The synopsis of 19th century composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci reads almost as a rendering of the current dispute between San Antonio arts companies: “When a traveling acting troupe arrives to perform in a bustling town, the secrets and jealousies among them threaten to explode onstage.”
After the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) labor union made a concerted effort to prevent its musician members from performing Pagliacci with Opera San Antonio on Thursday and Saturday nights, a federal judge stepped in to temporarily resolve the dispute.
At the heart of the issue is the Classical Music Institute (CMI), a resident company of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts that received a $300,000 grant from the Bexar County Commissioners Court to be the orchestra for upcoming opera and ballet performances.
Before the June demise of the San Antonio Symphony, musicians from that orchestra provided the music for Opera San Antonio productions.
AFM Local 23 — which represented the San Antonio Symphony musicians and now represents musicians of the new San Antonio Philharmonic orchestra — objected to CMI hiring an ensemble without union contracts and had put the organization on the union’s “International Unfair List” to prevent union musicians from around the country from working with CMI.
CMI started in 2016 primarily as a youth education program and chamber music performance ensemble. With the Bexar County grant, the group intends to expand to a 45-member orchestra accompanying performances of Ballet San Antonio and Opera San Antonio.
Earlier this week, the union warned 13 of its members engaged by CMI for Pagliacci — several of whom had traveled from locations outside of San Antonio — of penalties including potential fines totaling $50,000 each if they chose to perform, and that they would be crossing picket lines the union intended to stage Thursday and Saturday evenings.
CMI took legal action, seeking a temporary restraining order against the union.
U.S. District Court Judge Fred Biery on Wednesday ordered the union to remove the ensemble from the Unfair List and prevented the union from taking further action until a hearing set for Nov. 10, allowing CMI to proceed with its performances as planned.
The injunction is a temporary victory for CMI Artistic Director Paul Montalvo, who maintained that no “primary labor dispute” existed between CMI and the union, the reason cited by the union for placement on its list.
One AFM member affected by the situation was Francesco Milioto, Opera San Antonio’s music director who was slated to conduct the orchestra for the Pagliacci performances. Opera San Antonio confirmed that Milioto will take the podium.
“There are 42-plus dedicated, talented musicians who will be in the pit, and we are expecting it to be an incredible show,” said a CMI spokesperson in an email to the San Antonio Report. “The musicians are thrilled to perform, they want to perform.”
On Nov. 1, Tobin Center President and CEO Michael Fresher sent a letter to AFM Local 23 President Richard Oppenheim warning that picketers would be cited and removed from the property by police. Fresher’s letter noted that “the Tobin has no existing relationship with the union or SA Phil, thus neither has the right to access the Tobin’s property.”
The judge’s order also caused AFM Local 23 to cancel its plans to picket.
Before Biery’s ruling, San Antonio Philharmonic President Brian Petkovich, a union member, was asked whether that orchestra’s members intended to join the picket. “The San Antonio Philharmonic hopes the Classical Music Institute and AFM Local 23 can find a resolution amicably,” he said. “We respect all musicians’ rights, including the right to free speech.”
Tickets for the two Pagliacci performances are still available through the Tobin Center box office.