Joshua Zabatta spent weeks mentally preparing himself to testify about his experiences singing with Opera Colorado before the National Labor Relations Board. The Denver-based tenor had never done anything like this before.
“I had a ton of anxiety,” said Zabatta, who has performed with Opera Colorado on and off in chorus and some solo roles since 2016. “I had a feeling that the cross-examination would be difficult. So I had to make sure I could hold my own, and be poised and grounded during the whole process.”
The public hearing was held for three days over Zoom in late June. The order of business was a petition, filed by the American Guild of Musical Artists, or AGMA, requesting to hold an election for arts workers to vote on unionization at Opera Colorado.
The move to unionize at Opera Colorado comes as another opera company in the state faces allegations of union busting and saw the sudden departure of its president and CEO in the midst of its summer festival. The circumstances of the two local institutions also land in the midst of a wave of U.S. workers demanding better from their employers. From employees at coffee shops and large tech companies pushing to form unions to UPS workers prepared to strike over better wages, particularly for part-time labor. The arts are certainly in the mix, including a near work stoppage among backstage workers that would have halted Broadway and national touring productions and the double strike in Hollywood. There seems to be a moment, “an awakening” as some have called it, among performing artists advocating to have their labor be better valued and protected.
Zabatta felt the choristers at Opera Colorado were not being compensated “what we’re worth,” especially in a city with a high cost of living. But he had been on the fence about whether he should testify. The opera world isn’t known to be friendly toward those who speak up about problems, and he was initially concerned what his participation in the hearing could mean for future opera opportunities.
“It’s the irony of being in a profession where you make noise with your vocal cords, but then you don’t feel like you have a voice,” he said. “It’s always jarring.”
In the end, he got some words of encouragement from his husband, friends and colleagues.
“I think, deep down, I knew I needed to do it,” Zabatta told The Colorado Sun.
Organizing at Opera Colorado
Opera Colorado was once a signatory of the labor union for U.S. performers and staging staff who work in the opera, dance and choral sectors, according to AGMA records. The last contract in the union’s archive is from 1985, plus an agreement extending that collective bargaining agreement to 1988. The union has reported some correspondence between Opera Colorado and AGMA from the ’90s, but no documentation of subsequent agreements or records explaining why the relationship dissolved.
On May 22, a little more than a week after Opera Colorado wrapped its 2022-23 season with Puccini’s “Turandot,” AGMA announced that Opera Colorado artists had signed their cards to unionize, again.
“By coming together in union, we look forward to securing the best possible opportunities for our artists and for the organization for many years to come,” organizing artists said in the announcement.
The union seeks to create a collective bargaining unit of solo singers, chorus members, stage directors and assistant stage directors, stage managers and assistant stage managers, performers who have speaking parts or are narrators, choreographers, solo and ensemble dancers, and those in Opera Colorado’s Artists in Residence program.
According to Opera America’s most recent Annual Field Report, Opera Colorado is one of 33 U.S. professional opera organizations within Opera America’s membership that has an operating budget of $3 million or more. Of those, 21 are listed as AGMA shops on the union’s website.
Opera Colorado declined to voluntarily recognize the union, prompting AGMA to file an election petition with the federal labor agency June 1.
Adam Da Ros, who also testified during the NLRB hearing in June, worked at Opera Colorado as an assistant stage director for “The Shining” in 2022 and “Turandot” this year.
“What we’ve been talking about is trying to preserve the good things that are there. And there are a lot of good things. I would say generally Opera Colorado is a good place to work,” Da Ros said. “It just feels like there’s a disconnect with some groups and how their time and their efforts are being valued.”
He said unionizing could help empower those who feel disenfranchised, “rather than each of us existing as a single person who then might not feel like we can voice our concerns or that the organization might retaliate against us or just simply not not hire us back.”
Zabatta couldn’t pinpoint exactly what lit the fire for unionizing, but did recall growing frustration among some chorus members when rehearsals ran over, when breaks weren’t respected or when choristers didn’t get much notice about updates to music.
“I think there were just a bunch of little things maybe that were adding up, and made us say, ‘Hey, they’re not really considering us the way they consider other people,’” he said.
There’s been a modest improvement to chorus pay since his first show with the opera in 2016, and the choristers now receive travel stipends to help cover costs such as parking, he said. But fair compensation remains a concern, and Zabatta felt like “there was no opportunity for conversation” to broach these issues with Opera Colorado leadership.
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Opera Colorado’s director of marketing and communications Jennifer Colgan said in an email that the organization is not making any public comments at this part of the process.
But the organization’s lawyers have argued that the union’s proposed bargaining unit is “inappropriate” and the potential members “do not share a community of interest.”
The employer post-hearing brief, which The Sun obtained through an open records request, said the worker classifications detailed in union’s petition are a mix of independent contractors and “casual” employees contracted for a single production at a time, making them ineligible to form a union.
“The performers and other individuals engaged for each production are essentially itinerant artists and individuals who work for themselves and market their skills, talents and experience to multiple opera companies and other performing organizations across the country,” the brief said.
AGMA’s attorneys wrote in their post-hearing brief that there’s precedent in opera for their proposed unit and each of their positions are key to Opera Colorado’s ability to present opera.
Opera Colorado identified chorus singers as volunteers during the hearing, saying the administrative staff have long viewed the choristers this way, the union said in its brief. Union representation, the company argued, threatens to “end community theater.”
Zabatta read the hearing transcripts and said he was disappointed by statements from the opera’s leadership describing choristers as community members who participate in productions for fun or as a creative outlet. While the pay is a modest — about $550 per production including the travel stipend — Zabatta said the chorus members are still paid and many of them are serious, highly skilled musicians. Zabatta teaches piano and voice and does some work as a piano technician, but considers singing the primary aspect of his career.
“That is not at all the messaging that [Opera Colorado has] sent us for years,” Zabatta said.
Opera Colorado’s website says the company brings “world-class opera to Denver and beyond,” and Zabatta noted that works like “Turandot” and Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” in the upcoming season are challenging and demanding repertoire for the chorus.
“It’s not a volunteer corps, if you’re doing productions that require that caliber of musician,” he said.
Central City Opera accused of trying to union bust
About an hour west on Interstate 70 from Denver, the 2023 summer festival season at Central City Opera was drama-filled — and not only of the standard onstage variety.
In February 2022, Central City Opera announced a big change in its leadership: Longtime company leader Pelham “Pat” Pearce Jr. shifted to the role of artistic director and the opera brought in Pamela Pantos to serve as president and CEO.
The first summer festival under her tenure marked the 91-year-old company’s return to the historic Central City Opera House after pandemic first shut down live, in-person performances. But as artists and staging staff began arriving in the small mountain town to begin rehearsals, there appeared to be a lack of clarity on COVID-19 protocols, in particular around testing. Multiple workers told The Colorado Sun that they company did not provide tests and masking was initially optional; one worker said every other opera they had worked with since the pandemic was firm on the issue. Some tried to talk to management about it, but felt their concerns went unheard.
Workers began getting sick in June, but they were able to carry on with performances. In late July, the number of positive COVID tests was so high among workers onstage, backstage and in the orchestra pit that the opera canceled a week’s worth of shows.
“It got really out of control,” said Da Ros, who worked that summer as an assistant stage director on one of the mainstage shows.
Last summer, workers were also preparing to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement with the opera as the contract they were operating under was set to expire in August 2022. Central City Opera has claimed that “AGMA actively allowed its contract with Central City Opera to expire.” Yet email correspondence from early July, reviewed by The Sun, showed AGMA representatives informing workers they hoped to begin negotiations later that month. Those dates ended up coinciding with the COVID cancellations.
Alternate dates in August were discussed, but those didn’t work out either, eventually pushing negotiations into late fall, past the contract’s expiration.
“Even if it’s expired, it still remains in effect. So it’s not the Wild West once you hit the expiration date,” said Ned Hanlon, who served on the Central City Opera negotiating committee and AGMA’s president as of June 1.
AGMA collective bargaining agreements contain a clause clarifying that contracts don’t become moot when they expire, and, in general, U.S. labor law requires a “status quo” until a new agreement is reached. This means that under the National Labor Relations Act, no parties can make unilateral changes, absent bargaining to impasse, on key issues such as wages, hours, benefits or critical work rules.
Once the negotiations did get underway, things soured quickly. Each party brought in outside counsel, with Central City Opera hiring Littler Mendelson, the same law firm Starbucks used to fight unionization among its workers. Hanlon said Central City Opera’s initial proposal was nothing like he had seen before: it sought to remove pay-or-play, a “bedrock of AGMA’s artists contracts” that guarantees agreed upon compensation whether the artist goes onstage or not; it also added language that allowed the company to subcontract certain work, such as dancers,, even for positions within the bargaining unit.
Some workers were concerned by the omission of something known as the successor clause, a provision typical of AGMA contracts that ensures if a company disbands then restarts or is absorbed into another organization it would still adhere to the already established agreement.
“That’s when we realized that artists were really under attack at this company,” Hanlon said.
Typically artists who have currently or recently worked with the organization will sit on the negotiating committee. But the fear of retaliation among artists was so high the union put out a call to its elected Board of Governors asking members to help fill out the committee.
Tense negotiations went on for months, with allegations of withheld and delayed pay for artists looming over them.
“It was rough, those negotiations were awful, and there were so many of them,” said De Ros, one of the few artists on the committee who had worked with Central City Opera.
The union filed multiple unfair labor practice claims with the NLRB, several of which remain open, including allegations of surveillance and coercive action, failure to provide requested information, bargaining in bad faith and retaliation against workers for union activity. In December, the opera filed its own claim against AGMA accusing the union of making threatening and belittling statements, engaging in bad faith negotiations and issuing “false, defamatory and disparaging allegations against Central City Opera.”
By early May, the opera and union had still not reached an agreement. Frustrated workers held a strike authorization vote. And, according to multiple sources familiar with the outcome, more than 90% of incoming workers and workers from the most recent year voted “yes,” saying they were ready to go on strike if necessary.
Hanlon believes that helped move the needle on negotiations.
“It was following that strike authorization that they agreed to bring in mediators, and there was a huge change in the tone of the negotiations at that point,” he said.
An agreement reached, but not everything resolved
Then, in July, the union put out a statement accusing the opera of violating the new CBA by subcontracting dancers.
Henry Maximilian McCall danced in the summer’s run of “Kiss Me Kate.” He said he was hired through a Denver dance company brought in by Central City Opera as a third-party subcontractor.
“I am used to nonunion work, so the pay wasn’t surprising to me,” McCall told The Colorado Sun. “I’m no longer dancing for my primary income. So this was a space that I was happy to do some work and get to perform again.”
But once rehearsals began, things started to feel off. For one, McCall said they were rehearsing evenings from 7-10 p.m. Being on a nonunion contract, Central City Opera didn’t provide housing for the dancers, leaving McCall and others with a dark, and often stormy, hourlong commute back to Denver each night after rehearsal. He said he also learned he was making less than one-quarter of what he would have made had he been on an AGMA contract. Every dancer hired at Central City Opera is supposed to be, and has historically been, on an AGMA contract. The new collective bargaining agreement upheld the clause prohibiting subcontracted work included in the bargaining unit, like soloists, chorus members, stage managers and directors, and dancers — the exact kind of work that led McCall to the opera.”
During the week the production transitioned to working in the theater, ahead of the show’s opening, McCall said the dancers noticed that their pay was late.
“Several days late, and we were not given clear instructions on when that was going to be resolved,” he said, adding that he had recently become aware of the allegations of wage theft and delayed pay. “We did not feel comfortable waiting and hoping, and for our first dress rehearsal in the theater, none of the dancers were in attendance.”
The dancers informed management via email they wanted to be at the June 27 dress rehearsal and were excited to be a part of the production, but could not come until they were paid. They gave leadership a deadline of 4 p.m. At about 5 p.m., they got a response. But it was too late for the artists to make it to Central City in time for the rehearsal. The dancers did do the full run of shows, and McCall said it was an artistically rewarding experience to work with the other artists, but called it an “eye-opener.”
Several weeks later, in the midst of its summer festival, Central City Opera abruptly parted ways with its president and CEO of less than 18 months.
The opera’s vice president of development, Scott Finlay, confirmed Pamela Pantos was no longer employed in an email and said the company would “begin a search immediately for a new president and CEO.” The Colorado Sun attempted to contact Pantos for an interview, but received no response.
In a statement following the news, AGMA said it hoped “this change in leadership signals a shift in CCO’s culture, a commitment to treating CCO artists with dignity, respect, and care, and an improvement to our working relationship with CCO.”
As the opera looks for new leadership, an AGMA representative said the union will continue to pursue resolution on several outstanding contract grievances, as well as multiple unfair labor practice claims. The opera’s claim against AGMA with the National Labor Relations Board remains open as well, according to the NLRB website.
Central City Opera interim chief administrative officer Margaret Williams declined interview requests from The Colorado Sun.
“At this time, as we advance the search for a general director and focus on planning for the future, CCO is not taking media interviews, though of course will continue to issue periodic statements as warranted, as well as releases related to ongoing programming,” Williams wrote in an email.
The bigger labor picture: Are live performance workers having a moment?
Since about 2017, AGMA has seen a notable uptick in successful unionization efforts, including Sacramento Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Nevada Ballet Theatre, principal singers with Music at Westwood of the Westwood Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, Ballet Idaho, stage managers for Des Moines Metro Opera, St. Louis Ballet, Ballet Memphis and Texas Ballet Theater.
Griff Braun is AGMA’s national organizing director and danced professionally. He said in the performing arts, particularly the classical forms, artists can have little agency and often, it’s ingrained in them from a young age when they’re training rigorously, to do what’s asked of them.
“There’s an inhibition and fear of ever rocking the boat, because there’s a certain group of people, or a perception at least, that holds your career in their hands,” Braun said. “And to ever contradict or to just even assert what you need to perform can be frightening.”
But he thinks, in recent years, some of that inhibition has faded or arts workers are feeling more emboldened to ask for workplace protections. Braun said many factor are influencing this,, including younger generations having an “awakening of sorts to collective power.”
“I think the pandemic had something to do with it as well, just pressing pause on the industry, as well as the #MeToo movement, and [the police killing of] George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. Everybody sort of stepped back and went, ‘Wait a minute, a lot of this sucks,’” he said.
Braun has seen AGMA members in the past five years push for more robust contract language on diversity, equity and inclusion and sexual harassment policies.
“I think everybody’s feeding off of each other too,” said Stefanie Frey, director of organizing and mobilization for Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union representing 51,000-plus live performance stage managers and actors. Some Colorado-based Actors’ Equity members attended a solidarity rally for SAG-AFTRA at Denver’s City Park last week.
Frey said watching companies win their AGMA votes or seeing members of SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America strike over better wages and the use of artificial intelligence, as well as witnessing more visibility around labor movements within other industries outside the arts, is “putting wind in our sails.”
“We were all following the Amazon campaign. We were all following the UPS negotiation. It’s in the world of social media, and news alerts on our phone,” Frey said. “And because we all see these organizing victories, within performing arts spaces we’re getting leads. People are reaching out to us and saying, ‘Can we do it?’”
Some live performers who have learned they can, in fact, do this include dancers at the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in Los Angeles, who unanimously voted to join Actors’ Equity in May, and the planetarium lecturers at Griffith Observatory, also in Los Angeles, who also won their election to unionize earlier this year.
The American Federation of Musicians, which represents about 80,000 professional instrumentalists in the U.S. and Canada, is experiencing some new organizing in the symphonic sector, but not much in general, according to Rochelle Skolnick, director of the Symphonic Services Division and special counsel and assistant to the president at AFM. Rather, what’s got Skolnick’s attention is an increased interest from musicians in the collective bargaining process.
“We get better results when the bargaining unit is organized and prepared to take a stand in support of their bargaining position, even if it never comes to a strike,” she said. “Just having that kind of unity and solidarity telegraphs a kind of power to the employer.”
Skolnick, who also worked as a professional violinist, thinks employers sometimes take advantage of that passion.
“The other piece of the reality is that we are workers. We are workers who need to earn a living wage, and we need to have job security, and we need to have health insurance so that we can raise our families and be contributing members of our communities,” she said.
‘A complicated moment in American labor history’
Ahmed White, the Nicholas Rosenbaum professor of law at University of Colorado, said the share of union workers in the U.S. labor force has been on a steady decline since the 1970s, currently standing at 11.3% for both private and public sector workers.
But according to a data analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, 2022 saw an increase in workers represented by unions and, between October 2021 and September 2022, the NLRB had a 53% increase in petitions for union elections. Additionally, a study from Cornell University reported that strikes were up by 52% last year, and a Gallup poll showed that Americans’ approval of unions is the highest it’s been in 1965.
“Unions have still not reversed the loss of numbers and returned to the levels of the 1970s, let alone the ‘30s or ‘40s with strikes. But they’ve got an energy and activism behind them, and they’ve got people listening to them in a way that wasn’t the case just a few years ago,” White, whose expertise includes U.S. labor law and collective bargaining, said.
White is not surprised to see pushback from companies and employers hiring law firms with a reputation for “union avoidance.”
“As long as there have been unions, there has been a culture in management, an art even, of opposing unions,” White said.
For dancer McCall, deciding not to show up to a big Central City Opera rehearsal due to a missing payment was empowering.
“It is in everyone’s best interest to be able to treat each other with respect and give people the credit that is deserved,” he said. “If that is through unions, then it’s through unions. If you can do without unions, that’s great. I just have not seen it consistently happening without.”
When the euphoric feeling of live performance is no longer enough
As for Opera Colorado and its union-hopeful workers, they’re awaiting a decision from the NLRB as to whether there will be an election.
Denver singer Zabatta said his interest in unionizing comes from a place of love for the company.
“I believe in the mission of what they’re wanting to do in the state, in this community,” he said. “I feel like this is a way for them to be the best version of the company that they can be.”
Da Ros, the assistant stage director of Opera Colorado’s “Turandot” and “The Shining” last season, said he’s tired of going through tough experiences to “just have the performance be the payoff.”
“We create this art and we deliver it to the audience, and you can go through a very unpleasant rehearsal period, but then the energy and the catharsis as you put it all out there for the audience, a lot of times that sort of wipes the slate clean, and we kind of forget,” he said. “I would rather not continue to work in the industry than to work under unfair conditions.”
Editor’s Note: Stephanie Wolf, who reported this story, was a member of AGMA while dancing professionally for the 2011-12 Metropolitan Opera season.