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Metropolitan Opera extends labour talks with unions, averting midnight lockout threat

NEW YORK, N.Y. - It's a drama worthy of the Metropolitan Opera: Frantic, last-minute labour negotiations aimed at averting a lockout that threatens to stop both pay and benefits for thousands of singers, musicians, stagehands and other workers.

With just an hour to spare before general manager Peter Gelb's vow of a 12:01 a.m. Friday deadline that would trigger a lockout, the company announced it had agreed to a federal mediator's request to extend the talks by 72 hours.

"We want to work together with union representatives, and do everything we can to achieve new contracts, which is why we've agreed to an extension," Gelb said.

The Met also announced it had reached new contract agreements with three of the 15 unions whose contracts expired at midnight: Local 32BJ, Local 210, and Local 30.

Local 32BJ represents ushers, ticket takers, cleaning staff, porters, security guards, and office service workers; Local 210 represents the call centre; and Local 30 represents building engineers, the Met said.

A statement from the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees said opera workers will report work as scheduled on Friday.

Tino Gagliardi, president of the Met's orchestra union, called the extension a constructive move, but he said settling the dispute in three days is "highly unrealistic given Gelb's proposed draconian cuts."

A lockout would have disrupted the new opera season for the first time in three decades.

At issue are the Met's finances. Gelb has demanded that the unions accept salary cuts of about 17 per cent, to cover a deficit of $2.8 million in the Met's $326 million annual budget.

But unions representing about 2,500 chorus singers, orchestra musicians, stagehands, carpenters and others say they'll lose as much as 30 per cent of their income through additional pension cuts and higher health care costs.

Union chorus members earn a base pay of about $100,000 a year and as much as $200,000 with overtime. Orchestra musicians' salaries also top $100,000.

Gelb says the salaries of union members represent about two-thirds of company costs and that's where cuts should be made to balance shrinking ticket sales, a depleted endowment and rising operating costs.

The artists contend that their doubled income is due to Gelb's insistence on staging expensive new productions that got bad reviews but required a lot of overtime and technical challenges, such as Wagner's "Ring" cycle. They say they're bearing the brunt of his decisions.

"We're in at 10 a.m. and finish at midnight on many days," chorister Rebecca Carvin said. "You miss weddings, you miss family occasions and I haven't had Christmas with my family for 15 years."

She made contingency plans ahead of a possible lockout, sprucing up her resume for jobs in hospital administration.

Union members have frequently cited what they call the Met's "extreme waste," including the $169,000 cost to build a poppy field in this year's $4.3 million production of Borodin's "Prince Igor" and Gelb's insistence on special spotlights on singers in 25 productions that cost $466,152, according to Carvin.

With the lockout looming, one singer who took her child to the doctor was told the Met could cut off insurance on Friday.

"This is going to have fingers reaching far into the world," said another chorus soprano, Karen Dixon, noting that the Met's Saturday afternoon broadcasts draw legions of listeners across the globe.

If the federal mediated talks don't succeed, the largest classical music organization in North America, created in 1883, may be shuttered for the new season set to begin Sept. 22.

Even if talks lead to a compromise, some spectators already have refrained from buying tickets, leery of performances that may not happen in the 3,800-seat theatre.

A sleep-deprived Gelb, who has been the Met's general manager since August 2006, said the situation was "more stressful than anything I've encountered in my career."

"But I'm on a mission," he said. "I took this job to keep the opera going, not to shut it down. Nobody wants a lockout. What I want is a deal."

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