5 minute read
Once you sign a contract with an opera company in Canada you spend your own money for months, sometimes more than a year, preparing a role for the company. You’re not entitled to any part of your fee till opening night, or if you’re lucky, a weekly cheque during the rehearsal period. If you’re traveling to work for them you may have to pay for your own housing as well. You know by now that force majeure means you could get to opening night and still have no legal right to a fee.
Plot lines in traditional opera are often ludicrous.
How you get paid for your work shouldn’t be.
The industry we work in today was set up at a time when there were far fewer singers than there are now. It was also a system in which companies were able to survive by presenting a full season of traditional operas with traditional staging.
To oversimplify, this meant singers were able to learn a few roles from the classical canon and reprise them while traveling from one company to the next, resulting in frequent contracts performing familiar work. This also made it easier to meet the expectation that performers arrive note-perfect, off-book, and comfortable enough to start staging a show on day one.
While this model is still beneficial to a very small percentage of top tier international artists and organizations, it isn’t the reality for most opera singers based in Canada today.
The last few decades have seen a dramatic increase in the number of singers flooding the market. The structures of the industry and the opportunities available haven’t been updated to accommodate this oversupply of labour. In addition, companies are modernizing the canon with new work, re-imaginings of traditional pieces, and unconventional casting.
All this translates to fewer contracts per singer, often working for the minimum required fee, and a preparation process that is frequently more complicated than it was in the past.
As a result it’s normal for singers to maintain one, or multiple jobs outside of singing. In theory, these day jobs help cover living expenses and should supplement the money we make from opera contracts.
The reality today is that signing a contract in Canada means having to lean on your day jobs to cover not only rent, bills, and groceries, but also the work you do preparing the role. This includes the time you spend learning and memorizing the music, vocal coachings, acting lessons, extra voice lessons, and in some cases dialect coachings. At this point, while the company’s administrative staff are quite rightly paid regularly for their work, you rely on your secondary income, sometimes working extra hours, to personally finance the work you put in for the organization.
This system works for a small percentage of singers who don’t require multiple streams of income: top tier artists, and anyone with the financial security to devote their time to preparing a role. It disregards the vast majority of artists who have a tougher time balancing singing with other paying jobs to stay afloat. It wouldn’t surprise me if this demographic includes a large percentage of young artists and artists of colour, further hindering the development of the art form.
I believe this system also hurts opera companies and their final product. The need to disproportionately split time and attention between preparing a role and paying the bills leads to the possibility of artists showing up less prepared than they could be without these competing priorities. The added pressure to prove yourself to a director, conductor, and cast you may never have met before makes this situation even more stressful and fosters an environment of fear instead of creativity.
The need for multiple streams of income isn’t going to change anytime soon. However, you shouldn’t have to lean on your day jobs to fund your primary occupation. It’s inconsequential whether you have a tenure track position at UofT, or work retail. Spending your own resources to do months of unpaid work is wrong.
What if signing a contract means the company is obligated to send you a portion of your fee as a lump sum or on a monthly basis to cover the work you put in?
– This guarantees regular compensation for your work.
– You don’t have to put in extra hours at your day job to pay for coachings, acting lessons, and extra voice lessons, giving you more quality time for role preparation — which benefits the company.
What if they make arrangements with a coach in your city to work with you on the role over a limited number of sessions leading up to the rehearsal period?
– The preparation of the role is built into the contract.
– The company provides you with the tools you need to bring your best work to the production — which benefits the company.
What if you’re paid for an hour of your time to meet with the director on a video/phone call to discuss their vision for the show and your character, long before the first rehearsal?
– The director’s interpretation is built into your preparation, taking away some of the stress of having to meet unknown expectations on day one.
– All the performers walk into the rehearsal period with a clear idea of what they’re working towards — which benefits the company.
These proposals aren’t perfect, and I’m sure there are many other options out there. I haven’t dealt directly with force majeure or wage gaps in this post. I also believe that the idea of artists paying for housing when traveling to work for a company should be a non-starter.
The issues are many. The question here is if we want to go back to a failing pay schedule that places an unfair onus on artists to temporarily fund the the work we do for opera companies.
I understand that companies work hard to put a show on stage. I understand that fixing this issue isn’t as easy as re-arranging a budget. However, it’s worth acknowledging that the system we all inherited has failed to keep up with the challenges artists face today.
Is it fair to work for a system built on the art you create, yet constantly find yourself inadequately supported by that system?
If the value and reputation of an opera company is predicated on the quality of your work, doesn’t it make sense for them to prioritize a sustained, respectful investment in it?
Would their administrative staff work with no pay until opening night?
Why should you?