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Third Time’s the Charm: ROPA to Meet In-Person

I’m writing this article as I listen to the Metropolitan Opera’s live radio broadcast “A Concert for Ukraine.” It’s wonderful to hear this great orchestra and voices—so uplifting! But the reason for this concert is deplorable and distressing: a tribute to the people of Ukraine who have been invaded by Russia. They are fighting to keep their country with death and destruction at their door. We hope that peace and resolution of this tragedy will come soon.

Most of our Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA) orchestras have gotten back to work over the past several months. There are lots of side letter agreements, contract extensions, and COVID protocols to deal with. I expect the next year will be full of negotiations and rollbacks of COVID protocols as we continue to return to live performing. There will likely be a new “normal” for our concerts and way of doing business, having been affected by two years of the pandemic, Zoom, streaming, and the many other adjustments that had to be made to keep the music going. There will need to be a great deal of patience and understanding for everyone as the playing field for many of our orchestras may well have changed.

One thing going back to normal is the annual in-person union education presentation to the fellows of the New World Symphony (NWS) by the AFM Symphonic Services Division, ROPA, and International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). The fellows of NWS and our conservatories, colleges, and universities will be auditioning for a record number of open positions in ROPA and ICSOM orchestras. These union colleagues of the future need to have the resources, organizing, and union knowledge that we share with them.

The 39th Annual ROPA Conference is scheduled for July 26-28 in Costa Mesa, California, at the Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa Hotel. Our host is Orange County Musicians’ Union, Local 7. There will be a Negotiations Workshop on Monday, July 25.

This is the hotel we scheduled two years ago. We hope the third time’s the charm and we will finally meet in person! While much can be said for Zoom conferences, they are not the same as meeting in person. The conversations, connections, and learning that occurs outside of the presentations and meetings is where the worth of player conferences is measured. There is great value to socializing and conversing face to face (or mask to mask) with delegates and musicians who have experienced similar situations and issues, as well as with our wonderful AFM leadership and staff.

ROPA is again offering a scholarship to cover travel, room, and board to members of ROPA orchestras who would like to attend Labor Notes, which will be held in person June 17-19 in Chicago. Since 1979, this media and organizing project has been the voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the labor movement. Here’s the application link: https://bit.ly/3N8px6P

We are stronger together!

ropa conference

Delegates from 89 Orchestras Meet at 2018 ROPA Conference

by Karen Sandene, ROPA Secretary and Member of Locals 70-558 (Omaha, NE) and 463 (Lincoln, NE)

The Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA), with 89 member orchestras at the time of this writing, represents AFM union orchestras from all parts of the country. Our annual conference gives us a terrific opportunity to work with our colleagues. For the past 35 years, delegates have gathered in many of our orchestras’ communities, including our two Portlands. This year’s conference was in Portland, Oregon. (Our 2011 conference was in Portland, Maine). Our hosts this year were AFM Local 99 (Portland, OR) and the Portland Opera Orchestra. Joining us at this conference were our four new ROPA Orchestras: San Jose Opera Orchestra, Sacramento Philharmonic Opera, Marin Symphony, and Cape Symphony.

At the 2018 ROPA Conference, held July 31-August 2, delegates gained knowledge from peers and experts in our industry, covering the topics of negotiating, union organizing, interpersonal relationships, musician self-care, financial health, and the overall state of our profession.

Local speakers at the conference included Local 99 President and International Vice President Bruce Fife and Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlin. After welcoming delegates to Portland, Fife was proud to present a locally produced film promoting Portland that included a 61-piece locally hired orchestra.

Chamberlin, representing Oregon’s 300,000 AFL-CIO members, gave an inspiring talk describing the proactive measures they’ve taken to counteract unfavorable court decisions against unions. Attorney Liza Hirsch Medina covered a similar topic when she presented an in-depth look at the Janus decision and its effect on unions. She described the importance of organizing in the face of upcoming court and legislative challenges to union protections.

Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) President Pat Hollenbeck and musician Norma Stiner shared the successful journey of organizing ROPA’s newest orchestra, Cape Symphony. AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) Negotiator, Organizer, and Educator Todd Jelen highlighted the importance of new musician recruitment/orientation and the optimum moments to approach potential members.

Diversity Consultant Shea Scruggs presented “Seeing the Blind Spots: An Inclusive Vision for American Orchestras.” He spoke of the need to confront our cognitive biases and improve our organizational cultures. Local 65-699 (Houston, TX) President and Diversity Committee member Lovie Smith-Wright and AFM Diversity, Legislative, and Political Director Alfonso Pollard discussed projects that the AFM Diversity Committee has taken on this year.

SSD Director Rochelle Skolnick led a timely discussion on identifying sexual harassment in the workplace and how to deal with it. On the topic of musician self-care, Audiologist Heather Malyuk of Soundcheck Audiology followed up her popular 2017 presentation with specifics on how various methods of hearing protection work or don’t work in an orchestral setting. We examined performance anxiety through the film Composed, by John Beder. The filmmaker took questions from delegates.

AFM President Ray Hair discussed the current status of the AFM Pension fund. A panel of pension trustees and administrators took questions from the delegates.

ropa conference
Newly elected ROPA Board members (L to R) Naomi Bensdorf Frisch, Sean Diller, Kendra Hawley, Lisa Davis, Casey Bozell, Steve Wade, John Michael Smith, Karen Sandene, Amanda Swain, Christian Green, Maya Stone, Katie Shields. Not Pictured: Cory Tiffin.

Representatives from our fellow AFM Conferences highlighted their year’s activities: Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (President Robert Fraser), Theater Musicians Association (Director, Member at Large Lovie Smith-Wright), Recording Musicians Association (Gary Lasley), and International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (President Paul Austin). Alfonso Pollard detailed the legislative success in protecting the National Endowment for the Arts. Austin related progress on the new online survey for the ICSOM Conductor Evaluation Database.

Every year, delegates get the opportunity to attend a Negotiating Orchestras Workshop (held July 30 this year), where they learn necessary skills to improve our working conditions and financial standing. They also engage in valuable small group discussions with their members at large, sharing successes and challenges with delegates from orchestras of similar budget sizes.

Throughout the conference, AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) Director Rochelle Skolnick, Symphonic Electronic Media Director Debbie Newmark, Chief Field Negotiator Chris Durham, Negotiators Jane Owen and Todd Jelen, and Contract Administrator Laurence Hofmann taught the “nuts and bolts” for improving our contracts and organizational structures. Our orchestras benefit so much from their expertise!

Following the election of officers, the 2018-19 ROPA Executive Board will include President John Michael Smith (Minnesota Opera Orchestra, Local 30-73), Vice President Amanda Swain (Houston Ballet and Grand Opera orchestras, Local 65-699), Secretary Karen Sandene (Omaha and Lincoln symphony orchestras, Locals 70-558 and 463), Treasurer Sean Diller (Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Local 232-278), AFM Convention Delegate-at-Large Naomi Bensdorf Frisch (Illinois Philharmonic and Wisconsin Chamber orchestras, Local 10-208), and Members-at-Large Casey Bozell (Portland Opera Orchestra, Local 99), Lisa Davis (Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Local 579), Christian Green (Ann Arbor Symphony, Local 625), Kendra Hawley (Palm Beach Opera, Local 655), Katie Shields (Arizona Opera Symphony Orchestra, Local 586), Maya Stone (Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, Locals 80 and 257), Cory Tiffin (Las Vegas Philharmonic, Locals 369 and 10-208), and Steve Wade (Local 400, Hartford Symphony Orchestra).

And finally, we offer our sincere appreciation to conference hosts, the musicians of the Portland Opera Orchestra, Local 99, Portland Local 99 President Bruce Fife, and numerous hard-working local volunteers. We would especially like to thank Portland Opera Delegate Casey Bozell for her outstanding work assisting the ROPA Board in presenting a well-run conference. We look forward to our 36th Annual Conference in 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts!

A Glimpse of ROPA

carlaby Carla Lehmeier-Tatum, ROPA President and President of Local 618 (Albuquerque, NM)

The Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA), now in its 32nd year, represents 85 regional orchestras throughout the US. One main catalyst for starting ROPA three decades ago was to ensure there was a voice for musicians of regional orchestras within the AFM. The resounding motive for founding ROPA, which is often heard from the founding members, was the necessity to create an internal network to assist in establishing professional standards.

When I look back on my 10 years of service on the ROPA Board, I am pleased to report that our delegates are extremely engaged and communicate daily. This is no easy task. The day-to-day lives of regional orchestra musicians often entail membership in numerous orchestras, commuting, teaching, gigging, and working outside the field. ROPA Delegates are extremely in-tune with their industry through our delegate email list, as well as regular contact from our board members at large. Each quarter the ROPA Board sends out questions about the industry, their orchestras, and what assistance those orchestras might need.

I wanted to devote most of this column to a group of orchestras that has taken the lead in networking within ROPA. Years ago, ROPA Vice President Nancy Nelson, who at the time was the board member at large assigned to the opera and ballet orchestras, created regular communication between these 17 orchestras. This communication continued with current board member Mike Smith of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra who was assigned the delegates of the pit orchestras. I found it to be extremely powerful for the pit musicians to have this network as they face the challenge of rarely being seen by their audience.

We have witnessed ROPA pit orchestras connect successfully with their communities through Facebook and other social media, as well as establish musician-initiated programs that serve their communities. In Houston, the Houston Grand Opera musicians collected and donated instruments to area schools. The Houston Ballet created a “pit pal” program where students were invited to come down to the pit during the intermission of The Nutcracker. Musicians collected contact information and then mailed quarterly newsletters to the students with information about the musicians, music, cartoons, and puzzles. This program was shared with ROPA orchestras and has now been adopted by another.

Arizona Opera was one of the first ROPA orchestras to create a website and post YouTube videos to share information about the musicians as they contended with difficult contract negotiations eight years ago. In recent years, many positives have come from these initiatives. The musicians have continued to maintain contact with their community by posting regularly on Facebook. These initiatives have established advocacy campaigns for the musicians, the organization, and their art form. Despite the constant media focus on financial hardships in orchestras, ROPA opera and ballet companies have been highly successful, with record ticket revenue, sold out world premieres, innovative media projects, and unique outreach initiatives.   

These successes have enabled their organizations to thrive:

In June 2015, the Houston Grand Opera announced their endowment campaign raised $172.9 million, exceeding its $165 million goal. Total ticket sales in 2014-2015 reached 98% of capacity.

Minnesota Opera created a program called Seven Days of Opera, a festival of free, short, pop-up performances that brought opera to unexpected places in the Twin Cities community—malls, zoos, farmers markets, breweries and more. Ticket sales for Carmen broke all ticket sales records in the Minnesota Opera’s 52-year history.

The Dallas Opera has attracted substantial media attention, generated community awareness, and launched new programs that have realized increased single ticket sales, along with a steady stream of major gifts.        

Arizona Opera experienced great success in a four-year capital campaign that raised $3.1 million of its $5 million goal in the first year.

LA Opera hosts a website that includes bios of the musicians, a behind-the-scenes blog, video clips, stories of interests, social media, behind-the-curtain podcasts, live radio broadcasts, and live simulcasts. In January, the company added a performance of Figaro staged with the title characters as undocumented Mexican workers in present day Beverly Hills. The score was transformed into an entirely new English (and Spanglish) libretto.

Michigan Opera Theatre recently announced a balanced budget for fiscal year 2015. The overall increase in net assets for the financial year was $1.3 million, with revenues of $14.7 million. The company also reported a surplus in its operating budget in more than a decade with a year-end result of $532,582.

These amazing success stories provide a landscape for the musicians of opera and ballet orchestras to create natural advocacy campaigns through social media.

ROPA has featured PR specialist Randy Whatley, president of Cypress Media, at a number of ROPA conferences. He guided participants on how to effectively communicate their message to their communities. It is gratifying to see how this incredible resource has been utilized within our orchestras in both positive and difficult times.

I want to thank all of the ROPA Board Members and ROPA Delegates who have dedicated countless hours engaging their orchestra colleagues through initiatives that promote ownership, involvement, awareness, and pride. This invaluable investment provides a better future for musicians and our organizations.

Please mark your calendar and plan to attend the ROPA Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, July 26-28, 2016.

ropa conference

Toledo ROPA Conference Brings in Local Labor Experts

by Karen Sandene, ROPA Secretary and Member of Locals 70-558 (Omaha, NE) and 463 (Lincoln, NE)

The 31st annual Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA) Conference convened last summer in Toledo, Ohio, at the Grand Plaza Hotel. The conference provided a terrific learning opportunity for the representatives of our 86 member orchestras from around the nation.

We offer our sincere appreciation to conference hosts the Toledo Symphony musicians, Local 15-286 (Toledo, OH), Local 15-286 President Al Tapin and Secretary-Treasurer Emilie Sargent, ROPA Delegate Katherine Cosgrove of Local 15-286, and numerous hard-working volunteers. We would also like to thank Conference Coordinator/New Mexico Symphony Delegate Linda Boivin of Local 618 for her outstanding work assisting the ROPA Board in presenting a well-run conference.

Throughout the conference, representatives of the AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) provided a wealth of knowledge. The SSD staff was available for valuable one-on-one contact with delegates and spoke on several topics. They also provided several hours of training for delegates from negotiating orchestras prior to the full conference. We thank SSD Director Jay Blumenthal; Director of Symphonic Electronic Media Debbie Newmark; Negotiators Nathan Kahn, Chris Durham, and Todd Jelen; Counsel Rochelle Skolnick; and Contract Administrator Laurence Hofmann for sharing their knowledge.

At ROPA Conferences, we strive to utilize the knowledge of local experts in the labor field. Jackie Daugherty and Dennis Albers, faculty from the Wayne State Labor Studies Center in Detroit, addressed the topics: “Mobilizing Your Membership,” “Building Participation Through Communication,” and “Building New Union Activists.” Barbara Coventry and Jerry Van Hoy of the University of Toledo discussed the union education campaign for the Ohio Senate Bill 5 (Right to Work). Jane Slaughter, former editor of Labor Notes, spoke on “Signs of Life on a Labor Movement Under Attack.” She discussed strategies implemented during the UPS and the Chicago teachers strikes, living wage campaigns, and fast food worker struggles across the nation.

Other guests who addressed the conference during the first day included Scott Boberg, manager of programs and audience engagement for the Toledo Museum of the Arts. Marc Folk, president of the Ohio Citizens for the Arts spoke of how the arts are playing a large role in Toledo’s business expansion. He stressed the importance of making our “economic value” clear to our funders and the business community. Randy Whatley of the Cypress Media Group gave a presentation on the logistics of advocacy. He has proven to be an invaluable resource to the players conferences and our orchestras.

As part of the first day’s activities, delegates split into small groups with their members-at-large (MALs) and worked for several hours learning about issues facing orchestras in their respective MAL groups.

AFM President Ray Hair led the second day of the conference with a talk on media convergence and performance rights. He also gave an excellent presentation on the history of the AFM. During the ROPA officer reports, ROPA Vice-President Nancy Nelson of Local 65-699 (Houston, TX) spoke of the large number of new delegates to our conference and how they can take their fresh energy back to their orchestras. A speech from ROPA President Carla Lehmeier-Tatum of Local 618 (Albuquerque, NM) focused on the importance of orchestras reaching out to their communities.

Delegates and guests had several opportunities during the conference to sit in on break-out sessions of interest and importance to their orchestras. This year’s topics dealt with the use of Facebook/Twitter, messaging the successes in our industry, orchestra committee education, reading budgets, right-to-work/union recruitment, building participation through communication, building new union activists, and media messaging.

Other items covered during the conference included updates on the Hartford and Green Bay orchestras. Conference reports were given by Maurice Grants/Recording Musicians Association, Liz Johnston/Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians, George Troia/Theater Musicians Association, and Bruce Ridge/International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. Debbie Newmark gave a presentation on the Integrated Media Agreement (IMA). Rochelle Skolnick led delegates through an invaluable mock grievance procedure, “The Curious Case of Charles the Cellist.” And, looking ahead, delegates selected Phoenix, Arizona, as the site for the 2017 ROPA Conference.

Following conference elections, members of the 2015-2016 ROPA Executive Board will include President Carla Lehmeier-Tatum, Vice President Nancy Nelson, Secretary Karen Sandene, Treasurer Donna Loomis of Local 466 (El Paso, TX), Delegate-at-Large to the AFM Convention Maurice Grants of Locals 353 (Long Beach, CA) and 47 (Los Angeles, CA), and Members-at-Large Taylor Brown of Local 80 (Chattanooga, TN), Naomi Bensdorf-Frisch of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), Janice Galassi of Local 45 (Allentown, PA), Mary Anne Lemoine of Local 154 (Colorado Springs, CO), John Michael Smith of 30-73 (St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN), Maya Stone of Locals 80 and 257 (Nashville, TN), and Steve Wade of Local 400 (Hartford, CT).

We look forward to our 32nd Conference in 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.

ropa conference

ROPA Conference attendees gathered to show their support for Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) musicians, members of Local 400 (Hartford-New Haven, CT), who are struggling to negotiate a fair contract. (See page 9 for details.)