Central City Opera’s labor dispute with its artists has some worried about this season’s viability

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Central City Opera House, front view of the building during daytime with white whispy clouds on a blue sky
Courtesy Amanda Tipton
The Central City Opera House.

The labor conflict between management and the artists' union at one of Colorado's most prestigious cultural institutions is continuing, worrying some that productions will be canceled. 

Central City Opera is one of the oldest opera companies in the United States, established in 1932. The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), founded in 1936, is the labor organization representing the company's performers. The two sides are now at odds. Accusations of wage theft, threats, body shaming, sexual harassment, and other forms of discrimination are all putting a strain on the long-standing partnership between the two parties. The National Labor Relations Board has received complaints from both parties.

And amid all this, there are now questions about how the company’s upcoming summer festival season can move forward. Central City Opera’s marketing efforts show confidence that the performances — which include “Romeo and Juliet,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” and “Otello” — will go on. But, an open letter from all three stage directors for the season is raising questions over the season’s viability.

Ken Cazan has been a popular director for many productions at Central City Opera since 2000. He took the lead among his colleagues in composing the open letter about the dispute back in December 2022. Cazan says the trio knew design meetings were coming up with the company when they saw a statement from AGMA posted online. 

“I initially wrote an email that I sent to Dan Miller and [Ashraf Sewailam], the other two directors for the summer. And I said, ’Guys, I'm going to submit this. Do you want to be part of it?’” Cazan said. “And, it's said that we could not go forward in good conscience with these presentations or ideas to present to them until so many of these issues were resolved.” 

The open letter was a risk for the directors, who are under contract with Central City Opera and obligated to move forward with their productions.

Sam Wheeler, the executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, said he appreciated the stand the three men took. 

“I think that it's important to note that none of the directors were directly involved in any of the grievances that we brought forward,” Wheeler said. “And they still felt that they needed to take a stand on behalf of their colleagues.”

Dan Wallace Miller is the director at the helm of the season-opening production of “Romeo and Juliet.” He said the three directors haven't heard much in direct reaction to the letter from the Opera company, but that they have heard support from outside the organization.

“I personally have heard quite a bit from a lot of different people across the industry who seem appreciative of it,” Miller said. “I understand, because there's active negotiations going on. I don't think we did it to sort of hear a direct response or kind of involve ourselves in any kind of a conversation …. I think we did it primarily as a way of trying to show support to our colleagues who are feeling as if they're being treated unfairly.”

Ashraf Sewailam, a successful opera singer, makes his directorial debut with the production of “Otello” by Rossini this summer.  He says he feels a responsibility for everyone involved in the production. 

“The decision to write the letter and sign it together as a unit came from wanting to support our colleagues, the young artists of the Central City Opera program, who are — usually in sort of in the hierarchy of power — are the most vulnerable and the ones who need the most support, both from an opera company as well as their colleagues,” Sewailam said. 

Central City Opera didn’t want to be interviewed for this story, but Central City Opera Music Director John Baril shared a statement from the company’s leaders:

“We continue to negotiate in good faith with AGMA and hope that AGMA shares our desire to achieve a mutually beneficial agreement as expeditiously as possible. Central City Opera is in constant communication with our three stage directors. Sets are being built, and we have hired our summer staff for the coming season. We are very excited about the season and the incredible caliber of talent Central City Operas artists will bring to the stage.”

AGAM’s Sam Wheeler said he’s concerned negotiations between management and the union are not in a good place right now. 

“We remain eager and willing to negotiate with Central City in good faith. We are not going to agree to a collective bargaining agreement that … abrogates the pay-or-play provisions of our CBA,” Wheeler said. “And if we don't have an agreement before the season starts, AGMA is reserving all of our rights under labor law …. So, there is absolutely a possibility of a work stoppage.”

Still, the three directors speak highly of their feelings for the Central City Opera.

“I've always, always loved Central City and their work. So … I felt a little betrayed, I guess,” Sewailam said. “For the first time, the company that actually set the blueprint for young artists programs in this country is behaving that way towards young artists, because not only do you have to train, but you have to invest in your artists.

“It's not really a huge amount of money that they're fighting over. And I guess for the company, it sounds like a matter of principle,” Sewailam said.

Wheeler shares the concern that the negotiations are not in a good place right now. 

“I need to be really frank about that. I think that a few weeks ago I was really optimistic that we would be able to reach an agreement before the season. And, I'm now less optimistic,” Wheeler said. “We are in a really unprecedented situation with Central City Opera.” 

Plans for the Central City Opera Summer Festival are moving forward, including with the three directors, who are cautiously optimistic.

“I know that we took a stand sending that letter that there are a lot of very contentious sort of things being resolved right now at that company,” Miller said. “But it is a place that I love, filled with people that I love and respect, and it's painful to see from both sides.”

Sewailam said he hopes cooler heads will prevail. 

“That both parties will actually prevail to do what's right and what's decent, and focus on serving the art form and serving the artists that this company has been famous for nurturing … for decades.”

“Don't give up on Central City yet, please don't,” Cazan said. “We're all anticipating that it's going to happen, that it will be a positive experience for everybody involved.” 

In their statement, Central City Opera said the organization “is proud that this season, for the first time since 2012, will feature three shows on the main stage. Ticket sales are very strong, and we look forward to welcoming our patrons to Central City Opera this summer.”

Central City Opera’s 2023 Summer Festival is scheduled to begin June 24 and features three Shakespearean adaptations:. “Romeo & Juliet,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” and “Otello.”