Virtual Showdown

Musicians Fight Canned Opera

Volume CV, No. 4April, 2005

Jacob Heyman-Kantor

Any threat to live music is a threat to musicians everywhere. Members of Local 802 recently sprang into action to make sure employers know of our commitment to live music. This time the latest assault on live music was perpetrated by Peter Klein and his company, the so-called “Living” Arts organization. Their production of “Porgy and Bess” at Brooklyn College on Feb. 27 featured 14 musicians from the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra and one operator of a virtual orchestra machine. In the past, Living Arts has used fully live music.

We must all be vigilant in our fight to keep music live. In this case, a musician’s tip alerted 802 to this employer’s deception.

Local 802 first found out about Klein’s intention to use the virtual orchestra machine from a musician who had previously toured with the group and sought our assistance in discovering why the same group of musicians hadn’t been rehired. This musician also noticed that the group’s Web site advertised it would perform an upcoming “Porgy and Bess” performance with only 15 musicians. (The opera usually requires at least 25.) Local 802 often depends on tips like this from musicians.

Joe Eisman, our director of organizing, called Klein to find out why his company failed to re-engage the musicians. In response, Living Arts actually admitted that they planned to use the virtual orchestra machine. They also said they might be willing to sign a contract in the future, but that they were determined not to sign before “Porgy and Bess.” We offered to supply them with musicians, but Klein said that under no circumstances would he use fully live music for this engagement.

Living Arts’ use of the virtual orchestra machine goes beyond ruining a production of “Porgy and Bess” and misleading an audience into thinking they paid to hear a live musical performance. (Numerous audience members voiced their outrage upon learning that they had paid money to hear a virtual orchestra machine.) This wasn’t merely an isolated instance of a few musicians displaced by downsizing and a few other musicians playing a single engagement without a contract, without benefits, and without rights on the job. This was part of a larger battle.


Once again, virtual orchestra machine manufacturer Realtime Music Solutions lurks behind this.

Realtime supplied machines to producers during our strike on Broadway in 2003 in an attempt to replace live music with its machine.

Realtime also continues to attempt to gain credibility for its machine through its alliance with the Opera Company of Brooklyn. In fact, the anti-union law firm Akin, Gump is now representing both the OCB and Realtime against Local 802 in proceedings at the state labor board.

Now it looks like Realtime is using Living Arts as well.

For Living Arts, this entire dispute could have been easily settled when 802 offered to provide musicians for this production. The company declined that offer.

The threat to replace live musicians, and the use of the virtual orchestra machine, are affronts to the entire musical community of New York.

It’s a demise that we can avoid with the support of every 802 member. Each time someone seeks to introduce this machine to a new audience and force a new group of unknowing musicians to accompany it, 802 will be there. Companies producing the technology, along with every production that aids them, will learn that along with the machine comes an inflatable rat, scores of protesters, and a lot of bad press.


When we realized that Living Arts was adamant about using the virtual orchestra machine – less than two days before the show – we sent out an e-mail blast to all 802 members. E-mail is the only way we can quickly contact everyone. That’s why it’s so important that every member supply the Membership Department with their correct e-mail address. (E-mail Avalon Ramnath at to add your e-mail address. You should also make sure that Local 802 has your current phone contact information.)


On Feb. 27, the day of the performance, dozens of demonstrators arrived an hour early and fanned out among all entrances to the campus and the theatre to let audience members know they were about to be cheated out of nearly half the orchestra. We hung up the blue and white “Save Live Music” posters on cars and gates. We brought the giant inflatable rat that is the hallmark of labor actions in New York. And everyone wore 802 attire and carried either flyers or signs decrying the VO machine.

The New York Sun and Fox 5 were on the scene, interviewing audience members, protesters and our union president.

Danielle Doctorow, a cellist and longtime 802 member, captured the mood best. “I’ve been to a few other protests, and usually the audience members are here on vacation, with their families, and we’re interrupting what is often the highlight of their trip. I hate that,” Doctorow told Allegro. “Protests are something we should do only as a last resort. But at the ‘Porgy and Bess’ protest, the audience was very supportive. A number of people said they wouldn’t have bought tickets had they known the music wasn’t going to be live. Ever since I heard about the virtual orchestra machine, I’ve had a somewhat fatalistic attitude about it. But after joining the protest on Sunday, I’m more optimistic that New York audiences will agree not to support productions like these.” There was a definite hostile buzz in the audience that afternoon. A message was sent out to enemies of live music everywhere.