By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The unions representing the orchestra and chorus of New York's Metropolitan Opera agreed to have a federal mediator join negotiations with management on Thursday in the final hours before a deadline for a threatened lockout.
The Met said in a statement that management planned to negotiate into the night with its three largest unions on Thursday, the last day of the current contract.
It also appeared to soften its earlier suggestion that it would not delay locking out its employees and suspending their benefits on Friday if agreements were not reached, which would risk derailing the new opera season due to begin in September.
"It's too early for us to know if we will be able to extend the contract deadline," the Met's statement said, "but the Met is willing to compromise, and if the other groups are as well, we're confident that we can reach new agreements."
The labor dispute is the most acrimonious seen at the Met in decades, giving rise to the unusual spectacle of the Met's own musicians saying that the new productions mounted by Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, are generally not very good, except for the high quality of the singing and playing.
Gelb has said he needs to reduce the cost of the company's orchestra players, chorus singers and stagehands by about 16 to 17 percent in order for the opera house to be sustainable as interest in opera wanes.
About two thirds of the Met's operating expenses of $327 million in the last financial year went on pay and benefits for unionized employees.
Some of the unions have said the Met's proposals would cut far deeper into employees' pay than the Met has said.
The orchestra's union, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, says it made counter-proposals that would save the Met nearly $38 million a year, including a reduction in the number of new productions and a more efficient use of overtime.
Both management and the unions have each questioned the other's math.
Allison Beck, the deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, was due to arrive in New York City on Thursday to mediate the talks.
The Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents the Met's stagehands and other technicians, is also continuing negotiations on Thursday, but without a federal mediator because their talks have been less fractious, according to people on both sides.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Sandra Maler)