In Rome, Conflict Management Turns Operatic

By — on / Conflict Resolution

When financial disputes arise between longstanding partners, both insiders and outsiders often note, “It’s not about the money.”

Simmering resentment, mutual blame for ongoing problems, poor communication, and other deep issues often underlie arguments over money and make conflict management all the more difficult. Parties may reach agreement on monetary issues, but if they fail to tackle their underlying differences, one or both sides is likely to leave the table feeling dissatisfied and the conflict will continue.

Take the case of the debt-riddled Rome Opera, which has been in a state of crisis this year. The opera, which like other Italian opera houses is run by the administration of its host city, has long faced accusations of mismanagement, in part due to a tradition of patronage hiring. The opera has 460 full-time employees and an additional 150 employees on fixed-term contracts.

In July, the opera’s 182 musicians—members of the orchestra and chorus—went on strike to protest management’s financial decision making and long-term planning. In September, the illustrious Italian conductor Riccardo Muti announced he would end his tradition of conducting two operas per season for the company due to a lack of “serenity” caused by financial and labor upheaval. Muti, whom the opera hired as “conductor for life” in 2008, had packed the house and moved audiences to tears during his tenure, writes Rachel Donadio in the New York Times. His decision to “irrevocably” leave the institution was a significant blow.

Two weeks after Muti’s announcement, the opera’s management stirred up more controversy when it announced it was planning to fire its musicians at the end of the year from their full-time positions and rehire them as outside contractors on January 1. The musicians protested that they were being unfairly scapegoated for the opera’s financial woes.

The dispute reflects a broader debate in Italy about the financial strain placed on the nation by its 14 publicly financed opera houses, which take in almost half of all state funding for the performing arts, according to Donadio. Italy’s culture minister went on record to say that there were too many operas and that mandatory state bailouts were perversely rewarding them for poor management. Such criticisms come amid Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts to ease labor laws to give organizations more leeway to hire and fire employees.

Carlo Fuortes, the Rome Opera’s general manager, admitted to the Times that hiring and rehiring the musicians with a less binding contract was “not very Italian,” but added, “We’re trying to change.” He said the plan would save the opera—which has an operating budget of about $67.1 million—$4.2 million, though he did not provide calculations to support this estimate.

The firing­rehiring proposal was the focus of labor talks with the musicians in early November. The opera ultimately agreed to abandon its proposal and keep the musicians on staff in exchange for pay cuts and a promise not to strike.

“If it’s enough to threaten workers with firing to achieve what you should get in normal negotiations, then this is an example that shouldn’t be repeated,” opera chorister Lorella Pieralli told the Times.
In conflict management, perhaps a more accurate truism than “It’s not about the money” is “It’s not just about the money.” At the Rome Opera, poor decision making contributed to a financial crisis that exacerbated labor’s resentment of management. The current truce fails to address the deeper conflict or to set a path toward greater fiscal responsibility. As such, fans of the Rome Opera should prepare for continued offstage drama.

Related Article: Dealing with an Angry Public

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