The Washington Opera Chorus has voted to go on strike, but it is unclear what impact the decision will have on the season. The chorus is scheduled to begin rehearsals on Oct. 13 for "La Boheme," which has an opening night slated for Nov. 10.
Nearly all available tickets have been sold for the season, which is scheduled to open Nov. 3 with an opera that has no chorus: "Salome," by Richard Strauss.
Joshua Kaufman, the national representative for the mid-Atlantic region of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), said yesterday that union members voted "overwhelmingly" late Monday night to reject management's final contract offer and "nearly unanimously ... to go out on strike." The union has not worked out its strategy yet but it might picket "at the appropriate time," he said.
The basic issue in the strike is financial, Kaufman said, but he declined to give any details about the negotiations. Neither side in the dispute would say exactly how much chorus members are paid, but Kaufman said that figures obtained from backstage sources -- $75 per performance and about $9 per hour for rehearsals -- were "in the ballpark." The last contract, for three seasons, expired last spring.
Choruses vary greatly in size from one opera to another, and the company often uses separate choruses for different productions that have overlapping runs. In the course of a season, the Washington Opera may use as many as 100 choral singers.
If the union chose to begin picketing on opening night, the entire season could be postponed or canceled. If it waited until the first opera with a chorus, there might be one week of opera before the season was suspended.
An AGMA picket line would likely stop performances even if the company could find a chorus elsewhere. Solo singers (as well as ballet dancers) are members of the same union. Other unions likely to respect an AGMA picket line represent stagehands and orchestral musicians. Kaufman said his union was "in contact" with the others but he had not talked with them since the strike vote.
"While on the surface, management's offer may appear to be reasonable," Kaufman said, "when viewed in context with what other professionals in the field are earning, it is inadequate to meet the most basic needs of the local union members. The union has offered to continue negotiating in good faith until the matter is satisfactorily resolved."
Martin Feinstein, general director of the Washington Opera, declined to answer questions about the strike, saying he would "give the facts in the case" at a press conference today in the company's offices. Meanwhile he said, "I regret what has happened. I believe we made a very generous offer, higher than what is being paid by other companies in our budget category. I hope to reach an amicable settlement by October 13 when the chorus rehearsals are scheduled to start."