Friday, September 04, 2020

Janos Gereben: SF Opera "Family" Feels Bereft

Found on Twitter the other day

Guest post by journalist Janos Gereben on what's going on at San Francisco Opera right now with regard to the Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The $44 million reduction in budget from $72.5 million is strange, considering that the only remaining performances for the season are the concerts by Lianna Haroutounian and Irene Theorin, Der Zwerg, and The Barber of Seville. If Matthew Shilvock is truly trying to get the orchestra (and chorus? which has been shrinking in size over the last few years) to accept an 80% pay cut....that's very bad. Between income collected for the season, donations, and the endowment, it should be possible to pay the musicians more, a lot more, than 20% of their salaries. Herewith Janos:

SF Opera "Family" Feels Bereft

by Janos Gereben

San Francisco Opera continues to deal with the impact of COVID-19 closures, and the picture is clouded by lack of information and delays in decisions. 

Now, already in the sixth month of the pandemic, SF Opera is among the few large music organizations in the world without measures taken and announced about ongoing compensation for the orchestra and chorus. 

Back in June, when the fall season was canceled, I asked SFO General  Director Matthew Shilvock about the lack of specifics in the announcement about salaries, contracts, and staff cutbacks, and his response was “All that is being discussed in conversations that begin now.” He did not offer a timeframe for when that information will become available, and there was a reasonable assumption that months later progress would be made. 

(It was also in June that SF Symphony announced season cancelation and, at the same time, reached agreement with orchestra musicians, SFS Chorus singers, and stagehands in a "shared sacrifice" program for salary reductions averaging 25%, granting full continuation of healthcare and insurance benefits.)

Instead of news of a settlement at the Opera, I received a message from a donor recently: "Mr. Shilvock appears to be playing hardball with the orchestra musicians, demanding steep and long-term salary cuts. I support both West Edge and SF Opera, and I can’t help but notice that West Edge, with meager assets, managed to pay everyone 2/3rd of their committed salaries, while SF Opera, with 1/4 BILLION in assets, is squeezing the musicians -  negotiations are ongoing but I hear Mr. Shilvock wants to pay only 20%!"

Musicians confirmed that they are still waiting to find out about a plan for compensation, one of them saying "It seems they are not negotiating in good faith. We all thought we were a family. There are no plans."

There have been flashpoints elsewhere between artists and management trying to deal with the pandemic, most notably at the Metropolitan Opera and Kennedy Center with its artistic affiliate of the National Symphony Orchestra, both initially seeking to furlough without compensation (the Center doing this immediately after receiving a $25 million emergency grant), but in short order settlements have been reached. SF Opera seems to be one of the few outliers in dealing promptly with urgent need.

The donor's reference to SF Opera assets is correct, even somewhat understated: Total assets at the end of fiscal year 2019 were $273 million, according to a previous statement by SF Opera Chief Financial Officer Michael Simpson, with total operating expenses of $78.6 million, and operating deficit of  $650,000.

(Merola Opera Program's separate finances show $31 million in total assets, according to the most recent available fiscal statement, Merola had $5.2 million in revenue, $3.3 in expenses last year.) 

After last year's drastic personnel cuts, expected to yield $6 million in savings, SF Opera had a pre-pandemic budget of $72.5 million (down from $78.6 million with expectation of the $6 million savings). But as of August, according to Shilvock at a Zoom Town Hall meeting, the operating budget has been revised to $44 million - an unprecedented change reflecting a unique situation. Significantly, there is no reference to the cost of ongoing compensation in any of these reports. 


It was before the pandemic that the Administration considered use of endowment funds, the last fiscal report stating:


"In the event that an unplanned use of cash is required, the Association has unrestricted Board designated endowment funds available in the amount of $15,660,174 at July 31, 2019. 

"During the year ended July 31, 2019, the Association transferred $6 million from long-term investment to operating cash to offset an accumulated cash deficit. "

How any of this is in play after five months of uncertainty, nobody knows in what musicians once considered a "family."



David Bratman said...

For more bad management in the local arts, here's SFMOMA.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you!

charlie said...

Many businesses are suffering, and some people are being laid off or furloughed. However the performing arts is one of few industries where all venues have been impacted all at once.

It's clear these artists are in a dire situation right now. I would have hoped that organizations like SF Opera would find this the perfect time to open up their war chests as these are the rainiest of days.
To use this current crisis as an opportunity to negotiate to reduce artist compensation is frankly shameful.

I hope someone from SFOpera management will shed some light and provide the needed transparency. This is a public institution after all.