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Washington National Opera

Washington National Opera logo At this opera, harmony is achieved on and off stage when union and management commit to improving working conditions and opportunities for their artists.

In Partnership With: AFM, AGMA

A working partnership brings artistic harmony on and off stage

For an opera staging to be successful, it must deliver a balance of extraordinary music, dramatic acting, memorable dancing, and breathtaking scenery. The artists and managers at the Washington National Opera have discovered that their performances benefit from a new era of harmonious cooperation backstage as well.

At a Glance

Washington National Opera is one of the world’s premier opera companies. Originally founded in 1956, it was designated the “national opera” in 2000 by the U.S. Congress.

Washington, DC


Arts & Entertainment

Union Employees
Between 150–360 artists, dancers, singers, directors, and musicians 360, of which 90 are full-time

Total Employees
360, of which 90 are full-time

Annual Revenues
$26.1 million

7-8 productions at the Kennedy Center Opera House per year

Over 120,000 audience members per year

Relations between artists and management at the opera had been strained for many years due largely to inadequate pay and lack of health benefits, leading to two strikes in the 1990s by the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). But the Washington National Opera and its unions eventually realized a contentious relationship was unproductive, and formed a labor management committee to address the disputes and concerns through a more open, cooperative process. Combined with a change in company leadership, the committee enabled both sides to more easily resolve disputes, eventually paving the way toward more efficient and less contentious contract negotiations.

Opera followers know the word opera is Italian for work, but many aren’t aware of the need artists often have for union representation. Prior to the turnaround, low pay and no health benefits meant most performers weren’t able to make a living wage. Choristers and dancers were financially burdened with the high costs of meeting the professional standards of working for the opera, including voice lessons, dance instruction, and foreign language immersion. Thanks to this new climate and strong contracts with AGMA and the American Federation of Musicians, performers can hone their talents while earning a better living. Wages for performers have more than doubled, employees are entitled to healthcare benefits, and they can now invest in the company’s retirement plan.

Tricia Lepofsky, a chorister, is one of many company members singing the praises of the partnership. “We have a very qualified pool of dedicated people who now seem to be very appreciated by the opera,” she says. “I love my job and I don’t know many people who can say that. I want to work for the Washington National Opera for as long as I can.”

Good drama can’t exist without conflict and resolution. The Washington National Opera, its performers, and their unions provide a great example of how contentious labor-management relationships can be resolved when both sides are willing to listen to one another, compromise, and work together.

Selection Criteria  

> Collaborating as equal partners with workers and their unions to craft innovative strategies on compensation, performance, and productivity to meet business goals and address challenges

> Providing sustainable wages or progressive increases and worker-friendly benefits 

> Creating new jobs and implementing employee retention strategies

> Protecting workers' safety and health

> Offering training and professional development opportunities

> Contributing positively to the broader community

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