How The Metropolitan Opera Could Go Dark This Summer

05/21/2014 03:55 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2014
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Before the Metropolitan Opera began airing in high definition in theaters in 2006, Margot Therre's job in the opera's scenic department was a bit simpler. Back then, Therre and her colleagues designed scenes for a theoretical viewer seated about 200 feet from the stage. But with the advent of HD broadcasts, it was like the whole audience was sitting in the front row.

"The camera is zeroing in on this scenery. The props have to be a lot more realistic," Therre said. "In the old days you could have the interior of a book be gibberish. Now, the lettering inside it and the typeface has to be correct according to the time of the opera. It all has to be to the eye."

Therre is a member of the United Scenic Artists, a branch of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), a labor union that represents theater, film and television workers in various trades, including many workers at the Met. Like the unions representing the Met's orchestra and chorus, IATSE members need to hash out new contracts before the current ones expire at the end of July. One IATSE branch began talks with management last week and the others will soon follow.

With the opera asking for significant concessions, most notably pay cuts, there's already talk of a possible lockout or strike this summer that could grind the storied Met to a halt.

IATSE leadership says it's unfair for workers to accept concessions when they've taken on a rise in productions as well as additional work that comes with the Met's ambitious live-in-HD program, which transmits the opera's live performances to high-definition theaters around the world. The union argues that its members' jobs have changed more in the past decade than in hundreds of years.

While acknowledging the financial challenges facing the Met, Joe Hartnett, assistant director of stagecraft at IATSE, said that pay cuts shouldn't have to fall on union members while other costs have grown.

"Because of all these new productions, the costs rise and so does the workload of these individuals," Hartnett said. "We're not trying to break the bank here. These are good, viable middle-class jobs where people are working day and night to bring a beautiful art form. Without a doubt, the Met is the major leagues of opera. We don't want to see it go away, either."

The Met disagrees with the union's contention that the HD program has added meaningfully to their workload. The opera house also disputes the assertion that workers have to design scenes with the camera in mind, rather than in-house viewers.

"Since the 2006-07 season, HD broadcasts have been taking place, and the workload for the unionized employees has not changed significantly over the course of that eight-year period," Peter Clark, the spokesman, said in an email. "The productions that appear in the Live in HD series are not conceived for the cameras."

The opera has asked to change work rules in a way that shaves 16 percent off its labor costs, which it says currently amount to about two-thirds of its total budget. The offer wouldn't change employees' base wages, but it would be a significant hit to the rehearsal and overtime pay that many rely on as a substantial piece of their salaries in one of the country's most expensive regions.

"The Met’s plan is to both reduce its expenses and increase its endowment to an amount double what it currently is," Peter Gelb, who launched the HD program and has been the Met's general manager since 2006, told The New York Times in April. The Met says that it's pledged to cut its administrative payroll by the same amount the unions accept.

Last week, the union representing the Met's orchestra voted unanimously to authorize a strike if the opera continues to seek deep concessions, and the orchestra members wore solidarity buttons during a performance.

Both sides seem to agree that the Met needs to find a more sustainable path. Box office attendance has taken a tumble over the past five years; the opera house filled 79 percent of its seats in fiscal year 2013, down from 92 percent in 2008, according to the opera's figures. And while the Met's HD program boomed after its launch, spreading to more than 2,000 screens in the U.S. and abroad, the opera says annual sales have flatlined around $28 million with limited opportunity for more growth.

With sales lagging, the opera has come to lean increasingly on its donors as opposed to its box office. The Met said that the organization's annual operating budget is now larger than its endowment.

"The Metropolitan Opera is facing one of the biggest financial challenges in its 131 year history," the Met said in a statement.

The Met is one of the preeminent operas in the world, with many of its performers, set designers and other artists having reached the top of their field. It estimates that the average full-time orchestra member and average full-time chorus member earned $200,000 in pay before benefits last year. The American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the chorus, said the Met's proposed pay cuts would push that figure below $170,000.

Jessica Phillips Rieske, a clarinetist, suggested in a statement that the Met could lose some of its top talent if its sought-after concessions cut too deep.

"To maintain this level of quality, the Metropolitan Opera must compensate its musicians at a standard that allows this ensemble to continue to attract and retain world-class talent," Phillips Rieske said.

IATSE says that labor costs for its members at the Met have risen by 2.91 percent annually since 2007, while the Met disputes that figure, saying they have risen by 4.3 percent annually. According to the opera house, the average salary in the costume shop is $91,000; in the wardrobe department $130,000; and in the scenic department $154,000.

Bill Malloy, head of the Met's wardrobe department, asserted that the workload has become larger and more harried in recent years. He pointed to the fact that the opera now brings in more new productions each year, and that the HD program has created a growing "need for content" that must be filled.

"My job has gone upside down. It's changed dramatically," Malloy said. "It's hard to think about ways to save the Met when there's no plan for the day-to-day running of it, and that's the part that I see continuously and that I find frustrating. Some of the day-to-day operations have taken a back seat to HD, and the HD has become all-consuming. We have a very large season that we have to get through."

"We now have departments that seven or eight years ago we didn't have," added Bryant Hoven, the opera's lead tailor. "Directors coming into these productions think they're making movies now. They want real clothes, not costumes. We can't leave as much seam allowance. It's much more stressful."

Clark, the Met spokesman, said that the additional work hours stemming from HD amounted to less than one percent of payroll in the scenic and costume shops last year. IATSE's Hartnett, however, said the union "maintain[s] that the move to HD does not come without a significant cost. Props, sets, wardrobe and makeup needs to be done differently for HD simulcasts."

The opera and the unions have until August to come to terms. A source familiar with the initial talks between the Met and IATSE officials last week described them as cordial, but said the two sides were obviously far apart on key issues. Workers at the opera house have been told to brace for a lockout.

Malloy said that while he and his colleagues don't want to see the Met go dark, they also don't want to accept concessions they find too onerous.

"It's about having a plan in place and a budget you will be willing to stick to," Malloy said. "None of this should be adversarial or contentious."

This story has been updated with additional comment and salary figures from the Met.

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