Throughout its storied history, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has weathered a number of crises as dramatic as anything presented on stage -- strikes, ailing music directors, a fired diva, a backstage murder and a disastrous conflagration in the late 19th century that gutted its former midtown theater.
This week, an ongoing dispute involving 15 of the Met's unions is set to take its place among the biggest crises that the company has ever faced. Opera management has set a deadline for midnight, Friday morning, for contract negotiations to conclude or it will impose a lockout of musicians, stagehands and other unionized employees -- and possibly delay the start of the new season.
The feud has been public and vicious, with the musicians union in particular calling into question the effectiveness of Met general manager Peter Gelb. At the heart of the disputes are budgetary cuts being proposed by Gelb, who has maintained that the company faces weak box-office revenue as public interest in the art form has declined.
Gelb has argued that two-thirds of the Met's operating costs go toward pay and benefits to unions and principal singers, and that the company needs to get those expenses under control.
Union leaders have countered that Gelb is a spendthrift when it comes to ambitious new productions, such as Robert Lepage's "Ring" cycle, and that these stagings -- along with other initiatives like the Met in HD -- haven't reversed the company's declining fortunes.
Tax returns for the Met show that the company's net assets have plunged in recent years. For the fiscal year ending in 2006, the company reported net assets of $378.9 million. The most recent publicly available tax return for the year ending 2012 shows net assets of $108.7 million.
The Met recently said that it is embarking on a plan to more than double its endowment over the next five years to $600 million through a fundraising campaign.
On Wednesday, Met leaders proposed that federal mediators be brought in to facilitate negotiations with several of the unions, according to a report in the New York Times.
The one thing that most sides seem to agree on is that a lockout is all but a certainty at this late stage.