Lyric Opera responds to union charges on Day 2 of musicians strike

Wed Oct 10, 2018 at 4:53 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson and Hannah Edgar

Musicians picket Wednesday outside the Lyric Opera entrance on Day 2 of the strike by orchestra members. Photo: Hannah Edgar

Lyric Opera management appeared wholly unprepared for the well-coordinated assault on the company and general director Anthony Freud by Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians when they walked out on strike Tuesday morning.

The strike has already caused the cancellation of two performances: Thursday’s matinee of La Boheme and Saturday’s opening of Idomeneo, as well as backstage tours and several ancillary events.

After being slow to respond to the charges by the Chicago Federation of Musicians members yesterday, the company appeared to regroup Wednesday morning with a more detailed statement emailed to media members and posted in part on its website.

One dismaying bit of news to come out is the company acknowledging that its opening-night radio broadcasts have been dropped due to a lack of sponsorship. The issue arose because Lyric balked at continuing to pay musicians’ broadcast fees under union rules when the performances were not being broadcast.

Re compenation, Lyric said that the average musician salary is $82,500 annually for 22 weeks of work of 20 hours a week. The company added that they continue to pay 92% of musician health care benefits as well as contributing to the musicians’ pension program.

The company stated that in the 2016-17 season, it paid $1.8 million to musicians, plus benefits, for non-working weeks due to a shortened season. As the statement put it, “Lyric has made a fair offer to the musicians of the orchestra.  We are committed to paying an excellent wage for work that is done but we can no longer pay for work that is not done.”

The company also strongly defended its fund-raising and development, and marketing departments, areas which the musicians had derided as ineffective and outdated.

It was the union’s turn to appear back on their heels Wednesday, with CFM taking most of the day to organize a response to the Lyric Opera statement posted hours earlier in the morning.

The musicians’ union firmly disputed Freud’s statement of an average salary of $82,500 per orchestra member in the Lyric contract offer, calling it “false” and “inflated far above the base scale for any musician.”

Among other points, the response also disputed the “20-hour work week” cited for Lyric orchestra musicians, stating that the total applies only to performances and ignores the fact that musicians must spend hours rehearsing for which they are not compensated. One can read the striking musicians’ statement and responses on their website at

Photo: Hannah Edgar

Meanwhile on a gray and drizzly Wednesday afternoon, more than two dozen orchestra musicians continued to walk the picket line on Wacker Drive outside the Civic Opera House.

Selections from Puccini’s La Boheme, the company’s season-opening production, now silenced by the work stoppage, blared from the company’s speakers on a wall above.

Some of the musicians stressed their concern for the future of the company as a leading international opera houses over and above their own financial and contractual concerns.

“One of the things that is a main concern to the orchestra is the dramatic decrease over the last decade in the number of performances that we’re giving and the amount of product that we’re offering,” said Kathleen Brauer, a member of the orchestra’s first violin section for 28 seasons. “It’s just been a really alarming trend [and] it’s not something we see as necessary.”

“I feel like we’re fighting for the art form more than anything,” said violist Frank Babbitt, an orchestra member for 24 years.

“It’s not personal. It’s for this city,” he added. “It’s for a legacy organization that provides grand opera to everyone in Chicago, not just the wealthy.”

“We feel very strongly that this is a world-class company, a world-renowned company, said violinist Brauer. “It is a major cultural institution in Chicago.

“We feel like we’re on a mission to preserve it as the world-class institution that it is and not have it slowly bled to death.”

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7 Responses to “Lyric Opera responds to union charges on Day 2 of musicians strike”

  1. Posted Oct 10, 2018 at 6:04 pm by Lynn Chaloupka

    I have had top row seats season tickets for many seasons. I love the sound at the top, have good binoculars and pretend I am Hera, Queen of the Gods, and your fabulous operas are my exquisite Royal Treat.

    I am also a visual artist and music lover. Threatening the quality of a grand Opera House, The Lyric, should not be done. Negotiations and intentions had all summer to be worked out. The Arts are our highest order thinking skills, our elevation on the living scale. Do not short the great musicians. Give them their due pay for all time spent. I am surprised to learn the they don’t get paid for rehearsals. I thought there were different levels of pay for performances vs rehearsing, but no pay? I guess there is not representation by the Union? Please work it out and please tell me if I am going to see La Boheme TOMORROW for Thursday, Oct. 11 matinee?????? no phone notification, i only read about the Matinee cancellation by going online and reading an article.
    Thank you for your response ASAP.

    Artfully, Lynn Chaloupka

  2. Posted Oct 10, 2018 at 11:28 pm by John Elstrom

    If you can find it in all the reporting on the strike: ‘Why We Are on Strike’ not only makes a great case for the strike, but also suggests a sensible solution.
    Lyric Opera in my view has wasted money on some pitifully distracting boring staging. Some productions would have been better in front of a painted canvass. For myself it isn’t as if Anthony Freud and his crew are going to abdicate their responsibilities as stewards but have been inept in carrying them out. Solution: “Then the musicians of the Orchestra will gladly take up that cause”. Orchestral participation!

  3. Posted Oct 11, 2018 at 9:00 am by HullExecutive

    Lyric doesn’t treat the average subscriber or small donor well. But they sure spend plenty wining and dining the big donors. But the base is ignored. As one instance, how are people who don’t work downtown supposed to get downtown, eat, and then make a 7 pm curtain? Let alone make the pre-opera lecture. All done with no consultation just because some people claim they cannot make their trains home even though the train schedules haven’t changed in years!

  4. Posted Oct 11, 2018 at 12:16 pm by Karin Assmar

    Could Lyric make money by filming the performances and selling dvds or selling them to a streaming service. I cannot afford to see all the performances but I would pay to see Lyric online.

  5. Posted Oct 11, 2018 at 1:04 pm by Kathleen Brauer

    Lynn Chaloupka- We are paid for the hours that we rehearse together, but not for the many hours of practice required to maintain our skills, and learn the operas.

  6. Posted Oct 11, 2018 at 6:47 pm by Meg

    Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra cut their orchestra size with attrition, so why is Lyric supposed to be sacrosanct? They also use subs when a larger orchestra is needed, and ALL musicians must practice on their own; there is nothing unusual about their contract.

    22 weeks with health care for the entire family, plus pensions sounds quite nice, and most musicians supplement with summer gigs and other sources. That’s what you sign up for when you’re a musician.

    Any musician who becomes eligible for a pension becomes a drain on the budget for several decades. With fewer musicians needed both at Lyric and in the industry the orchestra needs to face up to reality instead of a fantasy.

    Sounds like they are cutting off their own noses to spite their faces – and those of the audience for every performance that is cancelled.

  7. Posted Oct 12, 2018 at 5:47 pm by Mara

    I support Lyric’s orchestra and hope that strike will bring attention to Lyric’s decline.

    I’ve been subscriber for 20 years. My friends stopped subscribing due to lackluster seasons and wide availability of deeply discounted tickets. I attend weekdays performances. Last year the house was full only for Orpheo. At Walkyrie performance Upper balcony (5th and 6th floors) was closed, audience was moved to lower floors and still there were plenty of empty seats.

    It seems that Lyric is in the catering business–I get many emails about dining options. Will I choose to go to Lyric due to sushi bar available at select performances?

    Lyric’s website looks sleek but it’s clunky and not fully functional.
    The changes to subscription pricing this year are penny pinching. On top of subscription I had to pay extra charge for each ticket and another charge for aisle seat and for the seat next to aisle seat.

    I have an impression that management caters to the wealthy and does not care about less affluent folks.

    I love opera and I am sad to see Lyric disintegrating. I believe Mr. Freud changed everyone in top management positions since he took over the company. The management needs to change.

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