By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK, July 30 (Reuters) - New York's Metropolitan Opera has proposed bringing in a federal mediator to resolve its most bitter labor dispute with its musicians and other unionized employees in decades, the company said on Wednesday.
The suggestion comes a day before current employment contracts expire, but will not alter the Met's plans to lock out the employees and suspend their health benefits beginning on Friday if new agreements are not reached, the company said.
A lock-out could derail at least the start of the new season at one of the world's preeminent opera houses, due to begin on Sept. 22 with Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro".
The Met has said its labor force has become too expensive in a time of declining global interest in opera. Pay and benefits for orchestra players, chorus singers, stagehands and other unionized employees accounted for nearly $260 million of its $326.8 million operating expenses in the last financial year.
Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, said in an interview this week that opera as an art form "faces the possibility of becoming obsolete if measures are not taken to make it fit in the 21st-century economy."
The arbitration proposal was made during a meeting on Wednesday with the Met's chorus, represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, said Alan Gordon, the union's national executive director.
The Met confirmed the proposal in a brief statement, saying having a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service was "a more pragmatic way forward."
Gordon said his union would be willing to accept federal arbitration, although he could not speak for the 14 other unions with which the Met is negotiating.
The dispute has turned increasingly sour since Gelb wrote a letter last week to employees informing them of a possible lock out.
The Met Orchestra, represented by another union, has publicly denigrated the new productions brought in under Gelb and lambasted what they called his "failed management and lack of artistic vision."
The union put together a tally of reviews of new productions brought in since Gelb took over in 2006, suggesting that critics had generally disliked them. The Met says new productions under Gelb have received the same mix of praise and brickbats as any of his predecessors. (Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Sandra Maler)