Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony have reached a temporary agreement with management that allows music director Esa-Pekka Salonen to begin the 2020 fall season. (Courtesy Andrew Eccles)

San Francisco Symphony, Opera musicians settle contracts

Performers’ salaries modified due to inability to play live

Both the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera reached new collective-bargaining agreements with their musicians.

With Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House shut down by COVID-19 conditions since March and at least through the end of the year, both organizations are unable to perform live, which is a major source of their income.

San Francisco Symphony has handled the problem by offering a temporary five-week contract at 65% of salaries and continued health and instrument insurance.

The purpose of the temporary agreement is to allow new music director Esa-Pekka Salonen open a streamed season, originally scheduled to begin on Sept. 30.

San Francisco Opera will provide half of the salaries initially in a modified contract to be in effect for the next three years.

On Sept. 21, San Francisco Opera announced that musicians represented by the American Federation of Musicians Local 6 agreed to “modifications to the remaining three years of their collective bargaining agreement together” which address the “devastating financial impact of the ongoing pandemic and will help to ensure the long-term stability of the company.”

The contract, ratified on Sept. 18, remains effective, retroactively, from Aug. 1, 2020 through July 31, 2023.

“We voted to accept devastating changes to our existing contract,” stated a press release issued by the musicians. “Had we rejected these cuts — including 50% of our weekly salary for the fall season and deep but graduated cuts for the ensuing two years — we would immediately have been without any income or the guarantee of health coverage.”

Veteran San Francisco Opera subscriber and contributor Charlie Ma wrote to the opera administration, including San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, to protest the cuts, saying, “As a donor and subscriber, I’m shocked that instead of reaching into its deep reserves to help the performers through the current crisis, the opera has in effect taken advantage of this time of need to pressure the performers into accepting a devastating cut.

“I look forward to hearing Mr. Shilvock’s official announcement. But on the face of what I heard this is shameful behavior from management that has lost its moral compass.”

Back in April, when the opera was paying full compensation and benefits, Shilvock said, “We are in conversation with all eight of our union partners to determine how we can best support our employees during this unprecedented situation.

“At this time, we are focused on mitigating the devastating impact that cancellations could have on the lives of the artists, musicians, crew members and staff who are the heart of this company, while also maintaining a strong organization when we return to the stage.”

No further contract information was made public in the past five months.

The modified contract, according to the musicians, “leaves key orchestra positions vacant for seven years, and ties the musicians’ compensation to ticket sales. Both of these modifications are unrelated to the pandemic and outside the musicians’ control.

“Everyone agrees that the San Francisco Opera Orchestra consistently meets the highest performance standards. The musicians are not invited to collaborate on artistic decisions or marketing strategies, and yet our compensation will nonetheless remain reduced for years if management fails to do its job of selling tickets. The reverse will not be true—management’s generous compensation is not tied to its sales or to the performance of the orchestra. Nor is management sharing equitably in the sacrifices it is imposing on its musicians, chorus and other employees.”

San Francisco Opera assets are in excess of a quarter billion dollars: total assets at the end of fiscal year 2019 were $273 million, according to a previous statement by opera chief financial officer Michael Simpson, with total operating expenses of $78.6 million, and operating deficit of $650,000. The budget has since been revised to $44 million — an unprecedented change reflecting a unique situation.

Note: This story has been updated with new information provided by San Francisco Opera administration.

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