By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York's Metropolitan Opera said it will lock out its musicians and other unionized employees next week if a new contract agreement is not reached, in an escalation of a labor dispute that threatens to derail an entire opera season.
Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, wrote a letter to chorus members, orchestra players, stagehands and other employees on Wednesday saying they should prepare for a work stoppage if a new agreement is not reached when current contracts expire on July 31.
"I sincerely hope to avoid such an unfortunate event," Gelb wrote in his letter. The Met, which says it has an annual operating budget of over $300 million, has blamed a drop in its revenues since 2011 on dwindling audiences for opera worldwide.
It spent nearly $259 million on labor and benefits for union and non-union employees in 2013, figures provided by the Met show.
Attempts to widen audiences by broadcasting its productions in movie theaters have not replaced lost revenue, and the company has become more reliant on donations from wealthy patrons.
A stoppage would interrupt rehearsals and other preparations at one of the world's most celebrated opera companies for the 2014-15 season, due to open on Sept. 22 with Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro".
"But the Met cannot continue on its current economic path; we must find cost reductions," Gelb's letter said. In the case of a stoppage, all doors at the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House bar the stage door will be locked, and security guards will let in only non-unionized administrative employees, Gelb's letter said.
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musicians called Gelb's lock-out threat a "cynical strategy" and blamed the financial woes on "lavish overspending" on productions disliked by both audiences and critics.
"His callousness, combined with his attempt to cover up his failed management and lack of artistic vision that has resulted in declining audiences and plummeting ticket sales, jeopardizes the livelihoods of his employees," the statement said.
Negotiations with the musicians and 14 other unions are continuing.
New York City Opera, the city's other main opera company, was dissolved in 2013 after a fundraising effort fell short.
In Chicago, the Lyric Opera said last month that 2014 ticket revenues rose to $28.8 million from $26.6 million the previous year, in part because of a popular production of "The Sound of Music".