It was the mousetrap next to the bed that really put me off.
The filthy, threadbare curtains, non-functioning lights, the broken sofa, charming though they might appear to a 19-year old student coming down from a meth high, didn’t really do it for me either.
Thought it was glamorous to be a jet-setting opera-singer, did you?
A hundred years ago things were very different. Opera singers were the movie stars of the day, sailing around the globe on the world’s most luxuriant liners in First Class cabin comfort, staying in the most exclusive hotels, constantly being feted in the finest restaurants. All at the opera companies’ or promotors’ expense.
Oh, how things have changed.
Nowadays, singers are expected to pay for their own accommodation and living expenses from the startlingly modest (and, trust me, it really would surprise you just how modest) fees on offer.
Most companies will pay for two air or rail fares – one to get you there, and one to send you on your way – but that’s it, and they will invariably try to get you on the cheapest airline available, so don’t count on little luxuries like free drinks or airmiles.
A few companies still pay rehearsal fees, but most don’t, so singers now have to make provision for supporting themselves for as many as eight weeks of rehearsal, without expecting to receive a cent of remuneration for their hard work. You will only be paid for your performances, and if you fall ill and have to cancel? Tough titty. There’s no sickness cover on offer.
In summary, for a 12-week engagement with the average opera house (2 months of rehearsal, one of performance), a singer can expect to receive 6 to 8 performance fees and a return air/rail fare, all of which is most often paid upon the completion of the contract (sometimes even months later than that). That’s it.
Last year, for example, I received no payment for a 6 month period, owing to various opera companies’ fiscal complications (read “pathetic excuses”). I know some singers who have had to wait years, and that is no exaggeration, to receive the monies due them.
As you can imagine, this makes managing the purse strings something of a strategic minefield for us opera singers. We have to plan ridiculous allowances in advance for such things as illness, tax, household bills, rehearsal periods, living expenses, and a myriad of other fiscal demands, which is hard enough to manage when opera companies cough up promptly, but nigh on impossible when they don’t.
But the thing that annoys me the most about all this, that makes me absolutely incandescent with rage to the point of turning the air blue with foul-mouthed ranting, is that, more and more often, singers are expected to pay for their accommodation in full, before they’ve even arrived to do the job.
For a 12-week engagement, this will mean several thousand pound/euros (and nearly double that in US dollars) that a singer has to part with in the knowledge that they won’t see a penny back until nearly 3 months later. With more sympathetic opera houses it is, of course, possible to negotiate an advance against your performance fees to cover this colossal expense, but this is the sad exception rather than the rule. Most companies don’t help out at all.
So you can imagine my vein-popping apoplexy upon arriving at my latest accommodation to be greeted with the aforesaid mousetrap. Admittedly, there was no toilet in the bedroom as in the ghastly picture above, but, between the plastic bags over the light fittings, the ill-fitting, filthy curtains, the broken, torn sofa, the lack of laundry facilities, and the charming view of the coal-bins across the road, I was out the door faster than a rat scurrying up a drainpipe. (I daresay I might have witnessed that too, if not for my exigent departure.)
For this delightful accommodation, I had been charged €75 per night for a six week stay (€3150). As this had to be arranged while I was still working on my previous job, the only information I had to go on was their website (which, naturally, looked very nice indeed) and the fact that this apartment was on the company digs list.
I spent three days juggling a very demanding rehearsal schedule, several heavy suitcases, and a number of hotels, before I finally managed to get into an decent apartment. (It’s an apart-hotel that is impeccably maintained, very comfortable, and a mere 10-minute walk from the theatre. All for €82 per night, breakfast included. Bliss.)
However, after all this faffing around, I was left completely exhausted, and my voice decided to give up functioning completely at the latter end of the week. It has taken two full days of silence for my speaking voice to return to normal, and I guess I’ll see what state my singing voice is in tomorrow when we resume stage rehearsals.
This could all have been avoided.
No apartment should appear on an opera company’s dig list that hasn’t been recently vetted as appropriate. Singers have enough shit to contend with without having to shovel this as well.