NEW YORK -- It's the closing act at the Metropolitan Opera, and the orchestra breaks into the familiar and stirring toreador theme from Carmen.
But this afternoon, instead of playing for their suppers, the orchestra's 95 musicians are playing for their retirement.
Now, the grand spectacle is in full swing. Horses, ridden by lance-clutching picadors, clop across the stage. Singing bullfighters follow, their jackets and trousers edged in gold. The chorus, likewise, is singing for its retirement.
This is the Pension Fund Gala. Here, Placido Domingo, the day's star attraction for an audience that has paid up to $300 -- twice the going rate for orchestra seats -- lurks in the background. He sings the role of the jealous Don Jose, who stalks the woman who has spurned him, the love-'em-and-leave-'em gypsy of the title.
On this Sunday afternoon in January, each musician and member of the chorus works for free for the first 21/2 hours, said Stewart Pearce, assistant manager for planning and marketing at the Met in New York.
They do so to make a contribution to the Metropolitan Opera Associates Retirement Plan, which had $69 million in assets as of Dec. 31.
By the end of the afternoon, the fund is $250,000 richer, thanks to the orchestra's and chorus' contribution.
Like the Met, many arts groups and cultural institutions struggle each year to raise money to fund operations and endowments. Orchestras stand out as organizations with a tradition of members forgoing one or often two shifts of salary to contribute to the pension plan.
Each group, of course, has a different history, but the practice of performing one or two such shows a year goes back to the Depression for some and into the 19th century for others.
At the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the pension-raising concerts "go back to the '30s, '40s and '50s, before there were any pension plans" for orchestras, said Tom Hallett, vice president for finance and administration.
Concerts were held during the Depression because musicians wanted pensions, Mr. Hallett said. "Orchestras were broke. The unions said, `Take one or two concerts and take the money and use it for pensions.' "
Orchestras' pension plans gradually became formalized between the 1950s and 1970s, he said, some following enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
"Management never wanted to give up the right for free services," he said. The concerts "became a way to reap extra money to pay pensions."
The fund currently has eight managers with an asset mix of 45% domestic equities, 20% international equities and 35% U.S. bonds, Mr. Hallett said. It has seen recent returns of 26.5% in 1995 and 17.5% in 1997. Returns for last year were not yet available, he said.
Like other symphonic groups, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in effect a local of the American Federation of Musicians, which is a separate entity from the $1.5 billion American Federation of Musicians & Employers Pension Fund in New York.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's own pension plan has $25 million in assets, Mr. Hallett said. The union negotiates the musicians' contracts. Some musicians participate in both the Chicago plan and the AFM national plan.
Some musicians feel slighted that management relies on them to contribute to their pension plans, according to sources who asked not to be quoted.
The unions, of course, would rather not forgo a day or two of wages, but they see the benefit and necessity of the concerts, said Florence Nelson, director of symphonic services, of the American Federation of Musicians in New York.
Ms. Nelson, who played flute and piccolo with the New York City Opera for 21 years until 1989 before joining the American Federation of Musicians staff, stressed pension fund concerts help raise the profiles of, as well as dollars for, the pension funds' members.
Often held on opening night, pension fund-raising concerts are "still a glitzy, important fund-raising event" that shine a spotlight on some orchestras. "It's a beneficial showcase for orchestras and operas," she said.
No doubt, the history for some groups is rich. Started as a musicians collective in 1842, the New York Philharmonic made its first donation to a musician in need that same year. Twenty dollars went to "charity for Mr. C., by vote of the society," said Barbara Haws, the group's archivist and historian, as she read from a photocopy of an annual report from that year.
Concerts designated for the pension fund began in 1892, two years after a wealthy donor started the fund with a $5,000 donation, according to the annual reports. The best seats cost $2, and the fund earned a little more than 3% in interest at a central trust on Wall Street, where the money was invested.
The Philharmonic's opening night and New Year's Eve concerts are devoted to the pension fund, which now has $35 million in assets, 60% in equities and 40% in bonds, according to a spokeswoman.
Between 1995 and 1998 the fund averaged annual returns of 15%, she said.
The exact history of such pension fund concerts in the United States is not clear. The American Symphony Orchestra League in Washington, for one, doesn't keep tabs on its 890 members' pension fund galas, said John Sparks, vice president for public policy and government affairs.
But some smaller orchestras without the history of the Chicago Symphony, the Met and the Philharmonic either are dropping pension fund galas or questioning their value.
The Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in New York dropped pension fund concerts from its schedule, said David Chambless Worters, executive director. The agreement is part of a recent three-year contract with musicians, he said. "Neither management or unions were that excited. Sales were not terrific" to raise money for the $1 million fund, he said. It was "time and energy and resources for a return that was not that great."
The orchestra and audiences in upstate New York might be more excited if they could get the likes of Mr. Domingo. After the gendarmes haul off Don Jose, who has just stabbed Carmen, played by Denyce Graves, the curtain falls, and the audience stands and cheers. Smiling, Mr. Domingo appears with the leading members of the cast.
Mr. Domingo picks bunches of roses thrown from the audience and waves a kiss to his admirers.
And Mr. Domingo has plenty to be happy about. With the January Pension Fund Gala, he celebrated his 30th year of performing with the Met and the 2,800th performance of his career. And, unlike the orchestra and the chorus, he and the other stars -- all independent contractors -- earned full salaries, said the Met's Mr. Pearce.