L.A. Opera cancels the rest of the season but says it can avoid layoffs and furloughs

Jessica Gelt
L.A. Opera's 2019 production of "The Light in the Piazza." The remainder of the company's 2019-20 season was canceled Thursday.  (Craig T. Mathew / Mathew Imaging )

Los Angeles Opera said Thursday that, as expected, it is canceling the remainder of its 2019-20 season, but included in the announcement was the surprising detail that the company so far is managing to avoid the layoffs and furloughs that have hit so many other arts organizations across the city, including Center Theatre Group, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Since the coronavirus crisis escalated in mid-March, L.A. Opera has canceled the season in a piecemeal manner, largely in keeping with directives from the L.A. County Department of Public Health. The final cancellation — "The Marriage of Figaro," originally scheduled to run June 6-28 — officially puts an end to 2019-20.

To cope with the financial losses created by a darkened Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 21 members of senior management — directors, senior directors, vice presidents and higher — have taken pay cuts of 10% to 25%, the company said.

L.A. Opera reached agreements with guilds for musicians, stagehands, makeup and hair artists and wardrobe staff, among others. Members hired for "Pelléas and Mélisande," which was canceled in early April, were paid in full through the April 10 cancellation date and at 75% after that. Employees hired for "The Marriage of Figaro," which was supposed to begin rehearsals on May 4, will be paid at 75%. Benefits will be fully paid, the company said.

The agreements cover 165 employees in a range of jobs, including chorus members, carpenters, electricians and painters. The company said 32 costume shop employees and 15 administrative workers also are covered by the guild agreements, although in some cases those employees continue to work and will receive 100% of their pay.

L.A. Opera said the rest of its staff, 97 non-union employees, will maintain its regular pay thanks largely to the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, which is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in late March.

Administrative staff, including those in finance, technology services and fundraising, continue to work from home with a focus on digital offerings such as LAO at Home, a series of streamed live and recorded performances including singalongs for kids.

L.A. Opera philanthropists and donors to the company's Opera Relief Fund are compensating independent contractors, such as principal singers, directors and designers who typically are paid much higher wages than other employees. Those contractors are receiving 25% of contracts for canceled performances plus full benefits.

The cancellations announced Thursday included community outreach programs too, including a Saturday Mornings at the Opera event scheduled for June 6, and the Great Opera Choruses engagement at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts scheduled for June 7. The union agreements extended to those programs.

Now that the arts world has remained largely closed for more than a month, conversations among leaders nationally have inevitably turned to when and how organizations might reopen, and what reopening could look like. In a recent roundtable discussion of theater leaders organized by Center Theatre Group, reopening seemed so far away leaders couldn't even speculate when it might happen.

“While I regret that we are unable, at present, to bring Angelenos the beauty and cathartic, communal power of opera, I am relieved that that we were able to provide support for our incredible artists and artisans that depend on us for their livelihood,” Christopher Koelsch, the company's president and chief executive, said in the announcement Thursday.

He thanked the senior management members for their sacrifice and added, "We look forward to the day when we can again restore opera to our mainstage and our entire team will be recognized for the outstanding service they provide.”