Important ruling: Singer is cleared to sue the Met for injuries

It has taken five years, but a mezzo who suffered permanent injuries from a fall on the Metropolitan Opera stage has received court clearance to sue for damages. The Met contested her claim, arguing she was an employee in the pursuit of normal duties.

Here’s a summary of a precedential ruling:

A New York appellate court has agreed with Wendy White, prominent opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center (“the Met”), that White is not an employee and, therefore, may maintain a civil action in negligence against the Met for injuries she sustained in a fall from an elevated platform while she performed in the role of Marthe in the Met’s production of the opera Faust [see White v. Metropolitan Opera Assn., Inc., 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 90 (Jan. 5, 2017)]. The Met contended that White, who had been featured in more than 500 performances at the Met over the course of 23 years, was its employee and that her exclusive remedy was to seek workers’ compensation benefits pursuant to the N.Y. Work. Comp. Law.

More here.

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  • I remember back in 1983, during a Met performance of Les Troyens, when Jessye Norman fell backwards (with an alarmingly loud thud) as she descended from a low platform, landing most ungraciously on her behind in a spread-eagle position. Levine kept the orchestra playing while Ms. Norman managed to stand up, dust herself off, and continue singing. There was no mention of it in the press, but I’ve often wondered if she was compensated for the incident.

    • I don’t recall that incident with Norman, and never thought of that set as being particularly treacherous-but people do trip and fall of their own accord.

      But an infamous and very dangerous accident which I’m surprised no one has mentioned was the premature set cue at the 1990 Goetter which could have killed Hildegard Behrens. She was hit by a beam of the collapsing Gibichung Hall, and there was something addtional with a huge moving elevator. She suffered a concussion, and addtional injuries and it may have really affected her future career. I happen to be at that performance, and knew the production and turned to a friend and said-“That, was not supposed to happen.”

      I can’t recall but I think there was a settlement with the Met-but it may have been less compliocated since the production mistake was at fault. The performance was being taped-and I always expect it to turn up on Youtube(as everything does)-but maybe there were legal implications, part of evidence, etc.

  • It’s hard to see how any solo singer at the MET could be considered an employee. I see the definition used in the decision, but a singer like Wendy White was also singing with other organizations, not exclusively for the MET. A member of the chorus or orchestra, who draws a regular salary and works exclusively for that one organization is an employee; someone singing an average of 20 performances a year certainly sounds like a n independent contractor.

    Interesting that usually parties argue the opposite, or companies claim someone is an independent contractor when s/he is by any reasonable standard an employee.

  • YES!!! This is an historic decision and White has had to battle the MET administration for five years. Management has slashed rehearsals and cut corners where productions are now quite literally dangerous to the musicians (and to the crews dealing with the sets and stage mechanics as well). Of course there was negligence on the part of the MET’s management, which is why the they used every trick in their book to try to wear White down into subservience. But White refused to give in and every musician in New York is in her debt for standing up for her — and their — rights. BRAVA WENDY WHITE !

    • I remember the documentary about the making of the Met’s LePage RING. Debbie Voigt slipped and fell on the rather treacherous set and when she complained to Gelb I was shocked at his callousness in response. It was the director’s “vision” ueber alles. He didn’t even discuss it with him to see what could be done, he simply dismissed her concerns.
      Of course, Nilsson fell and dislocated her shoulder during the Met’s dimly lit HvK/Salzburg Gitterdammerung rehearsals and soldiered on. But the Wendy White situation has been handled horribly.

  • This is a VERY important ruling which goes to the very heart of this issue: Employee vs Private Contractor. This also has far-reaching implications vis a vie IRS and the way in which individuals are hired–and rehired–by ANY performing arts organization.

  • Yes, bravo Wendy! The manner in which the Met Management dealt with this incident was nothing short of disgraceful. And, Peter Gelb showed more of his true colors as well. One would have thought it was Wendy’s fault for falling.

    Then there’s the whole issue of these productions where singers are put through all sorts of risks. Walking across high parapets, rickety staircases, flying in harnesses, etc. Big risks, indeed

  • Oh brava for Miss White, I congratulate her and I wish her good luck with the next phase. I was at that performance of Faust and one could clearly hear the thud followed by Jonas Kaufmann calmly but firmly asking to stop and close the curtain. The soprano Marina Poplavskaya was center stage and did not know what was happening, but one knew it was serious. During the long interuption to the evening, I vividly recall one female usher loudly saying “It is these damn sets, it is not enough for them to sing, they have to be acrobats now.”

    Anyway, the amount of time and money wasted by the Met on lawyers and court costs probably could have avoided had a settlement been reached already.

    • Yes, I was there, too – I remember suddenly noticing that the orchestra was playing but the singing had stopped. After a few moments, Kaufmann said to the audience “Excuse us, we had an accident”. I am glad this lady will get an appropriate compensation.

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