Musicians strike silences opening notes of Lyric Opera season

SHARE Musicians strike silences opening notes of Lyric Opera season

Members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians went on strike outside the Lyric Opera Tuesday. | Adam Thorp / Sun-Times.

A strike launched Tuesday by Lyric Opera of Chicago orchestra threatens to bring the company’s 2018-2019 season to a screeching halt.

After a month of rehearsals, the Lyric performed “La Bohème,” its first opera of the season, this past Saturday.

But the 74 members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians rejected the Lyric Opera’s “last, best, and final offer” and went on strike, leading to the cancelation of the opera’s second performance on the calendar, which had been scheduled for this Thursday.

The musicians object to cuts to programming that they feel come at the expense of the opera’s quality and their members’ well-being. Other key points of contention: a plan to reduce the size of the orchestra by five members, from 74 members to 69, and a cut in the length of the season from 24 to 22 weeks. Other cuts to programming include suspending the Lyric’s radio program.

RELATED: Novel stagecraft to be seen, great singing to be heard in Lyric’s ‘La Bohème’

The reduced number of paid performances would amount to an 8 percent cut in pay for members, despite nominal increases in wages, union representatives said.

Lyric representatives said they wanted to bring the contract in line with the reduced number of performances on the Lyric’s schedule. Once, the opera put on as many as 90 performances in a season. This year, it is slated for 55.

“We want to continue paying good wages for work done, but we can’t afford to pay for work not done,” Lyric Opera Chairman David Ormesher said.

Lyric Opera General Director Anthony Freud said the orchestra’s size could be reduced over three years through “attrition not obligation” and “early retirement plans.”

The union and Lyric both positioned themselves as guardians of the opera’s traditions and quality.

“Lyric simply cannot agree to the terms [the federation] demands, given our current financial circumstances. Our proposed changes are necessary to ensure Lyric’s survival as a world-class opera company providing a diverse range of cultural entertainment to communities throughout Chicago,” a Lyric statement read.

Union representatives said that the budget of the opera had increased by $24 million in the last six years while the percentage of the budget going to musicians diminished. They say that shows their demands do not threaten the opera.

Union members on the picket line Tuesday | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

Union members on the picket line Tuesday | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

“We are not the ones that are causing a financial problem if, in fact, there is one. However, we have always had loyal patrons and generous donors and Lyric has a sterling credit rating with [debt rating agency] Moody’s. I don’t think they truly have a crisis,” Kathleen Brauer, a violinist with the orchestra, said.

“I think [Lyric is], for some inexplicable reason, trying to offer less opera to the people of Chicago, and that’s what we’re trying to stop,” Bauer added.

Freud said that the Lyric had anticipated financial challenges for most of the last decade. During that period, Lyric has worked to host and offer other activities that will bring more revenue. These activities, such as Lyric Unlimited — an education and community engagement program — have helped increase the budget.

Lyric, however, has struggled to make money off its performance season, Freud said, leading to the decision to shrink the number of shows and the corresponding cuts to work for musicians.

“What we have been working to ensure is Lyric is one of the best opera companies in the world,” Ormesher said. “We are working with union colleagues to ensure that the company has a  successful future, the audience enjoys [the shows] and the staff has a job.”

Ormesher said he sympathizes with the workers.

“We are facing reality as it is, not what we wish it would be,” Ormesher added.

In Brauer’s experience, negotiations with the Lyric frequently ground down to the last minute, but despite close calls in recent years, the Lyric has not gone on strike since 1967, when it missed a whole season. CFM musicians at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike in 2012, canceling several shows.

William Cernota, a celloist and member of the union’s negotiating committee, said that he felt the union and management had made progress in their last three weeks of negotiation.

Members of the negotiating committee decided to perform the season’s opening show due to their “admiration and appreciation” for the opera’s patrons, Cernota said.

Meanwhile, contracts have been struck with the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the opera’s vocalists and other support personnel, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents stage hands.

The alliance’s contract has been ratified by its members. The guild’s contract awaits ratification.

“The leadership of our two other unions … recognized the need for these essential changes and have agreed to multi-year agreements. Only CFM refused,” Lyric wrote in a press release.

Reached for comment, Guild National Executive Director Len Egert said his union supported the federation’s decision to strike.

“I don’t think anybody was pleased with [the] approach by management” but union leaders believed they had to accept its offer to reach an agreement with the Lyric, he said. He is recommending his union members ratify the deal.

Egert said guild members had been notified that they would be laid off till performances resumed.

The future of the Lyric’s 2018-2019 season is uncertain as long as federation members and supporters maintain their picket line under the soaring, colonnaded gallery along Wacker Drive. In addition to “La Bohéme” Thursday, the debut of “Idomeneo” Saturday has been canceled.

Ticket holders can exchange their tickets for another show, donate their tickets or request a refund, the Lyric said.

For the moment, Sunday’s performance of “La Bohéme” is still on the schedule, pending further developments in contract negotiations.

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