WASHINGTON — AT the entrance to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts one recent evening, six musicians sat in chairs playing music from ``Phantom of the Opera.'' Inside, actors in the show sang to a taped recording of the score.
The musicians play for the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, a 67-member group that performs for ballet and musical shows that travel here. Since Sept. 1 they have been on strike, picketing for 17 hours a day in front of the center.
The musicians say they are striking over unfair labor practices, which means they are protesting their employer's conduct rather than wages, benefits, or working conditions. ``The Kennedy Center wants to eliminate the orchestra,'' says Melanie Mattson, spokeswoman for the Opera House Orchestra.
``The only issue is that we will not pay them not to work,'' counters Lawrence Wilker, president of the Kennedy Center.
The orchestra has operated under a contract that guarantees 61 musicians 10 weeks a year of pay for ballet performances, and an ensemble of 17 musicians about eight weeks of pay for musical shows. Musicians also receive pension, vacation, and health benefits.
The problem, says Mr. Wilker, is that the Kennedy Center never knows from year to year how many weeks of ballet it can secure. ``It depends on who's touring that year, what artistically makes sense. It could be eight weeks; it could be four weeks. What they're saying to us is we don't care about that, you guarantee us 10 weeks, 12 weeks,'' he says, adding that the 61 musicians are paid even when a ballet is scored for 30. ``We've paid these people, over the terms of the last contract, a half-million dollars not to work.''
The Kennedy Center is proposing a new three-year contract that would guarantee eight weeks of ballet for the 1993-'94 season, four weeks in 1994-'95, two weeks the next year and elimination of tenure after the third year. A similar guarantee would be made for musicals. Wilker says that would save the nonprofit center $1 million.
THE orchestra, however, refuses to bargain on those terms. Musicians say they have fought hard for job security. They also contend they fill a unique niche and that it would be a disservice to the public to replace them with lesser-skilled freelancers, which they say is the Kennedy Center's intention.
The issue isn't bad management but economics, says Octavio Raca, chief music critic for the Washington Times. ``It's a myth that we need the Opera House Orchestra. There's not enough work for them. The problem is that in arts in particular there's no government support. It's not the center's fault it has no support,'' he says, adding that Washington already has the National Symphony Orchestra, which itself is only able to fill 60 percent of its audience seats.
The National Symphony Orchestra, in sympathy with the Kennedy Center musicians, has refused to cross the picket line. (Its season was to begin Sept. 23.)
In New York, Broadway musicians are negotiating a new contract for reasons similiar to those of the Opera House Orchestra. Currently, theaters must hire a certain number of musicians even though a score may call for fewer. Producers want to reduce the minimum number of musicians required to staff Broadway shows. Musicians had threatened to shut down Broadway last Sunday, but they elected to work while bargaining.
Lew Waldeck, director of symphonic services for the American Federation of Musicians union, says the Opera House Orchestra strike is unusual. ``Usually we have issues that center around job security, health insurance, wages. This is the first time we have had a situation where the management is simply saying `Go away, we don't want you.' ''
``If we wanted to get rid of them we'd say forget it,'' Wilker says. ``We haven't played that card yet ... we want a contract with them.''
Bargaining talks are scheduled to resume Sept. 21.