How opera companies put the squeeze on their artists

How opera companies put the squeeze on their artists


norman lebrecht

November 14, 2014

You’ve heard about the letter Peter Gelb sent out, asking Metropolitan Opera singers to slash their fees.

He is not alone.

Several British companies have done the same.

Here is a candid, regretful letter sent to artists and agencies earlier this year by David Pountney, head of Welsh National Opera. Mark it as a sign of our times.

David Pountney at the ceremony in Vienna credit Bregenzer Festspiele photo Karl Forster

Dear Colleague,

I apologise for writing to you on the subject of money, but we have reached a point where we are obliged to involve everyone with whom we are working with the evolving financial reality.

You have probably been aware of a series of announcements of cuts by the Arts Councils (we are funded by both Wales (ACW) and England (ACE)), some of them “in year” cuts – i.e. cuts made to an already agreed level of funding within the year to which the funding applies….

We have been sustaining our artistic programme over the last two years and up to 2016 by judicious use of our reserves. This will not be an option beyond 2016 as these will be exhausted. During this period, our permanent staff have had either very low or no pay rises so that their average earnings have also fallen well behind inflation.

In addition, since 2007/8 we have reduced our permanent staff by over 60, through non-replacement and redundancy – this is a reduction of 24%.

We have managed to protect our artistic personnel from these redundancies, believing that the orchestra and chorus are essential to the future of the company, though as I say above, these bodies have both endured declining financial rewards.

Sadly, in the future, we can no longer protect either the artistic personnel or the programme from the effects of the financial reality, as the base line from which we are now operating does not give us any other direction to turn in the future.

As a result we are regretfully asking our artistic partners to take some small share in this situation. We believe that on the whole you would probably prefer that we are able to continue with projects at a slightly reduced rate of reward, rather than abandon them altogether, for as long as that is at all possible. We are therefore asking all our guest artists in every area to agree to a 5% reduction in your contractually agreed fees.

This is a polite request because of course you already have contracts. That is the pernicious aspect of the “in-year” cuts we are receiving. You are of course at liberty to refuse, or to withdraw from your contracts altogether. But in all honesty, I hope it is clear to you what the long term consequences must then be for the Company. There is really no further place to hide.

This is not a confidential letter, but an open request. I am happy if you feel inclined to share this letter with others, as I think it is helpful for our funders and our partners of all kinds to know and to understand the situation that we are facing in the immediate future. I hope I can count on your understanding and good will. By all means also feel free to challenge anything I have said. We are all in this situation together, and I favour direct communication and open debate.

Best wishes

David Pountney


  • sdReader says:

    Well written!

  • V.Lind says:

    Could this man please run for Prime Minister?

    Of Canada?

    • Geoff says:

      Why Canada?
      We have a Prime Minister now that many, in fact the majority of Canadians would like replaced.
      If we got Mr. Pountney would he ask all the MPs to take a 5% salary cut? Or would he ask me to pay 5% less Sales Tax on everything I buy?(currently 13%).
      If the answer is yes to both, send him over.

  • Lauren says:

    The artists are always the ones getting it in the neck. Get rid of the union for non-artists and pay a decent but not crazy wage to them. Cut the admin salaries and hire a Cultural Development Strategist with base salary and bonus based on funds raised and you have got yourself a functioning arts org and probably widen the audience base into the future as well. I am available for the CDS job. You can find me on Linkdin if any arts org’s want a modern-thinker for the modern world who won’t break your budget:

    • MWnyc says:

      So you’re suggesting that Welsh National Opera should cut the pay of its administrators and office staff and use that money to hire you

      you being a rock/jazz guitarist-turned-consultant from California with no visible experience working professionally in opera anywhere, let alone in the UK …

      Here in New York City, we call that chutzpah.

  • Chris says:

    How do you propose to get rid of this union? Also, why the hell would you put a hyphen between the words ‘modern’ and ‘thinker’. Still, it’s great that you have such a great solution to this problem: namely, hire you.

  • Nick says:

    An extremely well-written and persuasive letter. As I understand it, the letter does not relate specifically to the permanent members of the orchestra and chorus. Presumably that will have been done in direct negotiation with the relevant Unions. It refers to guest soloists who will be working with the company on a series of performances. To reduce a contract by 5% in a time of economic hardship would, I suggest, be of no particular hardship to those involved. I hope all will agree.

  • Anon says:

    Agreed, I think we all forget the administrators, equally as passionate about arts as all the wonderful performers. They don’t get paid nearly enough, and work exceptionally long hours in a totally thankless position. Of course, performers deserve to be paid properly and well, but they are the ones who get a voice on the subject often. Those loyal to organisations get it in the neck from all angles on this topic. I’m not talking so much about those at the top, but those at the lower levels. It causes the threat that people won’t want to go into the arts as it’s so dreadfully paid. it also means that the only people able to take on internships are those from wealthy backgrounds who can be supported whilst they learn to do what in the past was part of your first paid job.

    Also, I can’t help but wonder how much WNO’s rebrand cost a few years ago? Money well spent? We’re not just talking about on their website and printed literature. The rebrand must have cost thousands and with all that was already in the air regarding cuts, I can’t help but feel this wasn’t a good use of funds.

    I know, I’ve said absolutely nothing new here, but worth giving both sides of this before we hear the ususal “the artists are the major victims”. We ALL are. The audience, the administrators, the musicians. Everyone.

  • Gala says:

    Mr. Poutney, Chapeau!! This man deserves a trophy. The dignity he maintains describing his problem; the respect he offers artists by outlining all his financial sources to them and the humility he demonstrates making his request, are beyond compare!! None of today’s top politicians could make such a financially burdening requests seem so consoling! Thank you for sharing