Conductor Francesco Milioto.
Conductor Francesco Milioto rehearses with Opera San Antonio for La Traviata in 2018. The upcoming performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni will go on with or without the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Thursday, Opera San Antonio (OSA) announced that the Oct. 7 and Oct. 9 productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, its opening performances of the 2021-2022 season, will go on as planned with or without San Antonio Symphony musicians in its orchestra.

The opera production is the first performance to be affected by the strike called on Sept. 27 by the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony to protest the imposition of a revised contract by the Symphony Society of San Antonio, which manages the orchestra’s operations.

E. Loren Meeker, OSA general and artistic director, said the decision was made after the musicians and their representing union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 23, declined an offer to hire a portion of the Symphony’s musicians for the performances on terms outside of the current contract.

“OSA is deeply disappointed there is not a path forward to engage the musicians now,” the opera’s announcement reads.

AFM Local 23 President Richard Oppenheim said, “the [Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony] felt that it would be ill advised to take [OSA] up on their offer, so I respectfully declined. I thanked them, I told them it’s very painful to have to do this. The last thing that we wanted to see was the Opera, or anybody else for that matter, would turn into collateral damage, but this is how it is.”

Postponement of the production was not a realistic option for the opera, Meeker said. Preparations for Don Giovanni began two years ago, and the shows were announced in early May; performers have been contracted and the rehearsal process is in full swing. Rare open dates in the schedule of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts make rescheduling difficult.

Beyond the heartbreak a postponement would have caused for cast, crew, and community, Meeker said, “we want to be able to move forward with the production and honor our contracts, and honor our commitment to the community of San Antonio.”

In order to do so, she said, “we are open to union musicians, we’re open to non-union musicians. We’re eager to collaborate and give artists work.”

OSA will bring in pianist Mario Antonio Marra from Chicago, along with other musicians yet to be announced.

Members of the symphony’s union are technically free to perform with OSA, because their strike is against the Symphony Society and affects only Symphony performances.

However, AFM Local 23 discourages symphony musicians from acting independently of the full body of the orchestra (called a “bargaining unit” in union terms), and Oppenheim said such a move “doesn’t square particularly well” with the union, because “it tends to reinforce the caste system that we are trying desperately to avoid.”

Oppenheim referred to the “A/B” structure for the symphony as proposed by the Symphony Society, which would split the musicians into a full-time, fully-paid A group, and a part-time B group who would contract for work as needed, and for less than half what the A musicians would be paid. The Symphony Society’s decision to unilaterally implement the proposal led to the strike called on Sept. 27.

OSA will announce the complement of musicians for the upcoming performances once contracts have been arranged, Meeker said.

She said that though the strike has presented an unforeseen challenge to the opera, the pandemic has prepared her organization “to be nimble, to adapt and to create work and opportunity for as many artists as we can. So while this is not what we had anticipated, we will find the best path forward.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...