Breaking: Chicago’s Lyric Opera is shut by orchestra strike

Breaking: Chicago’s Lyric Opera is shut by orchestra strike


norman lebrecht

October 09, 2018

The musicians have just walked out after the breakdown of prolonged negotiations.

UPDATE: First picket-line picture.

UPDATE2: Lyric calls the string unnecessary.

Here’s what the musicians say:

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.



  • Sarah Ponder says:

    The rest of the orchestra’s facebook page post:

    “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.”

    • Rob says:

      Pure greed on the part of the musicians. All other labor unions have taken concessions in this very real time of reduced attendance and income for all arts.

      • Katie says:

        An ignorant comment from an entitled, ignorant man, who unfortunately feels a deep desire to comment on issues that he clearly does not understand. Thank you for contributing to the devaluation of the arts and artists who selflessly dedicate their entire lives to a craft that serves and enriches the communities around them.

      • Elaine Calder says:

        And the management team? Are they taking cuts as well? Is the size of the administrative staff growing, or shrinking? If Lyric Opera is in crisis – and that’s a big “if”, based on the financial information available – then I would expect changes to be made across the organization and not just through labor contract negotiations.

      • Lynn Becker says:

        Did you even bother to read the very tight statistics listed? Or are you just obsessed with making extremely talented artists bear the brunt when management appears to be making out like bandits?

      • Ezra says:

        Please tell us what cuts you personally have accepted in your own employment.

        Also, do you really think the Lyric can remain among the top tier of world opera companies with all the cuts?

  • lori says:

    Having attended operas in the great cities of Europe, Asia, and America, i can say that there is no group that displays the dedication, perfectionism, and love of sharing music more than the musicians of Chicago’s Lyric Opera orchestra. I have personally worked with several of the musicians and their professionalism and desire to make every note meaningful is consistently astounding. There is no reason why they should comprise less than 12 percent of Lyric’s budget- they contribute to at least 50% of one’s enjoyment of each production. Chicago’s cultural cachet would sink into the river next to the opera house without these stellar musicians.

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    These musicians deserve everything they are asking for. I can’t think of any profession that exhibits the consistent and uniform skill level of an orchestra musician.

  • Albert Nandiz says:

    Show me the money!!! If there is a genuine desire to resolve the issue, just open the books and demonstrate to whoever wants where the money had gone. If do not do this strike will prolongue.

    • Anson says:

      Huh? Aren’t the books open? As a nonprofit, the Lyric has to file extensive financial disclosures — publicly available — every year.

      • ALBERT NANADIZ says:

        Someone is lying; Musicians says that ” Management has never given them a straight answer of where does the money had gone”… that’s why the strike. There are two different versions and must find a meeting point. Think that if both parties goes with their Lawyers & CPA’s to the negotiation table, with their hands clean and an honesty attitude issue can be resolve. Humans have above all the other God’s Creation the special characteristic of speak. But it is meaningless if convert meetings in trash-talk. This can be done by a convincing Power Point presentation with all the cards over the table, speaking with the truth. I have no doubt that institution have the money. If can pay $2.8MM between Musical Director and CEO do not understand why wants to cast out musicians and reduce their families economic means…

  • Michael says:

    I could not possibly disagree with you more, Rob.

    You paint artist’s as greedy…..quite the contrary.

    I don’t actually know any greedy artists, in ANY style of music. They simply want to make a living they can provide a decent roof over their heads, health insurance for their kids, Add all of the things that management takes for granted, typically, in disputes of this sort.

    Not all management is evil, by any stretch, as evidenced by negotiations referenced In the initial post in other disputes. There is a way to get this done that does not destroy an orchestra, nor the Lyric Opeta, nor the work upon whose shoulders both were built.

    • Anson says:

      “living they can provide a decent roof over their heads, health insurance for their kids”

      I am asking — truly just asking, not trying to bait — how much salary you think is fair for Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians? What do you think the average mid-career annual salary should be?

      • Anon says:

        I believe they were in the 60k starting range with right under 100k for mid career. It was (is?) a very generous orchestra compared to the admin side at sub 42k avg salary. That’s 24 weeks contracted, too, not a 52 week season.

        Likely this will fizzle and they’ll agree on something generous, but I was a student at CIM during their “strike” and during a rep class with an orchestra member we asked why they were striking. At the time their starting salary was 138k in Cleveland where the avg income was 22k. He said “I’m not sure if we’re a great example to students right now.”

        Like- no fucking kidding.

        • Mick says:

          So, did you get into an orchestra like the Cleveland Orchestra? That might change your perspective, to actually be good enough to win such a position and then hold onto the job. Another question for you is, “How much does an allergist make, for example?” Who has more technical skill and lives with more pressure to be great? The allergist, seeing patients (actually done by the nurse) or principal horn of the CO (who appear to last less than 20 years now)? I’ve seen enough of both to know the orchestra member deserves his salary.

        • Ezra says:

          Starting salaries for several elite law schools is over 100k. I would contend that musicians in elite orchestras are far more qualified than that. It’s more analogous to being a professor at an elite university.

          Salaries in the top orchestras of Europe are lower – but that is partly because the state provides things (health insurance, daycare, subsidized meals) that are exceptionally expensive in the USA. Mind you, employers like Google enjoy such benefits. What makes you think our orchestral musicians are less qualified or deserving?

  • Ralph Neiweem says:

    100 % agree with musicians. We need a GREAT opera company, not one that limps along to artistic oblivion. We are entitled to at least what we have developed over the last twenty years. Over twenty performances of Broadway shows and reducing the number of regular performances is already intolerable. SHAME ON LYRIC.

  • Dayna Calderon says:

    I have asked the organizer of this event to MOVE it to another location if the strike has not been settled before Friday.
    I encourage you all to ask the same of them.

    I stand with the Union Musicians.

  • MacroV says:

    You can’t have an opera with the orchestra, so the musicians have a fair amount of leverage here; more, in fact, than a symphony orchestra, whose shows can just be cancelled/rescheduled in a strike. So I suspect the musicians will largely get their way here. And they probably should.

  • Bill says:

    Some of the numbers do not agree with the picture being painted.

    “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.”

    14.6% of $60.4 million is $8,818,400
    11.9% of $84.5 million is $10,055,500

    So the dollar amount going to the orchestra has actually increased by 14% during that time.

    The percentage of the budget that the orchestra gets can (and apparently did) decline while the orchestra nevertheless gets more money. I have no knowledge of the LO’s budget, but I do know that they own the space, and can imagine the possibility that they might need to spend more money maintaining it, as one example of something that might increase the budget without a proportional increase in the money going to the orchestra. Without knowing a more detailed breakdown of the budget, it really is not reasonable to throw stones at anyone.

    I have no dog in this fight. I’ve enjoyed the LO productions I’ve attended or heard on the radio, and hope that the negotiators can come to a speedy agreement that results in a fiscally stable house that puts on superior performances that continue to pack them in.

    • John says:

      A disingenuous representation of the numbers to garner support for your cause is the oldest trick in the negotiating book. The devil (or lack thereof) is truly in the details. Everyone should reserve judgement towards either side unless they have the actual budget details of the past several years in front of them for review.

      A much needed capital campaign to build or renovate a facility needed by an organization could easily cause such shifting in the percentages.

  • Eva says:

    Why is that “Arts Adminstrators” always cry that they can’t pay artists, all the while earning healthy salaries for themselves? (Anthony Freud’s salary nears $1M a year- a tidy sum for a non-creative.) Administrators can’t make art without artists; they need to starting paying artists as they do themselves.

    • Anon says:

      Arguably he already does. What does the top creative earn – the music director? Somewhat more than Freud, I’ll wager.
      (Also bear in mind the the orchestral players are contracted and paid for roughly half a year only, so Freud’s salary compared to theirs is more like $400k to be genuinely comparative for the time and work done)

  • Norma says:

    I would fire the board . Take over the orchestra yourselves.
    What I predict in the future is that the management will eliminate the permanent orchestra positions and hire freelance musicans per service with the goal of saving more money. This happens all around the world now. But this is all ridiculous and avoidable. There are so many super wealthy people in Chicago. Is their not one patron who will step in and help ? Bad management period.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      I’m thinking the musicians’ union would take a dim view of that approach. I’m not sure how all this works, but couldn’t the union tell their members NOT to work for the Lyric Opera if the company tried to go to an all-stringers orchestra?

      I’m not asking rhetorical questions….. Can anybody explain what the musicians’ union can and cannot do to take “corrective” action against a particular employer?

      • Mick says:

        Union members are not allowed to “cross the picket line”. Non-union members, if they play in the Lyric Orchestra, would be called “scabs”. But that won’t happen because musicians get work from each other; they wouldn’t do that to their colleagues.

    • Loris Grossi says:

      I was a musician from the Rome Opera Theater Orchestra until last week, when I retired after 40 years spent in the pit. For this reason, I’m certainly biased but let say…with a large experience.
      First, I would like to present to all my Fellow Musicians in Chicago Opera my personal solidarity. I strongly wish they will succeed in this just battle.
      Reading these posts took me back to 2014 when our Orchestra was facing a very similar difficult (financial) situation. Before the negotiation started, the solution decided by the board was to outsource the entire Orchestra and Chorus: 182 people fired while leaving all the administrative and stage personnel (over 200 people) in their positions.
      The management was manipulating the national media so badly that at the beginning we were fighting our battle practically alone, having only the Unions on our side. We had to start searching for solidarity overseas and the International Federation of Musicians FIM (AFM is an important member of Fim as well) put all its weight on the table: all over Europe many Orchestras gave solidarity and visibility to us by reading a message to their audiences before the beginning of the performances, to denounce what was going on in Italy. So, in less than one month FIM helped us reach 32.000 signatures from all over the world in favor of our online petition against that insane decision.
      At the end of negotiations we all got our tenure positions back and an agreement was reached where the entire personnel (460) had a 3% cut of salaries for 2 years to reduce labor cost by 4 mln euro.
      Nowadays, 4 years after the signing of the agreement, we are thinking to sue the entire board because they did not respect the pact and the cut on salaries is still going on.
      These “new managers” should know that musicians in a musical theater are both producers and product: the quality of institutions’ musical offer almost entirely relies on the excellence of the musicians and to create a “special sound” in an orchestra you need musicians working together for at least 20 years. But they probably don’t.
      This happen when someone thinks to govern an art institution as an automotive factory.
      Good luck guys, we are on your side. Never give up, you are also carrying the responsibility of defending the quality of life of future generations.

  • Rigodon says:

    Do you know what it takes to be an musician in a wold class orchestra?
    Musicians investment in time, not to even mention financial investment, to get to play, sing and act in these orchestras. Oh yes, they have paid dearly.
    Why shouldn’t they demand what is due to them?
    Management? That’s another story.

  • Justin Cohen says:

    Well, I remember being in Chicago in the 1990s at a time when the Lyric Opera auditions were fixed. I don’t say that because I never won a job there. Some fine musicians won jobs there, but I recall one week in particular, around 1994 or 95 perhaps,, when four auditions were held in one week; three jobs in the orchestra were won by the people who’d been subbing there. The system worked like this: Lyric would hold auditions in groups of five or six people, and they’d know which groups and times “their” people were in. And they’d coach their subs previous to the audition. So the chances of getting their folks to the finals, where the screen came down, was very high.

    The mathematical chances of three out of four jobs going to preferred candidates in one week is astronomically small. I knew one guy (a trumpet player who shall remain unnamed) who was not one of their favorites, but he played in the same hour as one of “their” guys, and he played really well. But he couldn’t hit the high Db on a lick from “Der Rosenkavalier,” and instead of counting him out, the committee behind the screen gave him two more chances! That’s unheard-of, in preliminary auditions. They probably thought it was “their” guy. He didn’t make it …. but the point is that while Lyric Opera hired some fine musicians, in other cases they gave jobs to the “hometown favorites”/subs, and prevented their orchestra from becoming a truly world-class group. Perhaps that’s part of the reason they’re in the predicament they’re in. They make a hell of a lot of money, but I never failed to hear bitching about how much they make when I subbed there.

    To their credit, Lyric Opera seemingly stopped this practice of fixed auditions in the later 1990s. But of course some of the “homies” who were hired before then are still there. I heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and played with them back then, and it’s true that if you build a world-class group, it’s going to draw people. The fact that Lyric Opera didn’t do that for a long time is important. Let’s not compare their orchestra to the Met’s o (where auditions were fair and blind, all the way to the last person standing) or that of La Scala, or some opera orchestras elsewhere (e.g., Paris).

    Paying more money to musicians won’t bring a world-class sound. Lyric musicians have been making a truly enviable amount of money for a seven-month-a-year job for a long time. I don’t know how much it is now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were up to $70,000 (or more) for seven months. That’s like earning $120,000 per annum. Not bad … not bad at all, from the perspective of most working folks.