Rich Lowry: Union drama at the Met

  • Wednesday, July 16, 2014 5:12pm
  • Opinion

The fat lady will sing — but only in strict keeping with the work rules set out by the American Guild of Musical Artists.

The Metropolitan Opera has a labor problem. Personnel expenses account for $200 million of the financially struggling Met’s $327 million budget.

In the interest of survival in an era more attuned to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” than “Le Nozze di Figaro,” the Met wants to reduce its labor costs by 16 percent by getting the unions to accept common-sensical work rules and less generous pension and health benefits. The unions say no and accuse the Met of waging war on their families.

The storied but precarious institution could see its next season disrupted in the labor discord. The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, warns that without union flexibility, the very existence of the world-famous, 130-year-old opera is at risk.

Well, if worst came to worst, at least the Met’s singers and musicians could make a go of it at the New York City Opera. No, wait, it shut its doors for the last time last year.

It doesn’t take an opera aficionado to realize that the 21st century isn’t the 19th, and opera is an embattled art form. Unfortunately, the Met is locking horns with a force, the unions, that has proven adept at helping to drive struggling industries into the ground.

A New York Times editorial recently noted that orchestra members, who on average make $200,000 a year, get 16 weeks off with pay. The American Federation of Musicians Local 802 shot back that it is really only 10 weeks of guaranteed time off with pay. Touché.

Under the current rules, the base pay for chorus members, who also make on average $200,000 a year, covers four performances a week. The members get paid extra for rehearsals — even if they haven’t sung in four performances that week.

They also earn overtime for singing in any opera over four hours, which makes Richard Wagner the best thing that ever happened to a Met singer’s paycheck. His “Parsifal” clocks in at five hours, and wasn’t performed last season, in part because of the extra labor costs.

Who knew that the Met is not so much an opera house as the artistic equivalent of the fiscally unsustainable, union-dominated state of Illinois? The Met doesn’t need Peter Gelb; it needs Chris Christie.

The union case against its nemesis Gelb is that he’s a spendthrift, and there’s something to it. He spent $169,000 this season on a poppy-field set for Alexander Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” Let’s concede that half-naked people moving dreamily through a fake poppy field is not everyone’s cup of tea. Let’s further concede that spending $169,000 on poppies is extravagant. But the Met’s aggrieved musicians might not have noticed: Opera is an extravagant art form. If they wanted stripped-down and no-nonsense, they could have gone into folk music.

Gelb dropped almost $20 million a few years ago on a production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle so ambitious that more than $1 million had to be spent on reinforcing the stage to support the 45-ton set. If the production underperformed at the box office, it was on a scale worthy of the Met and was funded by a gift. Only unions would complain that an opera manager is spending too much on opera and not enough on overtime pay and pension benefits.

Given the head winds in the culture, what the Met accomplishes is extraordinary — more than 200 performances a season, in front of 800,000 people in the house and another couple of million in broadcasts in movie theaters. It is working to preserve a demanding art form that represents one of the high points of Western civilization. It would be a shame for the ages if it were brought low, not just by indifference without, but by shortsighted union grubbiness within.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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