‘The investment we make to become an opera singer is not worth the return’

‘The investment we make to become an opera singer is not worth the return’


norman lebrecht

November 23, 2014

The international tenor Reinaldo Macias continues to take issue with certain French opera houses that aim to hire young talent on the cheap.

Reinaldo makes several powerful and irrefutable points in this short essay for Slipped Disc:



reinaldo macias

One of the comments on the FB page of “L’Opéra National de Bordeaux” alluded to a recital by a younger Jonas Kaufmann at that theater. Defending the policy of looking for young talent at cheap prices, the person goes on to say that the theater was deserted to the point that the administration had to urge everyone in the theater to sit at the lower lever in order to give the impression of an audience. The person continues to say that today the Bordeaux public would queue up all night in order to hear him sing, if only “au claire de la lune”.


jonas kaufmann young

If we assume the premise that the choice of young/cheap singers is a financial consideration, Bordeaux fails miserably to make its case with this example. A recital where the theater is deserted is not an artistic pursuit worth much in financial terms if the issue is saving money on singers’ fees. I cannot help but to think that the outcome could be far different if Bordeaux had the courage and vision to engage Jonas Kaufmann today. I can imagine the public lining up all night to hear him sing. That same public would be willing to pay higher ticket prices to hear him, they would fill the theater and if administration is judicious and disciplined enough, the theater might actually make a profit. With intelligent marketing they could even go further but let’s stop here.

Administrations have disseminated their gospel so well that even the public now believes that singer fees is the problem. What administrations fail to mention is that mismanagement, excessive executive pay, top heavy administrations, and overly expensive productions are the real culprits they don’t want you to focus on. Administrations are all too aware that singers are easy to pick on. Singers do not speak out because they are afraid of retaliation. However, most are saying privately exactly what few of us are saying publicly and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The financial and personal investment it takes to become an opera singer is not worth the return. Many singers realize this and the young will soon realize the same. It is outrageous to see singers in the 21st century spend six to eight weeks doing a production only to return home with a deficit or a minuscule profit. Most will never see a return on their investment. If the situation continues we will deplete our conservatories and universities of viable talent to ensure the future of opera in its birth continent. We are already making opera singers a foreign import commodity. What respectable young person living in the West would deliberately chose a life of artistic poverty? Is it just to ask such a sacrifice of that young artist when opera directors are earning ever-increasing pay?

The problem in opera is not with singers’ pay. Most of what ails opera can be traced back to those at the top of the administrative food chain! Opera is about great singers and great singing first and foremost. All other experiments and efforts quickly begin to resemble “the emperor’s new clothes”. The more administrations continue to replace great singing with something else, the more audiences will continue to shrink. Masking failed concepts with marketing armies doesn’t seem to be doing the trick either. We need to invest in great singing rather than divest from it.




  • Thomas Silverboeg says:

    Thank you for this important service, Reinaldo. I hope that many singers will join in and sing this song.

  • Nick says:

    One of the issues highlighted here concerns the habit in many countries of only paying opera singers on a per performance basis. Many therefore have to spend several weeks rehearsing without any income to offset their expenses in travelling to the location of the opera company, on accommodation, local transportation and meals. If an artist then becomes ill and is unable to participate in some or all of the performances, fee income is not paid. Surely it would be much fairer to offer weekly salaries to cover rehearsals and then perhaps a slightly smaller per performance fee?

    I agree that overstaffed administrations, bloated administration salaries, mismanagement, bad repertoire decisions, Boards totally incapable of the proper oversight of their companies etc. are all issues that should also be examined much more thoroughly. But believe Mr. Maclas overstates the possibility of depleting conservatories of future talent. We are often told that up to 90% of actors are out of work at any one time; yet this does not stop the influx of those wishing to make a career in that profession. There will always be young singers believing they can make it no matter how slim the financial rewards for most.

    • SVM says:

      Quantity does not always equate to quality; the point is that we want the best young singers to be aspiring to enter the profession. Many of the best may well have other talents, and some choose to pursue careers elsewhere as a result. Whilst accepting that this will always happen to some extent, the difficulty in earning a half-decent living does not help matters (of course, most musicians are not in the profession for the money, but they do need to put food on the table).

      • harry says:

        “Most musicians who chose to make music their profession expect that profession to reward them with a decent living”

        I think “hope” rather than “expect”. Any artistic career requires the combination of talent (which one may eventually discover one does not have enough of), incredibly hard work, and a lot of luck – as you say, it may take 20 years to get the big audition, and then the bad luck of having a cold that day, or being unlucky with the quality of the competition… and it’s a similar story for painters, rock musicians. Trying for a career in the arts could never be called a rational decision, at least not in economic terms.

        • Ursula says:

          Reinaldo you are sooo right! thank you for speaking out the truth! singers usually earn less than the orchestra players and the members of the chorus! they have no security at all, no social assurances paid by the operahouses. No vacations paid just NOTHING! only their fees, if they sing the performances! at the end if you are really honestly counting al studying, rehearsing and so on: a cleaning lady gets more per hour! the point with the rockmusicians and other arts is not really right: there you can become really very rich! in case of success, and there are many of themwho are successful, and there is much les investment for the education. In opera even the best earnig 2 or 3 singers don’t earn more than a boss in a bank, they never come even close to a rockstar or painter….

          • Gerhard says:

            You write: “singers usually earn less than the orchestra players and the members of the chorus!”, and I believe that in the average you might be right. But why is this so? Because soloist singers in their majority were never ready to show solidarity with each other, some individuals notwithstanding. As long as this doesn’t change they have nobody to blame but themselves if management and producers take advantage of them.

        • Theodore McGuiver says:

          Spot on, Harry. Never expect anything. Just because you have a piece of paper saying you have some kind of qualification does not translate as a meal ticket to buoy you along to a comfortable pension. Getting a job in the performing arts is a pain in the arse where you have to develop a rather stoic mentality, otherwise, you’re lost. The moment you develop a sense of entitlement, you’re toast. Finito. Nobody owes us anything. We chose this path, it’s up to us to go down it. We’ve all done it. There are hideous moments, but when it works out, it’s paradise. That’s our argument on the shop floor when we’re debating employment practice with those stuck in front of a screen from nine till five, forty-eight weeks of the year. Some, like Jonas Kaufmann, make it big. Good for him. He deserves it, he’s very good. Many of us are really good, too, but that’s life. There’s no point in being resentful of other people’s success in this business. If you do, you’re destined to die bitter.

  • PJ says:

    Sorry, opera is not just about great singing. If it were just about great singing, you wouldn’t need sets, lighting, stage direction and even the orchestra could be sent home and a prerecorded tape used. You might even suppress all the lyrics and just vocalise. Opera, when it really works (which is all too rarely the case) is the most splendid of art forms which brings together a group of highly talented people – singers, musicians, stage directors, lighting directors, costume designers, you name it – in order to create something transcendental. On condition that egos are put aside, which really never happens at all.

    Opera is also, in Europe, an institution funded by large sums of public money. This would normally induce responsibility and moderation, but it rarely does. The problem is that fees are subject to a willful star-market system, where huge amounts are sometimes squandered in order to secure big names, all to the detriment of the lesser gods. And the egos, always the egos…

  • DREW says:

    In response to what PJ says:
    In principle I do agree with you that the elements you speak of are all very important to an opera production’s greatness. However, history does not support your theory that all these elements are as necessary as singers, and there is a good reason why. What one element could a staged opera not do without? SINGERS. And it has been ever thus. As early as the first production of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” the Duke of Mantua knew (writing in a letter begging his brother for better singers) that the show’s success hinged on adequate singers. Not players. Not sets. Not costumes. And certainly not directors. (And I am a director!) We have all seen beautiful productions with reduced orchestrations (or even accompanied by piano in the case of student productions), little or no costumes, no lights. Etc. In opera, the music is the text, and this music must be SUNG for it to qualify as opera. It doesn’t need to be lit, and it doesn’t need to be costumed. And if the first oboe doesn’t show up, they would still do the opera, but if the lead or even the second soprano failed to show they would not do the opera.

    • karen hoy says:

      Totally agree. Without the singer’s ability to produce the sound with solid technique, style and dramatic commitment there is no opera. Everything else is to support that end.

    • PJ says:

      I understand what you mean, and of course you are right that without singers you wouldn’t have an opera to begin with. Composers wrote their music with singers in mind, they wanted to write in the best possible way for a certain voice. But that still doesn’t mean that great singing alone is sufficient to create opera. Yes, you may have reduced means, but what makes opera so exciting as an art form is the interaction of all the elements involved – all in service of the music in general, and the singing in particular, I agree.

  • Alan Parmenter says:

    ‘First and foremost’ – from whose perspective? Opera is a collaborative medium, much as I love great singers and great singing…

  • Milka says:

    Mr. Macias has not for whatever reason made it “big” so we get this plaintive
    recital .What he says has always been
    so in all the arts not just in the singers world .Nothing new here …there are singers
    who cannot match him and there are singers who surpass him and both are
    just eking out a living . It’s unfortunately the way the game goes.
    One suspects that if Mr. Macias were
    famous & $$ as a singer he would be singing a different tune. – ursula, there are and have been singers who have earned bags of money that bankers can only dream of on a good day .
    As Harry notes a career in the arts is not a rational decision and if Mr. Macias is not “forced at gun point ” to sing for a living , then
    another safer occupation that
    would give him the “return ” he thinks he is worth would be worth pursuing .

  • Alicia says:

    I think what has happened, and it reflects the state of the United States, is that opera has lost its middle class. In the nineties, singers salaries ran the gamut–from millionaires to paupers AND everything in between. The in-betweens are disappearing rapidly for soloists, making teaching and chorus work more attractive for the excellent B house singers. Quality of life has to be offset somewhat with compensation.

  • Marilyn Zschau says:

    If singers do not get at least ONE performance fee for the rehearsal period, they should blame their AGENTS/MANAGERS, not the opera company!

  • Frank says:

    While the discussion of career difficulties for opera singers makes good points, using the Bordeaux Opera as a whipping boy shows a lack of real information. The theater is one of the oldest in use in Europe (from 1780) and seats 1100. No Jonas Kaufmann recital would make money. About expensive management overhead, I have been in GM Thierry Fouquet’s office and the words “tiny” and “grim” come to mind. Fouquet is often one of the judges at singing competitions and gave several star singers their first major roles. Bordeaux audiences can brag that they saw … before he or she was a star in Vienna, London or New York.

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    Reinaldo speaks a lot of sense but I have to raise a finger (no, not like that) when he says that opera is all about singing. Not all operas are about the glory of the vocal chords, freed of any further responsibility. In fact, none really are. The ability to sing what is required is page one, I’m afraid. The art starts there. The greatest opera composers – Verdi, Wagner, Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, Strauss, Bellini, Donizetti, Britten – were, first and foremost, men of the theatre and their work suffers if performed by inept actors. When we think of the greatest opera ‘singers’, we rarely pick those who possessed only a great voice; we think of Callas, Kraus, di Stefano…

    Saying that opera is all about the voice is like saying that being a concert pianist is all about playing scales evenly.

  • Brian says:

    There was a time when many, perhaps most, singers including the biggest internationally celebrated names, had a home base, one theater where they practiced their art and gave most of their time to with a number of performances carved out “als Gast” in other theaters. Lotte Lehmann in Vienna, Leider in Berlin, Lubin in Paris, Pertile in Milan, Melba in London or Eames in New York. Singers in a given company cultivated an identifiable ensemble style. The fees were gratifying and they were pensioned. (Though some, like Lilli Lehmann lost their pensions when they “defected,” in her case to spend more time at the Metropolitan.) London had its international seasons but most of the artists spent most of their time in their own theaters. A Bjoerling or Svanholm probably sang more performances in Stockholm than any one theater elsewhere. London had its own local outlets, performing in English, and there was plenty of opportunity for homegrown artists from touring companies like the Carl Rosa, to BNOC to Sadlers Wells. Austral, Radford, Burke, Andreva, Perli/Labbette, Nash, Balfour etc. etc.
    And even in America when international conditions cut off supplies of European artists the Met developed a strong home team from Steber and Stevens to Tibbett, Bonelli and Warren, Traubel, Huehn, not to mention Peerce and Tucker.
    All of these singers sang to packed houses. Only a few artists got rich off singing and, sadly, even modest recording contracts are a thing of the past. Few have the clout of a Bartoli (who in fact seems to make Zurich her home base.)
    Now, if we could only uninvent air travel, their might be a solution.
    But I agree with Mr. Macias, it is ultimately singers who draw the crowds, not the latest tarted up production. In Vienna, I’m sure Mahler’s conducting, and Alfred Roller’s sensational designs were strong inducements to attend the opera but it probably took a great Isolde like Anna Bahr-Mildenburg to really fill the seats.

  • Lady X says:

    I got paid 75Euros (included one rehearsal and one concert) singing back up for Netrebko, Kaufman & Schrott during their grand tour – Vienna Stadthalle, 15,000 people, tickets up to 700Euros. This is the example I use when I explain to non-musicians why I with my 20+ years of training, international experience, private White House concerts etc., 100,000s of $ in education – why I work a normal job and therefore don’t have the time to sing roles. I just can’t afford it. The discipline and sacrifice in no way equals the reward. That generation is dead. Unfortunately it’s the same song with ALL creative professions – even big name movie companies, photographers, illustrators etc. The creative professions are all being exploited. I used to be sad thinking I wasted so much life-time and money working so hard for a grand career that I was promised by my world famous teachers internationally – but lately I’ve come to realize that maybe I was lucky to be able to experience opera in my lifetime…maybe for the next generation it will be history like “silent films” or vaudeville theatre.

  • Adriano says:

    Bravissimo Reinaldo – and regards from Zürich 🙂