Looking Back, with Gratitude
James Berkenstock was Principal Bassoon of the Lyric Opera Orchestra from 1968 until he retired in 2017. He served on the orchestra committee for 22 years, was part of 7 negotiations and served as chairman of the committee for 2 of those negotiations. It was because of Jim’s hard work and the work of many other committee members like him that we have the working conditions we have today. In 1968, contract negotiations in the world of classical music were very different. At that time it was customary for representatives of the union to negotiate the terms of a contract, and not the musicians themselves. Failed negotiations resulted in the Lyric management cancelling the entire season in 1967. By the time Jim started on a full contract the next season in 1968, orchestra committees across the country had started to be included in the negotiations. “My first season, the base pay was $245 per week for 13 weeks. We had three and a half weeks of rehearsals before opening night and Sunday was a day off. Before the dark season there were no days off for 8 weeks.”
Carol Fox was General Director at that time and the schedule was grueling. It was not unusual to play a dress rehearsal for Carmen (3 hrs 30 mins.) in the afternoon and a performance of Siegfried (4 hrs. and 55 mins.) at night, or a dress of La Boheme (3 hrs 30 mins.), followed by a performance of Der Rosenkavelier (4 hrs.). Players had little option for release time. Two horn players wanted to attend a funeral and had to miss a rehearsal to do so. The conductor, Ferdinand Leitner, gave them permission, but when Carol Fox found out she fired them both. The orchestra committee fought for no more than 7 hrs. of playing per day. Negotiations often came to a standstill and occasionally ended up in the mayor’s office. Mike Greenfield, counselor at the time, helped negotiate a change in the contract that protected musicians from unjust firing by writing a clause that made it more difficult to fire a player for reasons unrelated to playing standards. He also helped negotiate severance pay. Jim described one difficult negotiation this way: “We always worked for a longer season,” said Berkenstock, explaining the need to spread the playing hours over more weeks to avoid injury to the musicians. "It took five years of negotiations to nibble it down. Bruce Nelson, retired Lyric Bass Trombonist and committee member, created a chart to show how the season could be spread out over a longer period. Mayor Jane Byrne (mayor of Chicago from 1979-83) put $700,000 of city money on the table in a “take it or leave it” move to strong-arm negotiations. It was meant to go toward creating a spring Lyric season but the offer ignored the committee’s requests for a higher salary and more reasonable hours. The committee called her bluff, continued to raise their issues, and received the city money plus better hours and salary as well. It was tense but good!” With each negotiation the season continued to expand, settling in 2003 at 8 productions stretched out over 26 weeks. It was because of Jim’s hard work and the work of many other committee members like him that we have the working conditions we have today. A world class orchestra deserves a world class contract. Thank you Jim!