So Much Drama

Although we don’t follow the comings and goings of the opera field very much, it’s high time to take a peek at what’s going on right now at the New York City Opera (NYCO). The beleaguered arts organization is on its tippy toes staring down into the precipice that is institutional oblivion following a prolonged and very nasty labor feud with a number of its resident artist unions.

Two articles of note were published this month which examine both sides of the story and are equally worth your time. The first is from operanews.com which published a lengthy, but fascinating, article by Fred Cohn that sets the tone with the following passage from one its opening paragraphs.

Most alarmingly, City Opera is no longer a real opera company, in any recognizable sense of the word. If Steel’s plan goes through, the company will have no permanent orchestra or chorus and no singers under weekly contract. George Manahan, City Opera’s longtime music director, is no longer with the company; his position was eliminated last summer. The changes have rendered New York City Opera, at best, a shadow of its former self.

The other contribution is from Crain’s New York which published an article on 12/11/2011 by Miriam Kreinin Souccar that adopts a much more nuts-and-bolts approach as compared to Cohn’s Opera News article. Souccar’s article does a good job at laying out the fundamental labor issues and how they’ve escalated. In short, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) represented singers and American Federation of Musicians (AFM) represented instrumentalists have drawn a line in the sand over having their positions reduced to per service status with no benefits and no service/hiring guarantees.

But what’s really important here to help understand the perspective behind why things may have become much worse than necessary is the following quote from NYCO general manager George Steel when talking about his new business model.

“The final piece is to change these contracts,” Mr. Steel said. “If the company does not make these radical changes to its model, it will have to close. Isn’t it more terrible to have no opera company at all?”

According to NYCO artists, the answer is a resounding no.

AGMA national executive director Alan Gordon was quoted in the Crain’s article asserting that singers would earn more on unemployment insurance than going to work under the proposed terms. While the musicians’ negotiation chairwoman, Gail Kruvand, said that not only does Steel’s proposal eliminate all service guarantees but it doesn’t even require the NYCO to use the current musicians.

In the end, the “better than nothing” approach may be better suited as an institutional epitaph rather than a negotiation strategy.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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  1. Mediation begins on Monday 12/19. Considering the NYCO’s current state of affairs, I wonder what there is to mediate. The Opera’s Board has made such a hash out of things in the last 5 or 6 years that icon Beverly Sills (Bubbles) must be proverbially turning in her grave. Leaving Lincoln Center is tantamount to destroying what Mayor LaGuardia termed the “People’s Opera” many years ago.

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