Life Lessons from a Nightmare Tour with Diana Corto and the American Opera Musical Theatre Company
The following article was submitted by a Local 802 member who wishes to remain anonymous. A response from the Organizing Department follows.
Regrettably, I recently accepted a nonunion tour of La Boheme. The contractor made no mention of the name of the group and, although this was a first, it somehow didn’t arouse any suspicion in me at the time. Seasoned by tours, I figured I could handle just about anything – never imagining what could and indeed did go wrong!
Little did I suspect that Diana Corto, the director of the American Opera Music Theatre Company, has a blemished reputation with Local 802. Corto told the cast that the orchestra was getting “union scale.” Meanwhile, the cast earned more in a night than the orchestra did for the week.
THE REHEARSALS AND OPENING NIGHT
In addition to the fact that no one was given parts ahead of time and rehearsal locations were changed at the last minute, the conductor appeared to be unprepared, and was abusive to the orchestra. It was like working for a split personality. One minute he’d tell crude jokes to the musicians; the next, he’d yell curse-words mid-performance at musicians for not being able to follow the unfollowable. Of the shortage of practice-parts available, he would alternately growl, “Leave the parts; I don’t want anyone to take them,” or threaten, “You better take the part home to practice.”
He conducted from a mini-score in which he had highlighted only the singers’ parts. So we weren’t surprised when, in mid-performance, he left his hands hanging mid-air for what seemed to be an eternity and neglected to cue us back in. Although some musicians had played the piece before and later studied the conductor’s score on the bus, his cues weren’t clear enough to know where he was much of the time.
There were also complaints by female cast and orchestra members about his inappropriate comments, which reeked of sexual harassment. During breaks he would yell at us, blaming the orchestra for his careless mistakes. Often, when he got lost for what felt like minutes at a time, the principals led themselves back in after the unwritten rests had exceeded John Cage proportions.
Because of poor planning, both the harpist and timpanist had to move their instruments around three times at our final rehearsal and four times on our opening night at Queensboro Community College. To add insult to injury, the timpanist had to argue that he should be reimbursed for his cartage fees. The harpist was last seen at Queensboro College. Corto had refused to pay cartage for the harpist, who had to play from a part that had all pedal-markings in Polish. This left us with a synthesizer player (who sightread impeccably) on the second performance, followed by a new harpist every night after.
Since none of us had received parts ahead of time and we only had three poorly-managed rehearsals without staging, the first concert at Queensboro was really a glorified dress rehearsal with a paying audience. Backstage, the dusty pit left several asthmatic musicians in coughing fits. Hundreds of feet of tangled wiring lurked like snakes at the dark entry to the pit. A cellist of average height nearly choked himself on one of them.
On opening night we waited and waited for the curtain to open. It seemed as though the performance started at least 20 minutes late. Had there been a contract and a manager present, most of what follows would not have happened.
The first day set a trend for leaving about 30 minutes behind schedule. A late-arriving singer said, “Look, dude, don’t look at me, blame the traffic in New York!” Every trip – even a simple shuttle from hotel to venue – was delayed by Ms. Corto and her entourage.
The bus driver (who looked like actor Christopher Lloyd, the scientist in Back to the Future), got lost daily, going 80 miles off-course on our way to West Virginia the first day and actually missing Buffalo on the third! Because he preferred rumble-strips to the road, it wasn’t a restful trip, to say the least. The icing on the cake was that he kept getting on the microphone to tell us bad jokes, and repeatedly tried to play his tapes of Mario Lanza imitators. I was waiting for John Candy and Steve Martin to arrive and tell us this was all a bad movie, and we were extras who would be paid for our suffering.
Victims of wishful thinking, we thought we could relax en route from Buffalo to Rochester, theoretically a 90-minute trip. However, several outrageous events occurred, which stalled our arrival on performance day by over three hours! First, we were told to assemble an hour earlier than scheduled. Exhausted, we sipped coffee and waited for Ms. Corto to arrive. Once on the road, we tried to stay positive, when suddenly she shouted, “Oh no! Stop the bus, stop the bus!” She said she had left all of her money at the hotel – including our checks! A minute later, the contractor calmed everyone and told us he had the checks.
However, Ms. Corto commanded the driver to stop so she could look for her luggage. She had left her purse below with the luggage, and spent roughly 20 minutes rummaging through all of the luggage compartments looking for it. Back on the bus, the group sentiment was that we’d never worked for anyone so spaced out and inconsiderate in our lives. (We later learned that Corto’s purse contained the payment for the singers and conductor, who had demanded to be paid in cash because they didn’t trust her ability to balance her checkbook.) Ms. Corto got back on the bus as if nothing had happened – no apologies!
(A musician later told me that Diana had approached her several times asking, “Are you so-and-so?” when there was no person by that name on either the cast or orchestra lists. I had just one conversation with her, when she sat by me at a local eatery in West Virginia and asked if I was “from around here” – after having sat on a bus with me for 12 hours.)
Minutes later the conductor was heard stating that he wanted the bus to be rerouted to the airport so he could get his rental car! A musician asked why he didn’t just drop off the musicians first and then have the driver take him to the airport. Well, no, he wanted to “follow the bus.” That seemed less than rational, given the bus driver’s track record. Even the short distance between the Rochester Airport and our hotel in downtown Rochester was too much for him. What appeared to be McDonald’s maps, supplied by Diana Corto, obviously lacked a few turn-offs! Finally a desperate musician used a cell phone to call the hotel for directions.
Even parking at performance locations was a problem for this driver; he rarely parked in the same spot, and usually picked one that was as far away from the entrance to the hotel or venue as possible. He got us to each new city two hours behind schedule. Despite our complaints to Corto, the bus driver didn’t provide any hand sanitizers in the bathroom, nor was the bathroom cleaned daily. We don’t believe he emptied the toilet even once in the five-day excursion, even after someone got sick in there.
Each performance date had an added “soundcheck” (unlisted on the schedule) that ended up becoming a rehearsal. These “soundchecks” were typically longer than 15-20 minutes, and one lasted over an hour.
Also interesting to note on the itinerary was the “meals” portion, which on the first day said simply, “No breakfast included.” This would have been better worded: “No meals included – count your pennies!” Various members of the orchestra had received vague statements about meals before accepting the tour. Ms. Corto waffled on this issue, rather than stating up front that the only meals we would get would be from the hotels’ continental breakfasts or at the generosity of the presenters.
Following a performance, we remarked that none of the musicians in the orchestra were listed in the program, but were listed as members of some other state’s orchestra! In addition, the program cut one of the tenor’s bios to one third of what he had sent in. Ms. Corto’s was longer than the bios of most of the leads.
On the way back home from the tour, one musician told of running into Diana Corto at a rest-stop bathroom. As this musician held the door for a person exiting the bathroom, Ms. Corto walked right in, in front of her. Essentially we were just faceless servants who needed to give her priority. When it was finally time to get off the bus, Diana Corto got in the way of the exiting musicians. It was rude – but expected.
I learned three valuable lessons from this experience:
- Never work for Diana Corto again.
- Avoid nonunion tours at all costs!
- Read Allegro for warnings about people like Corto.
LOCAL 802 RESPONDS:
Local 802 has had a tumultuous relationship with Diana Corto, the owner of the American Opera Musical Theatre Company.
In 1998 the company abruptly canceled performances of La Boheme at Staten Island College. Musicians called Local 802 and the Organizing Department eventually brokered a settlement with Corto, who recognized the union and promised to negotiate for a collective bargaining agreement.
However, the company later tried to withdraw recognition and produce two nonunion performances at Town Hall, hiring students and musicians not on the original primary hiring list that had been agreed to for all performances – some for as little as $40 a service. When they found out they were being used as replacements many musicians walked off the job in disgust, leaving Corto with only a pianist for the performance.
In March 2000, Region 2 of the National Labor Relations Board found that Corto had committed an unfair labor practice by withdrawing recognition and failing to bargain in good faith with Local 802. Corto appealed.
In January 2001, the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., upheld Region 2’s decision and ordered the American Opera Musical Theatre Company to negotiate with Local 802 and to write letters to each musician Corto has employed since Dec. 10, 1998, telling them that she had violated the National Labor Relations Act.
Since the NLRB made its decision in January, there have been no public performances by the company until now. For this series of recent engagements, several musicians anonymously called the Local 802 hotline. Unfortunately, all of the engagements were to take place far outside Local 802’s jurisdiction – in Buffalo, Rochester and West Virginia. (It was discovered too late that one additional engagement took place at Queensboro College.)
We feel that Diana Corto has proved herself to be completely untrustworthy, so much so that Local 802 counsel believes it is better not to enter into an agreement with her. Instead, the union’s policy has been to put maximum pressure on Corto when she attempts to produce within Local 802’s jurisdiction. Since there is currently no contract, the union is allowed to use every legal tactic, including a strike, when dealing with her. If there were an agreement, the union would probably be barred from striking and other direct action, since most contracts contain a “no strike” clause. Additionally, the union believes that Corto would simply break any agreement that she signed, which would mean lengthy and expensive arbitrations or litigation after every dispute.
When Corto performs outside Local 802’s jurisdiction, the union has a difficult decision. If the distance is not too great 802 can send organizers and staff to picket her, but we also need to communicate with both the AFM touring office, which has jurisdiction over multi-city tours, and the AFM local in whose jurisdiction Corto is performing.
Corto’s history of treating company members unfairly goes back at least to 1985, when she didn’t pay her set designer in a production of West Side Story, according to a U.S. Court of Appeals summary order. That set designer eventually seized Corto’s assets, and she consequentially filed bankruptcy. In a court document, Corto acknowledges that she filed for bankruptcy protection in order to evade her set designer’s claim.
Diana Corto has broken agreements, used students to replace union musicians, and not paid people what they’re worth. We have observed that she has treated people disrespectfully, screamed at union staff and musicians, and made disparaging remarks about them. She threatened to sue Local 802 for “restraint of trade,” a lawsuit that never came to pass.
At the time that Local 802’s charges were accepted by the Labor Board, Corto tried to bring the union up on charges of her own. However, the regional director refused to issue a complaint against Local 802. Corto appealed to Washington, D.C., and lost
It comes as no surprise whatsoever that her most recent tour was a disaster. Therefore, Local 802 now issues an active warning. Under no circumstances should musicians accept an engagement with Diana Corto. Musicians who hear of a production by Diana Corto or the American Opera Musical Theatre Company, whether in New York or anywhere else, should contact the union immediately.