members.
The figures were provided to WQXR by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra. The union's spokesperson declined to elaborate on who has left the orchestra but he acknowledged that some were at or near retirement age. The losses are nonetheless a sign of the toll from the labor dispute, and a reminder that the longer it continues, the greater the chance that musicians will leave.
“We lost the viola section essentially, plus two members of the cello section including principal cello,” said Kruvand. “People need this money and they decided it wasn’t worth their effort.”
No members of the chorus have left, although Alan Gordon, president of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), said that many of them would take a severance buyout if it was offered.
With additional reporting from Annmarie Fertoli.
Correction: the numbers regarding weekly income have been updated to reflect the most recent contract details.