Why are the Musicians of the Lyric Opera Orchestra on strike? Because a world-class opera company needs a world-class orchestra. That is now in danger.
Over the past 65 years, Chicago’s citizens, civic leaders, and philanthropists built a world-class opera company for a world-class city. The Lyric Opera Orchestra has been a key part of that, renowned for its artistry and exquisite sound. But Anthony Freud and Lyric Management are demanding radical cuts that would decimate the Orchestra and forever diminish the Lyric Opera of Chicago:
Cutting the number of Orchestra musicians by eliminating five positions.
Cutting the pay of the remaining Orchestra musicians by 8%.
Cutting the number of Opera performances, hand-in-hand with cutting the number of working weeks for the Orchestra from 24 to 22.
Eliminating all of Lyric’s popular radio broadcasts.
If Management gets its way, the work of all those who built Lyric Opera will have been for nothing.
There is no need for any of this.
There is no justifiable reason for Lyric’s demands. If Lyric faces financial challenges it is not because of the Orchestra. Lyric exploded its budget in recent years, from $60.4 million in 2012 to $84.5 million in 2017 (the most recent year for which audited financials are available). But the Orchestra saw none of that $24 million increase. To the contrary, the Orchestra’s share of the budget has decreased steadily, from 14.6% in 2012 to 11.9% in 2017. If Lyric wants to make cuts, it is looking in the wrong place.
Which also begs the question: where is that $24 million going? Management has never given us a straight answer. Certainly, that money did not go to the musicians of the Orchestra. Since 2011, our weekly salary has increased an average of less than 1% per year; and adjusted for inflation, our wages have actually decreased by 5.1% since 2011.
The wolf is not at the door.
Lyric Management tries to rationalize its demands by claiming poverty, but the evidence just isn’t there.
Management complains about a “structural deficit” – a term totally out of place for a nonprofit – but cannot escape the fact that there is no actual deficit on Lyric’s balance sheet. Like all non-profits, Lyric runs an operating deficit every year because earned revenue is never enough to cover expenses. (That’s why they call it a “non-profit.”) So, Lyric raises money – lots of it. Lyric is good at it. In addition to its annual fund, Lyric has successfully mounted fundraising campaigns like “Breaking New Ground” and “Campaign for Excellence” – campaigns that have raised tens of millions of dollars. Those funds are explicitly earmarked to be drawn on when needed for operating costs. In keeping with that stated purpose, Lyric draws on those funds to balance the books.
But now Lyric says it has suddenly lost the ability to raise money, citing “donor fatigue.” Such fatigue would be an affliction unique to Lyric. Other major cultural institutions in Chicago, including the Art Institute, Joffrey Ballet, and Museum of Contemporary Art, have seen big increases in fundraising. According to Giving USA – the gold standard for tracking charitable giving – giving to the arts has steadily increased since the Great Recession, outpacing nearly every other philanthropic sector.
We’ve also heard a defeatist and self-fulfilling narrative about ticket sales. In the words of Deputy General Director and Chief Operating Officer Drew Landmesser, “Ticket sales are down, they will keep going down, and then they will keep going down.” (Way to keep a positive attitude!)
But the actual numbers tell a different story. In 2012, Lyric’s ticket sales were $25.03 million. In 2018, they are forecast to be $25.95 million. That doesn’t look like a horror show to us. And Lyric’s fill rate of 84% of the house is the envy of other opera companies. Moreover, ticket revenue has remained stable despite Lyric dramatically reducing the number of performances, alienating subscribers by changing their longstanding subscription packages, and failing to grasp new technological requirements like maintaining a well-functioning website or building a mobile app. The fact that Lyric has managed to sell opera tickets despite its own missteps speaks well for the demand for opera in Chicago.
Radical demands for concessions from musicians also seems to be a Lyric-specific phenomenon. This year alone, the Metropolitan Opera reached a contract agreement with its musicians that featured salary increases and pension improvements; the musicians of the San Francisco Opera reached a five-year agreement with significant wage increases; and the Washington National Opera orchestra obtained a progressive contract with wage increases every year and no loss of guaranteed work. Clearly, the managements of those companies recognize the folly of trying to improve finances on the backs of their musicians.
What we’re looking for.
Above all else, we’re trying to preserve this Orchestra and the quality of Lyric Opera performances. An opera company that aspires to be world-class needs an orchestra that can draw the finest musicians, and produce the sound that makes opera the thrilling experience that Chicagoans have come to expect from Lyric Opera. We’re looking to maintain the same number of musicians in the orchestra, for cost of living increases, and to preserve our benefits and working conditions.
And when we say “cost of living,” we mean that literally: our last bargaining proposal to management proposed tying wage increases directly to the rate of inflation. We’re not even trying to make up for lost ground, even though our wages in real dollars have declined more than 5% since 2011.
In contrast, you know whose wages have most certainly not declined? Anthony Freud’s. He saw a compensation increase of 18% from 2014 to 2017 – a raise of 16% in 2016 alone, right after the Orchestra musicians agreed to a cost-neutral contract with cuts to health care. And now he is leading the charge to gut the Orchestra. His demanded salary cuts alone would cost each musician in the Orchestra $6,000; Freud, with his $800,000 annual salary, gets paid that much every three days.
Where we go from here.
Lyric Opera of Chicago is at a crossroads. What kind of opera company does Lyric want to be? Will Lyric fulfill its core mission of presenting great opera to Chicago and the world at the highest level – the vision that Ardis Krainik and other leaders pursued, and which inspired generations of Chicagoans? Or will Lyric disregard the work of those leaders, abandon all ambition, and adopt a myopic vision that looks no further than its own balance sheet? We’re on strike because we will not, and cannot, accept a Lyric Opera of Chicago that is nothing but a pale shadow of its former self. If Anthony Freud and his crew abdicate their responsibility as the stewards of this organization, then the musicians of the Orchestra will gladly take up that cause.