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NLRB Unplugs 'Virtual Music'

The National Labor Relations Board's New York regional director has ruled that the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802 acted legally in contracting with the Opera Company of Brooklyn (OCB) to eliminate the Sinfonia "virtual music" system from all OCB performances.

The decision in the NLRB case between Realtime Music Solutions—the Sinfonia manufacturer—and Local 802 possibly could have far-reaching effects. The musicians last year fought implementation of the Sinfonia on Broadway through a successful four-day strike. It led to a new contract assuring live music for the next decade. The union is currently voicing opposition to the technology's use off Broadway. And David Lennon, Local 802's president, told Back Stage on Tuesday the union would use the NLRB ruling as a springboard for defending live music on Broadway and elsewhere. He added that producers are continuing efforts to "cheapen" Broadway with virtual music, including through efforts directed at London's West End.

Realtime has a right to appeal the regional decision to the NLRB's general counsel, but if it does—and if the national office agrees with the regional director's ruling—the precedent could aid the AFM in fighting attempts to implement virtual music in other productions, including Broadway tours and shows around the nation.

It would at least induce the union to push for including in its other new contracts a prohibition against the use of virtual music in future productions.

In February, the AFM announced a joint agreement with the OCB banning the use of the virtual orchestra in all future productions. The union had protested the company's opening performance of Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro," which replaced musicians with the Sinfonia.

Jeffrey T. Lazarus, Realtime's chief executive officer, considered Local 802's efforts to completely eliminate the Sinfonia from OCB's productions in violation of federal labor law, and filed the NLRB complaint on March 4. He told Back Stage recently by email, "We do not view the OCB situation as either an 'agreement' or 'successful' for anyone. The union used coercive and illegal tactics to prevent a small organization from doing good work. It succeeded only in creating a minor publicity splash. I would encourage Back Stage to do a follow-up in a few years to see how many traditional musicians OCB hired with this 'agreement' in place. Compare that number to the 10 musicians that Sinfonia allowed for 'Marriage of Figaro' times the number of similar productions contemplated before Local 802 interfered."

However, Alvin Blyer, the NLRB regional director—ruling in his March 30 letter to Lazarus' attorney—noted that the OCB had originally hired live musicians "to provide music at its first performance in 2000." The opera company followed that by using only the Sinfonia "on several successive performances." Then, in January 2004, OCB hired a group of 10 musicians to play along with the Sinfonia in "Figaro." Local 802 followed with a protest of the Sinfonia's use, and later reached the new sans-Sinfonia pact with OCB.

Regarding that agreement, Blyer said, "In my view, the union has a legitimate concern that unit employees could be replaced once again by Sinfonia, either on the present show or on a subsequent show, as they had been after the 2000 season. Moreover, since the employees in question have performed the work in the past, and do perform the work, albeit in a reduced amount, in the current performance, it cannot be said that the union is attempting to acquire work, which had not been previously performed by the unit."

Lennon Accuses Producers

Local 802's Lennon on Tuesday charged producers with a continuing concerted effort to bring virtual music to Broadway. He quoted Cameron Mackintosh, producer of the "Les Misérables" production in London's West End, as saying that he was using the Sinfonia "as a showpiece to display to producers in America."

"All throughout their argument for using the machine, they claimed they were using it just because they were moving to a smaller venue," Lennon noted of Mackintosh's production. He called such claims "hypocritical and untruthful."

In London, the Musicians' Union (MU) has agreed with the Society of London Theatre to limit the use of the Sinfonia to the production of "Les Misérables" at the Queen's Theatre.

The MU had voiced its strong opposition since January to Mackintosh's proposal to replace 12 musicians in "Les Misérables" with the virtual orchestra. The Mackintosh group had noted they were moving the "Les Miz" production from the Palace Theatre only because the venue's owners, Really Useful Theatres, required vacating the facility in order to close it for urgent repairs. The Queen's Theatre proved the only stage available, and it accommodates a maximum of 10 musicians in the orchestra pit, requiring Mackintosh to reduce the orchestra's size. Those space limitations evidently led the MU to agree to use of the Sinfonia.

But when the transferred "Les Miz" opened last weekend, Mackintosh was quoted in Playbill as saying, "…it's got the most advanced sound system I've ever heard in the theatre. This will be the first theatre production to use it, and the company are using it as a showpiece to display to producers in America. The main thing is that the show has been re-scored for the smaller orchestra with the new keyboard systems—a quantum leap forward in technology. So the majority of the players are now front-line soloists, the rank-and-file element has gone. So the show is articulated as if by 40 soloists. You can hear things that you've never heard before outside of the concert hall."

The technology Mackintosh referred to is the Sinfonia.

In March, the producers of the Off-Broadway show "The Joys of Sex: A Naughty New Musical" at the Variety Arts Theatre informed Local 802 it would use the Sinfonia. The union immediately complained, with Lennon saying that the producers "remain determined to use this machine, and we remain even more determined that they don't succeed."

Lennon on Tuesday related Mackintosh's statement about introducing the Sinfonia to American producers to "Joys of Sex" producer Ben Sprecher. "We believe that's exactly what Mr. Sprecher is doing," Lennon said, meaning Sprecher too wants to use the Sinfonia on Broadway. "He's a Broadway producer." Sprecher co-produced the 2002 Broadway hit "Fortune's Fool" and the current Larry Gelbart comedy "Sly Fox," which recently opened at the Barrymore Theatre.

Realtime's Lazarus recently countered Lennon's claim that "Joys of Sex" is a threat to live music, saying, "Joys of Sex' was originally done with three musicians. It's still being done with three musicians, one of whom is playing keyboards and Sinfonia. If Sinfonia were not being used, it would again have just three musicians, but it would be denied the sound the composer wants…. 'Joys of Sex' is being scored specifically for Sinfonia, along with keyboards, bass and drums. Local 802 wants Sinfonia to be eliminated from the orchestration. They would be satisfied (and would stop all protests) if the three musicians played only keyboards, bass and drums. It's a petulant attempt to prevent innovation."

Lennon said Local 802 would use the NLRB's recent ruling as impetus to keep fighting implementation of virtual music. He said the ruling "absolutely supports us legally. And we're determined to move forward and fight what we consider efforts at dumbing down live theatre."

Lazarus by press time had not returned an email or a call to his office asking for his response to the NLRB ruling and whether he planned to appeal. The appeal must be filed in Washington, D.C. by April 13.

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