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War talk

Although La Cieca (center) has never played Fort Sumter, she thinks she can recognize the sound of a shot being fired. A forwarded email, after the jump.

Date: Wed, 13 Jul 2011 12:43:01 -0400 (EDT)

1430 Broadway
New York City 10018
Dear Members:

Yesterday, George Steel announced that you would be performing for NYCO in its next season, assuming that NYCO continues to exist. The AGMA Constitution, which AGMA will aggressively enforce in court, prohibits you from performing for City Opera in the event of a Guild picket line is in effect.

As you may be aware, the collective bargaining agreement between AGMA and New York City Opera expired in April. George Steel has, for all intents and purposes, proposed to eliminate all guaranteed employment for AGMA members, to cancel their health insurance, to eliminate the requirement for AGMA membership, to hire student and volunteer singers and to unilaterally extend the work day of principal artists, without any limitation. Although we are finally about to become engaged in negotiations for a successor agreement, given the proposals made by George Steel, it is unlikely in the extreme that a successor agreement will be successfully concluded quickly.

In any event, under federal labor law, the provisions of that expired contract must continue to be honored by NYCO until a successor agreement or an impasse is reached. One of the continuing provisions requires that AGMA receive a copy of, and consent to, any individual employment pursuant to a Standard Artists Agreement. We have not received a copy of any agreement purporting to cover your employment. Without regard to City Opera’s failure to tender a copy of that letter, AGMA is not prepared to approve any such contracts unless a current collective bargaining is in effect between AGMA and City Opera at the time of the performance.

If AGMA and City Opera fail to successfully conclude a collective bargaining agreement prior to the start of your contracted employment, AGMA will not sanction your performance of any services for City Opera.

Moreover, in the event that an impasse occurs in the negotiations, and an AGMA picket line exists at any venue in which City Opera is performing, the AGMA Constitution prohibits you from crossing that picket line.

While I am sure that you and your agent may find this advice distressing, I can not fail to remind you that our obligation is to preserve, to the extent possible, the protections of the collective bargaining agreement for the men and women who have given their careers to City Opera and who would, if George Steel succeeds in presenting non-union productions, be cast out on the street, unable to provide for their support and the welfare of their families.

We are certain that we can count on your support. Inasmuch as AGMA is obligated to do everything possible, in the event of a strike, to prevent George Steel from effectuating his destruction of City Opera, I also need to advise you that AGMA will impose fines on any member who crosses an AGMA picket line and will sue to collect those fines in the appropriate federal or state court.

We sincerely hope that these actions will not become necessary.


Alan S. Gordon


  • Porpora says:

    Was this letter send to soloists? The recipients are unclear, though the word ‘agents’ seems to be the major clue. Regardless, La Cieca is correct- this sounds like a shot across the bow. And a loud one.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      Has AGMA altered the wording of it’s various existing rules and regs to permit such definitive communications via email? Have hard paper copies also been sent to the recipients in signed snail mail?

  • operanow says:

    To me, the AGMA agreements have always seemed as protection for the “rank and file” as opposed to the soloists. Most non AGMA companies limit rehearsal to 6 hours a day for soloists, which to my mind is the only real “protection” that would be applicable. With that in mind, I have never really understood what AGMA really does for them? The health care stinks so it’s not that.

    How can you feel loyalty for a union that doesn’t really do much for you? This is a tough one.

    Am I completely off base?

    • Porpora says:

      You mean those silly chorus people who can’t sing and those dumb backstage boobies who can’t get a real job? They ones who have advanced degrees and have saved many a show because as a members of a rep company they know what to do and do it will? Sure you are right on. Soloists don’t need the union. I mean after all, I’m sure they want to go back to the days when managers were taking half their fees and getting a kickback from the presenter too? Who needs a union anymore!

      • operanow says:

        Where they hell did THAT come from. I said nothing of the sort. My point was regarding soloists…who often sing in non-union houses anyway.

        Please tell me you were kidding…

        • Porpora says:

          You said the generally protect the ‘rank and file’ Who else is the rank and file but the chorus and backstage staff. Apparently you are uniformed that AGMA is comprised of 5 different groups: soloists, stage-managers, directors, dancers and choristers. You suggested that AGMA doesn’t really do much for soloists, but rather, offers protections to non-soloists.

          Go re-read what you wrote in light of what I have just written. I don’t think I am the only person who will have read your statement this way.

          Your statement comes across as ‘why isn’t AGMA doing more for soloists?’ And that is a fair question. But please don’t interject that concern into a discussion of NYCO and it’s present problems- otherwise- it comes off as ‘why shouldn’t a soloist cross a picket line, after all, the union does squat for soloists.’

          Can you see my point? And if you point is that soloists should cross a picket line, then the gloves really are off.

    • CruzSF says:

      Given that operanow has performed as a soloist many times, I’m sure he has reasons for his statement.

    • Porpora says:

      What does AGMA do for soloists? Here are a few things.

      1) The union really changed the way business was done in America. Before AGMA, managers and presenters took soloists fees behind their backs. Without participating signatory companies, what is to prevent this from happening again?

      The goal is to have greater protection as a result of more signatory companies. How is this achieved? Through active involvement by all members of AGMA’s ‘shop’.

      2) In union houses, the union can be very helpful regarding working conditions, that is, safety concerns, payment, adequate representation etc.

      The problem, of course, is that soloists are loath to speak up for themselves because they belief that they will not be re-hired which limits their union involvement. This paralysis on their part results in frustration which is understandable. But the truth is: if soloists want better representation, they have to risk being involved in the very union they hold away at arms length.
      As it is: AGMA soloists signed the letter to NYCO. And bravo to them for doing so. Many also came out to support the rank and file of NYCO at the demonstration at the Guggenheim.

      3) AGMA Relief Fund. No small matter, I have personally known AGMA members of all description who have been the recipients of the Fund’s generosity.

      4) Auditions.

      • babs says:

        What does AGMA have to do with auditions for soloists? Managers arrange auditions for soloists.

      • That Guy says:

        1)Managers and presenters still take kickbacks, both with and without soloist knowledge.

        2)’A’ houses and others frequently break rules regarding working conditions, safety, payment, and so forth when it comes to soloists. When the chorus isn’t in the room, the rule book goes out the window. Sure, there is often a nod to ‘the rules’, but really you don’t mind if we finish with the orchestra so they can leave on time, and then keep the soloists another half hour, do you?

        3)I’ve never known a soloist to benefit from this or any of the other ‘benefits’ of AGMA membership, but I suppose it’s theoretically possible.

        4)Ha, name one audition for soloists that AGMA was ever involved in. Or do you mean the fact that they’ve done nothing about the practice of charging application/audition fees? Or that they’ve done nothing about the numerous managers who charge retainer fees?

        AGMA hasn’t been very effective when it comes to protecting soloists, but I’m told something is better than nothing.

    • agma says:

      I have to say that you really are off-base. We’ve already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation defending solo singers against inappropriate practices by their agents and contract violations by their employers. We’ve recovered more than that for solo singers from employers who cancel their contracts and don’t pay them. One of the problems is that solo singers often don’t contact us to help them because they don’t know that we will help them. Granted, having a health plan that’s affordable and provides good coverage is difficult, but that’s a problem that AGMA can’t solve independently. As for City Opera, Steel’s vision, which includes a very minimal number of solo singers is a far cry from what City Opera once hired. While on the surface, our position is that City Opera should stay at Lincoln Center and have a ‘real’ season and a ‘real’ collective bargaining agreement, the actual thrust of what we and Local 802 are doing is to raise enough public awareness of the fact that Steel simply has no idea how to run a large opera company, even one with limited assets, in the hope that its Board wakes up to that fact and replaces Steel with one of the people that could acutally do the job, and present a season with programming that people will actually buy tickets to see. That’s simply not going to happen at John Jay College or the bario museum.
      Alan Gordon, Executive Director, AGMA

  • Porpora says:

    The gloves have come off. Let the fun begin!


    • Krunoslav says:

      La Cansino was a better Gilda than Mmes. Schaefer, Damrau and Machaidze put together.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Sounds like a clear case for:

  • brooklynpunk says:

    I find it rather telling.(and sort of chilling) someone who has been a member of various Unions for most of my working life..and have participated in quite a few strikes, in my time… that AGMA has such repetative and warning language , in this letter, TO ITS OWN MEMBERS, about strike-breaking…!

    I must say I have rarely seen that sort of language in any general strike-announcement, before…

    • brooklynpunk says:

      …and…I gotta question the motives…and real sympathies, of those here who seem to think that a strike is a picnic in the sun…with expressions of “you go…” and ” let the fun begin…”

      Have those saying this ever had to sweat out how they were gonna pay their bills, during a walk-out…? I wonder if AGMA has an emergency strike fund, to help those members who have no other resources to rely on….?

      • Porpora says:

        For those on unemployment, it means waiting 7 weeks before one can continue one’s ‘claim’.

        I was present for a strike once. You are correct, it isn’t pretty. That said, you should know that a little gallows humor is just that.

        • brooklynpunk says:

          sorry, Popora..

          I find NOTHING the slightest… about this situation…guess I gotta re-charge my laff-o-meter?

          • Porpora says:

            Gallows humor may be an acquired taste I admit, but so is opera, no?

            Everyone reacts to loss in a different way- that is something to consider. After so much tragedy (and it is one for those at NYCO in that Mr. Steel really does mean for them to fade away), I have no doubt that the personal price paid for the actions of one man is staggering.

          • La Cieca says:


      • I support the union 1000%. My outrage and support may appear gleeful to you, but I agree it’s a sad day for opera in NYC. Alan Gordon is putting ALL AGMA members on notice, not just the chorus. They have given up a lot the last three years in order to support NYCO and now they’re being kicked to the curb as a result of others mismanagement. They will be justified in striking and regardless of what has been posted in previous blog entries, no one will cross their picket line without having to pay a heavy price. And yes, you should lighten up.

        • ianw2 says:

          Ok, so they strike and manage to prevent scabs.

          Then what?

          • Very good question!

            NYCO’s unreasonable contract demands seem designed to put the nail in their own coffin so they can blame the union for shutting them down. Even if they were to successfully negotiate a contract, I don’t think the season as planned will generate much excitement. Since they couldn’t sell tickets the last two years while they were at Lincoln Center, attendance, at least at BAM, should be underwhelming. I have no doubt they will sell out the two 600 seat venues -- big deal. So that would be the best scenario and then what? I don’t see how that could attract any major donors and pretty soon they will take up residence at the Amato Opera (kidding!).

            Seriously, does anyone see a way they can survive with the current board and mgmt? Perhaps a brave group of people will come together to create the “NEW New York City Opera”. I live in hope.

          • Bluessweet says:

            Ianw2--I have been out on strike, had vendors who went out on strike and have seen an awful lot of labor battles over a very long time. The result in this case is probably going to be that NYCO management will be able to find workers for their task. It takes a lot of muscle to prevent people who need the job, need the exposure or who feel that no one is going to stand in their way. Some patrons will come to spite the union, some will stay away to spite management and some will stay away to avoid all the bother.

            In some cases, (See Kohler of Wisconsin) management prevails. In others (see Standard Conveyer in St. Paul) the firm fails. In some, See Westinghouse (several different places,) the union is appeased and therefore prevails.

            In this case, given the shaky nature of the whole enterprise, I would suggest that the Standard Conveyor outcome of the organization ceasing to exist is most likely.

            How do I feel about that? Sad. I saw productions there in the sixties, if not before. It was a great house. All things come to an end, however, and there is no more Music Circus, nor, it appears, a Bucks County Playhouse (opened in 1938 or 39.).

            Will there be other opportunities to see opera performed? It appears that there are more than enough talented young people studying voice these days, so there will be some opera performed.

            While the US is in the economic doldrums now, I think that there will be some money available from those that make more than they can figure out how to spend and opera is always a “toney” donation.

            For all we know, a new company will be formed that will supercede the accomplishments of the NYCO, as hard as that is to imagine. Just think of the names that got started there!

            When I get to the point where I could tell you what will happen next, you will find me down the shore in AC at the Trump. I will not be bothering with the outcome of some rundown old opera company but planning my own grand and brand new one.


  • tannengrin says:

    remind me again -- how did this one end?

  • operagirl40 says:


  • ardath_bey says:

    This is an effort on AGMA’s part to stop sleazeball Steel and the cretins on the board from exploiting artists for little over minimum wage, with no contract, no benefits, no rights, no vacation pay and no stability on the job. I applaud AGMA.

    This is the trend in America today, by the way, which must be fought against, Reagan started the war on the working class when he fired the striking air traffic controllers and all president after him have been following the example, the goal is to destroy everything FDR accomplished for labor rights and make everyone be happy to find work for $7 an hour.

  • dame ernestine sherman tank says:

    How happy Dame Tank is to be retired! I just would not have the energy for this fight. I was too busy worrying about learning my notes, blocking, and keeping my voice in shape. The Art of Singing is getting lost in here…

  • Cranky Coloratura says:

    Penny wise and pound foolish was never more true.

    Steel looks at our union employees and sees only $$$ and aging faces that would screw up not only his wish to be the darling of the young, hip and now crowd but to downsize the company to match his puny vision.

    I see a finely tuned ensemble with a huge reservoir of skill, experience, artistry, history and loyalty, a troupe capable of rising to any challenge, a treasure that any artistic director in his right mind would kill for.

    We must not rest in the fight to depose this preening booby.

    Hail, Freedonia!

  • agma says:

    Sam Cooke sang “Don’t Know Much About History” and it’s regretably clear that many current members don’t recognize the truth of what ardath_bey says about labor’s history. Worse, many do not recognize their own part of a continuing labor movement in which going on strike to secure even the most basic benefits (certainly not those that we take much more for granted today)once imperiled the lives of those strikers and their families. To those who ask ‘what has the union done for me today?’ I am compelled to remind them that unionists are fond of repeating the traditional saying “people died to achieve the eight hour day,” and hundreds if not thousands of unionized workers did actually make an ultimate sacrifice to win that battle, and our members today fall heir to those sacrifices.

    In 1936, the year that marked AGMA’s birth, two strikers were killed and over 200 wounded by National Guardsmen in the Electric Auto-Lite Strike in Toledo, Ohio. In Minneapolis, police attacked and fired upon striking Teamster truck drivers who were demanding recognition of their union, wage increases, and shorter working hours. Almost simultaneously, police killed 10 strikers and wounded 30 during the “Memorial Day Massacre” at the Republic Steel plant in Chicago, and Ford Motor Company guards attacked and tried to kill the United Auto Workers’ leadership at Ford’s River Rouge Plant, in River Rouge, Michigan, immortalized in photographs of Walter Reuther bloodied at the plant gate.
    AGMA’s founders may have created the union on a golf course, but it was certainly not a safe and genteel thing to undertake. Although it’s true that no AGMA member had to die to secure advance schedule-posting, paid rehearsals or heavy-carry fees, our members cannot forget that they are beneficiaries of the legacy of those who did make an ultimate sacrifice in order to secure the ability to peacefully negotiate the contracts and benefits our members enjoy today.
    Part of our job is to protect soloists, enforce their pay-or-play contracts, litigate against age, race, sex, sexual orientation discrimination, prevent predatory agent practices, set minimums and make sure they get paid. AGMA is unique among entertainment unions: We don’t have closed shops, we don’t prohibit non-union work, we don’t have nation-wide votes on contracts that dilute the interests of any given bargaining unit and, most significantly in this regard, we don’t organize. We don’t have to -- any singer who has worked under both an AGMA contract and for a non-union employer knows what AGMA does for its members.
    Obviously, we don’t want to have a picket line at all of George Steel’s local venues or anywhere else…but if that’s the only way to try to save the jobs of both the rank-and-file members and the solo singers, than that’s the only way.
    Alan Gordon
    Executive Director

    • brooklynpunk says:

      THAT IS THE height of cynical spin… to throw in the glorious, and tragic HISTORIC Union battles of the past, to make your case, in the HERE AND NOW…

      AND.. I am a Union-man…100% ( well… most of the time…)


      • Porpora says:

        History is not spin Mr. BrooklynPunk. And those who do not learn from it are -- as the saying goes- doomed to repeat it.

        • brooklynpunk says:

          Well, Porpora..

          The “selective” use of “quoting” historical episodes to make a point, which has a very hazy connection to currentl events ..for one’s self aggrandizing IN MY OPINION-- A REAL DISGRACE..OR WORSE… and a slur on the history “evoked”…

          • Porpora says:

            What else should Mr. Gordon have included in his brief overview of the beginning of labor’s history in America? Hazy connection? Is there a hazy connection between gay marriage in New York and Lawrence vs Texas? You bet there is! History matters!

            Mr. Gordon was responding to a soloist’s question which was- essentially- ‘why isn’t AGMA doing more for me?’ His response is not self-serving. It is informative as well as instructive. The reader is given the nut and bolts of what the union actually will do for its members.

            It is possible that AGMA members will be picketing performances of NYCO. To know that others have done the same, and with far greater risk, isn’t a disgrace any more than learning the art of bel canto shames those who endeavor to be as great as those who have inspired them.

          • Porpora says:

            Ah…the late hour…

            My post should have read: “Is there a hazy connection between gay marriage in New York and Lawrence vs Texas? I think not! History matters!”

      • Bosah says:

        I don’t understand, brooklynpunk. The question was regarding what AGMA does for soloists, right?

        Well, what they did in the past was ensure all those rights listed. What they do today is make sure that, through actions like Steele’s, those rights aren’t taken away.

        It’s simple in my mind. If you let things like what Steele is doing prevail, they snowball, and the rights won through blood, sweat and tears years ago will be lost.

        Maybe members have a right to complain about day-to-day things -- I don’t know, I’m not a member. But, the big picture is really, really clear.

        Your last line was as misplaced as it was melodramatic, IMO.

        • brooklynpunk says:


          MY line was ” melodramatic and misplaced” ..and Alan Gordon’s recounting that Union protestors were murdered by the Police, in Detroit-- over 70 years ago- in a far different sort of dispute..WASN’T..?

          Of course I believe in Unionism…and that the history of the Unions is real important..especially for a current generation that might not have a clue as to what came before their own relatively comfortable lives..

          What I object to is the heavy-handed grand-standing aspects of Gordon’s spiel…it sort of turns my stomach, to hear that the opening negotiations in contract talks between labor and managment at City Opera somehow harkens back to the murders at River Rouge..

          • Bosah says:

            I understand that, bp… but I’m going to imagine that to the person who runs the union, what he does in these negotiations is a testimony to what those protestors went through. I bet to him, his work is always related in some way.

            I’m just remembering some union “management” friends, and everything to them was about the battles that came before and honoring them.

            I mean, if people died to give the members of this union rights, why wouldn’t he use everything he has to save those rights? He’s fighting for the rights those very people died for, isn’t he? I bet that’s what he thinks. And I’m not sure he’s far off.

            Thst’s what I think any way.

          • Bosah says:

            BP -

            One final thing -- Gordon talks about the historical significance of the fight for having your union recognized, fair wages and controlled working hours. Aren’t those things at the core of the issue with Steele now?

            Sure, going on about it may seem melodramatic, especially for a union like AGMA(and I would temper the language). But when you think about it, that IS what this is about -- a management trying to take away the rights some people died for a long time ago.

          • Porpora says:

            Yes brooklynpunk, you ARE melodramatic. Over the top too. The only thing missing is the mattress at the bottom of a parapet. But this isn’t Tosca. And it is the unions that are dying here. Two of them in fact. They’ve been shoved over the rail by Steel & Co.

            Please stop drinking the Kool-aid.

            What you don’t seem to understand is that Mr. Steel is intent on dismembering the company person by person. He has made that very clear through his actions and proposals.

            Anyone can go to the press as Mr. Steel has and try to make bamboozle them into thinking he isn’t doing what he is doing. His policies have brought NYCO to its knees. He means to get rid of everyone and reshape the company is his own image. I believe this was his intent from day one. And I am not alone in thinking this. The unions have given him a unanimous NO CONFIDENCE vote. What should they do now? Send flowers?

      • Bluessweet says:

        What I said…times 10

        • Bluessweet says:

          And what I said was that BP’s stance is so skewed about this that it sounds as if he were a paid hack for Steel.

          For instance, complaining about dredging up 1930′s labor actions while he, himself, dredges up a quote from the McCarthy era (Army-McCarthy hearings) of the 1950′s. Talk about “no shame.”

          PS— and he doesn’t even get it right… What McCarthy’s adversary, Joseph Welch, actually said was, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
          The inclusion of the word “left” makes the “at long last” sensible. Otherwise, it is actually somewhat incoherent and I’m glad to present it in the whole, for two reasons:

          First, because it is such a famous quote that it should truly have full meaning and second, because Mr. Welch was and deserves to be remembered as a truly articulate individual.

          • Bluessweet says:

            Just in case you were wondering about the quote’s construction, here’s a comment by someone who is much better at English grammer than I:

            Note for syntacticians: Welch’s syntax is rather old-fashioned for American English (though not so much for British speech): his famous outburst has two features that are rare in American speech and one that is rare in every dialect. (In what follows I put “[%]” in front of a sentence if only some Standard English speakers would accept it.) First, the sentence illustrates subject-auxiliary inversion with the possession sense of have, which Americans don’t use much any more (they tend to say Do you have a pencil? rather than [%]Have you a pencil?). Second, his utterance also uses non-verbal negation, which is less common (and more formal) than verbal negation (Americans say I don’t have a pencil rather than [%]I have no pencil). And third, the second sentence, Have you left no sense of decency?, shows a rather unusual adjunct placement for left (Americans would say Don’t you have any pencils left rather than [%]Don’t you have left any pencils?). At long last sounds a bit odd, too; Welch means it in the sense “Hasn’t this gone on long enough?”, which is not quite the same as the modern sense “finally” (as in At long last Iraq has an Iraqi-led government), though of course they are close. Fifty years is not a long time in language change, but already English is sounding a little different from when Welch spoke

            From “Language Log” This comment was posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum there (and not by Bluessweet!)

            And, as Mr. Welch implied, Hasn’t this gone on long enough?

          • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

            Tom Rakewell: “Have you taken leave of your senses?”

          • brooklynpunk says:

            …since I didn’t use quotation marks-- I was delibrately NOT directly quoting Mr. Welch’s famous line toward McCarthy

            .. my concern was not that the Union has no sense of decency..I know that in theory, they have an extremely high moral sense, of duty, as a matter of fact…..

  • SilvestriWoman says:

    I’d beg to differ. When I was struggling singer, working part-time with no health insurance while taking regional opera gigs, AGMA’s contributions to the health fund paid my medical bills. It may not have been health insurance, but it allowed me to afford annual doctor visits, especially when I fractured my foot.