Lyric Opera to staff: Sign new deals or face sack

Lyric Opera to staff: Sign new deals or face sack


norman lebrecht

October 22, 2020

Lyric’s leaders have told their staff the future will be bleak long after the post-Covid resumption unless the unions accept new deals.

Watch video here.

There will be no happy ending.



  • Sociologist from Alabama says:

    This Chicago story is yet another tragic instalment in the slow but sure demise of America’s classical music and opera performing arts institutions. It is times like these that the U.S. performing arts business model shows its weakness and its being an unsustainable model for the future.

    Leaving the arts, like opera and classical music, to the private sector, as is the case in the United States, making them nearly totally dependent on private and corporate donors, is a model that can only work when economic times are good and when there is a certainty that the private and corporate sector see the need for European/white origin performing arts in the community and when a projection shows that those two lifeline groups will increase their interest over the coming years. Sadly, none of these criteria are the case today and the interest in classical music and opera by the private and corporate community is only declining, due to demographics and cultural identity. The COVID crisis has only accelerated the demise of classical music and opera in the U.S., a demise that has long been underway, but will now, because of this crisis, move into a state of being unsustainable and I fear that most of the orchestras and operas in the United States will not be able to continue and most will cease to exist within the next five to eight years.

    Why? When a society chooses to leave the funding of an arts institution in private hands, it will only survive when the economy thrives and most importantly, when that activity is deemed of high interest and can attract an ever-growing attendance. It must also be felt to be an essential part of the donors’ own personal cultural heritage. With changing demographics in the United States, opera, for example, will not be of interest to a larger and larger percentage of the U.S. population, itself no longer based on white European immigration and their descendants. Opera and classical music only got support in the U.S. when the majority of immigrants to the young country were of European origin, their wanting to bring a piece of Europe with them to their new homeland. Now, when most immigrants and more and more of the U.S. population are not of European origin, why would those people suddenly support, in large numbers, opera and European classical music, when they themselves don’t feel any type of affinity with that art form? They may like it, they may even listen to it occasionally, but it is highly unlikely that they will invest in it in the way that the first and second generation European Americans did in the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s….

    So, with that well-documented shift in U.S. demographics, it is only clear and obvious that interest in classical music and opera will continue to decline and eventually be a “museum piece” and not an active enterprise requiring funding in the millions of dollars to keep it operating throughout the year. The only way to save these orchestras and operas going forward would be for support from the government. There again, why would a third generation American politician or corporate chairman, who is of Haitian or Chinese origin feel any sense of duty to keep alive an art form that is so clearly identified and connected with European culture and European languages? It should be a no brainer and obvious to all, but sadly it is not and they plod on, believing that they are immortal institutions, paying their CEO’s seven figure salaries and not seeing that the party was over probably already in the 1970’s.

    I fear that even a legendary institution like the Chicago Lyric Opera will either not be around in 5 years or it will be reduced to a mere shadow of what it once was, with an ever dwindling audience and private and corporate donor base, alongside a government that traditionally never was very interested in the arts or its survival. It is interesting that in the current presidential campaign in the United States you never will hear, not even once, any comment about the arts sector, about its importance to the education and well-being of the society, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Compare that to Europe, where the preservation of orchestras and operas is seen as a national responsibility, as it forms and is part of the national identity, unlike in the United States where it was only transplanted to the country by the newly arrived immigrants and then supported by their children and grandchildren. Now, those same families no longer even feel that connection to their European cultural roots and they would be far more interested in supporting a local football or baseball team, or the local hospital, than an opera company burning through millions of dollars to produce a few productions every season for an ever smaller audience. It is all a question of identity and affiliation and in the United States today the identity has shifted to something that is no longer Euro-centric and that explains why U.S. operas and symphony orchestras will slowly disappear and fade into the past immigrant history of the country. It is all very sad, for those of us who appreciate it and want it to survive, but it will go ignored by the vast majority of current U.S. citizens, politicians and corporate leaders. It is the end of an era and the current COVID crisis just got us to that place faster than it would have happened in more normal times.

    • Optimiste américain says:

      Vous exagérez, Monsieur!

    • April says:

      Some good points, but you overstate the European-thing a bit.

      Many operas have survived this long because some of them contain music that is immortal and not because it is “European”.

      Also, opera is rather on the way up in Asia and they are not European either.

      However, some of the big U.S. opera houses are maybe too big and it might be better if they were a bit smaller (fewer seats). Especially if the seats in the back are really bad.

      If the opera houses got at least some funding, they could operate somewhat freer and hence be more exciting.

    • Guest says:

      I agree with you to a point but I have to say you lost me when you kept going about politicians’ ethnicity being somehow connected to their interest in preserving European arts. I could give you countless examples but let’s stick to the most obvious one – Donald Trump. It doesn’t get any more corporate than that. His father’s parents were German, his mother was Scottish. He is just about the most un-cultured man I have even seen.

      • To be clear says:

        What you’re actually saying is Obama/Biden did nothing for the arts during their 8 years and Biden is helpless.

        We already know.

    • sam says:

      You are wrong because you assume “Opera” must always and forever mean the same old tired European repertoire we keep offering ad nauseum to the general public.

      Take Broadway, take Hamilton, it’s a fusion of rap, playwright and actors of color, plus traditional Broadway big song and dance numbers.

      If Broadway operated like opera houses: revival after revival of Carousel or 42nd Street year after year, it’d be just as dead as opera houses.

      Opera has to foster and stage composers of color, find the Lin-Manuel Miranda of opera.

    • Vissi d'Arte says:

      “Now, when most immigrants and more and more of the U.S. population are not of European origin, why would those people suddenly support, in large numbers, opera and European classical music, when they themselves don’t feel any type of affinity with that art form?”

      There are no greater lovers of classical music these days than people of Asian descent. When the CSO goes on tour, their biggest audiences are in China, Japan, and Korea. Tickets are astronomical in cost, yet their concerts are always sold out, and there are crowds of fans and “groupies” who hang outside the back state areas hoping for a glimpse of their favorite musicians. European classical music developed over the last few hundreds of years has an intrinsic worth and appeal that transcends just its cultural heritage. Those who view it (as you seem to do) as merely a symbol and a product of a diminishing once-dominant culture might reject it just for that reason, but anyone who encounters it innocently, free of this association, will find in it universal and timeless value. If you view the recent CSO TV Sounds of Celebration, you will see the many participants of non-European heritage who have clear passion in their eyes and voices as they share their love of classical music.

  • sam says:

    But the ultimatum comes across so much nicer when delivered in a British accent.

  • Opera lover says:

    It is my understanding that the orchestra is in arbitration. The picture of the striking musicians is misleading. When was it taken?

  • Dalledu Alletre says:

    No, there won’t be a happy ending.

    And still we haven’t heard a pipsqueak from a Washington politician about how to help U.S. players, choristers and dancers, or even an acknowledgment that a chronic problem has hit the performing arts. I don’t think the boards of directors of the various groups are capable or even informed enough to navigate a way through without permanent damage to the institutions they serve, starting with the biggest, like the Boston S.O. last week and now Lyric Opera. I mean, most of them don’t even understand the term ensemble.

  • NotToneDeaf says:

    So why is it that when the Met makes such an announcement it’s presented as “The evil Peter Gelb had the nerve to say this appalling thing.” But when it’s Chicago Lyric (or really, any other company), it’s simply “the leaders.” It’s especially interesting in this case since Lyric has never been on secure ground since Freud took over nine years ago – but yet he seems blameless . . . . . ?

  • Bruce says:

    Lots of performing organizations, it seems, are using COVID as an excuse to do what they have always wanted to do.

    • at says:

      Precisely. For many major arts orgs, the pandemic serves as a pretext to push through major changes that would otherwise take years to achieve.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        As Rahm Emanuel the former mayor of Chicago was fond of saying, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. But I also fear that private philanthropy has now caught up with certain elements in public policy in seeking out the “social action” brownie points to be made by being anti-art, or at least anti-art institution.

    • Loop says:

      I think there’s a lot of truth in your comment. Unfortunate but the financial models of these very large organizations seems to have been getting the best of them.

      I do wonder if we will see maestro compensation drop as well?

  • drummerman says:

    I doubt any arts organization anywhere will have a “happy ending” once the covid-19 pandemic is over.

  • caranome says:

    one can hope for the best, but in the end the company has the upper hand by, for example, declaring Chp. 11 and wipe out all agreements, start over, hire non-union help that’s plentiful, equally good and eager (desperate?) and emerge as a non-union entity. Covid will depress wages worldwide in the music industry for a long time, as well as weaken/ bust up unions. If these unions overplay their hand, they will end up like the U.K. coalminers under Thatcher, air traffic controllers under Reagan, and many airline unions in the U.S.

  • On the chopping block. says:

    Gelb and Freud are cut from the same cloth.

  • Papageno says:

    The news says U.S. billionaires got $1.4 trillion richer during the pandemic. Why aren’t they giving some of the windfall to the arts?

  • Jonisha Watts says:

    The companies pulling this Hitleresque technique don’t seem to realize something.

    Singers, players, etc. aren’t going to tolerate anyone using their white privilege in order to degrade both their craft and earning capacity no matter the circumstances.

    Folks today would rather protest and burn down the theater than work for virtually nothing like slaves.

    These opera houses are better off shuddering themselves for good than betraying the trust of the people that they require to operate.

  • papageno says:

    Big donors prefer giving to ‘noble’ philanthropic causes such as medical research and ‘Solve World Hunger’ charities than performing arts which are considered ‘entertainment’ are whose reviews appear in the ‘entertainment’ section of the newspapers (something that annoyed Muti greatly when he first went to Philadelphia in 1980.)

    So much for Making America Great Again.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Seems like the options are limited and are:
    > reorg the contracts with unions involved
    > raise more money
    > dip into the endowment
    > dissolve the existing legal entity and then start over when things return to normal

  • Fred Olavesky says:

    The truth is that there are so many talented musicians that any major orchestra can be replaced by younger players at salaries much lower then have been traditionally demanded by the AFM. If the musicians’ union is smart (unlikely), they will agree to significant concessions. It is simply the law of supply and demand – over supply, low demand. Let the free markets establish compensation in the new reality of the concert world.

  • Plush says:

    Freud has not been any good for Lyric Opera. He has not solved their shaky finances and has presided over low rent and 2nd class opera productions in Chicago. In addition he is a most insincere spokesperson. All management there must resign.