Riccardo Muti in ‘disbelief’ that Met Opera Orchestra is in danger of disappearing

12 January 2021, 14:49

Riccardo Muti in ‘disbelief’ that Met Opera Orchestra is in danger of disappearing
Riccardo Muti in ‘disbelief’ that Met Opera Orchestra is in danger of disappearing. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Italian maestro speaks up for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, who say they have been unpaid since April, and claim to be being “replaced” at gigs with cheaper, non-union musicians.

Revered Italian conductor Riccardo Muti has come out as an ally of the Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in a public letter, in the wake of new accusations that the Met Opera is “outsourcing gigs” to cheaper, non-union musicians.

In March, the orchestra’s musicians say they were furloughed with only two weeks’ pay. By October, a third of the orchestra said they had been forced to quit New York as their home, with the 2020-2021 season cancelled and no prospect of a salary.

“We have now been unpaid for 10 months and counting,” the ensemble said in a statement. “The Metropolitan Opera is an outlier in our industry; every other major orchestra has been compensated since the very beginning of the pandemic.”

In his letter Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, writes in response to a “heartfelt request” for support from the orchestra. “The Met, its Orchestra, along with its artistic team and technical crews are a heritage of humanity,” he writes.

“The artistic world is in disbelief that the very existence of a great Orchestra like the Met’s could be in danger and even at risk of disappearing.”

In a statement to Classic FM, the Met Opera said it has, for several months, “been attempting to get its musicians to the negotiating table with the offer of pay for the duration of the pandemic”.

Read more: Met Opera closure leaves ‘devastated’ musicians without pay >

Met Opera Orchestra musician members, unsalaried since April
Met Opera Orchestra musician members, unsalaried since April. Picture: Met Orchestra/Elizabeth Bowman

It was further claimed in January that the Metropolitan Opera was replacing orchestra members at gigs with cheaper, non-union musicians, to save money in pandemic times.

An article in the New York Post alleges that the opera company used “budget musicians” for its pay-per-view New Year’s Eve gala, without telling donors or ticketholders.

“It is artistic malpractice and unacceptable that non-Met musicians are being hired to perform under the banner of the Metropolitan Opera,” Adam Krauthamer, president of the musicians union AFM Local 802, said in a statement.

“Let’s be clear: hiring non-Met musicians under the banner of the Metropolitan Opera and outsourcing the orchestra’s work is an attack on the Met as an artistic institution and an insult to the very artists who work there.”

People who claim to be donors to the Metropolitan Opera have replied to an Instagram post from the Orchestra, in which it says the company had been hiring non-Met musicians under the banner of the Orchestra.

“I’m a Met donor and will not give one penny more until the musicians are treated equitably. Shame on Gelb and everyone else involved,” said one user.

Another said, “What the hell is wrong with the Met Board? Do they not know if it weren’t for the musicians, their top billed opera stars wouldn’t have any music to sing to? Get it together. This is a first-class orchestra WITHOUT the opera. They deserve to be treated as such.”

Alongside Muti, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, has spoken out in support of the company’s orchestra, describing the situation as “unacceptable and painful” and telling a Quebec newspaper: “This shows me once again that, without a government social safety net, all of this is far too fragile.”

Nézet-Séguin has since vowed to match any donations up to $50,000 in support of the orchestra and chorus’s “unique artists”.

In his letter, Muti urges music and arts lovers to support the Met Orchestra in its time of urgent need. “The extensive and glorious history of the Met and its fabulous Orchestra cannot end in an artistic catastrophe.

“My appeal […] is to give back to the musicians of the Met the dignity which we all deserve and the hope that they can soon return to share with us their art. We must support them during this unprecedented and terrible pandemic.”

Lincoln Center, home to the Metropolitan Opera of New York
Lincoln Center, home to the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Picture: Getty

The Met Opera House, housed in the Lincoln Center, the beating heart of New York’s cultural scene, has stood silent for nearly a year, since the coronavirus pandemic took told in March.

By September, the beloved 137-year-old company had lost more than $150 million in revenue. At the time, Met General Manager Peter Gelb said he wanted to further reduce the house’s high labour costs, and hoped members of the company and public would understand the cutbacks in light of the pandemic.

“The inability to perform is taking a tremendous toll on our company,” he said. “Our future relies on making strong artistic strides, while collectively reducing our costs until the audience has fully returned.”

In response to the orchestra’s claims, the Met Opera told Classic FM: “The Met Stars Live in Concert series are vocal recitals that have primarily been presented with piano accompaniment with star singers who are mostly based in Europe. The purpose of these recitals is to augment the Met’s free streams in an effort to stay connected with the Met’s global audience and donors, of critical necessity during a time when performances can’t take place at the Met.”

It added: “For several months the Met has been attempting to get its musicians to the negotiating table with the offer of pay for the duration of the pandemic, along with the long term concessions that are absolutely necessary to assure the sustainability of the Met and the ultimate job security of its musicians, as well as its many hundreds of other employees.”