Labor dispute threatens New York City Opera season

NEW YORK Mon Jan 9, 2012 2:42pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A labor dispute between the New York City Opera and unions representing its musicians led to one rehearsal being canceled on Monday, and unions are predicting the impasse could jeopardize the entire season.

A spokeswoman for the cash-strapped 70-year-old New York City Opera said a chorus rehearsal for Verdi's "La Traviata" was canceled Monday after a decision to lock out musicians pending an agreement.

"Rehearsals are canceled until we have a deal. We are taking this one day at a time," the opera's spokeswoman Risa Heller said in an email.

After talks broke down on Saturday night, Heller said the opera "had no other choice but to lock them out as the company cannot afford to pay for rehearsals when the unions have pledged to strike the performances."

Some feared any resulting cancellation of the entire season would permanently sink the struggling opera, which left its home at Manhattan's Lincoln Center last year amid financial difficulties.

Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, one of two unions locked in the dispute and the representative for the chorus and singers, said he had "some hope" that the company may want to continue negotiating.

But ye added that "if there are no further negotiations then I am sure the season will be canceled."

The upcoming season features four operas including Rufus Wainwright's "Prima Donna" scheduled to have its New York premiere on Feb 19.

Wainwright appealed to fans on his website to buy tickets and show "a big early interest" to boost morale. He feared if the strike continued, "the company will likely be decimated, thus leaving the city of New York with only one large opera house whereas all the great cultural cities of the world have at least two."

The unions say the new contract would mean performers would be turned into freelancers, salaries for musicians would be eliminated and instead they would be paid a wage for each rehearsal and performance.

Tino Gagliardi, president of the local branch of The American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra, said that scenario would mean a major reduction in pay and health benefits.

"It would eliminate current members of the orchestra from performing at all," Gagliardi said in a phone interview.

The opera company said in a statement it had no choice because it is under economic pressure to turn around its finances, and it disagreed health benefits were limited.

"For New York City Opera to survive, we must transition to the model that most opera companies use: paying people only for the work that they do," said George Steel, General Manager and Artistic Director for New York City Opera.

He added the opera went "beyond this basic model by putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and insurance on the table."

(Reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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