Some people love nothing more than spending a Sunday glued to their TV sets watching football. V&E counsel Chris Bacon feels the same way – about opera.
“I love opera,” Bacon said in a recent interview. “My partner Craig and I probably see two dozen live opera performances a year. Our idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon is to have friends come over for wine and good food while we watch operas on the Metropolitan Opera’s on Demand streaming service.”
For the last twenty years, Bacon has been able to channel that passion into pro bono legal work on behalf of the Houston Grand Opera (HGO), offering the prestigious arts organization legal advice on labor and employment matters. This past July, Bacon assumed the leading legal role at HGO when he was elevated to general counsel.
Bacon’s appointment marks the latest development in V&E’s long-running relationship with HGO. He is the fifth V&E lawyer to serve as general counsel, following in the footsteps of John “Buck” Chapoton, Glen Rosenbaum, Walter Stuart, and Mark Spradling.
“Chris’ appointment was based on his knowledge of HGO, his experience in the non-profit sector, and his strong interest in opera,” said Rosenbaum, who serves on the Opera’s board and is a past board chair. “No other lawyer could bring greater knowledge and enthusiasm to the position.”
Bacon recently sat down to answer questions about his legal practice, the work he does on behalf of the opera, and why being HGO’s general counsel is an opera superfan’s definition of fun.
“While I have helped employers negotiate union contracts for manufacturing workers or truck drivers, union contracts in the opera business are much more challenging and much more interesting.”
How would you describe your day job at V&E?
With all due respect to my colleagues who work in other practice areas at V&E, I can’t think of anything that is more interesting than practicing labor and employment law. We deal with people. There is so much variety to what we do.
I get to try discrimination cases in front of juries. I go to mines, refineries and manufacturing facilities to investigate accidents and then I get to represent my clients in administrative hearings against governmental entities such as OSHA and MSHA (Mine Safety Health Administration).
With the help of employment lawyers in other countries, I advise clients on international labor and employment issues. I also spend a lot of time advising employers on how to best handle difficult issues in the workplace.
I also help clients negotiate contracts with unions. When there are disputes about a union employee being terminated, or there’s a dispute about how a contract is supposed to be interpreted, those are often arbitrated. I represent clients in those arbitrations.
Over the years, what kind of legal services have you provided to HGO?
Many lawyers at Vinson & Elkins do legal work for Houston Grand Opera, including lawyers in our intellectual property, corporate, litigation, and tax groups.
V&E partner Vanessa Griffith and I handle the Opera’s labor and employment matters. For example, every three or four years, I help the Opera negotiate its collective bargaining agreements with musicians, chorus and stagehands.
While I have helped employers negotiate union contracts for manufacturing workers or truck drivers, union contracts in the opera business are much more challenging and much more interesting.
Some of the complicated issues involve intellectual property. For example, the Opera would like to put snippets of music on its web site to attract younger people. Well, you actually have to negotiate with the unions to get permission from them to be able to do that.
There are also contractual provisions that provide extra compensation to musicians who have to carry especially heavy instruments like harps and double basses. The contract with the chorus has a provision that addresses compensation for wearing body make up on the torso below the neckline. Fortunately, we have never had any disputes as to what that actually means.
What kind of relationship does HGO have with the unions?
We’ve been really fortunate. The Houston Grand Opera has enjoyed very good relations with its unions. I attribute this to the real mutual respect between the unions and the Opera’s leadership.
While every once in a while we’ve had disagreements, in the 20 years that I’ve been working for Houston Grand Opera, I can recall only two disputes that we had to take to an arbitrator.
Why are you passionate about HGO?
I’ve been going to the Houston Grand Opera since I graduated from law school and moved to Houston. The Houston Grand Opera has provided me and my partner many special moments.
Houstonians have every reason to be proud of Houston Grand Opera because it is one of the best opera companies in the world. The Houston Grand Opera has probably staged more new works than any other major opera company in the United States.
I also love Houston Grand Opera because of what it does for the city of Houston. In addition to maintaining the highest artistic standards, Houston Grand Opera is committed to our community. Houston Grand Opera has always made sure that everyone can have access to the opera. Not only does it go into schools and the community to teach Houstonians about this wonderful art, but it has long been committed to providing affordable tickets for anyone who might want to see an opera at the Wortham.
Houston Grand Opera also reflects the wonderful diversity of our city. For instance, back in May, HGO staged Cruzar la Cara de Luna, the world’s first mariachi opera, which had premiered at HGO in 2010. Probably half of the audience members were people who normally don’t go to the opera.
What do HGO and V&E have in common?
One of the reasons I love working at Vinson & Elkins is because I work with some of the smartest lawyers in the country. It’s the same reason why I love working for Houston Grand Opera. It values excellence. Houston should be very proud of its opera. We have some of the most talented artistic administrators, singers, and musicians in the country.
Houston Grand Opera and V&E also share a genuine commitment to our wonderfully diverse city.
What are the perks of being HGO’s general counsel?
Even though I am HGO’s general counsel, I buy my own tickets, and my partner and I are patrons of the Houston Grand Opera. We also give additional financial support to the Opera, so there’s no “material” perk in being HGO’s general counsel.
The best way that I can respond to the question is by relating a recent conversation that I had with one of my colleagues at the firm about the work that I do for HGO. My friend seemed skeptical about the enjoyment I was getting from the hours of non-billable work that I was doing for HGO.
Knowing that my colleague is a passionate Boston Red Sox fan, I asked him how he would feel about doing pro bono work for his favorite baseball team. It took him a “Boston second” to understand the joy that I get from doing work for the Houston Grand Opera. So while there may be no “perks” to doing this gig, I cannot think of anything more fun to do.