Central City Opera’s Shakespeare summer: To be or not to be?

Summer 2023 festival season in question due to ongoing contract disputes

By Peter Alexander May 1 at 2:05 p.m.

Note: This article goes into some detail about the ongoing and contentious conflict between the Central City Opera and the American Guild of Musical Artists, which threatens the upcoming 2023 summer festival season of the opera. I believe that it is important for the true extent of the dispute to be known and understood by musicians, potential audience members, and other interested people. For full clarity, issues at stake are presented here as objectively as possible. However, it should be noted that representatives of the union and artists who have appeared at Central City Opera spoke to me freely and on the record; to date the opera company has not made anyone available for an interview. This article reflects the information I have been given.

Disclosure: Several of the artists quoted below are personal friends. While I was on a friendly footing with Pelham Pearce, artistic director of Central City Opera until last June, I do not have a personal relationship with any of the current CCO media representatives or administrative staff.

CENTRAL CITY OPERA (CCO) announced its planned 2023 summer festival season of three operas on Nov. 15, 2022. This was a return to the more ambitious summer festival that CCO had abandoned after 2012 due to declining income, and later COVID. All three operas planned for the coming season are based on Shakespeare: Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Rossini’s Othello and Cole Porter’s classic musical Kiss Me Kate.

Now the entire season may be in jeopardy due to a contract dispute between the opera company and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), representing both leading singers and the apprentice artists at CCO.

Central City Opera House. Photo by Ashraf Sewailam.

No one is saying that the season is likely to be canceled, but it’s hard to find optimism among the artists and the leadership at AGMA, who admit to being prepared for a possible work stoppage. I am still awaiting comments from CCO management, but with rehearsals slated to start late this month, the timeline is short.

In the words of AMGA’s national executive director Sam Wheeler, from a video message released April 18, “If we’re going to reach a deal, the clock is ticking.” And he stated in an interview the same day, “at the moment we’re nowhere near an agreement.”

The previous contract between AGMA and CCO expired in August, 2022, toward the end of the summer festival season. Prior to that, the CCO Board of Directors had hired Pamela Pantos as president and chief executive officer of the company. At that time, longtime director of the company Pelham Pearce remained as artistic director.

Just before the 2022 season opened, Pearce suddenly resigned via a statement on his personal Facebook page that said only “I have resigned as Artistic Director of the Central City Opera.” Pearce has made no further comment, and there has been no clarification from any source of his reasons for leaving the company where he had worked since 1996. Whatever his reasons, there had been a complete change of management before the AGMA contract expired in August.

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HERE IS HOW the dispute between CCO and AGMA has played out since then: The two parties began negotiations for a new contract Nov. 1, 2022. On Dec. 6, AGMA published on their Web page a letter that they had sent to the CCO Board of Directors. It claimed that “prior to contract expiration, CCO management committed several violations of the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) that resulted in the company not paying more than $12,000 to Apprentice Artists.”

The letter also claimed that “several artists have come forward detailing disturbing conduct ranging from public body shaming to sexual harassment, to overt threats of retaliation for union activity.” The letter further noted that CCO had retained Littler Mendelson P.C., which was described as “a notorious union-busting law firm.” Finally, the letter listed several proposals from CCO that were described as “unprecedented and draconian.” (You may read the entire letter here.)

Central City Opera responded on Dec. 14 by releasing “Facts About Our Ongoing Collective Bargaining Negotiations,” in which they expressed their disappointment at “unfounded assertions being made by some AGMA leaders and members.” None of the specific points raised by AGMA were directly answered, except to state that CCO has “policies and reporting procedures to protect everyone on staff from harassment and discrimination.” (This notice may be read here.)

The next day—Dec. 15, 2022—AGMA released a brief statement of their own. “Central City Opera’s latest statement is nothing more than a transparent attempt to distract from their own misconduct,” it stated (posted on the Web here).

Ken Cazan, a stage director with longtime association with CCO, had been engaged to direct the summer 2023 production of Kiss Me Kate. Near the end of the year Cazan wrote a letter to Pantos as executive director of CCO in which he stated his unwillingness to work on the summer productions until the issues had been resolved.

At his invitation, the summer’s other two directors, Dan Wallace Miller (Roméo) and Ashraf Sewailam (Othello) also signed the letter, which was posted publicly Dec. 20. This is meaningful because the three directors have very different stakes in the coming season. While Cazan is a senior stage director with a safe faculty position at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, Miller works for a small opera company and Othello is Sewailam’s first contract as stage director. (Read their letter here.)

After more negotiations, the next public exchange between the parties was in April. On April 14, while negotiations were ongoing, CCO issued a new 14-paragraph statement headed “Update on the Ongoing Negotiations with AGMA.” The document contests several previous statements from AGMA.

Two issues in particular have been vigorously contested. First, the statement reads, “AGMA claims publicly that CCO owes money to artists using the phrase ‘Pay Your Artists.’ There are no legal or contractual grounds for these claims regarding payments owed; CCO honors its contracts and pays its artists.”

Second, the company raises what appears to be a new issue, claiming that “AGMA has requested that all CCO artists become AGMA members and pay AGMA’s initiation fee and dues, effectively denying CCO artists the right to choose whether or not to join AGMA.”

Finally, the “Update” includes a series of statements preceded by the heading “FACT”. These essentially are statements of CCO’s position on the disputed issues with AGMA, which AGMA contends are not facts. Since no supporting document are included, it is difficult to verify the factual nature of the statements. (The full “Update” is online here.)

The following Tuesday, April 18, AGMA placed a video online responding to CCO’s “Update.” The “Video Message Regarding the Ongoing Labor Dispute with Central City Opera” was recorded by Wheeler, speaking from notes but without a visible script. This is the most detailed statement released by either side, and therefore some portions need to be quoted directly. In his opening, Wheeler says bluntly, “There is a lot in (CCO’s “Update”) that is either false, misleading, or completely out of context.”

He quotes written statements from several of AGMA’s negotiators calling into question CCO’s sincerity. For example, one negotiator reported “they have been confrontational . . . and purposely wasted our time repeatedly over the last six months.” Another statement reads, “Central City’s negotiating team repeatedly speaks to our staff in a haranguing and dismissive manner, and it is clear that their lawyers have little knowledge of how the opera industry actually works.”

Wheeler talks at some length about the $12,000 AGMA claims is owed to apprentice artists. He covers one of the specific sources of the $12,000, fees to apprentice artists for performances “outside of the regular opera season.” He reads directly from the contract in support of AGMA’s position, adding that “Central City said in their statement last week that there is ‘no basis’ in the contract that they owe any money to anybody.” Outside of the specific language in the contract quoted by AGMA, I have seen no specific documentation supporting either side’s position.

The “Video Message” continues with more details about the issues of union membership and fees, among other contractual specifics. It also refers to one of the basics of most performing artists’ union contracts, what is known as “pay or play.” This is the proposition that once an artist has been given a contract, if their appearance were cancelled capriciously the payment must still be made.

Wheeler says “Central City is trying to destroy pay-or-play. What does that mean practically? It means that if Central City were to get rid of an artist for a bad reason or a discriminatory reason and not pay out their contract, AGMA would not be able to do anything about it.” (You may watch Wheeler’s entire “Video Message” here.)

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I HAVE SPOKEN directly with people from AGMA, artists who have appeared at Central City Opera, and attorneys with knowledge of labor law. Based on those conversations I will attempt to clarify some of the disputed topics.

First, it should be noted that there are two issues still in dispute from AGMA’s previous contract with CCO. One is the $12,000 that AGMA says is owed to apprentice artists. AGMA’s justification is laid out in Wheeler’s “Video Message.” Wheeler also notes that five arbitrations of those payments are pending through the not-for-profit American Arbitration Association. In the meantime, Wheeler says “we’re going to keep pursuing these grievances under the contract to make sure that the artists who were there last summer get what they’re entitled to.”

Most of the $12,000 is for performances that the apprentices gave outside the schedule of performances in the opera house proper. Wheeler and AGMA say that the contract requires the company to pay each apprentice “an honorarium of $60 per performance, in addition to all other compensation.” This would cover events such a donor events, community events, and other occasions that come up every year over the course of the season. As Wheeler explains the union’s view, “we negotiated this in 2019 and in 2022. Central City simply did not pay this honorarium.”

The company has only said “CCO has always paid its artists and production staff in full,” with no further details. The word that is circulating, with no attribution, is that the company stopped honoring that clause when the previous contract ran out. AGMA says the company is obligated to observe the contract beyond that original term, so long as negotiations are ongoing, a position that appears to be supported by law.

The other issue from the past season is the complaints of sexual harassment and body shaming. These reported incidents are apparently being investigated, and until a conclusion has been reached, neither side can comment.

The issue of union membership deserves careful explanation. As stated, CCO’s claim that AGMA wants all artists to become union members is hard to reconcile with the union’s position that it is by contract an “agency shop” in every state that does not have “right to work” laws, which includes Colorado. 

“Agency shops” are workplaces covered by union contract where the employees may either join the union or pay an “agency fee” that covers the union’s costs for negotiating and defending the contract that applies to all workers, both union members and non-members. By law, an agency shop cannot require employees to join the union, although they can and do require them to pay the agency fee. In other words, AGMA could not legally require artists to join the union.

In other words, when CCO says “AGMA is attempting to expand its representation to its artists who are currently not subject to its membership rules and who have never before been required to pay AGMA initiation fees or dues,” they are claiming something that AGMA denies, that they say they have never demanded in their contracts, and that could potentially be illegal.

I have talked to union members who work in non right-to-work states—stage hands, musicians, and others—and they all agree that paying the agency fee is routine. Many people choose to join the union, since they are paying the fee anyway, but others do not. And as far as AGMA specifically is concerned, Miller calls AGMA’s dues “more reasonable than any other entertainment union in the business. . . . It’s not a lot of money.”

Another serious sticking point for the artists is “pay-or-play.” As explained above, this is contract language requiring the company to pay artists for all scheduled performances. This prevents artists from being dropped from a performance at a late moment or for capricious reasons. Wheeler says “Central City is currently trying to undermine pay-or-play, and that’s really one of the bedrocks of the AGMA contracts across the country. It’s what allows our members to be secure.”

“We have to have pay-or-play protection,” Cazan says. “Otherwise they can fire us on a whim.” Every professional opera singer I know has confirmed that this is standard practice across the industry, and it is essential for their financial wellbeing in a business where contracts are signed years in advance. If a singer is dismissed or a contract is cancelled soon before a performance, the singer has no possibility of finding another engagement for the time period of the canceled contract.

Another issue raised by Wheeler in the “Video Message” is new demands that were raised by the company at the last minute. According to Wheeler, the “Update” from CCO was actually released while talks were ongoing on April 14. “[W]hile we were in talks, they released (a) statement, in the middle of the bargaining session,” he says. “They came back . . .  and proposed for the first time cutting paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of long existing contract language. They called these their ‘additional initial proposals,’ which is not anything I had ever heard of before. Once you’ve been at the table for six months, you don’t add more proposals.”

In their December letter to CCO board members, AGMA referred to Littler Mendelson as a “union busting” law firm. So far as I know neither the CCO board nor administration have commented. But you don’t have to look far to find the firm’s reputation. They have  become well known as the firm representing Starbucks in their fight against unionization, and they have represented other major corporations—including MacDonalds, Apple, Delta Airlines and Nissan—in their anti-union battles.

John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at the Berkeley Labor Center, has written that “Littler is now the nation’s largest law firm specializing in union avoidance activities.” Littler’s own Web page states explicitly that they “excel in union avoidance,” and “for unionized clients, we bargain tenaciously.” If CCO did not know that they were engaging a notoriously anti-union law firm, they had not done their research.

I keep hearing one question from people I talk with: Where is the CCO board in all of this? The answer is “mostly silent.” And “nobody knows for sure.”

As noted above, AGMA had approached the board with a letter early in the negotiating process (Dec. 6, 2022). As Wheeler explained, “early on in this process we had a suspicion that maybe the board was not aware of this approach that would be taken at the table, because it was such a departure from what we’ve done over the last 80 years. So very early on in the process in November, our bargaining committee wrote a letter to the board.

“The board did not respond to that letter of our committee, which is why we went public in December. . . . So we have not had any substantive discussion with the board.”

As a veteran approaching his 21st year with CCO, Cazan is more emphatic when he says “I’m very concerned that the board is backing the opera company 100% and hasn’t contacted any of us who have been involved in that company for years to ask us what we’re feeling, or what we’re thinking. And it seems as if what the artists think and feel simply doesn’t matter.”

Likewise, Sewailam says “The board’s silence is deafening.” He sees this as the continuation of an old tradition in the arts. “Artists were always considered the help by patronage,” he says. “I wonder if nothing has changed over the past 200, 300 years. Are artists still the help and should know their places, and just be grateful?”

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AT THIS TIME, the status of the 2023 season remains unclear. Central City Opera is going ahead with plans and promotions, and the stage directors continue to work on their respective productions. “We’re having our meetings and having our discussions,” Sewailam says. “Everybody’s keeping a very quote-unquote ‘polite’ decorum.” But as for prospects for the summer season, “I really don’t know.”

“I would like to think it will happen,” Cazan says. But, “I’m not holding my breath.” He’s also concerned what the mood will be if the season goes forward as planned. “All of us are dreading what the mentality will be this summer,” he says. “This is a very frightening situation to be walking back into.”

AGMA executive director Wheeler shares Cazan’s hopes. “I am an optimist by nature,” he says. “Central City Opera is a jewel of the opera world. It would be a real shame if we were not able to reach an agreement. And so we are hopeful that we can change course and get on the track to have a deal before folks show up to work, but at the moment we have to prepare for the worst, given where things are.”

Clearly, many uncertainties remain about the future at CCO. But in the midst of the tense negotiations and difficult relationships, Sewailam is certain of a few things. For one, “It’s all about standing together,” he says. “If we stand together, the season can’t go.”

As for the demands that he sees coming from the company, he does not believe that they are compatible with the historical positions of AGMA and its artists. “I don’t think the company can have their way and continue being an AGMA signatory,” he says.

“That’s what I’m sure of.”

NOTE: Comments on this post require prior approval by the site administrator. Comments with egregious personal attacks will not be approved. I am happy to host a discussion of the issues, but not the trading of insults. Thank you for your understanding.

Correction: The original post said April 18 was a Monday. It was a Tuesday, as the corrected post indicates. There have also been corrections to minor typos.

NOTE: Further developments in the dispute will be followed here as they occur. That includes any events in the negotiating process, any new statements from either side, and the final disposition of the 2023 season.