Deceptive Cadence
8:35 am
Sat July 26, 2014

War Of Words At Met Opera May Signal Shutdown

Originally published on Sat July 26, 2014 1:32 pm

When an opera company is in the midst of contentious labor negotiations, the results can be dramatic. This week, the war of words between unions and management at New York's Metropolitan Opera, the world's largest opera company, escalated. An Aug. 1 shut down now seems likely.

At the center of the debate is the ballooning Met budget, which stood at $200 million in 2006 but has since climbed to more than $325 million. Met General Manager Peter Gelb asserts that union salaries and benefits are his biggest costs, accounting for two-thirds of the operating budget.

The Met's orchestral musicians get paid more than any other orchestra members in the U.S., and its stagehands and choristers are among the best paid in the world. Management's proposal to rein in rising costs does not include cutting base salaries, but instead cutting about 16% of workers' total compensation by changing work rules governing overtime payments, as well as trimming health benefits and pensions.

But the unions blame Gelb for the rising deficits, saying he has been irresponsible in his spending and accusing him of increasing his salary while asking them to accept reductions. Alan Gordon of the American Guild of Music Artists says Gelb has doubled the number of new productions since taking over: "There are so many, in fact, that the employees made twice their salary in just the overtime necessary to deal with the new productions."

"No matter how you slice it," Gelb says, "opera is incredibly expensive." Earned income, he says, has not kept pace with rising costs.

Negotiations are slated for next week. If agreements aren't reached, Gelb has warned the unions to prepare for a lockout.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When an opera company is in the midst of contentious labor negotiations, the results can be dramatic. This week, the war of words between unions and management at New York's Metropolitan Opera, the world's largest opera company, escalated. And, as our man Jeff Lunden reports, a shut down on August 1 seems likely.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Everything about the Metropolitan Opera is grand.

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LUNDEN: It seats close to 4,000 people. It gives over 200 performances a year. Its annual budget is over $325 million. It employs approximately 3,400 full-time, part-time and seasonal workers. And if general manager Peter Gelb is to be believed, the company could go bankrupt in two or three years.

PETER GELB: No matter how you slice it, opera is incredibly expensive, you know? To keep grand opera grand, you have to have an orchestra, a chorus - you have to have scenery. It's got more moving parts than any other performing arts form.

LUNDEN: Gelb has actually increased the number of moving parts since he took over in 2006 when the Met's budget was just $200 million a year. He's commissioned new productions and he's added staff and resources to film and deliver high-definition opera performances from the Met stage to theaters around the world. And this has increased the workload for the company's employees. But the Met workers have always put in more than a 40-hour week, said clarinetist Jessica Phillips Rieske who's chairman of the musicians negotiating committee.

JESSICA PHILLIPS RIESKE: We are on call six days a week. There's seven shows - two on Saturday. There are rehearsals. Opera, by its very nature, is long. It takes a long time for the soprano to die many nights.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: (Singing in foreign language).

RIESKE: And because of that we work more hours than any orchestra in the U.S.

LUNDEN: Met Opera musicians also get paid more than any other orchestra in the U.S. And the stagehands and chorus are among the best paid in the world. But opera management is not proposing to cut base salaries. Instead, Peter Gelb's initial proposal to the unions has been to cut about 16 percent of their total compensation by changing the work rules that govern overtime payments as well as cutting health benefits and pensions. Alan Gordon is president of the American Guild of Musical Artists or AGMA. He represents the chorus and dancers and says the cuts are actually deeper.

ALAN GORDON: He's proposing for the chorus to cut their pensions by 40 percent - just the pensions. He's also proposing that the out-of-pocket medical costs increase by $15,000 a year for each family. That's just the out-of-pocket increase in costs.

LUNDEN: Gordon says that could result in as much as a 50 percent total cut in pay for some members of his union. The Met posted a deficit of 2.8 million dollars last year. That's less than one percent of its budget. Peter Gelb asserts that's still too much and it's compounded by the fact that earned income has not kept pace with rising costs.

GELB: Because we are a nonprofit, we rely upon revenue sources that are earned, which are the box office revenue and a high-definition revenue from these transmissions, as well as earnings from an endowment - undernourished endowment. It has historically been that way - and donations.

LUNDEN: But the unions blame Gelb for the rising deficits. AGMA's Alan Gordon says Gelb has doubled the number of new productions since he took over.

GORDON: There are so many, in fact, that the employees made twice their salary - just the overtime necessary to deal with the new productions.

LUNDEN: This is one of the biggest bones of contention in this dispute. Union officials say the work rules that provide for overtime are meant as red flags to management. If an opera is going to incur those kinds of costs, maybe Gelb, who is both the Met's manager and its artistic director, should choose less expensive work or more revivals, says Aron White, a welder and carpenter who helps build the Met's sets.

ARON WHITE: If he doesn't look at the contract and accept the fact that the overtime and the other provisions are supposed to be red lights for him and review them as just the cost of doing business, then he's incorporated these things without trying to substantially change the way the Met works.

LUNDEN: The unions say Gelb has been irresponsible in his spending and accuse him of increasing his salary while asking them to cut theirs. But Peter Gelb insists union salaries and benefits are his biggest cost - two-thirds of the Met's operating budget.

GELB: When you have a business where the revenues from donations and earned sources do not equal the cost, you have to make changes. Either you have to increase your revenues or you have to reduce your costs. And my proposals are mean to tackle both sides.

LUNDEN: So far, Gelb and most of the unions have been voicing their positions loudly in the press. They're scheduled to sit down at the negotiating table next week. Contracts expire at midnight on Thursday, and if agreements aren't reached, Gelb has warned unions to prepare for a lockout. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.