Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ars et Labor: 3. The Met, 1980

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Now that the Metropolitan has reached agreements with the last of the union hold-outs, and that the 2014-15 season is scheduled to open on September 22 as originally announced, opera fans all over the world can breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a year of six new productions, including three Met premieres, and ten “Live In HD” afternoons between this October and next April. 

We conclude our survey of damaging disputes between management and labor with this post on the delayed season of 1980-81. In the news that summer, just as in this summer, were angry talks between the Met and the orchestra. As management increased its offer, the sticking point remained the maximum number of performances to which the musicians were obliged each week. And here neither side would budge. The players asserted that the demands on them were so heavy that too many suffered either physically or psychologically or both. Negotiations were declared failed on the September 2 deadline and rehearsals were suspended. Opening night was canceled. To the subsequent threat of junking the entire season, the union responded, “It’s the classic story of the boy who cried wolf” (Times, Sept. 24). This was, after all, the third time in five years that management had issued the same ultimatum. But the Met was not bluffing. On September 30, the season was canceled. The players found themselves caught between wealthy patrons who held that instrumentalists were overpaid as it was for fewer than sixteen hours of work per week, and stagehands who considered the musicians spoiled by the cushy terms of their employment, particularly as contrasted with their own. The administration feared that a prolonged delay or, worse, the cancelation of the season, would result in the same loss of subscriptions that had followed on the 1969 postponement. Eleven years later, the 16 percent drop had not been fully recovered. Talks resumed in early October at the urging of President Jimmy Carter. At this point, Joseph Volpe, then director of operations, entered the labor fray. Volpe was instrumental in brokering the four-year deal that included hiring subs for the uncovered services, a frugal solution acceptable to all.

The three-month delay had significant musical as well as fiscal consequences. Of the four projected new productions, La Traviata and Parade were heard once the labor dispute was resolved, and Così fan tutte postponed for a year. The fourth, The Queen of Spades, was scrapped. It was to star Plácido Domingo and Anna Tomowa-Sintow. Not until 1995 did Tchaikovsky’s opera receive a new investiture. Four years later, Domingo took on the role of Gherman. But New York never heard Tomowa-Sintow as Lisa. The versatile Bulgarian soprano excelled at the Met between 1978 and 1993 in Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Mozart, and Strauss, alas in only sixty-two marvelously vocalized performances. Her affinity for Tchaikovsky is evident in this concert rendering of the second part of Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin; Kurt Masur conducts the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. 

The highly anticipated opening night revival of Turandot also fell victim to the truncated season. It was to feature Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti in an opera new to them both with the company. At the time, Caballé and Pavarotti stood on the highest rung of world operatic stardom. The soprano was taking on a role associated with the stentorian Birgit Nilsson, the tenor with the clarion Franco Corelli. As documented in a 1977 San Francisco production, Caballé and Pavarotti fearlessly expend splendid fortissimo high notes for the heroic phrases of Turandot and Calaf. They also apply supple lyrical phrasing to the repeated musical patterns of the Act II riddle scene. The opportunity of opening night 1980 lost, Caballé was never to sing the imperious Chinese princess with the Met. Pavarotti took on the Unknown Prince in 1997, late in his career, long after “Nessun dorma” had become his signature anthem. 

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