(Adds comment from Met Orchestra's union)
By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK, July 30 (Reuters) - New York's Metropolitan Opera has proposed bringing in a federal mediator to resolve its most bitter labor dispute with musicians and other unionized employees in decades, the company said on Wednesday.
The suggestion comes a day before current contracts expire, but will not alter the Met's plans to lock out employees and suspend their health benefits on Friday if new agreements are not reached, the company said.
A lockout could derail at least the start of the new season at one of the world's preeminent opera houses, due to begin on Sept. 22 with Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro".
The Met has said its labor force has become too expensive in a time of declining global interest in opera. Pay and benefits for orchestra players, chorus singers, stagehands and other unionized employees accounted for nearly $215 million of its $326.8 million operating expenses in the last financial year.
Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, said this week that opera could become obsolete "if measures are not taken to make it fit in the 21st-century economy."
The mediation proposal was made at a meeting on Wednesday with the Met's chorus, represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, said Alan Gordon, the union's national executive director.
The Met confirmed the proposal in a statement, saying having a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service was "a more pragmatic way forward."
Gordon said his union would be willing to accept mediation, although he could not speak for the 14 other unions with which the Met is separately negotiating.
The union representing the Met Orchestra, Local 802, said they were considering the proposal, but wanted the lockout averted.
"We believe it would have a much greater chance of success if Peter Gelb would back off his lockout threats and extend the current contract," Local 802 president Tino Gagliardi said in a statement.
The dispute has turned increasingly sour since Gelb wrote a letter last week to employees informing them of a possible lockout.
The Met Orchestra has publicly denigrated the new productions brought in under Gelb and lambasted what they called his "failed management and lack of artistic vision."
The union compiled a tally of reviews of new productions since Gelb took over in 2006, suggesting critics had generally disliked them. The Met says new productions under Gelb have garnered the same mix of praise and brickbats as his predecessors. (Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Sandra Maler and Eric Walsh)