San Francisco Opera puts gun to musicians’ heads

San Francisco Opera puts gun to musicians’ heads


norman lebrecht

September 21, 2020

The SF Opera is filling social media with every other topic but refuses to answer questions about a deal that cuts musician wages by half.

Here’s what the players say:

Tonight, the musicians of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra voted to accept devastating changes to our existing contract. Had we rejected these cuts—including 50% of our weekly salary for the fall season and deep but graduated cuts for the ensuing 2 years—we would immediately have been without any income or the guarantee of health coverage.

The modified contract leaves key orchestra positions vacant for seven years, and ties the musicians’ compensation to ticket sales. Both of these modifications are unrelated to the pandemic and outside the musicians’ control. Everyone agrees that the San Francisco Opera Orchestra consistently meets the highest performance standards. The musicians are not invited to collaborate on artistic decisions or marketing strategies, and yet our compensation will nonetheless remain reduced for years if management fails to do its job of selling tickets. The reverse will not be true—management’s generous compensation is not tied to its sales or to the performance of the orchestra. Nor is management sharing equitably in the sacrifices it is imposing on its musicians, chorus and other employees.

We are told that the Opera Board considers these changes necessary, though the company has amassed a Quarter Billion Dollar endowment. If there was ever a time to release more endowment funds in order to support the company while its artists work to reinvent the way we share music, a global pandemic is indeed that time.



  • Pelosi perhaps.. says:

    Learn to CODE.

    • CA says:

      Many of these musicians are over the age of 40. Or more. Most will not be hired in a new industry because of rampant ageism in the workplace.

      • Go Libs!! WooHoo!! says:

        California has the most progressive and diverse anti-discrimination employment laws in the USA!!

        They will all be welcomed in and around San Francisco with open arms.

        In fact, businesses and tech firms will be fighting for each and every one of these valuable employees.

        Liberals stick together unless you’re a hateful Republican CA!

    • Kc says:

      What a world that would be where we had no musicians and a few thousand more coders.

  • Musician says:

    They are doing far better than the musicians at the MET or the Lyric Opera who are getting zero pay! At least the child rapist gets millions while the rest of the opera world struggles for its life.

  • Guest says:

    The musicians are damn lucky to be making half salary without actually working.

    • Another musician says:

      The musicians are continually working by their daily practice on their instruments. Which is probably about 3-4 hrs per day.
      They also are incurring costs for the upkeep of their instruments that easily runs into the $1,000’s.

    • KC says:

      Actually, they’re working really hard to sustain some kind of music-making and continued SFOpera presence, by creating and posting music and profiles online, putting on small outdoor neighborhood performances, and the like, attempting to keep the music alive out of a devotion to the art. Check out their Facebook page and you can enjoy it for free:

    • DAVID says:

      It’s actually called a contract. And, not to mention the fact that it is a mere infinitesimal fraction of the world population that is capable of doing what musicians of such caliber do, because on top of decades of relentless practice, they also have an innate talent which no amount of work can ever substitute for. Highly paid administrators, on the other hand, are for the most part well-spoken sophists well skilled at playing a certain game — which I guess could be seen as a kind of talent in and of itself, albeit not one which anyone would actually derive much pleasure from, nor want to pay good money to listen to, as many of them are not only incapable of even playing an instrument decently, but in many cases can’t even read music — though they certainly know how to talk about it in their occasional poseur duties.

  • Skippy says:

    An endowment exists to provide income. It’s not supposed to serve as a piggy bank, even during a “global pandemic.”

    • Capitalism RULES the MET! says:

      The MET is doing the EXACT same thing while leaving the singers to suffer along with everybody else!

      The MET board have revealed themselves to be true CAPITALISTS, haven’t they though??

  • Fil says:

    A reduction to approx. $30-40K for a season that lasts 5 months will not go far in the Bay Area.

    • Janet Melton says:

      They can simply do what everyone else has had to do; change careers.

      • Fil says:

        As simple as that sounds. The time it takes to reach the caliber to compete, let alone win these positions is life consuming; a vocation. Sure many musician have hobbies, cooking, exercise, etc. but the time involved to develop something remotely similar in craft is incalculable.

        Not all musicians continue to practice after winning jobs with the ferocity and drive needed to win another position anywhere else, as the level of competition always continues to rise. Thus making it harder to compete for jobs, IF and when they become available. We also must consider the age factor with many players also. While young players fill jobs frequently, there is the much larger group with AARP status who are only not in a position to compete in the field, they are beyond the curve to simply pack it all up and “change careers”.

        It is easy to be dismissive, but sadly the in the months since my last audition I have been constantly thinking of a solution that is not the same old “playing from home” routine.

        • Bruce says:

          “Sure many musician have hobbies, cooking, exercise, etc. but the time involved to develop something remotely similar in craft is incalculable. ”

          Nope. That’s what it takes to become a musician. A normal career requires much less time. A musician friend of mine is about to become a lawyer (once he takes the bar exam in a couple of weeks): 3 years of hard work, and multiple job offers waiting for you when you graduate. You need to be smart and have a work ethic, but you don’t have to be one of the best in the country just to get a job that pays enough to live on.

          Before any lawyers take umbrage: if you are, say, the 20th best horn player of all the horn players graduating from music schools this year, you are in trouble. (And not just 2020; any year.) If you are the 20th best law graduate — or even in the top 20%, since an apples-to-apples comparison is not really possible — you are going to do just fine. You won’t have to moonlight as a barista or anything.

          • Fil says:

            Sorry Bruce, you quoted me, but failed to realize the key word; craft. I am not sure about the artistic merits of being a lawyer. Hell, there may be some I unaware of. And I too have had several friends over the years turn to law or computer sciences. No one gets into classical music to make money. NO ONE. Since this thread is about the San Francisco Opera (which also moonlights as the Ballet Orchestra), let’s look at the double bass section, whose 4 members are roughly around their late 60’s or early 70’s. All of them won their positions around the same time years ago, they are all retiring around now. I don’t see any of them pursuing law degrees.
            Most classical musicians pursuing degrees, incur quite a bit of debt in 4 to 8+ years depending on how far you wish to go. These people are not looking to take on more debt, unless they are just handing out law degrees. The guys in the bass section now will be fine, houses and debts paid long ago, with some savings.

            And what is a normal career? Lawyer? Doctor? Athlete? Sales clerk?

            The root of the problem is America has allowed untalented and naive children pursue avenues in industries they have no business being in, all because they want to live out their fantasies, taking on debt they can never pay off.

            With regard to orchestras, they should be privatized, members MUST retire by 64, the position of music director must be abolished, all musicians must have a minor in arts administration, and be able to self govern their organization, thus removing the need for a board.

            These are all ideas on how to begin fixing the problems, changing careers may work for some, but there is a collective that believes in this art and will make the effort to see it through.

          • Bruce says:

            @Fil: as for the key word “craft,” yes I missed it/its significance. So if someone was going to change careers from musician to something comparably crafty — not sure what; actor maybe? — then that would require an enormous amount of time.

            My point stands, though: you can learn a new CAREER in a lot less time than it takes to become a musician. And often you can make a bigger, more reliable paycheck. AND you don’t need to be one of the absolute best to get a job. You can just be very good.

            (My definition of a “normal” career, btw: something where nobody asks you if you get paid for it)

            As for the rest of your post: you do you.

      • Cubs Fan says:

        Or move! There are plenty of nice places to live that aren’t as expensive and where there are jobs. Maybe not playing in opera orchestras, more like making overpriced and burned coffee, but hey, it’s a job.

      • The D says:

        You study an instrument from the age of 6 until graduating college (highly educated) and then change careers? Shame on you!

  • DAVID says:

    These managements simply have no respect for their musicians — it’s that simple. They want both to benefit from the standard musicians provide for the product being put out there, and yet treat them like replaceable cattle.

  • Sadly, little surprise that San Francisco already ranks 87th in the world for opera performances per year. It sounds like it’s going to drop out of the top 100 like Chicago which is now 125.

    For prespective, 86th is Bad bei Wien, Austria, and 88th Lübeck, Germany, tiny cities with a fraction of the population. The GDP of the Bay Area last year was almost $500 billion. There are more millionaires and billionaires in Silicon Valley than any place else in the world. We see how America’s isolated funding system by the wealthy doesn’t work. When will we wake up as a nation?

    • Liberal Logic says:

      That’s your party’s problem with “wealth inequality” in a nutshell.

      The rich, white, male business owners of Silicon Valley aren’t “handing over their fair share” to people they supposedly support; fellow liberals!!

      Since neither Pelosi nor anyone in California wants to offend criminals, you’d better do what BLM and ANTIFA have done to other symbols of inequality..”peacefully protest” all over Mountain View, Palo Alto and the like just like you see on MSNBC and CNN.

      They have too much in your opinion and are insured; right?? So get dressed in all black wardrobe with all your organized friends and make your voices heard on behalf of the arts!

      • V. Lind says:

        But they aren’t “handing over their fair share.” Nobody objects to their making money, but they are dodging the taxes that much smaller American businesses pay with their avoidance and evasion schemes. They CHEAT the American taxpayer, whatever his politics.

        • HugoPreuss says:

          Next opera in Lübeck: this upcoming Saturday, two one act operas by Francis Poulenc and Gian Carlo Menotti. BTW, Lübeck has 216.000 people, the opera house was founded in 1751, the current building is from 1908, and among its chief conductors was Wilhelm Furtwängler. So, there is way more tradition of opera in Lübeck than in, say, San Francisco.

          • America was once deeply involved with opera and crawling with opera houses. Cities often had more than one full time house, but we allowed the entire system to be dismantled and replaced by cinemas. Europeans used public funding to maintain a balance.

            Wish I could see the Menotti which uses one performer on stage–a great piece for the pandemic restrictions.

        • Cubs Fan says:

          Wrong on all counts. “Dodging” taxes is exactly what a smart, savvy decent businessman does. Those dodges are legal – and most likely put in place by liberal politicians in order to attract business. They are not cheating; they’re following the laws. What they ARE guilty of is the long-gone sense of noblesse oblige. The older, wealthy people knew this and supported arts institutions. The younger generation doesn’t know and don’t care.

        • What are you on about V. Lind? says:

          Nobody in Silicon Valley is “cheating” anybody. The WHITE MEN who own all of the businesses are Democrats and too honest for that. Pelosi will take care of the arts like she’s done everything else in her district if need be.

      • Blair Tindall says:

        No, they do not have health insurance. That evaporated three months ago for almost all furloughed orchestras.

    • DAVID says:

      That won’t ever happen, because money is the most important thing in America. What you’re talking about would require a sea change in worldview, values, and self-awareness. I just don’t see it happening, sorry to say. In Europe, the arts are valued because culture as a whole is valued for its own sake, as opposed to being merely used as a social accessory or a marketing tool for the corporate world to look good in the eyes of public opinion.

      • Tamino says:

        Yes, it‘s sad. The American way is coming to its dead end. Next stop: probably corporate fascism, that‘s where the signs atm point to.
        But the elite will still want opera?

  • Please fix: The quarter-billion figure is total assets, not the endowment, per “SF Opera assets are in excess of a quarter billion dollars: total assets at the end of fiscal year 2019 were $273 million, according to a previous statement by opera chief financial officer Michael Simpson, with total operating expenses of $78.6 million, and operating deficit of $650,000. The budget has since been revised to $44 million — an unprecedented change reflecting a unique situation.”

    The rest of the post, unfortunately, is correct.

  • Papageno says:

    These high-caliber unemployed musicians from major orchestra can easily get lucrative private teaching gigs.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Of course I am sorry for the musicians’ plight, but what can be done for them if the demand for tickets isn’t there? The management obviously isn’t there for the musician’s benefit, only its own. (What else is new?)
    I really hate to say it, because I love opera and have spent many, many lovely evenings at the SF War Memorial Opera House, but opera is a dying art.
    Especially since The Virus hit, it is a financially unsustainable art form, at least here in the US.
    And you just watch: European governments will soon begin withholding support for opera (and other musics).
    I will be sorry to see it go, but: that’s evolution, folks! (And economics….)

    • Kindra says:

      Nobody who “loves opera” would say what you said above. Or maybe I don’t understand what love means, or maybe you don’t.

  • fflambeau says:

    I support the musicians.

  • Hal Hobbs says:

    And when the endowment runs dry because this COVID is going to be around for a while, what will they do then?