Bloomberg News

New York City Opera Cancels Rehearsals as Steel Battles Unions

January 10, 2012

Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Imagine opera singers accompanied by Klezmer musicians, a rock and roll band or Yo-Yo Ma.

George Steel can. The artistic director and general manager of New York City Opera told unionized singers and musicians that he wants the flexibility to present nontraditional works, giving them less work. That demand contributed to a collapse in labor talks and a lockout of artists a month before the company’s first 2012 performance.

“We have canceled rehearsals until we have a deal,” Risa Heller, a City Opera spokeswoman, said in an e-mail yesterday. “We are taking this one day at a time.”

The company on Sunday announced a lockout affecting 47 musicians and a few dozen choristers, stage managers, directors, assistant directors and soloists. Mediation that began on Dec. 19 by the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service ended Saturday at about 9 p.m. without an agreement. Members of the American Guild of Musical Artists and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians had earlier voted to authorize a strike.

The standoff imperils performances of four works scheduled for this season and the future of the 69-year-old company that former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called “the people’s opera.” The orchestra already accepted a cut in guaranteed work to save the opera, to 22 weeks from 29 in 2009-2010, Kruvand said. She said Steel now proposes about six weeks of work.

“The diminishment of our wages is so severe,” said Gail Kruvand, assistant principal bass and chair of the orchestra’s negotiating committee, in an interview. “We said, ‘you have to come up with a little more money.’”

Falling Pay

For choristers, average pay would tumble 90 percent to about $4,000, said Alan Gordon, national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists. Singers were told to skip today’s rehearsal of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” scheduled to begin Feb. 12 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Steel’s pay of $324,000 excluding benefits is down 9 percent from 2009. Kruvand said the amount is just shy of the entire orchestra’s budget, $393,000. “Our slice of the pie has diminished greatly and his has not,” she said.

NYCO said in a statement that management “stretched every dollar available to them to create a proposal that would suit their economic constraints and encourage the unions to come back to work, but the unions refused.”

Kruvand said cutting-edge programming isn’t big box office. Most tickets went unsold for last season’s collection of 20th- century one-acts, called “Monodramas,” she said.

“We were told by the mediator that fundraising and ticket sales are suffering” this season, she said.

Internet Plug

Songwriter Rufus Wainwright has taken to the Internet to drum up sales for his NYCO debut. On the blog “Brooklyn Vegan,” he wrote that early ticket sales for his first opera, “Prima Donna,” which NYCO is to present at BAM later in February, would “boost the moral and physical prospects for both my piece and the New York City Opera as a whole.”

The company would be “decimated” if contract negotiations with musicians break down, the 38-year-old wrote on Jan. 4.

New York City Opera has no permanent venue after quitting its home last year in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, next door to the Metropolitan Opera. Since it was founded in 1943, NYCO productions have included stars such as Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills, who ran the company from 1979 to 1989.

In November, the company renewed Steel’s contract. He took over in February of 2009 and oversaw the departure from Lincoln Center because he said the company couldn’t afford to stay there.

An e-mail and phone call to Heller requesting comment from Steel weren’t immediately answered. In a statement on Dec. 1, the NYCO said management had been talking with the unions for months “to get their contracts in line with fiscal realities.”

Gordon of AGMA said unions “gave all they could give” in an attempt to come to an agreement.

--Editors: Adam Majendie, Reinie Booysen.

To contact the reporter on this story: Philip Boroff in New York at pboroff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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