Pay for the piper stills opera's tune

The performing arts are braving difficult times nationally as they tighten budgets and shorten performance schedules. While costs have been rising, especially musicians' salaries, reduced government support and other economic problems have boosted operating expenses. In the past year, the Kansas City (Mo.) Philharmonic and the Miami-based Florida Philharmonic have suspended operations. Many smaller orchestras also have canceled their seasons.

Now a walkout by New York City Opera (NYCO) musicians has delayed the opening of the company's 1983-84 season. As talks were about to resume today (July 21), negotiators for both sides said they were pessimistic about a quick end to the impasse. The strike could deal a severe blow to the company if it continues much longer.

The issues in the NYCO contract dispute are similar to those confronting other major performing groups. Companies that are forced to save money are being challenged by unions whose members are determined to maintain - if not increase - annual incomes.

The opera company and its local of the American Federation of Musicians agreed last summer to a one-year moratorium on wage and benefit increases to help the struggling opera company put its financial affairs in order.

The NYCO has announced that instead of separate fall and spring performance schedules, it would have a single summer-fall season, with 20 weeks of performances instead of 30. This would drastically cut work time for musicians and other employees - and reduce their annual incomes.

The NYCO, led by famed soprano Beverly Sills as general director, has reduced its longstanding $3 million deficit by about $1 million. Opera company officials say NYCO survival depends on reduced operating costs.

Although many orchestra members sympathize with management, they insist that increased pay and more work time are ''musts'' to alleviate their financial hardships. Adding to the dissatisfaction, NYCO musicians say their wages and benefits lag behind those of union musicians in other leading symphonies and opera and ballet orchestras in New York City and nationally.

The musicians want raises of $50 a week this year, $70 a week next year, and negotiable. Their base rate is now $535 a week, compared with $735 a week for Metropolitan Opera musicians. The NYCO has offered three annual increases of $35 a week.

Work time is a bigger issue. The orchestra wants to reduce the number of performances each week from six to five and wants additional workweeks to restore the 30-week guarantee in effect in 1981-82.

The company says flatly that it cannot afford the musicians' demands. If granted, payroll costs for musicians alone would rise 50 percent and the increases would have to be passed along to other unions, the company says. So far the NYCO has said it will not negotiate reductions in the number of performances each week or guarantees of more weeks of work.

The problem for the NYCO, and for similar companies, is that ticket sales cover only a portion of costs. If every seat is sold for every performance, NYCO still would lose $250,000 a week, the company says. The New York City Opera has never been able to attract large grants or contributions from the public. Although it has been doing better in subscription sales and bringing in money from other sources, it cannot depend on enough extra revenue to meet rising costs.

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