NY City Opera Stares Down Both Barrels

It’s looking more and more likely that the labor dispute between the New York City Opera (NYCO) and its singers and orchestra musicians is going to consume the entire organization. In a last ditch effort to get the current season underway as scheduled, mediated negotiations proved unsuccessful and all parties came out swinging in the press after talks broke down.

According to an article by Dan Wakin in the 1/8/2012 edition of the New York Times, it appears that the NYCO sweetened their deal a bit but those measures were all short term; meaning, they didn’t change the organization’s initial proposal to ultimately phase out all benefits, service guarantees, and rights of first refusal.

Based on these developments, it seems that those long term issues are more important to the artists than any immediate or short term gains, which is what I told Brian Wise for an article he published at the WQXR blog on 1/8/2012.

For the time being, NYCO has canceled scheduled rehearsals for its opening production, La Traviata, so the plug isn’t entirely out of the socket. But there’s very little wiggle room left before the opera’s leadership will have to make the decision to cancel performances.

Per Service Clarification

As the dispute unfolds, I’ve noticed some confusion about the NYCO’s proposed offer, which is perhaps best defined by an oft used quote from NYCO general manager and artistic director, George Steel (the following variation appeared in the 18/8/2012 WXQR article).

“As we have said countless times, for New York City Opera to survive, we must transition to the model that most opera companies use: paying people only for the work that they do.”

For those unaware, there are two basic types of employment status singers and instrumentalists are offered within opera companies: salary and per service. The former is most closely associated with what most folks would recognize as full time employment but the latter can be altogether different from traditional part time or temporary employment status.

there's per service and then there's per service

In the salary model, employees are paid a weekly wage and benefits over a set course of weeks. But per service models have far more variation, the most glaring of which is whether or not those services have minimum guaranteed numbers of services per season.

Employees who work within a collective bargaining agreement that does not offer minimum guaranteed numbers of services get what the employer offers, regardless the reasons. But in those instances, they are still assured what is called right of first refusal, meaning, they get to decide whether or not to accept the work before it can be offered to anyone else.

In the NYCO offer, it seems as though the opera wishes to not only adopt a per service with no minimum service guarantees but they also want to do away with the right of first refusal and offer the work to any artist they wish for whatever reason.

In the realm of arts based collective bargaining, it’s about the worst offer employees can accept.

So when Steel talks about moving to a “paying people only for the work that they do” model, keep in mind there’s a considerably larger gap between the worst and best scenarios there than between those at the other end of the salary spectrum. Without details regarding which end they are pushing, it’s all too easy to inadvertently adopt an incorrect frame of reference.

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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0 thoughts on “NY City Opera Stares Down Both Barrels”

  1. I’d like to start the conversation with one basic assumption (valid or not, this may help keep the heat down): The NYCO, as we have known it in the past, is no more. What is being proposed by those that remain is more equivalent to a start-up effort to create something new.

    As one who has done something new a few times myself, there are two basic conditions that participants must embrace in the beginning:

    1) The minimum number of services offered is determined by cash on hand.
    2) There are no employees, per se, only contracted labor for hire.

    While there remains hope among the participants that such a start-up’s activities will grow into something capable of providing a sustainable living, there is no guarantee offered. And if a guarantee (or regulation) is mandated for a fragile enterprise, the whole idea may be abandoned before it gets started anyway.

    For those who choose to move forward in the early experiments, an expectation that they have a place in the organization’s future is reasonable; an implicit contract of mutual respect and faithfulness.

    If some read into this an analogy to dating and marriage, be my guest. But follow the path farther. Negotiated pre-nups between well-heeled parties aside, the involvment of lawyers often signals the end of the relationship.

    • That’s a fascinating perspective vis-a-vis equating NYCO to a start-up but it’s quite apt. At the same time, I would be surprised if the current board and executive leadership would want to embrace those terms as it would dictate that the executive leadership’s compensation structure requires substantial reconfiguration.

      Another interesting aspect of this outlook, and perhaps more toward a field-wide sense, is the insistence by groups to retain the artistic gravitas of their former selves in light of who are slashing budgets to start-up levels.

      • Good point about executive compensation. I actually didn’t receive any during my start-ups. On the plus side, when the economy went south in the late 80’s and corporate funding dried up, I could suspend operations without owing anyone any money (other than myself).

        About maintaining gravitas while slashing operations, I think some folks are fooling themselves. More realistic to close completely and bask in the memories of past accomplishments than to expect a faded marquee to foster respect.

  2. This insistence on retaining “the artistic gravitas of their former selves” is out of sync with the way I interpret Mr. Blair’s comments. Many professionals in all fields are having to let go of this sense and adapt or exit the playing field. Or be pushed off to the sidelines.

    This same approach can be extended to the executives hired by the trustees to run the enterprise. Their contracts, too, could be tied to “cash on hand” or at least have a clause that ties compensation to revenue as is the case in the corporate world. So a low base with escalation of payments (“bonuses”) based on the box office receipts and fundraising success.

    As to play on or move on, here’s a relevant quote from Mr. Wise’s blog a day after he spoke to Drew:

    “…Since the 2009, 21 members of New York City Opera’s orchestra have retired or resigned, including the principal cellist, assistant principal second violinist and several other prominent members.

    The figures were provided to WQXR by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra. The union’s spokesperson declined to elaborate on who has left the orchestra but he acknowledged that some were at or near retirement age. The losses are nonetheless a sign of the toll from the labor dispute, and a reminder that the longer it continues, the greater the chance that musicians will leave.

    ‘We lost the viola section essentially, plus two members of the cello section including principal cello,’ said Kruvand. ‘People need this money and they decided it wasn’t worth their effort.’

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