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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Striking a false note

By Norman Lebrecht / March 19, 2003

Three flickers of hope are filtering through English National Opera, where another strike looms.

The first is a solidarity signal from backstage staff to the chorus that they may join the next walk-out in protest at 100-150 proposed job losses. The second is a smoke signal from the Arts Council, which supports the cost-cutting plan, that it may (typically) back off if things get hot. The third was last week's settlement of the Broadway musicians' strike after a traditional long night's wrangling in a smoke-filled room in Mayor Bloomberg's Gracie Mansion.

Taken together, and in the most favourable light, these wisps in the wind encourage Coliseum staff to believe that their strike is winnable.

There is no ignoring the sympathy earned by the chorus at the free concert they gave at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, on the night they blacked out Trojans at the Coliseum. Their cause is further boosted by the company's comic inability to communicate information in a timely, orderly and credible fashion. Statements are sent out and swiftly recalled; press briefings verge on the farcical. The verifiable fact that ENO is living beyond sustainable means is lost in transmission.

Two powerful unions, Equity (chorus) and Bectu (backstage), are constructively involved and showing flexibility. On the ENO side, chairman Martin Smith was seeking extra cash yesterday from the wobbly Arts Council to improve the pay-offs.

There has been progress over the past few days, although one element in the fizzing crucible remains inert: the Musicians Union is refusing to come to the table to renegotiate orchestral contracts. Its recently elected secretary-general, John Smith, is a former player in the ENO pit; his recalcitrance is presumably tribal.

Much in this unfortunate dispute mirrors, at a winsomely insignificant level, the world-shaking events in Westminster. Moral indignation on the backbenches over the human costs of an unpopular policy is met by official inarticulacy. The walk-off, walk-back-on part of Clare Short is being played by ENO's head of music staff, the anguished Operatunity judge Tony Legge, who, having requested voluntary redundancy, is now, I gather, discussing an expanded role in post-reconstruction ENO.

The strikers feel they are winning hearts and minds and that, in time, someone in authority - perhaps Mayor Ken - will step in and save their jobs. They are sadly deluded.

The American way of settling strikes is non-transferrable. Michael Bloomberg, who has not done much right since stepping into Rudolph Giuliani's giant Guccis, was forced to intervene on Broadway because theatre is the hub of New York's tourism engine and the strike cost the city $7.2 million over one weekend.

A strike at ENO, by contrast, costs London nothing. There is too much else going on for any shutdown to spoil the party. London is an anarchy of competing attractions. Shut the theatres, and visitors will go gallerying. Strike the bands and they'll head for the clubs.

Mayoral mediation is the norm in the US - particularly in one-horse towns such as Philadelphia, where the 1991 orchestral strike was settled at City Hall because, concerts apart, there's not much else to do after dark in downtown Philly that is decent and legal.

"It takes a real leader," declared Stephen Sondheim after the Broadway strike, "to step into a dispute where both sides are wrong." Maybe; but while big Broadway theatres climbed halfway down to guarantee 18 pit jobs (down from 26), the strikers have shrunk their field. Smaller theatres now play canned music to avoid union involvement.

And that is the grim truth about strikes in the arts: they never work. The last half-successful one in Britain was the Proms stoppage in 1980, provoked by the BBC's peremptory-decision to disband five of its 11 orchestras, dismissing 172 players. The BBC played its hand badly and the strike drew support from the entire musical community, from the Master of the Queen's Musick to the aged Sir Adrian Boult. A petition with half a million signatures was presented to Parliament.

After three weeks of playing records on air instead of live concerts, the BBC called in the emollient Lord Goodman and the Proms resumed. Who won? Not the orchestras. Over the next few years, most were decommissioned; today, just four remain, plus a BBC half-share in the National Orchestra of Wales.

The musicians' victory was Pyrrhic and the strike itself has been erased from official Proms histories - not unwisely, since a legacy of industrial disputes undermines credibility in artistic institutions. It is, for instance, the main reason why the Op&Mac218;ra Bastille in Paris has failed to make the grade. The Bastille was shut by a strike almost as soon as it opened in 1989, and several times since. Its labour contracts are rigid, infuriating guest artists.

A director or designer who needs an urgent alteration in the second half of the week will be told that the costume shop is shut on Friday under the statutory 35-hour week and nothing can be expected before Tuesday afternoon, at the earliest. During last week's general rehearsal for William Tell, members of the chorus walked off, in full view of the audience, complaining that the lights were too bright. They had previously failed to turn up for a special rehearsal with the lighting designer. "We are artists," they huffed, when taxed with their intransigence.

But that is where they are wrong. An artist is, by definition, one who serves art. A striker is something else altogether. When staff in an opera house put collective self-interest above art, they damage the company's credentials. The grapes of wrath that get trodden in a dispute leave a sour taste. Many of the world's best artists give the Bastille a very wide berth.

At ENO, any credit the chorus earned at their free concert will be squandered if, as planned, they wipe out next month's UK premiere of The Handmaid's Tale, a contemporary opera by Poul Ruders built around Margaret Atwood's novel. The message they will send out is that ENO is hamstrung by archaic structures, unattuned to modern conditions.

Sympathy for the strikers is sentimental and skin-deep. Few luvvies will march for them and their own music director, Paul Daniel, has pointedly refrained from putting his own job on the line to save his chorus and orchestra from necessary shrinkage.

Even in a field where strikes never succeed in the long term, this one could end in calamity for the unions and those they represent. Failure to negotiate a reduced workforce within the next tense weeks will result in mass sackings and prolonged closure. The threat is visible, the trigger cocked. Every day of crisis costs ENO heavily in cash and credibility. The only hope is the dawning of reason and the prompt ending of post-industrial sanctions.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001