Pre-season preparations are underway at the Metropolitan Opera: the chorus is rehearsing, tech crews are plotting out scenery and staging. In the next couple weeks, stage rehearsals start for Carmen, La Boheme and Macbeth, and The Marriage of Figaro. But they may all have to be put on hold if a contract deal isn't reached by Thursday night with the company's 2,437 singers, orchestra musicians, stagehands and other workers. Management has vowed to lock out the unionized staff starting on Friday.
"If something was to get to a delayed start, it would not be quite as easy to push a button and say, 'we settled and we're back and we can reopen,'" said Ken Benson, an opera consultant and veteran artist manager. "I think opera has become a so much more complex machine, so that has complicated scheduling tremendously."
Opera companies plan their seasons up to five years in advance. And locked out Met singers will also have a harder time finding replacement work, especially since the collapse last fall of New York City Opera.
"I'm afraid I would not be so optimistic about even wonderful singers being able to pick up work at the last minute," said Benson. "It just isn't there. Even the good regional opera companies across the country are booked for the next couple of years."
When the Met had a three-month labor battle in 1969, nearly 20 percent of its subscribers dropped off and it took the company five years to recoup the losses. The last time there was a lockout, in 1980, it lost donors and it took four years for ticket sales to rebound. Some question whether today's audiences will be nearly as loyal.
Karen Dixon is a Met chorus member. She says that some of the issues musicians fought over in 1980 are back on the table again. "That was when we gained some of the work rules that he wants to rip out from under us," she said. "That our base salary is set on four performances a week, things like that all happened at that point."
The "he" is Met general manager Peter Gelb.
"I believe truly that Peter Gelb has planned a lockout from the very beginning," Dixon added. "I don't believe he ever wanted to seriously talk over the table. If he did he would have not have…put into proposals the extreme nature of what he did, in every aspect of our job."
Gelb declined a request for an interview. The Met is seeking to cut worker compensation by as much as 17 percent, saying that it faces a dire financial crisis due to slowing box office revenues and reluctant donors. The company points out that singers in its chorus earn $200,000 dollars a year, although unions call that figure misleading because nearly half of that is in overtime pay.
Last month, Gelb spoke on the BBC's "Music Matters" program.
"Even if I was the worst manager in the world, if two-thirds of the cost structure is going to the unions, that's an area that has to be cut," he said. "This change has to happen now. The donors, the board members cannot support the Met as generously as they have in the past, unless they see a light at the end of the tunnel. They're putting their money into an operation that will ultimately go bankrupt."
The unions say that the Met's problems are due to poor management and lavish spending, especially on new productions. A controversial production of Wagner's Ring Cycle came with a $16 million dollar price tag.
So what if a lockout occurs? A 1961 strike was averted after President Kennedy ordered the secretary of labor to arbitrate the dispute. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named a federal mediator to the talks. At a meeting on Monday, Bruce Simon, an attorney for the singers' union, predicted similar high-profile intervention. He said, "It will be the mayor, it will be the governor, it will be some extraordinary figure that will appear and produce a mechanism that will get the parties together, return to work and produce a settlement."
It's possible that the sides in this dispute will continue to talk for several more days or weeks beyond Thursday's contract expiration. But with The Marriage of Figaro due to open the season on September 22, there's not much time. As one union representative put it, a lockout would be an operatic tragedy.
Sources: Metropolitan Opera Archives; Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera, by Johanna Fiedler