A US opera singer’s life: ‘You’re waiting for your check in the mail. Waiting…waiting…waiting’

A US opera singer’s life: ‘You’re waiting for your check in the mail. Waiting…waiting…waiting’


norman lebrecht

July 19, 2015

And on the other hand

Some interesting reflections from an anonymous poster about the discrepancies between the vast donations received by US opera companies…. and the breadline existence of most who sing in them.

Few of us ever get to the point in our careers where we can live on opera alone. In the United States, where opera is not an integral part of the culture, it’s hard to find gigs, and at that, paying gigs. Most people do not come from a wealthy background, and do not have the financial means to fly all over Europe, paying thousands of dollars to sing roles and secure hotel rooms for days. Once we finally get a good job, the pay is not enough to live off of. This country sponsors athletics, but not the arts.

Read the full post here.

salzburg beggar


  • La Donna del Largo says:

    How is this different from the experience of anyone who works on a freelance basis in the US? Part of the expectation of this sort of job is that invoices routinely take 60, 90, even 120 days to be paid.

    • william osborne says:

      Many freelance workers like doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and mechanics aren’t starving while they wait for their 2 checks per year. Nor do they have to leave the country to find work. American opera singers in Europe are literally economic refugees.

      • La Donna del Largo says:

        Hyperbolic much? Artists throughout history have taken various “side” jobs to support themselves between paychecks.

        Someone needs to inform these kids before they sign up for expensive graduate programs what the world is really like out there: enormous competition for very few jobs.

        “This country sponsors athletics, but not the arts” is sheer whining.

        • william osborne says:

          Whatever the situation, Germany has 83 full time opera houses while the USA has 1. Aside from the Met, there only about 6 or 7 genuinely function houses in all the USA for four times the population, and they have half year seasons or less.

          • Mark Henriksen says:

            On the other hand, Germany only has one orchestra that is on par with the “Big Six” orchestras in the US. So, maybe the US isn’t quite the cultural desert your posts imply.

          • william osborne says:

            The radio orchestras in Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Cologne are equal in quality to the US top six. The Gewandhaus and Dresden are also comparable. On a per capita basis, that’s a higher ratio of top orchestras. This can be documented with recordings. This also means that the US offers far few jobs for top musicians.

            Top US orchestras stand out due to the rarity of full time orchestras in the US, and much more intensive programs of self-promotion.

          • Mark Henriksen says:

            The orchestras you mention are, on a very good day, on the level of Baltimore, Seattle, San Diego, St. Louis, Atlanta. Not even comparable to San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, or the National Symphony, the second tier in the US (except, maybe, maybe Gewandhaus). The reason is competition; music schools in the US recruit from all over the world and produce more, well trained students.

          • william osborne says:

            The ratio of foreign students is similar in German conservatories — usually 30% or more. If there is a difference, it is that Germany has 133 full time orchestras as opposed to 17 (at my last count) in the USA for 4 times the population. Germany has one full time orchestra for every 650,000 people; the USA one for every 14 million. There is thus much more competition for players in Germany and most other European countries than in the USA.

            Germany has 83 full time opera houses while the USA has 1. But even with these differences, I disagree that there are significant differences in quality in the orchestras I mention — though the differences will be debated because both countries are deeply chauvinsitic.

            Unfortunately for the USA, if one looks at the larger picture of cultural availability and distribution, there’s no comparison at all. Especially for opera, comparable stats for the USA are found only in Third World countries.

    • Brian b says:

      In several interviews, the late, great Jon Vickers repeatedly said he lived a hand-to-mouth existence for years in the 1950s in Canada although he had over 400 opera performances under his belt before David Webster gave him a contract. Donna del Largo is right.

  • Stephen Owades says:

    The writer of this piece isn’t dealing with the sorts of opera companies that receive “vast donations.” Rather, it’s the small companies that are paying slowly, if at all, and that’s because they have nearly no budget or income. Not really fair to imply that this is a problem with the Met or other big organizations. No “real” opera company would “sell” a role for a $10,000 donation, and if a company would, they’re surely not receiving vast sums elsewhere.

  • Nick says:

    Clearly changed days. Decades ago I can recall visiting a good friend making her debut at La Scala who was soon to become a regular at several major European houses and at Salzburg. She always stayed with landladies arranged by the presenters and travelled on what were then called bucket-shop air tickets (now budget airlines). Even today rravelling around Europe which anonymous seems to find so expensive need not be so.