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NEW YORK (AP) — It's a drama worthy of the Metropolitan Opera: Frantic, last-minute labor negotiations aimed at averting a lockout that threatens an immediate halt to pay and benefits for thousands of singers, musicians, stagehands and other workers.
A federal mediator arrived Thursday to help make a deal between unions and general manager Peter Gelb, whose vow of a 12:01 a.m. Friday lockout threatens to disrupt the new opera season for the first time in three decades.
At issue are the Met's finances. Gelb has demanded that the unions accept salary cuts of about 17 percent, to cover a deficit of $2.8 million in the Met's $300 million annual budget.
But 15 unions representing about 2,500 chorus singers, orchestra musicians, stagehands, carpenters and others say they'll lose as much as 30 percent of their income through additional pension cuts and higher health care costs.
Union chorus members earn a base pay of $100,000 a year and as much as $200,000 with overtime. Orchestra musicians also earn base pay topping $100,000.
Gelb says the salaries of union members represent about two-thirds of company costs and that's where cuts should be made to balance shrinking ticket sales, a depleted endowment and rising operating costs.
The artists say any doubled income is due to Gelb's insistence on staging expensive new productions that got bad reviews but required a lot of overtime, such as Wagner's "Ring" cycle. They say they're bearing the brunt of his decisions.
"We're in at 10 a.m. and finish at midnight on many days," chorister Rebecca Carvin said. "You miss weddings, you miss family occasions and I haven't had Christmas with my family for 15 years."
She's made contingency plans ahead of a possible lockout, sprucing up her resume for jobs in hospital administration.
Union members have frequently cited the Met's "extreme waste," including the $169,000 cost to build a poppy field in this year's $4.3 million production of Borodin's "Prince Igor" and Gelb's insistence on special spotlights on singers in 25 productions that cost $466,152.
With a lockout looming, one singer who took her child to the doctor was told the Met could cut off insurance on Friday.
"This is going to have fingers reaching far into the world," chorus soprano Karen Dixon said, noting that the Met's Saturday afternoon broadcasts draw legions of listeners across the globe.
If the mediator doesn't succeed, the largest classical music organization in North America, created in 1883, may be shuttered for the new season, set to begin Sept. 22.
Even if talks lead to a compromise, some spectators already have refrained from buying tickets, leery of performances that may not happen in the 3,800-seat theater.
A sleep-deprived Gelb, who has been the Met's general manager since August 2006, said the situation was "more stressful than anything I've encountered in my career."
"But I'm on a mission," he said. "I took this job to keep the opera going, not to shut it down. Nobody wants a lockout. What I want is a deal."