For the past year, the lights have been out at the Metropolitan Opera House, and the musicians have gone underpaid for nearly as long. As a result, musicians in one of the world’s best orchestras were forced to rely on unemployment benefits, look for virtual teaching jobs, sell their instruments, and search for cheaper accommodation.
About 40% of the population has relocated outside of New York City. More than a tenth of the population is now retired.
Joel Noyes, a 41-year-old cellist with the Metropolitan Opera, had to sell one of his most prized possessions: a Russian 19th-century bow to keep up with his house payments. Reluctantly he reverted to the one he’d used when he was a youngster.
“It’s kind of like if you were a race car driver that drove Ferraris on the Formula One circuit and suddenly you had to get on the track in a Toyota Camry,” Noyes remarked.
The Met offered the musicians reduced compensation in the short term if they agreed to long-term cuts that the firm, which estimates that it has lost $150 million in earned sales, claims it will need to survive after months of furloughs for the musicians. Musicians were given a short-term payment of up to $1,500 a week by the Met in exchange for returning to negotiations, a proposition that the musicians are now considering.
After a prolonged pandemic shutdown, the Metropolitan Opera’s labor disputes have become increasingly acrimonious, with stagehands being locked out and some set work being outsourced to Wales.
The players have taken a heavy toll.
A concertmaster is a person who acts as a link between the musicians and the conductors of an orchestra. Benjamin Bowman, 41, is the other concertmaster. When he and his family relocated to Stuttgart to work with the state orchestra, he took a temporary position with the ensemble.
It’s been difficult for violinist Daniel Khalikov, who plays two beautiful instruments, to keep up with the $2,600-a-month loan payments.
Angela Qianwen Shen, a 30-year-old violinist, living in the United States on a visa, has taken up translation work as a means of making ends meet.
Principal bassoonist Evan Epifanio, 32, of the orchestra, relocated to the Midwest with his husband and their belongings in June. They’ve been splitting their time between his parents’ and in-laws’ houses since then.
While at the height of his fame, Epifanio quipped, “I’m living in my in-laws’ basement. This is the end of me as a one-trick pony.”
According to Brad Gemeinhardt, chair of the orchestra committee, which negotiates labor problems on behalf of musicians, 10 of the orchestra’s 97 members have retired in the last year, a dramatic rise from the two to three who retire on average each year. Several well-known musicians have issued dire warnings to the orchestra: According to Riccardo Muti, one of the world’s most excellent conductors, the “art world is in amazement that a wonderful orchestra like the Met’s could be in danger and possibly at risk of disappearing.” “
When the virus struck on March 12, 2020, the Met had to close its doors and furloughed most of its employees, including those in its orchestra and chorus. In the meantime, it continued to pay for their medical insurance.” In the fall, the Met offered to resume partial payments in exchange for severe long-term salary reductions and concessions to its employees, which they accepted. Unions fought back. According to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, the Met orchestra was the only significant ensemble still without a pact to earn its pay at the end of the year.
When their union, Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, rejected the Met’s proposed pay cuts in December, the corporation locked out over 300 stagehands. A full-time stagehand at the Met will cost the company $260,000 in 2019, including benefits, according to a letter from general manager Peter Gelb to the union last year.
Gelb claimed that when the epidemic hit, the corporation had no choice except to look for ways to decrease costs.
Gelb added that we had to close our doors and perform quick triage to prevent the company from collapsing and folding. “We’re doing everything we can to keep the company afloat so that they can return to their work when they’re ready.”
Unions representing orchestra and chorus members received a reduction in pay at the end of last year as an olive gesture from the Met. Singers and dancers who are members of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), a union representing them, agreed to the agreement in January and are already getting their salaries. The American Federation of Musicians’ Local 802 has not yet accepted the offer, according to union president Adam Krauthamer. Still, the orchestra is voting on a contract that has been reached in its final stages.
A 30% reduction in payroll costs for the Met’s highest-paid workers would result in a 20% reduction in take-home pay, the museum said — and when ticket revenues and core donations recover to pre-pandemic levels, it will restore half of what had been slashed, it stated. Musicians at the Metropolitan Opera aren’t being paid an average of more than $202,000 per year, but that figure was reported in 2014 before complex labor negotiations.
Many orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, have secured agreements with their musicians for large, long-term salary cuts, including a 25 percent drop in base pay through August 2023. According to Krauthamer, the Met Orchestra’s union had proposed its own plan to reduce salary but keep the work conditions that the Met was attempting to amend.
Since the lockout, nonunion shops in the United States and abroad have taken over preparing sets for the upcoming season. But these projects were supposed to be done in-house by the Met’s in-house set-building team.
There will be sets erected for “Rigoletto” and “Don Carlos” at the Met next winter, as well as “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which will be staged in the United States. Although they haven’t been shut out, the Met’s scenery painters are losing employment because there isn’t anything left to paint, according to Cecilia Friederichs, a national business agent for the United Scenic Artists union.