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US opera asks mediator to resolve labor gridlock

August 1, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal mediator arrived Thursday to help make a deal between unions and Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb, whose vow of a lockout early Friday threatens to disrupt the new opera season for the first time in three decades.

If the mediator doesn’t succeed, the largest classical music organization in North America, created in 1883, may be shuttered for the new season, set to begin Sept. 22.

At issue are the Met’s finances. Gelb has demanded that the unions representing thousands of singers, musicians, stagehands and other workers accept salary cuts of about 17 percent to cover a deficit of $2.8 million in the opera’s $326 million annual budget.

But the 15 unions say they’ll lose as much as 30 percent of their income through additional pension cuts and higher health care costs.

Union chorus members earn a base pay of $100,000 a year and as much as $200,000 with overtime. Orchestra musicians also earn base pay topping $100,000.

Gelb says the salaries of union members represent about two-thirds of company costs, and that’s where cuts should be made to balance shrinking ticket sales, a depleted endowment and rising operating costs.

The artists say any doubled income is due to Gelb’s insistence on staging expensive new productions that got bad reviews but required a lot of overtime, such as Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.

“We’re in at 10 a.m. and finish at midnight on many days,” chorister Rebecca Carvin said. “You miss weddings, you miss family occasions and I haven’t had Christmas with my family for 15 years.”

Union members have frequently cited the Met’s “extreme waste,” including the $169,000 cost to build a poppy field in this year’s $4.3 million production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor” and Gelb’s insistence on special spotlights on singers in 25 productions that cost $466,152.

Even if talks lead to a compromise, some spectators already have refrained from buying tickets, wary of performances that may not happen in the 3,800-seat theater.

Gelb, who has been the Met’s general manager since August 2006, said the situation was “more stressful than anything I’ve encountered in my career.”

“But I’m on a mission,” he said. “I took this job to keep the opera going, not to shut it down. Nobody wants a lockout. What I want is a deal.”

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