Musicians take a stand for job security in talks with MN Opera

Union musicians placed stands outside a recent performance at the Luminary Arts Center. Each stand represented a musician left out of the pit – and prevented from earning a paycheck – for lack of room in the smaller theater.

Members of the Twin Cities Musicians Union warn that the Minnesota Opera’s increased use of a newly acquired, smaller stage in Minneapolis threatens orchestra players’ livelihoods – and the company’s reputation for staging high-quality, internationally acclaimed performances.

It’s why musicians of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra have dug in their heels since contract negotiations with management began over the summer, demanding greater job security for roughly 50 members of the part-time, regional orchestra.

Without guaranteed work, musicians worry that many in their ranks will be forced to look for positions in other ensembles and that new talent will be harder to attract.

“It’s really important to an orchestra’s artistic integrity that we play together,” Minnesota Opera cellist Rebecca Arons said. “The community deserves to know that this asset is not being treated with care.”

Arons and other members of Local 30-73 of the American Federation of Musicians have begun taking that message directly to Minnesota’s operagoers, passing out flyers before performances since the 2022-23 season began in October.

“The people we’ve talked to by and large don’t know what’s going on,” said principal bassist Mike Smith, who chairs the unit’s bargaining committee. “Patrons who have been longstanding subscribers are surprised because the Ordway is such a big part of the opera experience.”

Currently, musicians in the opera’s orchestra are paid by the performance and according to the terms of a personal contract with the company. Different opera scores require different instruments, and not every orchestra musician works every show.

But for the last 30 years, a collective bargaining agreement between the Minnesota Opera and its orchestra musicians has outlined how that hiring process plays out. Bargaining, according to union members, has more often been collaborative than contentious.

“Orchestra members have gone through a very rigorous, competitive process to get their positions, and because of that, as the years have gone by since our CBA started 30 years ago, the level of playing has steadily reached a high level,” Arons said. “We’ve been on a steady trajectory artistically.

“We’re at the point now where we are internationally recognized, we have commercial recordings and we have premiered new works, one of which won a Pulitzer recently.”

But the tone in negotiations changed this season, now that fewer orchestra members are getting paid.

Rebecca Arons is a cellist and member of the opera orchestra musicians’ bargaining team.

That’s because the Minnesota Opera moved two of five productions to its newly acquired space in Minneapolis’ North Loop. Formerly known as the Lab Theater, the Luminary Arts Center opened to the public in August after renovations, and its 224-seat theater recently staged its first opera performance, a three-week run of “Rinaldo.”

The smaller space not only accommodates fewer patrons – the Ordway Theater seats 1,900 – but fewer orchestra musicians as well. Just 19 worked on “Rinaldo,” and the company’s staging of “The Song Poet” in March will require 13, according to the union.

“For over half of our orchestra, they’ve lost two productions,” Smith said. “That’s over a 40% cut in their pay.”

Union members want their new contract to include a minimum income for the opera orchestra’s “core players,” so that instrumentalists who join the company have some basic guarantees, regardless of where opera management decides to stage its shows.

“We didn’t need to ask in previous agreements for wording that determined how many services there would be because we knew how many productions there would be,” Arons said. “But in the next five years there are no plans to return to five productions at the Ordway or to even increase from three. This current arrangement has been put forward as the plan.”

Smith and Arons, who have a combined 67 years of experience with the company, acknowledge that the pandemic hit performing-arts organizations hard, although the Minnesota Opera did receive a $1.2 million forgivable loan through the Paycheck Protection Act and $1.1 million in federal grant funds for shuttered performance venues.

But if management expects concessions from orchestra musicians, union members say, then musicians deserve to see the books for themselves.

“The pandemic is being used as cover in messaging to their donors,” Arons said. “But they’re telling us, when we request information, that they don’t have to tell us because it’s not related. It really feels like we’re not bargaining in good faith because we’re not looking at the same facts.”

The union and management recently agreed to enlist the help of a federal mediator. Their first session is scheduled for early January.

Meanwhile, musicians intend to continue sounding the alarm about the threat to their jobs and their orchestra. They ask supporters to contact the opera’s president, Ryan Taylor, at 612-342-9583 or, and to sign up for their email list or follow their campaign on social media.

“The community has been extremely supportive, both our fans and folks we talk to while we’re leafleting,” Arons said. “Our community values the arts so strongly, it’s part of the identity of this community. And when folks find out that it may be taken away, they don’t take it lightly.”

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