It was not until 1919 that New York State legalized Sunday baseball games and what were then called “moving picture shows.” Now, nearly a century later, another never-on-Sunday tradition is coming to an end: The Metropolitan Opera will begin performing Sunday matinees next year for the first time, the company announced Friday.
The Met’s inability to perform on Sundays was rooted in labor contracts, not blue laws. But the unions representing the Met’s orchestra, chorus and several other groups finished ratifying a new contract this week that will pave the way to a change, as the company, facing a worrisome decline in attendance, has realized that audiences find it increasingly difficult to squeeze in lengthy operas on weeknights.
“It’s a real game changer,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview. “It will allow us to attract a new audience.”
Sunday matinees will become a regular part of the Met’s offerings in the 2019-20 season. The following year, the Met will make another radical change in its schedule: It will take a midwinter break in February, when ticket sales are generally at their lowest, and add performances in the late spring, moving the end of the opera season to early June from May. Those spring weeks are currently used by American Ballet Theater; Mr. Gelb said that the ballet would reduce its Met season to five weeks from the current eight.
The Met’s current Saturday matinees regularly outsell weeknight performances by 15 to 20 percent, Mr. Gelb said, adding that he expects Sunday performances to sell strongly as well. Next year, he said, the Met would schedule up to 17 Sunday matinees, and the following season up to 27. Mondays will be the new dark day at the Met on weeks with Sunday matinees.
“It’s a sign of the shifting cultural sands of opera,” Mr. Gelb said. “Up until 20 or 30 years ago, Monday night was opera night in New York, the most popular night for society to attend the opera. That’s why we still have our opening night galas on Mondays. Obviously, we live in a different time.”
Sunday performances are the norm at most Broadway shows and at other leading opera and ballet companies around the world, but adding them at the Met was a heavy lift. The company already performs two operas on Saturdays and some employees, especially those with young children, were loath to lose their one remaining weekend day. So when the deal was initially reached last month by negotiators, management and labor agreed to keep the terms secret until rank-and-file workers had ratified the agreement.
To sweeten the deal, the Met offered wage increases that will generally amount to eight percent over the course of the three-year contract, as well as improved pension benefits, though workers will have to contribute to their health plans. The unions negotiated other provisions to help make up for the loss of Sundays off for workers who are particularly affected by the change.
Jessica Phillips, a clarinetist who is the chairwoman of the Met’s orchestra committee, noted that the players had devoted their lives to their art. “This agreement exemplifies that commitment by ensuring that the Metropolitan Opera we all know and love is well positioned to thrive artistically for years to come,” she said in an email.
The ratification of the contract — by members of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (which represents the orchestra, music staff and others) and the American Guild of Musical Artists (which represents the Met’s chorus, singers, stage directors and others) — marks something of a turning point at the opera house, which has struggled financially in recent years.
The Met took in only 67 percent of its potential box office revenue last season, near a record low. And in May, the Met’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s to Baa2 from Baa1, a worrisome sign.
During the last contract negotiations, four years ago, Mr. Gelb tried to address the Met’s structural problems by aggressively cutting costs — leading the sides to a bitter public feud and the brink of a lockout. This time he focused more on the revenue side, seeking ways to encourage more people to come to the opera. And after the bad blood last time, he decided not to sit at the table as the Met’s lead negotiator, turning that duty over to Bernard M. Plum of the law firm Proskauer Rose. The agreement is still subject to approval by the guild of musical artists’ board of governors.
Ned Hanlon, a chorister who is the chairman of the Met’s American Guild of Musical Artists committee, said that the union had worked to negotiate provisions to make up for the loss of free Sundays, but recognized the importance of adding performances that day.
“What’s good for the Met,” he said during a break from rehearsals of the Triumphal Scene in “Aida,” “is good for the artists.”