Lyric Opera musicians call a strike for Saturday’s “Merry Widow” opening

Thu Dec 03, 2009 at 5:45 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Twilight of The Merry Widow?

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s opening night performance of The Merry Widow may not be so merry. The Chicago Federation of Musicians has called for a strike Saturday night if no agreement is reached on a new contract before the curtain rises on Franz Lehar’s operetta.

“We’re very far apart,” said William Cernota, Lyric cellist and chairman of the Lyric Opera members’ committee on Thursday. “We do not feel they’re negotiating in good faith.”

The 76 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra have been working without a contract since mid-September, when negotiations stalled over wage concessions. While there is some common ground, discussions have broken down largely over the Lyric’s plans to shorten the orchestra’s working weeks from 26 to 24 with the 2010-2011 season.

The musicians have offered a proposal calling for a pay freeze this current year; a 2 percent reduction the second year; a 4 percent raise the third year; and a 6 percent raise the fourth year for an overall 8 percent raise.

The Lyric has countered with a three-year contract that also freezes wages this year, and offers 2 percent raises the second and third years for a 4 percent raise.

But Cernota maintains that increase will be more than offset by the two-week reductions proposed for the second and third years, each of which is equal to 4 percent.

William Mason, the Lyric’s general director, doesn’t dispute that the company’s proposal amounts to an overall reduction in the musicians’ wages. “That’s true,” he said Thursday afternoon. “It is the economy we find ourselves in right now. Nobody is thrilled about the prospect of asking people to take less money.

“But when the economy goes down, you spend less money. You would do it in your personal life and you would do it in a business. The endowment is down, so spending is down, fund-raising is problematic. These are tough times.”

Cernota has said that the Lyric management has negotiated in bad faith including regressive bargaining, walking out of negotiations, and making take-it-or-leave-it “final” offers.

Mason maintains he is merely being fiscally responsible by refusing to enter into a contract that the company cannot afford. “This is not punitive and we’re not trying to take advantage of anyone,” he said. “We just have to tighten our belts and they’re a part of that.”

Cernota has also stated that cost-saving measures at the Lyric have had a negative effect on Lyric productions and musicians’ welfare, including eliminating the on-stage bandas called for in Verdi’s Ernani.

Mason disagreed that that move had any impact on the production, which was widely acclaimed. “It’s not a massively difficult [part], and its not that much of a hardship,” he said. “It’s not something we’ll do in every instance. But if it makes sense to do it, we’ll certainly do it.

“We’re taking cost-cutting measures in every area, including rehearsal time and stage time. Not to the point where it affects the product, but what choices have we got?”

Both sides are scheduled to meet 4:30 p.m. Thursday. One thing Mason does agree with Cernota about is that the two sides are not remotely close to coming to terms on a new contract.

And if no agreement is reached by 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and the Lyric Opera Orchestra goes out on strike?

“It could potentially be [disastrous],” says Mason. “It’s like you start a war when you start a strike. They’re easy to start but not always easy to end.”

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