Labor disputes put a flat note on a bad score: opera company budgets

By , Labor correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Orchestras, operas, and ballet companies are struggling to survive as costs climb against largely inflexible incomes. The troubles of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, perhaps the country's most prestigious musical body, are only the exposed peak of a mountain of money troubles weighing down on orchestras and others who make music for millions across the country.

Contracts covering union musicians are a major factor, although by no means the whole problem. Inflation is affecting symphony orchestras and opera and ballet companies in all cost areas, while corporate and other contributions to offset deficits are being spread more thinly.

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* The Metropolitan Opera is shut down, its 1980-81 season canceled in a labor contract dispute with its musicians. There are faint glimmers of hope that the season may yet be revived, although the Met and Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) have not budged significantly from frozen positions on the number of days orchestra members must work each week. President Carter called for resumed negotiations, and other public pressures are increasing for a settlement. But talks broke off again this week.

* Across the Hudson River from the Met, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has announced that its concert season must be curtailed and could be canceled because of mounting deficits and musicians' contract demands. The orchestra management in Newark said that $200,000 in losses during a summer season beset by bad weather, plus lagging corporate and public financial aid, made cancellation of part of its season necessary. AFM orchestra members said they would not play if the season is cut and asked for more money for 1980- 81.

* The North Carolina Symphony season also has been jeopardized by the demands of union musicians. And labor contract disputes also have added to operating problems of Detroit and Kansas City orchestras and others around the country.

Looking ahead, other major musical organizations -- including the New York City Opera Company and New York City Ballet -- are concerned about the situations they might face when present contracts run out. Patterns are being set this year that others will be asked to follow -- providing they continue to perform.

One of the problems is the burgeoning of the arts nationwide. Roscoe Drummond, writing recently in The Christian Science Monitor, reported an increase in the number of professional symphony orchestras from 58 in 1965 to 144, in professional opera companies from 27 to 65, and in professional dance companies from 37 to 200. Other cultural institutions were showing similar growth.

Support from federal, state, and other public funds has been growing, but not as substantially as orchestra and other companies say it should to keep the arts healthy.

Meanwhile, corporate contributions are being spread out more widely and, with the recession and the impact of inflation, individual donations are not keeping up with growing budgets.

The musicians' demands are a particular and common problem in orchestras, opera, and ballet companies.

Another, perhaps more important, common problem is that, unlike business generally, employers in the cultural fields are extremely limited in what they can do to accommodate higher labor costs. Prices for tickets are already so high for most that further increases could be counter-productive.Most play regularly to virtually full houses: The Met sells 90 percent to 95 percent of its tickets every season. And there is no way to increase the productivity of musicians: The music is written for a specified number of musicians who can do no more than what is in the score.

Musicians face the same pressures of inflation as everyone else: When costs rise, they want and demand more money. Most in major organizations also argue they have large investments in musical training and in expensive instruments. And, in New Jersey Symphony ranks and elsewhere, they work only part of the year in orchestras and have little income in off-seasons (many go on unemployment compensation rolls) so orchestra pay must be spread out for additional months.

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