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. 

In theory. 

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?

What changes would you like to see in Canadian opera? Fill out this brief anonymous form and let me know.


  1. Dear Dude.

    Thank you for articulating so much of what I can attest to.
    I like your suggestions. They would cost the companies a pittance and the payoff would be ten fold.

    Be happy to chat.

  2. Thank you for this. Rather than get companies to change, we need to BE the change and I’m thrilled to see you leading the way!

    Yes, many opera companies indeed engage in essentially horrendous labor practices, and we need to make the public more aware. We also need more currently active singers who “get it” on companies’ boards of directors. But as long as there is a steady supply of reasonably qualified singers willing to endure these unethical trials and tribulations, unfortunately not much will change. Education and training is now more infinitely accessible to more people that’s before, making for a different paradigm in the current century compared to previous centuries.

    But while existing opportunities with existing companies will forever be limited, the possibility for creating new companies and new opportunities for ourselves catering to newer or better audiences will forever be infinite. If we can’t induce companies to change, the optimal solution is to create new companies run ethically and carry out what you envision. Then if the existing companies don’t adapt, they perish per the natural forces of the market. We need to let go of institutional nostalgia that makes some Opera companies immune to suffering the same fate as companies like Sears or Toys R Us. Creating a new company is not always an easy thing to do, especially with the “go big or go bust” gamble approach some take, but it’s possible to carefully grow something new from the ground up that caters to newer audiences and more.

    Almost no one makes all their income, at least not a “full time” equivalent, strictly from singing on stage. Even the biggest stars making the biggest dollars have multiple sources of income; they teach, they give masterclasses, speaking engagements, private events, sell records, passive investments and more. It’s time to end the practice of measuring career success based on how much of their income is derived strictly from singing needs to end. Multiple sources of income and diversification of your skills and what you can offer the world are the only way to ensure you can be positioned to have the success you desire.

    And on that last point, too many singers aren’t serving themselves well by auditioning for everything just for the sake of auditioning for everything! Schools need to do a better job of setting forth healthy and realistic career expectations, particularly for performance majors. Rather than go about our careers like it’s a guessing game of what work we can get, we need to not be afraid to give ourselves permission to focus on performing exactly what we truly want to perform and design a wholistic life plan that allows for that.

  3. “Multiple sources of income and diversification of your skills and what you can offer the world are the only way to ensure you can be positioned to have the success you desire.

    And on that last point, too many singers aren’t serving themselves well by auditioning for everything just for the sake of auditioning for everything! ”
    Thank you (AT) for breaking down what it means to be a singer today.
    One issue I have is: when the jobs are available no one is talking about this.
    When there’s no jobs everyone comes out and starts on about how bad things are.

    Brian’s comments are often over looked because it’s hard work. I think as much as we say we work hard, we don’t, because we aren’t making enough of a concentrated effort to get educated and push for more education in schools to diversify skills to build new companies. You left studying law, but know how hard it is, and how hard it would be afterwards. I don’t think musicians are into the practice of that kind of intensity.

    Again, until people stop flocking towards the auditions hoping for a part they are paying more for than being paid for, this won’t end. We can scream to the heaven’s about not being paid, it doesn’t matter when xyz will take the part for a near pittance.

    If that “plan” is in place in undergrad then we have something to work with. If not, then this will continue.

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