Israeli Opera chorus fights back against proposed layoffs

Members of the chorus make about NIS 50,000-60,000 per year, depending on how much they work, which is on the borderline of the minimum wage.

Chorus member and opera singer Joshua Rona (photo credit: ARKADY MAZOR)
Chorus member and opera singer Joshua Rona
(photo credit: ARKADY MAZOR)
They may have a song in their hearts, but the 62 members of the chorus of the Israeli Opera of Tel Aviv-Jaffa are afraid that soon they won’t have bread on their tables, because at least 55 of them received letters on Thursday summoning them to hearings that are a preliminary requirement before a layoff.
The members of the chorus, many of whom are older and are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, have been furloughed since early on in the novel coronavirus crisis, so they are wondering why they are being threatened with layoffs now.
The opera, like all cultural institutions, has been shuttered since the pandemic began and there is no date yet for resuming its operations. However, members of the chorus have said, through a spokesman from Shaham, the Israeli Actors’ Association, of which they are a part, that the opera announced its plan to lay them off now – after breaking off negotiations on a new contract – as a way to save money by hiring replacement singers at cheaper rates as freelancers in the future.
Members of the chorus make about NIS 50,000-60,000 per year, depending on how much they work, which is on the borderline of the minimum wage. They are paid about NIS 300 per performance between NIS 200-300 for various kinds of rehearsals. The Israeli Opera has one of the highest budgets of any cultural organization, with an annual budget of about NIS 100 million, with about half that sum coming from ticket sales and about 40% coming in the form of support from the Culture Ministry and the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The remaining budget comes from donations.
“Our assumption is that the opera management chooses to fire the chorus now rather than later in order to dismantle the chorus singers’ organization,” said a Shaham spokesperson.
The opera management released a statement denying any such motivation. Instead, they said, they were taking precautions to preserve the singers’ health during the COVID-19 crisis.
“A number of cases around the world show that infection rates among chorus singers are extremely high. Only recently were opera performances resumed [in some parts of the world]. In St. Petersburg, with the performance of a chorus, more than half of the participants were infected. In order to protect the health of all the participants in the opera productions and the opera staff, the Israeli Opera has decided to hold only productions without a choir in the coming season. This situation may continue even in the 21/22 season if the coronavirus does not pass.
In light of the fact that it is not clear when it will be possible to resume productions with a chorus, the Israeli Opera has already decided to transfer to the chorus singers all the money accumulated to their credit, including severance pay, to help them deal with the difficulties of unemployment for such a long time. This move is made transparently and sensitively with the aim of helping the singers as much as possible during this difficult time.”
the Israeli Opera Chorus Association pointed out that the chorus members can continue to be furloughed until June 2021, saying in a statement Sunday, “If it had taken care of the singers as it says, the opera management could have assured the singers that it would return to employ them under the same collective conditions, which was not done.
The Royal Opera in London decided to sell art to pay for the artists, the Metropolitan in New York closed its doors but not a single person was fired. Operas in Italy, Germany and Spain are active throughout the coronavirus period and many of them stage productions with chorus.
The Israeli Opera has chosen to fire the chorus singers, whose annual salary is only NIS 50,000, and not to put them back to work in capsules, as all the major theaters have done. All this while the CEO’s salary is over half a million new shekels.”
To say that the chorus members aren’t buying the management’s explanation would be an understatement. Joshua Rona, a 43-year-old chorus member who was born and raised in Jerusalem and who got his musical training at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Israel and the Berklee College of Music in the US, said the health issue is “irrelevant. We’ve been furloughed anyway. Operas around the world have found ways of performing safely, some of them in capsules.”
He emphasized that chorus members are “highly skilled artists who don’t only sing, we also act, we also have to know how to move on stage, we have to look at the conductor and the audience.” He said he did not mind that top management of the opera earns about 10 times what the chorus members do. “But the artists should be treated with respect and that includes being paid a living wage and having decent working conditions,” he said. Without their union, he fears, the chorus members will not be able to make a living or have any control over their working conditions.
It’s simply not possible for chorus artists to have another job and be available to the opera as needed, said Rona. The singer, who said he had especially enjoyed appearing in productions of Carmen, Tosca, Macbeth and The Barber of Seville, said that the chorus members’ organization had suggested several viable ways of performing in small groups for small audiences around the country once restrictions are lifted, to help make some money for the opera, but that their suggestions were rejected.
“I think they just want to disband our union,” he said.
The opera management denies this claim, saying, “It is important to note that although many opera houses around the world have chosen to cancel the 20/21 season altogether following the corona crisis, the Israeli Opera has decided to hold the season with six new productions that will provide employment for a large number of artists and workers, including: opera soloists, musicians, composers, directors, designers, show managers, production teams, stage and lighting and many others. We hope that the corona crisis will pass in the coming months and that we will be able to resume productions with the participation of a chorus next season.”
The Culture Ministry released a statement on Thursday saying that both sides should get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible: “From the moment we learned of the intention to lay off workers, we are trying together with all parties to reach a proper and respectful compromise. Today, a number of important meetings were held in which it was decided that the parties will return to the negotiating table. The world of culture is experiencing complex days and we will do everything we can to prevent layoffs. “