Metropolitan Opera Contract Talks Begin, Con Forza

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Contract talks between the Metropolitan Opera and the union representing the company's singers, dancers and stage managers got off to a markedly tempestuous start on Monday.

The opera company, which is seeking cuts in labor costs for the first time in decades, made a case for concessions, citing declining ticket sales, rising expenses and a shrinking endowment. General manager Peter Gelb said in a memo to staff on Saturday, "We face the biggest economic challenge in the company’s history."

Noting that union costs account for two-thirds of the Met's budget, he added, "we have to make an adjustment to ensure the future sustainability of our company. We must act now before it is too late."

The union, whose contract will expire on July 31, argued that the pay cuts would put an inordinate strain on the musicians, and it charged that the company has spent recklessly on productions and in other areas.

Monday's talks almost didn't happen. The union invited some reporters to attend the negotiation session, which, according to the New York Times, led the Met to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board arguing that having media present "would stifle the atmosphere of free and open discussion that is needed for good-faith collective bargaining."

When the Met's lawyer's arrived at the session, reporters were asked to leave.

The Met is proposing compensation cuts of 16 to 17 percent, through work-rule changes and a higher-deductible health plan. It would include an annual in-network deductible of $4,000 for a family.

The union is seeking oversight into the company's expenses, for what members see as overspending on the scale and number of new productions. A proposed "waste management" committee would involve the company's three largest unions (the orchestra, stagehands and singers). It is also asking for a blackout of HD broadcasts in the New York area.

Alan Gordon, the executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), said in a phone interview Tuesday that nothing was accomplished in Monday's negotiation session. "Everybody knew that yesterday would accomplish nothing," he said. "Gelb admitted that his new business plan was nothing less than spend less and earn more. That's not a business plan."

The Met's operating budget grew to $327 million last year, up from $222 million in 2006, when Gelb took the helm.

There are no further talks scheduled at the present time.

Updated May 6 at 6 pm