“I’ve got a mortgage, a wife and six kids, and George Bush has just devalued the dollar. I can’t afford to be here.”
From his expression, I guessed my colleague wasn’t exaggerating. And that was before he ended up in hospital for opening night.
Let’s talk about how freelance opera soloists are paid. In general, all the factors – the value of work put in during rehearsals, travel and accommodation expenses, the time and expenditure of learning and preparing a role, and so on – are rolled together and presented as an overall fee per performance.
There are more sophisticated models, where the remuneration is broken down into rehearsal fees, expense allowances etc, but they’re generally at the lower end of the pay scale. Companies tend to prefer the simplicity of the inclusive per-show fee – as do agents, who can then take their slice of that larger gross figure.
(Sometimes these days a flat fee – related to the show fee – is also included for rehearsals, essentially in the hope that it might persuade the superstars in the cast to turn up before the dress.)
Back in the days when singers earned the price of a small house for a cough and a spit, this all probably worked out fine. But as margins have got tighter – as a general rule, opera singers’ pay has moved in antiphase with professional footballers’ – the shortcomings have emerged.
For one thing, singers have to pay their expenses up front, and then may not get paid for weeks after opening night, meaning there’s a cashflow issue of several months. Given a steady cycle of work, this is on the whole manageable. But like a particularly traumatic game of musical chairs, when the music suddenly stopped a few months ago, many singers were left with a crippling amount of non-refundable outgoings, with the income which was supposed to cover them disappearing in a magic contract-transcending puff of “force majeure”.
Another idiosyncrasy of this system is that, in the case of illness, the decision as to whether a singer performs or cancels is almost always left in the hands of the singer themselves. They can decide to soldier on, in which case they get paid, or to go home to bed, in which case they don’t. But in the former situation, opera companies don’t give themselves any option other than going ahead with a sick singer aerosolling away in a cramped theatre.
We wait with bated breath for Declan Costello’s report on singing-related transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which is published tomorrow. Many singers have already seized on his Twitter preview as being the silver bullet we’ve all been waiting for, although even this first glance raises as many questions as it answers. Even the best-case comeback will be halting and messy – what the science can do is help us to do it as sustainably and safely as possible for all involved.
That latter point will become more important as the reality of rehearsing hits us, especially as more evidence emerges of the specific long-term dangers of Covid-19 to professional singers – an issue which far too many of my colleagues, in their understandable desperation to get back to work, continue to overlook. But already the last few months have provided much food for thought about singers and contagious illnesses in rehearsal and performance situations.
My American colleague fell seriously ill just before the sitzprobe stage of rehearsals, and was still in hospital on opening night. He missed the second show as well, and by this point things must have been getting financially serious for him. It was a run of eight performances (not at all an atypical number, and longer than many runs), so he’d already lost 25% of his overall income for the four month project. Bear in mind that as well as travel and accommodation, he’d need to pay taxes, agents’ commission, and currency exchange fees, before he even began to think about sending a few quid home to his family. Miss another show and he’d probably be facing an overall loss on the whole contract.
Understandably, therefore, when it came to the third performance, there he was on stage. That he managed to haul himself out of a hospital bed to get there was a testament to his character and determination. But it was a deeply uncomfortable experience performing opposite a colleague and friend, all the while not knowing whether he would make it to the end of the show in one piece – and I don’t mean vocally. He looked like death. But he couldn’t afford not to be there.
As it happened, that was a non-contagious illness. Imagine the added complication if his presence was also endangering the health of those around him. Or indeed, what if he was perfectly capable of performing his role, but could be infecting his colleagues – perhaps via asymptomatic transmission of some new virus?
The decision as to whether a singer should perform or not cannot be left in the hands of that singer, when financially they may have no option. It’s reasonable that they be given first call – for one thing, you can understand why a company might be keen for there to be as much incentive as possible for their A-listers to show up in the first place. But once the singer has declared themselves willing and able to perform, the company must surely now, more than ever, give themselves the option of keeping the singer away from the rest of the cast and crew, at no financial cost to the singer themselves.
There are plenty of problems raised by the current crisis to which there are no straightforward solutions. And it’s important that we keep asking those questions, even when it’s not clear that there are any answers, exhausting as that often is. But here’s a problem with a ready solution – a simple, low-cost change that can, and should, be made right away.