Orchestra strike forces Lyric to cancel performances

Classical Music Critic

The Lyric Opera Orchestra went on strike at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and by the end of the day Lyric Opera of Chicago announced that the second and third performances of the season have been cancelled.

“La bohème,” which opened Lyric’s 64th season to positive reviews (see my review in today’s Hyde Park Herald), was scheduled for a matinee on Thursday. This, along with the opening night of “Idomeneo,” scheduled for Saturday, have been cancelled.

The primary points of contention between Lyric management and the orchestra focus on staffing, pay and work hours, and the walkout played out amid long lines of picketers and musicians playing outside the Lyric’s grand home on Wacker Drive.

Hyde Park’s legion of classical music fans showed no hesitation to weigh in.

Gary Ossewaarde, a board member of the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago and a stalwart financial supporter of many local music organizations, said, “Since it has been announced that Lyric has settled with two of the three unions, let us hope that there will be some kind of resolution with the other that has struck. The laborers – so estimable in this case – are worth their pay, and it also must remain possible for the organization to produce the good at sustainable cost.”

Sylvia Dawson, who with her husband has been a Lyric subscriber for over 30 years, said the strike came as a surprise, yet added, “We have certainly noticed the empty seats and more people leaving early. It seems that the orchestra, although deserving, is being unrealistic given the declining attendance therefore less income.”

“I am saddened and disappointed at the Lyric Orchestra strike,” said Heather Refetoff, a former Lyric subscriber and volunteer, “but appreciate the difficulties of accepting reduced pay and work weeks. Two years ago I dropped my subscription of 25 years and resigned as a volunteer in the Lecture Corps Backstage Tour Program for children, disillusioned with the many changes that resulted from a new management style. For me, Lyric ceased to be user friendly and, of course, the availability of ‘Live From The Met’ filled the gap.”

The orchestra musicians object to Lyric management’s contract proposals, which include the elimination of five members of the orchestra, an 8 percent reduction of musician pay, the reduction in the number of opera performances as well as cutting the number of working weeks from 24 to 22, and the elimination of radio broadcasts, for which orchestra members are paid an extra fee.

The orchestra, represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians (CFM), said in a statement Tuesday that the contract offer by management entails “radical cuts that would decimate the orchestra and forever diminish Lyric Opera.”

In a statement issued about an hour after the strike began, the opera company described the union’s actions as “unnecessary and harmful.”

The unsigned statement, issued by the office of Lisa Middleton, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Lyric Opera also said “…Lyric simply cannot agree to the terms CFM 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.”

The statement goes on to say, “We offered CFM wage increases in exchange for a reduction in guaranteed work weeks that better aligns with audience demand and increased scheduling flexibility that will allow us to access additional rental income. The leadership of our other two unions – the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) – recognized the need for these essential changes and have agreed to multi-year agreements. Only CFM refused. Lyric urges CFM to continue to talk and perform.”

The Lyric Orchestra members maintain that their demands are necessary to maintain Lyric’s excellence. In their statement they say that “We’re on strike because we will not, and cannot, accept a Lyric Opera of Chicago that is nothing but a pale shadow of its former self.”

Management countered the orchestra’s on Wednesday, saying its contract proposal offers orchestra members $82,500 each for 22 weeks of work with 20 hours of work a week. Any work over 20 hours per week would incur overtime. Lyric also says it has offered to continue to pay 92 percent of the cost of full health benefits.

Lyric’s grand building for grand opera on Wacker Drive saw the drama of long lines of orchestra members picketing while others played music on the sidewalk to encourage strikers and engage passersby.