Live classical performance is getting back on its feet, slowly. The “New Normal”: smaller audiences, smaller programmes. And entirely unsurprisingly, and in most cases understandably, smaller fees for the performers. Tentative enquiries are trickling in, and most of them involve paying a fraction – by which I mean considerably less than half – of what the going rate was before.
Which is fine. We all want to get this thing back on its feet, and taking a short term financial hit to make that happen is something most singers will be willing to do, especially for employers who have shown them loyalty in the past.
Let’s get some context here. Surely opera singers get paid megabucks, right? So most of them can stand to go without caviar and a new Rolex for six months or so.
For comparison, if you wanted to book a commercial classical “crossover” singer to come and sing for twenty minutes at your product launch or birthday party, you’d have to stump up more money than I’ve ever earned in a year. And you wouldn’t haggle, you’d find the money to pay the going rate or look elsewhere.
Many of these crossover singers are my friends, and I don’t begrudge them a penny of what they earn – they provide a product, they’ve worked hard for it, and they deserve the rewards. The difference is that their employers are willing to find the funding for what they perceive as quality. They are right – whatever your views on their taste when it comes to singing – not least because it means that, if they want to book the same singer next year, that singer will still be in business.
For those of us who are still naïve enough to be committed to singing in actual operas, our fees are much lower than they were for previous generations – and I don’t mean allowing for inflation either, I’m talking about the actual number of pounds and dollars. Audiences often complain that the standard of singing isn’t what it was in the past. Whether that’s true or not, the unarguable fact is that we’re being asked to do the same thing on an annual budget that a singer of another era would have spent on after shave.
So any time anyone tries to claim that singers’ fees are the problem in the opera world’s business model, please feel free to give them a metaphorical slap. Outside a very, very small number of “a-listers” of varying quality, most of us were struggling to get by even before our entire industry shut down overnight – mostly without even considering honouring our existing contracts, or in many cases bothering to inform us that they were being cancelled.
Let’s assume that by “opera singer” we mean someone who is capable of performing roles in operas, and maintaining the highest professional standards of doing that over a period of years and decades. That’s an expensive business, and requires constant financial investment. For quite some time now the industry which depends on those standards being maintained has been increasingly unwilling to fund what that actually costs.
Whatever opera’s problems are, artists’ fees being too high is not one of them.