The dramatic brinksmanship in the union negotiations with The Metropolitan Opera is reaching an operatic crescendo.

"Management seems to be poised to lock out the workers," when the contracts expire midnight July 31, said Laura Dolan, a spokeswoman for American Federation of Musicians Local 802.

Asked about the possibility of a lock out, a Met press director shared a statement that said, "We remain hopeful that the unions representing Met employees will recognize their need to share in the institution-wide cost controls we are proposing, and will reach an agreement before the contract expires on July 31. We hope to avoid any work stoppage and continue preparations for our season opening on Sept. 22."

The Met has been in negotiations since May with 15 of its 16 unions to slash worker compensation by what it says is as much as 17%. Reductions are necessary, it says, because box office revenues are declining, donors are reluctant to pony up more support, and labor costs gobble up two-thirds of the operations budget.

The unions counter that The Met's problems are due to lavish spending and poor management, and it is unfair to balance the problems of the 131-year-old organization on the backs of workers. "We're willing to tighten our belts a little bit if Mr. Gelb will cut up his credit cards," said Joe Hartnett, assistant director of the stagecraft department for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Hartnett was referring to Peter Gelb, the general manager of The Met, who has added new productions in an effort to boost audiences.

The cuts proposed by management are in many cases much steeper than 17% - up to 37% when all givebacks are toted up, Dolan said.

The Met's musicians, singers and stage hands are among the best paid in the nation, with many employees making well into the six figures, Met brass has pointed out. "Maybe (Gelb) needs to scale back some of the stuff he's doing that causing all this over time," said Hartnett. His members, he said, would welcome an occasional day off instead of working non-stop during the opera season.