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It’s the only way to stop random bastards riding roughshod over dedicated artists

The peremptory cut to the contracts of principal singers at Opera Australia is not an isolated act of callous management on a distant continent. It is a point of principle on which singers the world over need to take a stand.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen, Dominica Matthews, Warwick Fyfe and other contract artists at Opera Australia have been told that they will be ‘rested’ next season without pay for up to three months while Sydney puts on The King and I – a box-office hit which neither requires nor deserves public subsidy. The rested artists have no protection. OA is by far the continent’s biggest company. If they lose their status, they will have to emigrate to find work, or leave the profession.

Henry Choo, a professional singer, sums up the position on Bel Canto‘s Facebook page: Being side-lined without pay in favour of musical-theatre trained singers is not only a slap in the face and insult to their significant and loyal contribution to Opera Australia over their many years of employ, but contradicts many points listed in the company’s own mission statement.


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So, what is to be done? The singers’ revolution that is being led by Elisabeth Kulman in Austria and Germany needs to take wings. A basic set of singers rights should be quickly compiled and turned into a charter that opera houses and festivals will be obliged to sign. The charter will need backing from big names to be effective but I have no doubt that some of the biggest will come through in support of their profession. (Joyce, are you reading us today?)

It’s the only way to stop random bastards riding roughshod over dedicated artists.

UPDATE: A response from Opera Australia here.

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  1. As a former member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus and now as a teacher of singing in addition to being a music journalist in Istanbul, I fully support and share this protest, which thankfully is growing throughout Europe.

    However, as also a former cast member of Broadway and off-B’Way shows, I understand (and in fact teach) the difference between the two styles of singing. Furthermore, musical theatre singers are usually required to dance – and dance well. So I can grasp the dilemma of an administration trying to present a style that its regular contracted chorus may not be able to deliver, vocally and physically.

    Another kind of compromise is sorely needed. Being “rested” without pay is unprofessional, to say the least, and must be corrected asap.

  2. Martin Locher says:

    An opera company resting their opera singers to stage a musical seems ludicrous. In general though, if you have a 1-year contract, you are not automatically guaranteed to receive a renewal.

    However, I don’t think an opera company should rest this many singers for such an unexpected reason. Especially not, when the company receives substantial subsidies.

    Who pays the musicians for the 3 months without pay? They probably can request unemployed benefits? So it’s the tax payer again. Idiotic to charge the tax payers twice.

    I would feel very guilty when attending or would cease to attend musicals, operas, symphony concerts of my local theatre, if I’d knew they’d treat their staff like Opera Australia does theirs.

  3. José Lastarria says:

    Suspending contractual salaries is appalling, but let’s not confuse the issues nor denigrate the abilities of musical theatre-trained artists, who, beside their different vocal techniques are trained to act and dance – let’s be realistic, here – to a level very, very few opera singers could aspire. That said, if you have people under contract and don’t need them in the main house, why not tour a small production with piano à la Scottish Opera-Go-Round? If Opera Australia finds itself in that situation it’s down to their own bad management and to suspend salaries is not an acceptable solution.

    • Alison says:

      Whilst accepting that musical theatre-trained artists are required to be all rounders in a way that opera singers are not, how many principals in musical theatre can dance really well? It’s rare for them to be required to do anything extremely taxing.

      • José Lastarria says:

        Ever seen your average (and I stress ‘average’) opera singer do anything more complicated than sing and hold out a hand in supplication? Musical theatre principals might not have to be Fred or Ginger, but they can certainly move gracefully, even if the choreography isn’t necessarily particularly demanding.

        • Alison says:

          I suppose if I say yes, you’ll argue that they are not average. Of course some can act better than others.

          I don’t think “moving gracefully” is setting the bar very high.

        • Stufromoz says:

          Actually, knowing some of the singers involved. They can dance. Quite well.

          The biggest complaint we have tho, is where are these singers supposed to go? For 3 months?

        • says:

          And heaven help them if the microphones fail :) It’s obvious you are trying to say musical theatre people are more talented in your opinion than opera singers and that’s rather childish. Opera singers don’t need microphones, they do have to act, AND contrary to your opinion, these days many of the younger ones can dance too – even though not generally required to. And some can also do musical theatre – and do do musical theatre. The younger generation of opera singer is far more versatile than you know and while they can do both your musical theatre performers can only do one. So now who’s the smart one?

          • Theodore McGuiver says:

            No, Jade, you’re wrong on pretty much every count. Concerning microphones, you can only amplify what’s there. No voice, nothing in the auditorium. I’m not claiming (José L was my earlier screen name) that musical singers are more talented than opera singers, just that their training is necessarily more varied. Opera singers don’t need microphones (nor do most of the musical singers I’ve worked with, but hey…) but their acting skills are often less than rudimentary, to say the least. They may have all the right intentions but do not know possess the technique to communicate what they want to say.

            I’m intrigued about your claim that the younger generation of opera singer is more versatile than I know, that they can do both and that musical performers are limited in comparison. What do you know about me, what I’ve done and what I can do? As for your last sentence, I’ll let you make your own appraisal once we’ve compared our CVs, OK?

  4. Graham Cox says:

    On one detail the above article is inaccurate: Opera Australia is (or was) the ONLY company in Australia employing soloists and chorus full-time for the whole year. The other companies are managements with limited full-time staff engaging chorus and soloists when they need them.

  5. John O'Brien says:

    I have been subscriber to Opera Australian since the 1970s. I grew up on American musicals and have sung in full productions and in concert performances. Opera companies can do musicals well. Musicals, however, is not the core business of opera companies. They may play a role in building opera audiences and they can subsidise opera productions that may not have strong audience appeal. But when musicals become a substitute for opera production then that is one large step too far. Opera Australia has long had a core of singers in principal roles who are contracted for year to year, as well as a strong chorus. These are supplemented by singers form Australia and overseas.employed for particular productions. The isolation of Australia makes this a necessity if there is to be a career structure for local singers. The ensemble nature of the company has long been one of tis greatest strengths. Among the artists affected by the stand down are some of the best singers in the country. The notion of a total fly-in fly-out company will not work in Australia. If this proposal is carried out the only full time opera company in Australia will disappear. Singers will retire or go overseas. It will be a great loss to opera in Australia. The groundswell of opposition seems to be growing. One can only hope that it can persuade the company board to rethink, even if the current Artistic Director seems intent on destroying the company.

  6. Prof Doug Grant says:

    For many years now OA has minimized artistic emphasis. There is no music director. Operas are advertised without the name of the conductor, as if that is just not relevant. No wonder Simone Young could not stay.

  7. Graham Cox says:

    Lyndon Terracini was indeed lucky when he became artistic director that OA had no musical director. Most problems in opera companies arise when the intendant/artistic director and music director don’t see eye to eye. Richard Hickox died in November 2008, and since then this major company has survived without a musical director. That it has is due to the fact that Tony Legge left his job at London’s Royal Academy of Music in 2008 to become Richard Hickox’ assistant. By the time he arrived in Sydney Hickox had died. Tony stayed, has done amazing work and is even allowed to conduct the occasional Handel opera. The head of music staff left, The specialist for German rep. amongst the repetiteurs also left, and Lyndon offered me her job. I am so glad I turned him down. It is not the job of the artistic director of Australia’s only full-time opera company to see to it that there is not a single full-time job for an opera singer in Australia. It could even be that I benefit from his decision, and have more wonderful Australian singers in my coaching studio in Berlin. Not a reason to be happy.

  8. Elke Neidhardt AM says:

    As a long time employee and guest director at Opera Australia I am appalled to learn about Lyndon Terracini’s decision to take several principal singers off pay for extended periods next year. These singers are distinguished members of the Ensemble.

    This step puts in question the Managements respect for artists who are the backbone the Company. To make things worse, O.A’s permanent chorus was presented with the option to either perform as Supernumeraries ( non singing Extras) in the first 3 Operas of the forthcoming production of the Melbourne Ring cycle or to take leave without pay for several weeks .

    It defies comprehension how this is possible in Australia. Unions in Europe would very swiftly instruct their members to refuse such a proposal and, if necessary, to strike, which would just as swiftly put an end to any performance and rehearsal until the issue has been solved to the artists satisfaction.

    Unlike the Musicians Unions, Actors Equity has rarely protected or really fought for its members. Actors and singers live in constant fear to fall out with employers, some of who seem to be at ease to treat valuable Artists as nothing else than commodities. The limited work opportunities in this country, particularly for Opera singers, inflates the God-like stature of those who hire and fire unchallenged.

    Opera Australia has always been an Ensemble Company. This is due to the fact that, unlike in Europe, scheduled singers cannot readily be replaced by a guest artist in the case of cancellation. Thus the Company relies on ‘covers’ (second cast usually derived from the Ensemble)who are competent to perform, often at short notice. Considering the high price of an Opera ticket, a responsible Artistic Administrator will take as much care when casting the ‘covers’ as with the choice of the first cast. It is therefore prudent if not imperative for Opera Australia to respect and value their Ensemble singers who are the heart of the Company.

    Long-running ,usually imported, productions of Musicals might generate much needed cash for undersubsidised Opera Australia. Whether an Opera Company should compete with cashed-up commercial enterprises is questionable. Fact is that in Europe, as well as in America, Opera Companies present Operettas when it comes to the lighter fare repertoire. Operetta requires trained Opera singers, Musicals don’t.

    To sideline professional Opera singers and thus undermine the raison d’être of Opera in favour of the quick buck is surely reason for great concern.

  9. John O'Brien says:

    OA recently did a wonderful production of Orpheus in the Underworld. The weak link was a well regarded musical performer who could not begin to match his operatic colleagues. He was used for publicity purposes, but was largely outshone by his operatic colleagues. Opera company productions can be popular, but they usually require opera singers who can act, not actors or musical performers who can hold a tune.

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