Opera Colorado workers cleared to vote on unionization

Workers at Opera Colorado will get to vote whether to form the collective bargaining unit they asked for earlier this year.

The National Labor Relations Board issued a decision on Friday, saying that eligible solo singers, chorus members, stage directors, assistant stage directors, stage managers, assistant stage managers, choreographers, solo and ensemble dancers, and performers participating in Opera Colorado’s Artists in Residence program will be able to cast their ballots by mail, and votes will be tallied Nov. 20 at 2 p.m.

Adam Da Ros, who worked as an assistant stage director on Opera Colorado productions in 2022 and 2023, said he was “definitely elated” to receive news of the NLRB decision.

“It was a good feeling because we believe very strongly in our position,” said Da Ros, who also testified in June in a NLRB hearing about the union petition. “To see that backed up and solidified in this way, it was a good feeling.” 

The American Guild of Musical Artists, the U.S. labor union that represents dance, opera and choral workers, announced in May that Opera Colorado artists had signed their cards to unionize. Because Opera Colorado did not voluntarily recognize the workers’ desire to join AGMA, the union filed a petition for an election with the NLRB in early June.

Workers earlier this year said they were interested in unionizing to protect what they liked about working at Opera Colorado, but also told The Colorado Sun they wanted a stronger collective voice to negotiate better pay and work conditions, especially for those who have historically felt disenfranchised at the company. Organizing at the Denver-area opera company happened amid ongoing labor disputes at Central City Opera.

In the NLRB’s decision, acting regional director Leticia Peña wrote that Opera Colorado had not met its burden in its case arguing against unionization at the Denver opera company, and said  “the petitioned-for unit is an appropriate unit for collective bargaining” — the exception being narrators or performers with speaking parts due to opera leadership saying they had not hired anyone for such a role in years.

Peña also said the proposed collective bargaining unit shares a community of interest, “particularly based on the organization of production, functional integration of Opera Colorado’s mainstage productions, high degree of daily contact and interchange between many of the different classifications, shared supervision, and the particularly strong evidence that the petitioned-for unit is common in this industry.”

Opera Colorado general and artistic director Greg Carpenter confirmed the company received the NLRB’s ruling late Friday evening.

“We have met with our legal representation and are working to meet deadlines that are set forth in the ruling for an election and vote,” he said Tuesday in an interview. “We are abiding by the rules and moving forward with the process.”

Opera Colorado argued “itinerant artists” are independent contractors

In post-hearing briefs obtained by The Colorado Sun through an open records request, attorneys for Opera Colorado argued that the union’s proposed bargaining unit was ineligible to form a union due to the mix of independent contractors and “casual” employees contracted for a single production at a time. 

“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 countered, saying there is precedent in opera for their proposed unit and these workers are integral to putting on Opera Colorado productions.

Some artists said a sore spot from the NLRB hearing was Opera Colorado leadership characterizing chorus singers as volunteers. 

Greg Carpenter, left, Opera Colorado’s general and artistic director, speaks with soprano Kara Shay Thomson, right, during a rehearsal on Feb. 21. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“This is the way it was presented to me 20 years ago, or 19 years ago, when I arrived, is that the chorus was predominately the community who enjoyed singing and enjoyed opera,” Carpenter said during the NLRB hearing. Transcripts of the hearing were reviewed by The Sun. “Opera Colorado chorus was a creative outlet for them.”

Opera Colorado’s legal team argued that union representation would threaten to “end community theater” by placing certain pay and work condition standards on a chorus that management considered as a volunteer corps. 

Joshua Zabatta, who has performed in Opera Colorado’s chorus a number of times, told The Colorado Sun this summer that chorus positions had never been presented to him in this way and a number of choristers are serious, highly skilled musicians.

Carpenter told The Colorado Sun in a brief interview on Tuesday he was unable to provide any clarity on this issue. 

The NLRB decision went largely in the union’s favor on contested issues, representing “a clear and significant victory for the artists who are seeking to unionize with AGMA,” a statement provided by the union’s spokeswoman Alicia Cook.

“There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done,” the statement continued. “Now, we have an election to win. But this NLRB decision is worthy of celebration on its own.”

Voter eligibility in the November election will be determined by a formula established in a NLRB case involving the famed New York City arts school Juilliard. It’s been used for cases in the entertainment industry in which employment is often on a production-by-production basis. Artists who have worked in two productions for at least five days in the last year or at least 15 days over the last two years will be eligible to vote. The notice of election must be posted inside the Opera Colorado Opera Center and distributed to eligible voters by mail or email by Oct. 11. Ballots are slated to go out Oct. 16.

“This is an important demonstration from the artists of Opera Colorado,” Da Ros said. “And I hope that artists in similar situations across the country will really take heart in what happened here and be inspired.”

Editor’s Note: Stephanie Wolf, who reported this story, was a member of AGMA while dancing professionally for the 2011-12 Metropolitan Opera season.