The Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts organization in the U.S., has furloughed all of its union members, including all of the opera’s musicians, chorus singers, and stagehands.
The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, has invoked the “force majeure” clause in the unions’ contracts, which has rarely if ever been invoked before, in the wake of the spread of coronavirus. Governor Andrew Cuomo previously banned all large gatherings of people throughout the state, which has led to the shutdown of most cultural institutions around NYC.
"It is indicative of a trend happening across the country at opera and choral performances—most of the venues are shutting down or cancelling performances," said Len Egert, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), one of the two largest unions who work with The Met Opera.
Egert estimates that over 200 people represented by AGMA have been furloughed by The Met Opera, and over 500 musicians and stagehands have had their employment suspended by them altogether—and that doesn't take into account any administrative staff who have been let go.
The Opera also announced today that they have canceled the remainder of the 2019–20 season, which was to have ended on May 9th. “As devastating as it is to have to close the Met, this was the rare instance where the show simply couldn’t go on," said Gelb. "We send our thanks to our loyal audiences and we’re doing our best to support our employees during this extraordinarily difficult time. We look forward to being reunited in the fall with a new season.”
Egert said that for their members who are full-time regulars—which includes approximately 80 chorusers, several stage managers, 15 stage directors and assistants, and 12 performers—they've reached an agreement where The Met will pay them through March 31st. They have also agreed to extend their healthcare through the whole term of the suspension.
The Met confirmed that all full-time union employees have been offered pay through March, with health care coverage continuing throughout the crisis. The higher paid members of the company’s administrative staff are taking reductions in their pay, with Gelb waiving his entire salary. We've reached out to them for the exact number of people who have been affected by the action.
Things aren't so good for the non full-time performers, which includes 65 dancers, around 50 soloists, over 30 more chorusers, and others: "They only get paid on a per-performance basis, so if rehearsals and performances are cancelled, they don't get paid," Egert said. "That's where it's going to hit the most, those per-performance situations like dancers and soloists."
Besides AGMA, the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, Local 802 represents the next biggest group of The Met Opera employees, which includes around 100-150 members of the orchestra, as well as music staff and librarians. There is also a separate union for the Met stagehands, which number over 100. The Met indicated previously that it would not pay any contracted solo singers for cancelled performances.
Egert explained that the "force majeure" clause is an "act of god" clause: "When there's an inability to put on a production and it has to be cancelled, a company can invoke force majeure," he said, though some have criticized the organization for using it this time, because musicians say they have made financial sacrifices to keep The Met afloat that "they are still paying for today."
The Met adds that an emergency fundraising drive is being instituted to deal with the large loss of box office and other earned revenues caused by the cancelations. “The money we raise will help ensure that the Met will return, so that our artists and company members will once again be able to perform in our house,” said Gelb.
Egert is hopeful that The Met will make a good faith effort to re-hire everyone when the crisis passes: "You can't have an opera without a chorus. So the idea is that as soon as they can get up and running, the full-time people will be back."
The problem is that no one has a clue when that might be. "The issue with The Met is that they're a huge operations, so when you cancel a production it's not like you can reconfigure it immediately or within a week, it's going to take several weeks to reschedule," he explained. "It's a real question how quickly they'll be able to get back up and running." Now that the rest of this season has been cancelled, "the question then becomes next season—the chorus usually comes back at the end of July. Whether or not they can start up by then is anyone's guess."
Last week, the Metropolitan Opera said that all performances had been canceled through at least March 31st, though it is expected to be extended past that. This week, they began streaming encore presentations from their award-winning Live in HD series on the company website for the duration of the closure. All “Nightly Met Opera Streams” will begin at 7:30 p.m. and will remain available via the homepage of metopera.org for 20 hours.
This news comes as several other cultural institutions and restaurants have announced similar layoffs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acknowledged the stark economic reality of what lies ahead for them as well: the museum is projecting a $100 million loss in revenues in the coming months, as well as the likelihood of layoffs.