A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Whatever you do, don't mention the fees!

While I am still ill, I will try and make this post more coherent than the last. I was inspired today by Christopher Gillett's blog post about singers' fees, and how it made me think of various times I found out that I or one of my colleagues was paid less than everyone else (sometimes despite singing a bigger part!), or that a fixer/organiser took a huge cut for themselves without telling the performer.

As Mr Gillett points out, these things happen for various reasons, not always nefarious by nature. No one would argue with the notion that experience and reputation should influence the money a performer is paid, as should the size of the part undertaken. The lack of rehearsal pay is a baffling phenomenon that I guess I'll just have to get over and live with, but the variation in fees that sometimes has nothing to do with the valid reasons listed above (and it does happen, in opera as well as in oratorio) seems to me to be facilitated by the performers themselves.

As a student I was never sat down and told what the financial realities of the job were, and I felt awkward asking. Nowadays when I talk to my agent I get an idea of what the reasonable rates can be, and having recently become a member of Equity I have access to what they consider the minimum rates to be. As I mentioned a while ago, money is not the only consideration when accepting/declining work, but let's face it, sooner or later the 'I guess that a guy gotta eat' mentality does kick in. 

I mentioned that we ourselves as performers facilitate the sometimes unfair phenomenon of varying fees. Mr Gillett's blog refers to the unspoken agreement that one doesn't talk about fees... Funny that no one ever told us students how much we can expect to be paid, but I was told 'whatever you do, don't ask others how much they're getting'. It's part of the culture. The intention may well be to keep money out of art, not spoil the rehearsal room atmosphere with the rude matter of pay. Maybe back in the day when everyone was making a decent living from it (was there ever such a time?) this made sense, but now that funding cuts abound and companies are forced to search for savings wherever they can have we not given them the perfect smokescreen to cut a few corners without fear of causing upset? After all, the young singer who has no agent will indeed be grateful for the opportunity, and will have their peers jealous of the fact they're working at all... Why would the singer in question risk rocking the boat and asking whether what they're getting paid matches up to what their college year-mate (who happens to have an agent and is singing a considerably smaller part) is getting?  

I'm not saying it happens everywhere all the time, but it does happen. We don't know how common or rare it is, because we ourselves don't talk about it. Are we doing ourselves a favour? Would changing the culture and being more open about fees only sour the atmosphere without really changing anything? I do think more and more young singers are getting frustrated by the lack of information, and some change in attitudes may be on the cards. Personally I've always found that any pressure to not talk about something gives the impression of something fishy going on...

Well, not always ;)


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