Chicago Lyric Opera Musicians Walk Out as Season Opens

Posted October 9, 2018 4:47 p.m. EDT

Just three days after Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 64th season with a starry new production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the music stopped on Tuesday as the musicians in its orchestra went on strike to protest cuts being sought by the management.

Management at Lyric Opera, which is one of the largest and most important companies in the United States, said in contract negotiations that it must cut costs to ensure the company’s survival in an era when audience demand for grand opera is weaker than it used to be; the musicians’ union counters that such cuts will endanger artistic quality and risk making the company “a pale shadow of its former self.”

Management was seeking to reduce the number of guaranteed weeks of work for the players in the orchestra to 22 from the current 24; to cut the number of full-time musicians to 69 from 74 through attrition; and to stop making payments for radio broadcasts that it says it can no longer afford to present. The musicians walked out on Tuesday morning.

“Why are we on strike?” the orchestra, represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians, said in a statement shortly after they walked out. “Because a world-class opera company needs a world-class orchestra. That is now in danger.”

Anthony Freud, who has been the general director of Lyric Opera since 2011, said in a telephone interview that the proposed cuts were “based on our belief that we want to continue paying good wages for work done, but we can no longer afford to pay for work not done.”

He said that the company wanted to reduce the number of work weeks to reflect audience demand — which has led it to schedule fewer performances each season than before.

As recently as two decades ago, Lyric Opera was in an enviably strong financial position: It sometimes reported selling better than 100 percent of capacity because it would sell out on subscriptions, and some subscribers would donate back tickets they could not use, which would then be resold. And the season was longer: 85 or 90 opera performances a season.

But in recent years demand has softened considerably. The company is presenting fewer than 60 opera performances this season. In recent years it has tried to raise revenues in other ways, including by presenting a long run of a musical each season and renting its theater out.

Company officials went in to the current round of negotiations seeking cuts. They reached agreements with the leaders of two other two unions, the American Guild of Musical Artists and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, but not with the musicians.

The musicians said in a statement that the union was seeking to maintain the size of the orchestra, win cost of living increases, and preserve benefits and working conditions. “An opera company that aspires to be world class needs an orchestra that can draw the finest musicians, and produce the sound that makes opera the thrilling experience that Chicagoans have come to expect from Lyric Opera,” it said.

The management countered that the changes it seeks are essential: “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.”

In recent seasons the company has mounted a number of ambitious works, including a new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle (its “Siegfried” is scheduled for this fall), and in 2015 it presented the premiere of “Bel Canto,” an opera composed by Jimmy López with a libretto by Nilo Cruz that was adapted from Ann Patchett’s novel of the same name.

Officials said that they had canceled a matinee of “La Bohème” scheduled for Thursday, and the opening night of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” on Saturday. After that is a question mark.