Lyric Opera Musicians Go On Strike, Threatening Opera Season

Lyric Opera Chicago
Emily Mathews / Flickr
Lyric Opera Chicago
Emily Mathews / Flickr

Lyric Opera Musicians Go On Strike, Threatening Opera Season

Updated Oct. 13, 9:45 a.m.

Just days after the Lyric Opera of Chicago performed La Boheme on opening night, its orchestra is on strike. Since Tuesday, the members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians have been walking the picket line in front of the opera house in Chicago’s Loop. The orchestra and management have stalled on contract negotiations, and according to bassoon player Lewis Kirk, musicians have been working without a contract since June.

Kirk said management had issued “severe demands.” He pointed to management’s proposal to eliminate five positions in the orchestra as a major point of contention. He said overall quality will be threatened.

“When you start removing, let’s just say violins, every time you remove somebody it takes away from the overall sound,” Kirk said. “There’s a cohesiveness that happens, that you need a certain number.”

The opera’s management disagrees.

“Many of the opera’s performances don’t need 74 players,” said Anthony Freud, general director at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Over the three years of management’s proposed contract, attrition would reduce the core orchestra to 69.

Kirk, the bassoon player, said the string section is particularly vulnerable.

Freud maintained the proposed cuts come as a result of supply and demand. There were 61 performances during the 2017 to 2018 season.Freud said only 55 were scheduled for the 2018 to 2019 season to ensure the company could sell enough tickets. According to Freud, fewer performances account for management’s plan to reduce annual working weeks for members of the orchestra from 24 to 22.

“We simply can’t afford to continue paying people for work they don’t do,” said Freud. Lyric would guarantee musicians 22 weeks of work, and Freud said Lyric would offer “right of first refusal” on other performance opportunities.

Kirk estimated musicians would get a “modest” per week bump under Lyric’s proposal, but worries the reduction of work weeks won’t make up the difference.

The orchestra, according to Kirk, shouldn’t be punished because of less money rolling in through fundraising efforts.

“We do our job, which is to play the music,” Kirk said. “Their job is to find the donors and get those donations.”

Freud says financial realities mean the Lyric must make difficult decisions.

“I have great sympathy for the predicament of our employees,” Freud said. “But we can’t ignore the reality of the world around us.”

Freud’s salary has been frozen at $625,000 since 2016, said a spokeswoman for the Lyric.

Orchestra players were still walking the picket line as of Wednesday, and viola player Amy Hess said there are no scheduled negotiations with management. She also noted that the San Francisco Opera, Washington National Opera, and Metropolitan Opera have recently negotiated what she called “progressive contracts.”

Still, the the Lyric orchestra and management remain at an impasse. Freud claimed management is “keen to return to the table to continue talking as soon as possible.” Hess said that statement is false. A federal mediator is working with both sides, according to a Lyric spokeswoman.

So where does this leave ticket holders and subscribers?

Three performances this week have been cancelled. The opera’s spokeswoman said patrons can choose to attend a later performance or get a full refund. Management said it does not want to ask opera goers to cross the picket line.

Carrie Shepherd is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd.