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Radio Silence

Its sponsors have flown the coop and the Lyric won't foot the broadcast bill. Is it fair for the opera to leave its radio fans in the lurch?

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The announcement was as abrupt as the double knifing at ithe end of Pagliacci. Last month, just a week before the Lyric Opera season opened with the story of the tragic clown--paired with Cavalleria rusticana--Lyric management announced that its radio broadcasts were being "suspended for the 2002-2003 season because of lack of funding." For nearly 30 years, opening-night performances have been aired live over WFMT and taped for national syndication, carrying the Lyric into the homes of people who can't make it to the palace on Wacker Drive for whatever reason: distance, schedule, health, price. "In order to make these broadcasts possible, $400,000 in sponsorship [$50,000 per opening night] must be found," went the sad song of general director William Mason. With the stock market in the dump and the economy stalled, getting the money "has not been possible for either Lyric or WFMT."

The problem erupted at the 11th hour, says WFMT vice president Steve Robinson, when sponsors vanished. On the other hand, it wasn't a total surprise. "It didn't take a genius to figure out that [major funders] American and United were troubled," Robinson says. "Once the official notice came, we were scrambling hard, both of us, hoping we'd pull it out. We didn't really pull the plug until the last minute." (American Airlines is still on board as a sponsor of Lyric's annual Operathon fund-raiser on WFMT this Saturday.)

The cost of an opera broadcast is driven by the horde that has to be paid. "Talent fees for the singers, orchestra, chorus, and backstage personnel account for approximately 75 percent of the broadcast costs," according to Mason. The Cav-Pag double bill has a cast of about 150 and a 76-piece orchestra, plus stagehands, prompters, and more. Management's solution was to start by asking the orchestra to take a cut. "There are a lot of symphony orchestras across the country right now that are on the air because they're taking no money at all or as little as $30 per broadcast," says Lyric spokesperson Susan Mathieson Mayer. In early September, Lyric presented the Chicago Federation of Musicians committee with a proposition: if the orchestra would take an 80 percent reduction in pay for broadcast, they'd be on the air. Cellist and committee chair William Cernota says they wouldn't even take it to their members, offering instead to propose a 50 percent pay cut. The Lyric turned that idea down. Musicians get $265 per performance (over their regular salary) for a package of two local broadcasts plus national and international syndication. Cernota says that's a little less than what's paid by the Metropolitan and San Francisco operas. (Syndicated broadcasts are aired in the spring and require $350,000 in additional sponsorship.)

The idea of less pay sounds especially sour to the chorus, which was expecting a raise in broadcast income this year. After making only 58 percent of what orchestra members were paid last year, they were slated for an increase to 64 percent of the musicians' take this year and 70 percent next year, says Lynn Lundgren, chorus member and American Guild of Musical Artists officer. "Our pay is tied to the orchestra's coattails," Lundgren says. "Even our soloists make less than the orchestra's rate. I've been at this 22 years, and last year I got about $1,000 for the whole season for broadcasts. It's certainly not the chorus that's costing too much. We want the broadcasts to go on. But this is also our livelihood. We'd like to be paid like everyone else."

Cernota says the orchestra and the musicians' union initiated the broadcasts to begin with. They began in the early 1970s and were local, he says: "The contract was only between the orchestra and WFMT. Then WFMT expanded to sister stations, moving toward network status"--and clouding the distinction between local and national broadcasts. The union has agreed to allow "archival" taping of this season's performances, which could be aired in some fiscally agreeable future.

In the long run, the fuss about radio may be moot. Cernota says the orchestra is exploring other ways to get the opera out there. Streaming video could be a solution, he says. "We're interested in the future, and the future may be on the Internet. People would be able to see and hear performances on their computers or television screens and would pay per view or by the season. The Vienna State Opera is already selling a streaming season." Meanwhile, Lyric has joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (which went off the air a year ago) in broadcast oblivion. With an annual budget of $48 million, they can't come up with an amount equal to less than 1 percent to get their opening nights on the air. Total audience for a season at the opera house is 300,000. When Lyric announced the sponsors for last spring's radio syndication, it reported that the broadcasts would be heard on "more than 800 stations (including cable) by a potential audience of more than 200 million." It's enough to make a clown cry.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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