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SF Opera Faces COVID-19 With Controversial Orchestra Contract Revision

September 22, 2020

Most times opera companies negotiate new orchestra contracts just before the existing agreement expires.

But this is 2020, the year of COVID-19 and the shuttered War Memorial, so San Francisco Opera has taken the orchestra contract that is valid for two more years and revised it retroactively. The new contract, approved reluctantly by the unions last week, is in effect Aug. 1, 2020, through July 31, 2023.

SF Opera issued a brief statement on Sept. 21, saying only that “the agreement, which continues healthcare, guarantees a reduced but growing level of compensation over the term of the contract (50 percent this fall, growing to at least 82 percent by the final year).”

Text of the contract or any specific information have not been made public, but SF Classical Voice obtained the contract’s salary specifics:

— Collective Bargaining Agreement rate for Fall 2020 will be cut by 50 percent
— CBA rate will be cut by 42 percent for Spring/Summer 2021
— CBA rate will be cut by 23.5 percent for 2021/2022
— CBA rate will be cut by 17 percent for 2022/2023, with the possibility of gains up to our full salary, based on percentage of ticket sales

CBA rates refer to basic minimum salary, which in the existing contract was initially $87,063, rising to $94,705 in the third year, and guaranteeing medical, dental, vision, and instrument insurance.

SF Opera is — by size and importance — the nation’s third opera company behind the Metropolitan of New York and the Lyric of Chicago. The Met furloughed the orchestra in March and there are no plans announced for compensation. Contract talks in Chicago, reported to be “intense,” are not yet concluded. (Also unknown at this time is the SF Opera-AGMA negotiations about the SF Opera Chorus, reported to be on furlough.)

The Opera’s fiscal troubles go back long before COVID-19, and now, unlike the coming together of management and labor after settlement in previous years, 2020 — true to form — is very different. The musicians’ SF Opera Committee released a statement on Friday saying:

“We voted to accept devastating changes to our existing contract. Had we rejected these cuts ... we would immediately have been without any income or the guarantee of health coverage.”

The modified contract, according to the musicians, “leaves key orchestra positions vacant for seven years, and ties the musicians’ compensation to ticket sales. Both of these modifications are unrelated to the pandemic and outside the musicians’ control.

“Everyone agrees that the San Francisco Opera Orchestra consistently meets the highest performance standards. The musicians are not invited to collaborate on artistic decisions or marketing strategies, and yet our compensation will nonetheless remain reduced for years if management fails to do its job of selling tickets. The reverse will not be true — management’s generous compensation is not tied to its sales or to the performance of the orchestra. Nor is management sharing equitably in the sacrifices it is imposing on its musicians, chorus and other employees.”

SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock — who was former General Director David Gockley’s point man in previous contract negotiations — did not respond to the musicians’ complaint in his press statement on Monday, praising them extravagantly instead:

San Francisco Opera is profoundly grateful to the orchestra for its partnership in facing this pandemic, as we look to maintain the artistic health of San Francisco Opera and meet the challenges and creative opportunities ahead.

While we are grateful to be able to ensure guaranteed compensation and healthcare to our musicians over the next three years, no matter when we are able to return to performing, we are keenly aware of and grateful for the support and sacrifice the musicians have shown to help San Francisco Opera weather this difficult time. We look forward to the day when we can welcome our amazing musicians back into the pit, raise the gold curtain, and bring this transformative art back to life at a time when it is needed more than ever.”

Opera finances have been at issue, musicians and others questioning the company’s willingness to weather the crisis while fully supporting Orchestra and Chorus and the use of the endowment. The Orchestra Committee has stated in its response to the contract:

“San Francisco has always been a world leader in supporting the arts. In this existential crisis, the Opera needs to support its artists rather than take advantage of the pandemic to diminish their contracts.”

The last reported total for the Endowment was $226 million. SF Opera assets are in excess of the quarter billion dollars cited by the musicians: total assets reported at the end of fiscal year 2019 were $273 million, with total operating expenses of $73 million, and operating deficit of  $650,000. The budget has since been revised to $44 million - an unprecedented change reflecting a unique situation.  

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].