CHICAGO — In two weeks, the Chicago Lyric Opera is scheduled to open its season with Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco" - and its tales of war, slavery, treason, bloodlust, blasphemy, megalomania, and forbidden love affairs that end miserably.
But in a dramatic stroke, worthy of operatic woe, the performance almost fell victim to opera's own stunning success, not just in Chicago but across the country.
The Lyric's 75 orchestra musicians had threatened to strike over a pay dispute. The walkout could have scuttled not just the opening performance but the entire, 24-week season.
The two sides agreed late Wednesday on a new contract, terms of which were not disclosed.
For opera fans, it was a frustrating moment. Chicago's Lyric Opera has emerged in recent years as an internationally celebrated symbol of high artistry and solid management.
And although both sides agreed that musicians deserve a pay raise, they disagreed sharply over its size.
By all accounts, a strike could have permanently damaged the Lyric's reputation and its audience base. But most observers believe the conflict also presents a silver lining for fans:
None of this would have happened if opera's appeal had not hit a high note.
"When you have a successful company that's selling 102 percent of its tickets, the likelihood is that musicians are going to want part of the pie," says Patrick Smith, editor of Opera News. "These performers have had a lifetime of training, and they love what they do. But ... they believe, they've been paying for that love."
With more performance groups than ever competing for private contributions and shrinking federal funds, opera's star seems to be rising.
Audiences sing opera's praises
According to Opera America, audiences have increased almost 30 percent since 1980 to a total of 6.5 million in the 1993-94 season. Although opera fans are generally older than those of other traditional performance arts, the number between ages of 18 and 24 rose 18 percent from 1982 to 1992 - a gain unequaled in other performance halls.
The US Postal Service even has a set of stamps featuring opera legends.
Much of this success, observers say, stems from the enormous appeal of such stars as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras, whose "three tenors" concerts have been seen by billions of international fans.
Many opera halls now display supertitles on chair backs or screens near the stage, allowing audiences to follow storylines often sung in Italian.
Some companies have modernized traditional works or performed new operas about recent historical figures.
Cable television and popular movies such as "Pretty Woman" and "Moonstruck" have given opera mainstream exposure. "Opera is no longer considered an arcane art form where people wear white ties and tails and fall asleep in their chairs," Mr. Smith says. "We've taken a huge step forward."
Opera now seems hip
And as opera has evolved, so have young American audiences. Opera sings a familiar tune to a generation weaned on music videos and Hollywood excess.
"American culture is becoming more operatic," says John Dizikes, professor of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "With the influence of MTV and rock concerts, words that were once used as terms of disparagement for opera, like 'excessive,' 'preposterous,' and 'fantastic' are terms of praise for people now."
Here in Chicago, demand for Lyric Opera tickets reached 102 percent of capacity last year, despite prices as high as $119. The Lyric ran a budget surplus last year and recently raised $100 million in a capital campaign. Shows not only sell out here, but some patrons give tickets back to the Lyric for resale.
Musicians here argued that such success would justifies a 31 percent pay raise over three years, plus an additional week of performances. An average orchestra member in Chicago now makes $55,000 for a 24-week season - well above national standards but below those for the San Francisco and New York Metropolitan Operas.
On Monday, the union rejected the Lyric's "best and final" offer of a 19.6 percent raise over three years and an additional week in the third season.
"We have been subsidizing Lyric from its inception, working for less than comparable musicians," read a statement from the Lyric Orchestra negotiating committee. "Lyric's musicians are among the best in the world."
The agreement reached late Wednesday puts the Lyric on track to resume rehearsals for "Nabucco" this weekend.
A precipitous prosperity
To management, the recent prosperity feels fragile at best. Since 1987, income has exceeded expenses by only 1 percent. Ticket sales cover just 60 percent of expenses, and before contributions, the Lyric loses $200,000 each time the curtain goes up.
Managers say the capital campaign has exhausted much of the community's goodwill, fueled in part by the roaring stock market.
Moreover, they say, a survey of Lyric members indicates little support for a longer season, and musicians in Chicago enjoy a lower cost of living than those in New York and San Francisco.
Experts agree that a strike would have benefited no one. Musicians would have faced a year without pay, and the company could have lost some of its best performers.