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Friday, September 18, 2020

San Francisco Opera Orchestra Accepts Contract Modifications to Retain Some Compensation and Health Care Coverage During Pandemic


Slashing the musicians’ contract will have devastating effects on the Opera Orchestra

For an art form that weaves tales of love and betrayal, magic swords and magic rings, a global pandemic that brings the world to a halt would hardly be too dramatic for the stage.

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.

The changes to the musicians’ current contract will have devastating results. As in any industry, competitive compensation, good benefits, and fair treatment attract the highest quality workers. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra has long been one of the most coveted job prospects for musicians around the world. Hundreds of musicians prepare for grueling auditions with the hope of winning a position. As a result, the orchestra is one of the best in the world. Now, instead of attracting hundreds of resumes for the next opening, there will be far fewer due to the long delay in filling positions. Our exciting new Music Director, Eun Sun Kim, will not have before her the same full orchestra she signed on to lead.

The orchestra is the foundation of this world-class company. Musicians, like millions of workers around the country, are unable to work in our normal capacity during this crisis. Each of us spent years—many thousands of hours—practicing, grinding out the glacial process of improvement on our instruments in order to become musicians capable of handling the professional demands of this most complex art. Faced with a global pandemic and unable to perform at the venerable War Memorial Opera House, we haven’t stayed silent. Instead we have expanded our talents, reinventing ways of sharing our music by connecting to our communities through various social media platforms, learning the science and safety protocols needed to work safely during this public health crisis, and taking to the streets putting on safe, free Public Outdoor Performances (POP!) for Bay Area Residents.


The San Francisco Opera Orchestra musicians are practiced in the art of collaboration—for years we’ve had the privilege of collaborating with the world's top singers. From the moment the pandemic began, the orchestra sought to collaborate with Opera management. The goal was to maintain musical connections to the community, protect the health and well-being of our membership, and preserve the company's ability to resume performances of world-class opera as soon as it is safe to do so.


As musicians, we know that the language of music is also the language of relationships. For a relationship to be sound, both sides—its resident artists and the company—need to be in tune with one another in order to resonate.

Crises are unavoidable. The best company leaders, however, can adapt and improvise—leading their companies forward and getting their people back to work.

In 1989, calamity famously struck the Bay Area. Yet within days of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the San Francisco Opera performed at the Masonic Auditorium. The decisive leadership of the company’s General Director, Lotfi Mansouri, did not go unnoticed. It inspired a San Francisco Giants executive to say, “If the San Francisco Opera can perform opera, then we can play baseball!”


As a result of the earthquake, the Opera House needed repairs and was closed for 18 months. Again, management had the vision necessary to keep its singers singing and musicians playing. The company performed in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, as well as the Golden Gate and Orpheum Theaters, during that time. Not only did we continue our tradition of producing exceptional opera, we discovered new ways of doing so—and even managed to attract new audiences.


Many arts organizations are focusing their energy on innovation. Their creativity is as inspiring as the San Francisco Opera’s lack of effort is painful. This is a time when we most need the arts—and other companies are continuing to share opera. Opera Philadelphia has its own channel to stream new presentations of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs and Hans Werner Henze’s El Cimarrón. In July, The Minnesota Opera performed Tosca with an orchestra in an amphitheater. The general director of Michigan Opera Theater, despite only joining the company in August, 2020, has inaugurated his tenure with a unique chamber music reduction of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Atlanta Opera’s Molly Blank Big Tent series will feature performances for 240 audience members in an outdoor tent. The English National Opera will screen productions at drive-in movie theaters. The Teatro Real of Madrid performed La Traviata in July to masked audiences totaling 22,000 with no reported COVID cases. Los Angeles Opera is selling digital tickets for the company premiere of The Anonymous Lover, which will be streamed online while the opera is performed live at the Colburn School.


Opera companies from Berlin to Madrid, from Houston to Los Angeles—have created plans which will keep their musicians and other artists working and connected to their audiences. The San Francisco Opera has been silent.

San Francisco has always been a world leader in supporting the arts. In this existential crisis, the Opera needs to support its artists rather than take advantage of the pandemic to diminish their contracts.

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