The strike against the Fresno Grand Opera by local musicians, which was called the night of the April 27 Renee Fleming concert, is still on. That means there will be picket lines at performances of “Show Boat,” the opera company’s last production of the season, on Friday and Saturday at the Saroyan Theatre.
I have a lengthy column in Sunday’s Spotlight section about the whole messy issue, which has turned quite bitter. In it I summarize the key positions of both the union and management and dive into some of the thornier issues of the strike itself. We’ve also posted full statements from both sides at fresnobee.com. (The management statement is here. The union statement is here.) If you have the fortitude, you can wade through all the charges and countercharges yourself.
I interviewed lots of people for my column, many of whom did not want to go on the record. One person I wanted to include in the piece was Edna Garabedian, the founder of the Fresno International Grand Opera, the organization that evolved into Fresno Grand Opera. (She parted ways with the organization early on.) She now is the artistic director of the California Opera Association. With her distinguished professional career as a singer and her years of observation of the Fresno opera scene, I wanted to get her perspective on the strike. Her emailed answers to my questions arrived too late to use in the print version of my column, but I wanted to include them here online to get yet another voice into the mix.
Question: What was your reaction to the way the Renee Fleming concert unfolded?
Answer: I was deeply saddened for all parties. There were many alternative
possibilities and choices that are common to the experienced administrative opera
world that could have been followed.
I’ve been told that it’s standard practice among professional orchestras and opera companies to hire orchestra members many months in advance. That’s certainly the case with the best known groups in the country. Is it realistic to expect Fresno Grand Opera to work the same way?
Yes. If it is budgeted, anticipated and or expected that an opera orchestra is to be hired for a production, the standard practice is to hire members as early on as the artists who are engaged to sing. In most cases of primary opera houses worldwide, timelines for hiring orchestral members range from 1 year to 5 years in advance. Regional Opera Companies tend to hire within the 6 month to 1 year time frame. The general rule is equality of artists, conductors, stage directors, and stage hands and tech crew.
Realistically, when the finances are controlling the budget of a production, all rules and regulations are adjusted accordingly but good decision making is mandatory.
Do you think the musicians have a legitimate complaint about the Fresno Grand Opera’s hiring practices?
Under all conditions, ongoing open communication is required and all grievances should be aired in private and not public, especially with arts organizations. Being serious about issues is important, however, to play a guessing game till the last minute jeopardizes the professional dignity that is expected on all levels of parties involved. I am not privileged to know the hiring standards/customs of Fresno Grand Opera, nor do I know of the past experiences (history) of the musicians and Fresno Grand Opera. It is rare that musicians ask for much but are fundamentally interested in respect and reputations as their art depends on preparation and efficiency in the pit. Their personal lives also require the consistency of finances to live with confidence and dignity. The opera orchestra is a significant part of the success of a production and should at all times be considered first and foremost.
Talk about the “hierarchy” of opera companies in terms of prestige, size and budget. Where does Fresno Grand Opera fall into that hierarchy?
Opera Houses are categorized according to A, B, C, D . The number of productions per year, the budgets, the auditorium size, the artistic to administrative personnel etc. all govern the ranking system. Comparing Fresno Grand Opera with San Francisco and LA Opera Companies, the Fresno Grand Opera is considered a Regional Opera House which allows for smaller productions, less cost, smaller budget and the administrative standard to be much more humbling. Fresno is a city that can support a “World Class Opera Company” but that is in production quality only. The demography of Fresno, like many provinces who host Regional Companies, cannot sustain the million dollar production status. Our community loves Opera but cannot sustain such high end costs for entertainment. All things being considered, being faced with a national damaging history with Union issues, the future of a “World Class Opera” for Fresno Grand Opera is highly unlikely unless a resolution is quickly laid to rest.
Do you think the Renee Fleming concert damaged Fresno’s reputation in the opera world?
Without question. I am deeply impressed with the “public image” that was portrayed by Renee Fleming and Maestro on the evening of the scheduled concert, but as an artist myself, I was concerned and dismayed by the presentation, the lack of professionalism, the musical challenges with the accompanist and its effect on the artist, and the manner which the concert proceeded. The musicians that had to sit on stage through the entire concert/talk show were bravely saluted. My sincerest empathy for their circumstance, that they should have had to experience this dilemma. It was a shame and dishonor to our community and the many Arts organizations that work so very hard to bring fame and honor to our city.
I did feel however, very proud of our Fresno audience; I really felt the support and loyalty of the patrons of the “Arts” in our community. However, the information that travels via the arts /news media has a grave impact worldwide and will be severely damaging and will place a shadow on the many organizations of Fresno who aspire to bring our community up on the entertainment charts.