This has been one of the hardest months in my time as a musician, as a union president and as a New Yorker. The fact that the New York City Opera will be missing from the cultural scene is something we’re all just trying to come to terms with. It is incredibly distressing. We’re not just mourning the employment lost by our members. We’re mourning the cultural impact on the city.
The New York City Opera always held a special place in my heart and a special place in the heart of the opera lovers of the city. The company, founded in 1943, was famously called “the people’s opera” by NYC mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Ticket prices were kept low so that as many people could attend shows as possible. The company also focused on music education, offering programs to more than 4,000 students in over 30 schools during its time.
NYCO produced a wide variety of work and gave an important outlet to American composers and singers. About a third of its repertoire was devoted to American works. The company also let composers try out their works through its “opera lab.”
Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Beverly Sills all got a boost in their careers thanks to NYCO. Ms. Sills even went on to direct the company from 1979 to 1989. The company became part of Lincoln Center in 1966, after it moved from its original space on West 55th Street.
Unfortunately, we all know what happened next. In 2011, the company left Lincoln Center and gutted the musicians’ contract. It floundered from then on, finally self-destructing.
Let me be clear: New York City Opera folded because of bad management, not because of anything else, and certainly not because of the lack of sacrifices by the musicians and artists, whose pain has been unimaginable. We are all still grieving the loss. We know that New York City deserves more cultural institutions – not fewer – and we look forward to the day when we can celebrate new companies opening, instead of saying goodbye to treasures like NYCO.
See the article “I Love NYCO” for some heartfelt and touching reminiscences written by musicians of the New York City Opera. Speaking for myself, I would not have been able to quench my thirst for opera if it had not been for NYCO. Prices and availability of tickets were always concerns for me as I tried, like so many others, to cobble together a career in New York City. I recall seeing my first live performance of NYCO’s “Madam Butterfly” at the State Theatre. At that time, my only means of transportation was my motorcycle. For my wife and me this was a formal experience, and – despite my wife having to ride sidesaddle from Brooklyn to Lincoln Center – we agreed that this was a special enough occasion to avoid taking the subway and make a ride of it.
Finally, I would like to report on NYCO’s bankruptcy proceedings. The musicians of NYCO are owed wages, benefits and – in a few cases – retirement packages. Soon to come will be the appointment of a creditors’ committee by an official of the Justice Department. Local 802 will doubtless seek a seat on this committee, but we will be one of many seeking such a seat. The list of creditors will be long and will include not only Local 802 and the AFM Pension Fund but also many individual ticket holders who paid for productions that will not happen. Be assured that Local 802’s attorneys and staff will be participating actively in this process, and I will keep you informed of the progress.
DON’T BLAME THE MUSICIANS
The NYCO debacle and the financial woes of other orchestra ensembles have often spawned headlines and “analysis” by the mainstream media that says musicians are at fault when their own companies fail. These stories paint the picture of “greedy musicians” who earn “big salaries,” which are supposedly the reason that symphonic, opera or ballet orchestras “can’t exist” in their same format anymore. According to these stories, a “new business model” is required. But rarely do we read cases of orchestra boards and management behaving incompetently at their jobs and lacking vision and creativity. We are featuring two important stories about this very topic; one by Financial Vice President Tom Olcott and one by ICSOM Chair Bruce Ridge. Both stories examine the NYCO bankruptcy and also the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, which has been going on for over a year now. These are critical stories that must be read. Orchestral musicians must be ready to counter any attacks on artists. If you read a story that implies that musicians have to surrender their salaries or cut their contracts beyond recognition in order to “save” the very institutions that could not exist without them, you must be ready to write a letter to the editor, or post a blog, or even let your voice be heard on the numerous social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. We all must be advocates for all our orchestral colleagues and tirelessly defend all musicians from every genre.
RAY HAIR SPEAKS!
In this issue, we’re honored to present an interview with AFM President Ray Hair, someone for whom I have a great deal of admiration and respect. Rather than a general interview about Ray’s background, this is a very specific story about current topics in the recording industry. This interview came about thanks to a suggestion by Gail Kruvand, who also conducted the interview. Gail serves on Local 802’s Executive Board and also on the board of the New York chapter of the RMA. The details that Ray covers will be of immense importance to anyone trying to navigate the dizzying world of digital music and performance rights that all of us live in now. I wish to thank Ray for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview. It’s a pleasure to feature him in Allegro.
On a separate note, another interview we’re honored to publish this month is with our oldest member, Viola Smith, who turns 101 this month. She was one of the first professional woman drummers and was called the female Gene Krupa of her time. Viola is still sharp as a tack, and her reminiscences are truly remarkable. Read her interview here.
A PLAQUE COMES BACK
As you might remember from last month, our cover story was about the incredible journey of a piece of Titanic history. Local 802 had owned an historic brass plaque memorializing the musicians who lost their lives on the Titanic. The plaque was lost, then found, and is now in Florida. But this story has a sequel.
Decades after commissioning the Titanic plaque, Local 802 commissioned another one, this time to remember our members who lost their lives in World War II. Both plaques – the Titanic plaque and the World War II plaque – were hanging in our old headquarters at Roseland Ballroom as recently as two years ago. Both plaques ended up in Florida, and both were purchased from a scrapyard by the same individual, a police investigator named Doug Turner. Mr. Turner has loaned the Titanic plaque to another party, but he did agree to sell the World War II plaque. I’m proud to announce that Local 802’s very own lawyer, Harvey Mars, bought the plaque with his own money, which was an extremely generous act. (Harvey will not disclose how much it cost, but I assure you it was not insubstantial.) Harvey has loaned it to Local 802 to be displayed at our premises in perpetuity. Thank you, Harvey! See a photo of the plaque at right. We are planning a formal re-dedication of the plaque and will keep you informed as to when it will be scheduled.
It’s great when we can celebrate a true success story. Concert Rep Karen Fisher writes about a recent performance at Lincoln Center that started out non-union but was successfully unionized, thanks to an anonymous tip. This resulted in bigger paychecks for the musicians as well as union benefits. I can’t emphasize enough the fact that if you get called to play a non-union gig at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, any of our major halls – or anywhere at all – please make a confidential call to the union at (212) 245-4802. Ask for a union rep or organizer, or you can transfer to our hotline (ext. 260) if you want to remain completely anonymous. Be sure to leave us all the information about the engagement: the date, the location, the name of the project, who hired you, and the names of any colleagues on the job. The more information you give us, the more we can help.
In other organizing news, we recently achieved a contract for musicians in the musical show “Lady Day.” Remember, any time you are called to play musical theatre work – no matter how small the show – make a confidential call to our Theatre Department at (212) 245-4802. We have an excellent track record of helping you win the pay and benefits you deserve, while protecting your job and your identity.
Solidarity crosses borders. The British Musicians’ Union reported that a hundred or so German orchestras held a national protest and strike on Sept. 30. The musicians were protesting the recent cuts to the German orchestral sector. There are now 131 professional orchestras in Germany, compared to 168 in 1992. Over 2,400 professional musician jobs have been lost as a result, and pay levels have also suffered. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra protested outside the Berliner Philharmonie building and were joined by other major German orchestras all over Germany. I want our German colleagues to know that their New York friends and counterparts are on their side 100 percent. Protecting the arts is not just something we care about only in New York City. Fighting for live music is something that is happening all over the world, all the time. In fact, I will be traveling to Britain soon to meet with the British Musicians’ Union to discuss theatre music and other issues. I’ll give you a full report when I return.
The New York Times reported earlier this year that Rhapsody, an online music service, will soon be adding complete liner notes to its digital music offerings. For the last several years, music fans have lost out on liner notes, as more and more music is consumed digitally. Up until now, iTunes and other download services haven’t supplied complete liner notes for every tune. It’s obvious why we care about this: liner notes give the names of the musicians! To get more involved in this campaign, see www.GiveFansTheCredit.com.