Criticism on Fridays: So, This Is a Strike

At the Start of a New Season, Opera Workers Have Decided to Act While They Are Still in High Demand

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo: Tyler Callahan)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most essential topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

Starting mid-September, news about strikes in the cultural sector began to appear in the media. The prosperous Norwegian National Opera postponed a few performances due to a strike (the reason was that the employers and employees couldn’t agree on a pension scheme). The company announced it as a change in the program for a reason, but the claims were brought only to the negotiating table where they could be dealt with.

The problem of the US unions who couldn’t manage deals before the season-opening seemed more familiar — contracts and guaranties, wages and benefits — mostly for the less visible groups of workers like stagehands or customer support. It caused at least the threat of strikes.

In Spain, the strike was caused by another usual factor for this country — the government’s interference with cultural institutions by imposing norms that are far from the real conditions.

But certainly, the highlight (but only for now) was the strike at Maggio Musicale in Florence, where the conflict developed with a lot of noise and fanfare. Though none of the problems voiced by the Unions are new, the company leader Alexander Pereira immediately acted surprised and accused the workers and the unions of betraying and destroying the theater. 

The crux of the problem is that FIALS and its general secretary, Enrico Sciarra have been asking for changes and open negotiations long before the pandemic, pointing out the problems with basic guarantees for workers, almost a full absence of long-term contracts, long delays in payments, and difficulties in managing institutions by politics and people appointed by the government. This year, FIALS has sent some new claims with literally no response, while the theatres, especially majors like Maggio Musicale continued to build new plans and open new venues. Eventually, the orchestra workers of Maggio, who are now in high demand both in the theatre and for the upcoming exhibition in Dubai, were suggested to choose this moment for their rightful claims to be heard. 

But in return, in his public response, superintendent Pereira seemed to care only about the saved evening with stars — Zubin Mehta conducted at the piano and accompanied “La Traviata” with Nadine Sera, Francesco Meli, and Plácido Domingo.

According to the structure, the next affected and responsible person is the Mayor of Florence, who has certainly approached the question straight away (and as a good Italian politician — publicly):

“Just today, I had a serious meeting at Palazzo Vecchio with Alexander Pereira, in the presence of the administrative director and my head of cabinet to take stock of the overall situation. As for the relationship with the unions, the superintendent, as proof of the attention to workers, has already met the representatives yesterday and will meet them again tomorrow. In fact, a permanent table will be opened to discuss all issues concerning the life of the Foundation.”

Well, in fact, that meeting brought no results, and nothing but accusations and threats at the loss of the theater were voiced by the theatre management. But the work at one of the most respectable theaters in Italy remains a serious challenge.

Meanwhile, Enrico Sciara from FIALS notes the increasing psychophysical stress, to the point of compromising work performance and, consequently, bring the risk of compromising artistic quality as well. The orchestra that is meant to represent the country at Expo 2020 Dubai, where Italy decided to organize the most fabulous presentation with the largest amount of venues and stages in three emirates, will be brought to the event by the cheapest transport.

“There will be a trip to Dubai soon. We are told that there will be 13 or 14-hour bus trips.”

Angelo Betti from another workers’ union Fistel Cisl notes that “Maggio makes five different productions. It is unsustainable, considering that the Maggio employees are only 297.” There is constant overwork, which is not paid, and delays in basic pay.

And, I guess, it’s getting quite obvious that the situation is not gonna change easily. The workers, and not only in Florence, showed obedience to the cruel rules for 25 years, since the new regulation started to destroy the opera industry and opera culture in Italy. 

But now, after two years of the pandemic, there seems not much more to lose. And I believe that as it was with IATSE Local One at the Met, the desperation can become a source of strength to endure to the end and achieve results.

This autumn, when the hope of the continued work of theaters is still strong and all kinds of workers are in demand, this is the right time to raise voices and claim rights (some may look minor, everything is relative, and yet, all are important). And here, I hope that the unions will support workers and help them not to succumb to accusations of the destruction of theaters or unfounded assurances that the situation will soon improve. The pandemic showed that the industry is weak and cannot or doesn’t want to sustain its workers.

Meanwhile, the fabulous comeback to the stage proved that the operatic art is powerful. And the only thing that workers should keep in mind is that THEY ARE THE ART.