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Metropolitan Opera has history of offstage drama

Labor strife at operas is nothing new, even if the numbers weren’t always so eye-poppingly large.

Opera historian John Dizikes reports that in the very first premiere of an “opera of importance” in the New World -- Gilbert and Sullivan’s "Pirates of Penzance" -- the Fifth Avenue Theater orchestra threatened to strike on the grounds that this was a “grand opera,” which entitled musicians to higher pay. The threats went nowhere, and the production opened Dec, 31, 1879.

But by the turn of the century, tensions mounted, as opera managers paid stars exorbitant salaries and simultaneously skimped on the wages of the chorus and orchestra.

And as managers soon realized, these members of the cultural proletariat could band together and bring opera productions to a halt. Most often they refused to take their places before the curtain went up, leaving the audience fuming.

But it was not out of the ordinary for the chorus to make it through the first act of, say, Wagner’s "Gotterdammerung," and then with a dramatic flourish, refuse to return for the second act, depriving Hagen, Siegfried and Brunnhilde of their star turns. “Twilight of the Gods” indeed.

Wagner seems to have brought out the worst in labor relations at the opera. In January 1906, audience members eagerly awaited a performance of "Faust," only to find that the chorus had gone on strike over the prevailing wage. “We get $15 a week,” one member complained to the New York Times. “You know what living in New York costs.”

A tragicomedy unfolded over succeeding weeks that offered considerable entertainment to New Yorkers, even as opera patrons undoubtedly suffered.

Much of the conflict revolved around the strikers’ insistence that the Met’s director, Heinrich Conried, pay them more, allow them to work “on the side,” and most important, recognize their union.

Conried was willing to increase their pay. But he wasn't open to the other demands. His spokesman, Charles Meltzer, explained to the New York Times that “Herr Conried pays for their voices” -– the implication being that he alone had title to them while they worked for the Metropolitan. “Our patrons must be considered,” Meltzer sniffed.

And unions? Conried refused to even contemplate the question of a “closed shop” in the Metropolitan Opera.

“The only question at issue is one of labor union versus art,” relayed Meltzer to the press. “If a union is recognized the Director could not choose particular voices for particular operas should there be any trouble between art and labor. Then what would the opera be worth? No, Herr Conried will never yield in the demand that the chorus union be recognized.”

Meanwhile, the search for scab replacements had begun, offering a comic interlude. As the chorus director began interviewing applicants, he was besieged by eager applicants. The first to audition was a “tall blonde woman with a conquering air.”

When asked if she had any experience singing in a “grand opera,” she replied “Oh, no! But I sang in a choral society in the Bronx three years ago.” It was downhill from there.

After the strike continued for another week, Conried announced that he would stage “Faust” again. New York’s elite turned out in celebration, only to find that Act I still lacked a chorus. The audience groaned as the lead character went through his paces without a single back-up voice.

Then Conried himself made an appearance on stage. The anger and disgust was audible, but the Maestro adopted a bemused air.

He announced that, yes, the chorus was here, but its members were still getting dressed. They had, he declared smugly, “yielded to all my demands, not as a union, but as individuals.

It is agreed that the union shall not be recognized.” This prompted “deafening applause” from the audience, forcing Conried to return to the stage for another bow.

Conried didn’t sell his soul to break the strike. Rather, he offered his adversaries more money -- a raise of $5 -- along with some fringe benefits. The press treated him as a conquering hero, and the chorus, while disappointed, was content for the moment with a substantial increase in pay.

The real losers were the chorus scabs, whom Conried sent back to the “tailor shops and delicatessen stores where many of its members were discovered,” depriving of a lifetime opportunity to sing in Faust.

That was hardly the last labor struggle to convulse the Met; unions eventually got a foothold, and strikes in 1969 and 1980 hit hard, leaving the institutions with fewer subscribers.

Perhaps Gelb will “win” the latest standoff between the Met and its many unions, though it is unlikely there will be a repeat of the relatively painless resolution of that first big strike in 1906. But who knows? As Wagner recognized, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.

Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg View.

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