There are just hours to go before Fresno Grand Opera’s last production of the 2011-12 season, “Show Boat,” opens. Because of the strike against the opera company by the local musicians union, which I’ve covered in great detail, I think it’s safe to say that no production in local history has divided the community so sharply even before the downbeat.
Within minutes of posting my regular Weekend Picks Beehive compilation feature on Facebook — which did not include “Show Boat” because I knew I’d need to devote an entire post to the complexities of the issue — a reader asked: “and what about SHOWBOAT?”
I’m seeing the show tonight and plan to post a review and recap of the evening, probably in the wee hours. I think the whole experience will be fascinating. It’s only human nature to view any kind of art through one’s own subjective filters, and how an audience member feels about the strike will likely color perceptions. (On Facebook, some people have already talked about how great the show will be, while others say it will be substandard.) As a critic, I have to try to leave all the baggage of the show at the door and approach it purely as an artistic experience.
Before I get into a recap of strike-related stuff, I’ll point you to my traditional-style preview piece in Friday’s 7 section. In an interview with stage director Valerie Rachelle, I trace the importance of “Show Boat” in the musical theater canon and talk about specifics of the Fresno production. Jessica Medoff, pictured, who plays the leading role of Magnolia in the historic musical, comes to Fresno Grand Opera production after experience in both operatic and musical theater roles with such companies as Opera New Jersey and Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater.
Now for an update on labor-related issues:
The performance: It’s going forward tonight, opera officials say, with non-union musicians replacing the striking members of Local 12 of the American Federation of Musicians, and three non-union actors replacing three principal actors belonging to Actors’ Equity Association, which voted on Monday to support the musicians strike. (Because “Show Boat” straddles the world between opera and musical theater, the production features opera singers, who traditionally do not belong to Actors’ Equity, in several principal roles. The production also features a non-union ensemble of local actors, who are all set to perform.)
Picket lines: They will be up in force. Musicians hope to be joined by members of other Fresno area unions on the line. Although members of the local stagehands union (IATSE, or International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), walked a union picket line thrown up Sunday at “Show Boat’s” load-in at the Saroyan Theatre, it appears they will be working the production. (The stagehands work for SMG, which runs the Saroyan, not Fresno Grand Opera.)
Fresno Grand Opera’s perspective: The opera company has taken aim at union leaders attempting to dictate when the opera hires musicians and who should be hired. The opera company’s management, and many patrons, are furious that the season’s premier event showcasing Renee Fleming by the union, which walked out hours before the March 27 concert. (For a statement by the opera company, click here.)
The musicians’ perspective: The musicians’ union says the opera company routinely offers employment to musicians just weeks or even days before a performance rather than months before the start of a season, which it says is the standard practice at professional classical music organizations across the country. Another point of contention: The union says that during the past year many musicians on the opera’s “roster” — a list of musicians stipulated by the now-expired contract — were not hired for performances and were bypassed in favor of outside musicians. (For a statement by the union, click here.)
An expanded discussion: I encourage you to read my Sunday Spotlight column if you’re interested in more details.
Bee photo / Craig Kohlruss