The Work of Opera Singing
For her excellent Times column “The Working Life,” Rachel Swarns talks to Jean Braham, a real life opera singer who has been working for The Met for 15 years. As the Met struggles to stay afloat financially, they’re debating ways to cut ‘labor costs’ and raising the old question of who gets paid to make art and why, and how much. I do love that question.
Jean Braham, for her part, is living the union-backed dream:
She loves the work. But it is work.
Rehearsals often begin at the end of July and performances run from September through mid-May. During the season, singers typically work six days a week.
During busy days, singers often have two rehearsals — one at 10:30 a.m. and one from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m. — followed by a 7 p.m. call for an evening performance, which can amount to a 12-hour day. The choristers say their work rules — which the Met would like to change — discourage management from overscheduling them.
Under the rules, the base salary, which ranges from about $62,000 to $125,000 annually, based on seniority, accounts for only about half of the singers’ pay. The rest comes from extra money they receive for working more than four rehearsals a week, working more than seven and a half hours a day and changing costumes during breaks, among other things.
Well, that’s a lot of money. Swarns goes on:
No one blinks when an experienced corporate manager earns a six-figure salary in this city. But an opera singer? We still romanticize the image of the starving artist. We like to think that talent will eventually fill dinner plates and checking accounts.
But in real life, people who can’t pay their bills often put aside their passions, starved of the training, the attention and the resources they need to shine. In real life, there are rents and mortgages to consider, commuting costs and car payments, college debt and voice lessons.
Did $125kKaccounting for half of an opera singer’s salary make you blink? I think I might have blinked. But maybe in a pleased way? A pleasant blink? It is nice to see someone do what they are best at and get paid very well for it. May we all get there someday. Or not because that is not realistic. May a few of us know this life, and may even fewer of us have pensions to go with it.