A strike settlement approved by New York City Opera musicians Monday evening was ''not all we were looking for, but the best we could do,'' according to the union. In the end, economic pressures on the musicians - ''on strike for a long time and badly hurt'' - brought an agreement, it said.
Although other unions still must sign new contracts, no serious problems are expected. Rehearsals will get under way immediately for a Sept. 21 opening of an abbreviated summer-fall season. The opening will come almost 11 weeks behind schedule, and the season will run until Nov. 13.
The contract dispute between the opera company and the American Federation of Musicians spotlights a larger issue: the funding restraints of cultural institutions vs. the needs of performers whose annual incomes don't keep pace with inflation.
A number of major symphony orchestras and other institutions recently have canceled or curtailed their seasons. Many noncom-mercial theaters have had to shut down. Along with others in the arts, the New York City Opera (NYCO) was fighting for survival in the musicians dispute - and orchestra members for higher annual earnings.
Although the New York settlement may set no precedents since each situation has its own special problems, the salvaging of the last half of the opera season - avoiding a cancellation that could have felled the deficit-ridden NYCO - is expected to encourage more bargaining compromises wherever disputes are jeopardizing fall arts programs.
The settlement gives musicians a 6.5 percent wage increase in each year of a three-year contract while reducing weekly work schedules from 6 to 5.5 performances (6 performances one week, 5 the next). Musicians are guaranteed 20 weeks of work the first year - but have lost eight of these by their strike. They are guaranteed 22 weeks in the second year, 23 in the third. The company also guaranteed to find them additional work, or to pay half-salaries, for two weeks in the first year, four in the second, and six in the third.
Musicians who voted against the terms complain that the wage increase from $ 535 to $570 a week this year leaves them substantially below orchestra members employed by the Metropolitan Opera, a neighbor in New York's Lincoln Center. They also said the new NYCO summer-fall season schedule provides less than $15, 000 income, while reducing their chances to pick up work with other orchestras in their off-seasons.
The opera company won a major goal - more flexibility to schedule recording sessions, telecasts, out-of-New-York performances, and extended runs of popular performances (such as Leonard Bernstein's ''Candide'') with a reduced orchestra.