Lockout looms as Met contracts set to expire

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Lockout looms as Met contracts set to expire
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22: Protesters demonstrate as people arrive for the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera season at Lincoln Center on September 22, 2014 in New York City. Hundreds of people demonstrated against the upcoming production of 'Death of Klinghoffer', which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the killing of disabled passenger Leon Klinghoffer, saying that the opera is anti-Semitic. The Met's general manager Peter Gelb has disputed the claim. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Sept. 22, 2014, file photo, protestors attend the arrivals at the Metropolitan Opera 2014-15 Season Opening in New York to register their disapproval of the Met's decision to premiere the controversial opera "The Death of Klinghoffer," later in the season. The opera, about the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer, is expected to attract more protesters when it opens Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22: Protesters shout as people arrive for the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera season at Lincoln Center on September 22, 2014 in New York City. Hundreds of people demonstrated against the upcoming production of 'Death of Klinghoffer', which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the killing of disabled passenger Leon Klinghoffer, saying that the opera is anti-Semitic. The Met's general manager Peter Gelb has disputed the claim. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Protestors attend the arrivals at Metropolitan Opera 2014-15 Season Opening on Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, in New York. The crowd was protesting the Met's decision to premiere a controversial opera "Death of Klinghoffer," about the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22: Protesters, many of them Jewish activists, demonstrate as people arrive for the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera season at Lincoln Center on September 22, 2014 in New York City. Hundreds of people demonstrated against the upcoming production of 'Death of Klinghoffer', which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the killing of disabled passenger Leon Klinghoffer, saying that the opera is anti-Semitic. The Met's general manager Peter Gelb has disputed the claim. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22: Protesters, many of them Jewish activists, demonstrate as people arrive for the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera season at Lincoln Center on September 22, 2014 in New York City. Hundreds of people demonstrated against the upcoming production of 'Death of Klinghoffer', which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the killing of disabled passenger Leon Klinghoffer, saying that the opera is anti-Semitic. The Met's general manager Peter Gelb has disputed the claim. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22: Protesters, many of them Jewish activists, demonstrate as people arrive for the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera season at Lincoln Center on September 22, 2014 in New York City. Hundreds of people demonstrated against the upcoming production of 'Death of Klinghoffer', which depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the killing of disabled passenger Leon Klinghoffer, saying that the opera is anti-Semitic. The Met's general manager Peter Gelb has disputed the claim. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Protestors attend the arrivals at Metropolitan Opera 2014-15 Season Opening on Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, in New York. The crowd was protesting the Met's decision to premiere a controversial opera "Death of Klinghoffer," in October about the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
In this Nov. 13, 2013 file photo, pedestrians stroll at dusk in front of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York's Lincoln Center. Fractious labor negotiations threaten to disrupt the Met's new season for the first time in more than 30 years. This week, the company's general manager, Peter Gelb, vowed to lock out union members _ cutting off pay and health insurance _ unless they settle before contracts expire July 31. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)
In this Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011 photo, Layla Claire, right, performs as Helena alongside Elizabeth DeShong performing as Hermia during the final dress rehearsal of "The Enchanted Island," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. "The Enchanted Island" had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year's Eve Dec. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
In this March 25, 2013 photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra performs during a rehearsal of Handel's "Giulio Cesare." (AP Photo/ Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)
This Dec. 23, 2013 photo released by the Metropolitan Opera shows Danny Burstein as Frosch in Act 3 of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus," in New York. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
This image released by the Metropolitan Opera shows Olga Peretyatko during a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for Vincenzo Bellini's "I Puritani." The production opens on April 17 for a run of seven performances, ending on the last night of the season, May 10. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine conducts the MET Orchestra on May 18, 2013 during a rehearsal at Carnegie Hall. The Sunday, May 19 concert by the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall will mark Maestro Levine's first public performance in more than two years after being sideline by a spinal injury. The concert will be broadcast live on SIRIUS XM Channel 74 and streamed on the Met's Web site (metopera.org) beginning at 2:55 p.m. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Cory Weaver)
In this Feb. 26, 2013 photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, a scene from Act II of Zandonai's "Francesca Da Rimini" is performed during a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)
The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center is lit at dusk, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this Dec. 13, 2012, photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, a scene from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" is performed during a dress rehearsal in New York at the Metropolitan Opera. The special holiday performance is being sung in English, by, from left, Rodion Pogossov as Figaro, Alek Shrader as Count Almaviva (disguised as Don Alonso), Isabel Leonard as Rosina, and John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
This Nov. 13, 2012 photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera shows Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia and Elina Garanca as Sesto in a dress rehearsal of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
In this Dec. 24, 2012 photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, Elza van den Heever is Elisabetta in Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda," during a dress rehearsal of Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
This Nov. 13, 2012 photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera shows Giuseppe Filianoti in the title role of a dress rehearsal of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
In this April 3, 2012 photo, Korean soprano Hong Hei-Kyung as Violetta, performs during rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera's "La Traviata," in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
In this Friday, March 23, 2012 photo, Anna Netrebko performs the title role during the final dress rehearsal of Jules Massenet's "Manon," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
In this Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011 photo, Placido Domingo performs as Neptune during the final dress rehearsal of "The Enchanted Island," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. "The Enchanted Island" had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on New Year's Eve Dec. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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By MIKE SILVERMAN

NEW YORK (AP) - Figaro might not be getting married anytime soon. Mimi and Rodolfo might not fall in love in that cold Parisian garret. And Macbeth might never murder his way to the throne.

That's the bleak scenario at the Metropolitan Opera, where fractious labor negotiations threaten to disrupt the new season for the first time in more than 30 years. This week, the company's general manager, Peter Gelb, vowed to lock out union members - cutting off pay and health insurance - unless they settle before contracts expire July 31.

And that seems unlikely, given that the Met and unions representing the orchestra and chorus are only now sitting down to serious negotiations on management's demands for pay and benefit concessions averaging 16 percent to 17 percent. Unions for stagehands and other backstage workers have been meeting with management but remain far from agreement.

The Met says deep cuts are essential if the company is to avert financial ruin, while the unions say the money problems have resulted from Gelb's bad management and could be addressed by cost savings that include fewer and less lavish new productions.

"We need to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make them take this seriously," Gelb said in an interview Thursday. "The short-term pain is something we'd have to live with in order to provide long-term survival."

Joe Hartnett, who is coordinating negotiations for six units of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, counters: "We are willing to tighten our belts if Peter Gelb is willing to cut up his credit cards. It's more than just our labor costs that's the problem."

The last time there was a work stoppage at the Met, in 1980, the company locked out its unions for 11 weeks. The orchestra players eventually won their demand that they be required to play only four performances a week instead of five, but the curtailed season didn't open until December (symbolically, not with an opera but with a performance of Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony).

It's unclear how long a lockout might last this time, but it could hamper preparations for the season, which is set to open Sept. 22 with a new production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," followed on consecutive nights by Puccini's "La Boheme" and Verdi's "Macbeth."

The Met is unique among American opera companies in both the length of its season (seven performances a week from September to May) and the size of its house (3,800 seats and an additional 200 standing room spots).

The way Gelb sees it, the Met is facing a crisis brought on by declining attendance and "donor fatigue," the unwillingness of wealthy supporters to keep providing unlimited support for a failing institution.

Last season the company reported a deficit of $2.8 million on a budget of more than $300 million, of which more than $200 million went for pay and benefits to the Met's unions and its principal singers.

That deficit might not sound like a lot, but Gelb said it "could have easily been $20 million to $30 million if I had not been calling up our donors and getting them to fill the gap."

If the unions would agree to concessions, Gelb said, the savings of more than $30 million annually would inspire the board to carry through a plan to double the company's relatively anemic endowment of $253 million and guarantee future financial security.

Gelb said he won't cut union members' base pay, but wants to trim "high-end" health and pension benefits and eliminate "excessive work rules that trigger overtime on a daily basis."

As an example of inflated pay, the Met has cited singers in its chorus making $200,000 a year. But Alan S. Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents chorus members, called that figure misleading. He said their base salary is $104,000, "and everything else is overtime caused by his productions. He wants us to work overtime with no pay."

Gelb said administrative employees would see their compensation reduced by an amount equivalent to that of union members. He himself took a pay cut in April, lowering his base pay to $1.4 million a year.

"Our people would be happy to make concessions to help the Met survive. But not to help Gelb survive," Gordon said, "He doesn't understand how this will poison relations in the future. Our members won't respect him, they won't talk to him, they'll spit at the mention of his name."

Gelb insists he's not worried about any "lingering bitterness" resulting from a lockout.

"The people who work here are incredibly professional," he said. "I admire them greatly and we had great mutual respect for each other, up until I asked them for a pay cut.

"Once the dust settles," he added, the musicians "don't have to love me to play well."

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