The Lyric Opera orchestra performing in Millennium Park
The Lyric Opera orchestra performing in Millennium Park Credit: Robert Kusel

The real phantoms of the opera—the 76 usually unseen but indispensable members of the Lyric Opera orchestra—were in great form for last week’s opening of Gounod’s Faust. “We played our hearts out,” one of them said the next day, and the audience responded with an ovation so warm it felt to the musicians like empathy for their predicament. They’re a union crew, represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians, and their contract expired in April. They’ve been trying to negotiate a new one since then, they say, but are no closer to an agreement now than when they started.

As the union tells it, Lyric management “walked out of negotiations July 7” and didn’t return until September 4. On September 25, with the season set to open the next night, Lyric made an abrupt “final” offer: a one-year contract with salaries frozen at current rates. According to the union, this was essentially the same offer Lyric had made in the spring. The musicians voted it down overwhelmingly. They’re now working without a contract, drawing pay at their old rate. They say they don’t want to interfere with the season but that their options are “narrowing.”

The orchestra has already taken its case to the patrons. On September 26, the night of the opening gala, tuxedo-clad Lyric musicians were on the street in front of the opera house, greeting the arriving audience with a flyer. “Welcome to opening night,” it began. “We will be playing without a contract.” The three-paragraph statement said the union is willing to make concessions right now, but wants a multiyear contract with some “recovery” built in on the back end. Lyric management, it charged, wants to shorten the season and “diminish the product.”

In an interview at the union’s Haymarket Square headquarters ten days later, the union negotiating committee expanded on its case. “We’ve never had a one-year contract,” committee chair and cellist William Cernota said, and they don’t want one now. Three years would be typical, but the musicians are asking for four. The other major issue is pay. Citing reductions in ticket sales, donations, and the endowment, Lyric management is pushing the concept of “sharing the pain,” Cernota said. But after mining Lyric’s publicly available tax data, the union has concluded that in the recent past, “the mantra of ‘share the pain’ meant share it among yourselves.”

Between 2001 and 2007, Cernota said, Lyric’s top administrators got combined salary and benefits increases averaging 35 percent while the players’ salary and benefits increased 24 percent. And if you take benefits out of the picture, he added, the discrepancy is even greater. In contract negotiations for the 2003 to 2006 period, after ticket sales dropped below the 100 percent of capacity that had been the norm at Lyric, Cernota said, the musicians were asked to share the pain and did. They took a one-year wage freeze for 2003-2004, and then a 1.3 percent increase for 2004-2005. And here’s what really rankles: while Lyric administrators were supposedly sharing the pain at that point, with three of the top four taking salary freezes or cuts, tax forms revealed that they were actually getting increases in the form of deferred compensation that apparently made up for those cuts. Lyric finance director Richard Dowsek responded at first that the deferred compensation increases in 2004 were automatic, the result of a pension program then in force; after taking a closer look, he said by e-mail, “It appears we have misclassified compensation for deferred compensation in that year. While the combined salary and benefit totals are correct, they understate compensation and overstate the deferred piece.”

A set of graphs compiled by the union committee shows that while the musicians’ salary increased a total of 17.1 percent between 2001 and 2007, the top four administrators had increases in salary and deferred comp of 31 percent for the CFO, 35 percent for the general director, 37.9 percent for the marketing director, and 61.9 percent for the director of development. Their average earnings in salary and deferred compensation for 2007 (the most recent year available) was $352,835. The musicians’ average wages and benefits that year were $105,000. Their weekly pay, which was on par with that of Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians in 2002, now lags behind the CSO by about 6 percent. And Lyric players are paid for only 26 weeks, while their CSO peers earn salary the entire year.

So how much do Lyric orchestra members actually bring home in salary? For a starting player, the base is $59,000 for the season. Lyric says the average wage in 2008 was $91,624, not including insurance and pension benefits, and that the orchestra got a 13 percent salary raise over the last three seasons, plus another 5 percent in increased benefits.

The union doesn’t comment on the huge gap between their average wage and what the orchestra’s artistic leader earns: in 2007, Lyric music director Andrew Davis, paid as an independent contractor, got $964,317.

Cernota says the current negotiation period has “opened a window” on management’s agenda. He notes that the one four-year offer put forward by Lyric would’ve reduced the season from 26 to 24 weeks and offset most of the stipulated increases. “We fought for years to get the opera season up to 26 weeks,” Cernota says, “and we’re not going to surrender without a fight.”

The union is calling on the Lyric board to “insist on maintaining artistic excellence.” The institution, Cernota says, should increase revenues by “presenting a better product,” rather than trying to “cut back and dilute the offerings” or resorting to “amateur stuff.”

What amateur stuff? Besides shortening the season, he says Lyric wants all music played from the pit, even when the composer specifies placing musicians onstage, to avoid the cost of hiring extra players—”not what a world-class opera company should even be thinking about.” In this environment, violinist and union committee member Teresa Fream warns, “Some Lyric musicians are preparing to audition for other orchestras.” And percussionist and committee member Eric Millstein argues that “more than our own personal raises are at stake. We’re fighting against the potential deterioration of this orchestra. You’ve got to offer a certain amount of money to attract great players.”

Lyric director of communications Susan Mathieson Mayer says Lyric is “continuing to negotiate,” though at press time no sessions had been set. General director William Mason maintains that Lyric did not walk out of negotiations, though “we cut [them] short sometime in July” and “normally don’t negotiate in the summer.” Mason also notes that Lyric’s top management compensation is in line with that at comparable institutions.

According to Lyric, the musicians asked for a 22.6 percent wage and benefits increase over four years. (Cernota objects that that request was part of a negotiation in progress and not final.) The budget for the 2009/2010 season is $53.2 million, down $1.7 million from last year. In a written statement, Mason says that in light of the recession, “we will not enter into a labor contract that we can’t afford.”

It’ll get settled eventually, of course: like Mephistopheles and Faust, an opera company and its musicians need each other.