Met Opera's music director decries musicians' unpaid furlough
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Met Opera's music director decries musicians' unpaid furlough
Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, greets the audience prior to a performance in New York, Feb. 23, 2018. Nezet-Seguin has taken the rare step of weighing in on a labor issue between the company’s management and its musicians. Julieta Cervantes/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Urging the Metropolitan Opera to compensate its artists “appropriately,” the company’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, sent a letter to leaders at the Met on Thursday saying that the many months its orchestra and chorus had gone without pay during the pandemic had become “increasingly unacceptable.”

He sent the letter as the Met’s musicians were scheduled to receive their first partial paychecks since they were furloughed in April. Before this week, they had been the last major ensemble in the country without a deal for at least some pay during the pandemic. In addressing the players’ nearly yearlong furlough — and hinting at the tough negotiations ahead, in which the Met is seeking long-term pay cuts from its unionized employees — Nézet-Séguin was doing something rare for a music director: weighing in on labor matters.

“Of course, I understand this is a complex situation,” Nézet-Séguin wrote, “but as the public face of the Met on a musical level, I am finding it increasingly hard to justify what has happened.”

The letter was obtained by The New York Times and confirmed by its recipients, which included Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager; the leaders of the negotiating committees representing the chorus and orchestra; and members of the opera’s board of directors.

“We risk losing talent permanently,” Nézet-Séguin warned in the letter. “The orchestra and chorus are our crown jewels, and they must be protected. Their talent is the Met. The artists of the Met are the institution.”

The orchestra committee has said that 10 out of 97 members have retired during the pandemic as the ensemble has gone unpaid, a stark increase from the two to three who retire in an average year.

“Protecting the long-term future of the Met is inextricably linked with retaining these musicians, and with respecting their livelihoods, their income and their well-being,” Nézet-Séguin wrote.

The Met said in a statement that “we share Yannick’s frustration over the lengthy closure and the impact it has had on our employees,” and added that the company was pleased that its orchestra and chorus and others were now receiving bridge pay. The Met said all involved were “working together for new agreements that will ensure the sustainability of the Met into the future.”

The Met, the nation’s largest performing arts organization, has said that since the pandemic forced it to shut its doors it has lost an estimated $150 million in earned revenue, and that it was seeking pay cuts from its workers, as many arts institutions have. The Met has been trying to cut the payroll costs for its highest-paid unions by 30% — the change in take-home pay would be more like 20%, it has said — and has offered to restore half the cuts when ticket revenue and core donations return to prepandemic levels.

Months into the furlough, the Met offered partial paychecks to its workers if they agreed to those cuts, but the unions resisted. At the end of the year, the Met offered partial paychecks on a temporary basis for simply returning to the bargaining table. Members of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents chorus members, dancers and others, accepted at the end of January and have been receiving paychecks for more than a month. The orchestra musicians voted to accept the offer this week. (The Met has locked out its stagehands, whose contract expired last year.)

Nézet-Séguin wrote in his letter that he was relieved that both the musicians and the chorus members are now being paid, but added that “this is just a start.” The deal allows for temporary payments of up to $1,543 a week, less than half of what the musicians are typically paid.

Nézet-Séguin was named the Met’s music director in 2016, when he was tapped to succeed James Levine, who led the company for four decades (Levine, who stepped down to an emeritus position because of health problems and was then fired two years later after an investigation into sexual abuse allegations, died this month.)

“I implore the fiduciaries of this incredible house to urgently help to find a solution to compensate our artists appropriately,” Nézet-Séguin wrote. “We all realize the challenges, economic and otherwise, that the Met is facing, and therefore I ask for empathy, honesty and open communication throughout this process.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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