Low note at 'Met' -- possible strike

A picket line of musicians and singers is likely to replace the glamour and excitement of the Metropolitan Opera on opening night, Sept. 22, at New York's Lincoln Center.

Time is running out for a labor contract settlement that would avert a disruption of the start of the Met's 97th season with a gala performance of Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot," with Montserrat Caballe and Luciano Pavarotti in the leading roles.

Unless the way is cleared quickly for a start of rehearsals, the opening appears unlikely.

Rehearsals were canceled Sept. 2, with bargaining between the opera company and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) stubbornly deadlocked over an orchestra demand for a shorter performance week. The company estimated that starting rehearsals without a contract or a no-strike guarantee could cost it $1 million. The AFM charged that the Met was, in effect, locking out its union employees.

No progress has been reported since then. Four hours of negotiations Sept. 8 , arranged by a New York State mediator, failed to break the impasse. Although both sides said they were "more than willing to meet and discuss the issues at any time," further meetings were not scheduled immediately.

The company has 743 full-time and 1,219 part-time employees who are represented by 17 unions. Met contracts run concurrently, and 22 contracts must be negotiated at this time with these unions. The most important is the orchestra contract; it ordinarily provides guidelines for the other union agreements.

While money and other issues are important, the principal issue in the deadlock negotiations is the number of times a week musicians can be asked to play.They are demanding a reduction from five performances a week (plus rehearsals) to four performances a week. This proposal would not affect the number of performances scheduled by the Met, but it would require the employment of more union musicians.

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