Thought for the day: ‘Most can’t afford to work in opera’

Thought for the day: ‘Most can’t afford to work in opera’


norman lebrecht

October 27, 2015

Seattle Opera has posted an extraordinarily candid statement by Alison Moritz, assistant director on its current production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers:



alison moritz

‘Many people probably won’t talk about this honestly, but I think it’s important to be frank about the personal and financial sacrifices that it takes to be an emerging artist, particularly in the United States. There are many wonderful rewards to this life and work, but they are not necessarily financial. It’s a very hard position to be in—when I first started, I often found myself doing work I loved with people I greatly admired, but not getting paid enough to make a living. What if I couldn’t afford to take that kind of risk on myself? What stories and artists are we missing out on because there are people who simply can’t afford to create art for a living?’

alison moritz
Photo credit: Kristin Hoebermann



  • mxjk says:

    People need bananas to eat. People make bananas.
    People goes off and starts making art. Doesnt make bananas.
    People like art. Give peoples bananas for art.
    More People want to make art.
    People dont make bananas.
    Not enough People make bananas.
    Not enough People want to give bananas to peoples making art and no bananas.
    Peoples goes back to making bananas.

    As CS Lewis could have said. It is a ‘Law of Nature’

  • Acolyte my fire. says:

    It’s not really about bananas – I (frequently) think about this subject, and what troubles me is the disparity between what different line items on the operatic budget receive.

    Of course the audience aren’t paying to see excellent stage managers or assistant directors, so it makes sense that singers, directors, sets and costumes get a bigger slice of the budget pie.

    But the other way of looking at is how much the different line items contribute to the final product – and how much of a loss of quality these elements could suffer before they seriously impact on the process, the company’s bottom line, and the audience’s experience.

    Assistants carry a huge load in creation process – you want excellent, trained people with passion and commitment, and excellent trained people with passion and commitment doing a vital job deserve to get paid decently. Not, perhaps, in a small-scale work they drive themselves, playing to a couple of hundred people in a season, but certainly when they work for the bigger companies.

    Bigger companies where directors get paid tens of thousands, and singers easily receive an assistant director’s fee per performance; bigger companies where a director’s new idea or a costume designer’s mistake can cost several times what an AD gets paid; bigger companies where unionised choristors (big fan, btw) work to tightly regulated timetables whilst assistants put in 15 hour days, 7 days a week… in these bigger companies, there’s a fair question to be asked as to whether assistants and staff directors are getting paid commensurate with their workload or their value to the work.

    Sure, part of my argument is sour grapes – based on the fact that I wish I could afford things like ‘a family’ or ‘the rent’ after 7 years of training and 12 years of work at the highest levels, but the larger point is that if this situation continues as it is, or indeed worsens, it will make it impossible for anyone but the wealthy to do this kind of work – a dynamic increasingly true of the arts in general.

    And that’s bananas.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      Significantly, you’ve neglected to mention repetiteurs, the invisible music staff without whom no production would be possible. And they certainly don’t get paid a lot.

      • Acolyte my fire. says:

        I was trying to keep to a focused argument, and talk about what I knew. You’ll find no bigger champion of music staff, but I’m afraid I have no idea what they get paid.

        • Laura Mazel says:

          You have a very good point, however – I’d like to note that the vast majority of Union stage hands earn more than Union set, costume, and lighting designers and they also receive benefits. They have regulated meal breaks and overtime pay while designers (even the ones working at the top level) are expected to work any time and all the time with no breaks and no benefits for a flat fee.

  • Paul Mann says:

    I don’t understand the nonsense above at all. But people don’t make bananas. They grow.

  • mxjk says:

    Gentlemen, there is a very simple fact in all this. It is supply and demand. The problem is not that there are too many artists who cannot afford a living and therefore the state of art is bad.
    There are simply too many artists who in fact can, through whatever means, go out to intend to be artists. There are too many of them for a market that does not require it. Art and Bananas. That’s all money is in the end.

    • CDH says:

      If you were remotely literate, here or above, one might tackle your argument one way or the other. As it is, you are making no sense of your own point, which may or may not have validity.

      Oh, God, for proper schooling n the three Rs.

      • MXJK says:

        charming, Mr Literate. Now, anything to add to the point? Or is the slipped disk comments section only meant for cockfighting. Why don’t you try talking about art and bananas?

        • soprano singer says:

          MXJK could you name me one second of the day or the night that you do not use the work of a professional artist? You can’t, or you’d be sitting naked in a swamp. Now name me one profession you also make use of 24-7, you can’t.

          Art is not a luxury, art is what we are and what separates us from the animals. Therefore there are never too many artists, there are only too many idiots thinking with their bananas instead of recognizing that people need more than just food, they need quality of life. And unfortunately many only realize this when they have already lost it.

          Who designed your house? Your car? Your clothes? Who designed your big stereo, and what use does it have without any musicians? Your flat screen TV without any actors? Or do you think that things just materialized without any experimenting or development by people who were willing to invest more in what they believe in than you could ever imagine?

          If you still think life is about bananas, than you are an ape and should do as they do to amuse themselves, stick your banana where the sun don’t shine.

  • David says:

    Too many people are trying to make a career in the classical music field. That seems self evident. An average musician or singer is not going to have a job. Someone needs to tell these people that this is what you have to look forward to. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

    • soprano singer says:

      I have seen average musicians have great careers, I have also seen fabulous musicians having none. It’s not about talent unfortunately.

  • Singer in Germany says:

    The amount European houses spend on administration is obscene. In the last house I worked in, the music director and the Intendant made more than the entire budget for all soloists for every production.

  • william osborne says:

    Germany has 83 full time opera houses owned and operated by state and municipal governments. The USA with four times the population has about 6 genuinely functional houses, and their seasons last from about 3 to 7 months. The USA ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita, behind every European country.

    It is pretty much a standard practice for American opera singers to go to Europe to have a career. Only a tiny few are able to return to the States and be genuinely professionally active.

    The problem has little to do with opera or American cultural values, but with our lack of an effective public funding system for the arts — something that every other developed country in the world has.

    • Neven P. says:

      I agree, socialism is going to solve all problems – but only until you run out of other people’s money.

      • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

        “Socialism” – the Word That Shall Never Be Uttered, Let Alone Put To Practice, Under Pain Of Death. It says more about the USA in this context. Quoting St. Maggie isn’t helpful. I’d increase taxes on the wealthy and fund culture, education, universal healthcare and infrastructure, (i.e. the Common Good – a term also deeply hated in the US), all if which are a bit of a mess in America, if not collapsing.

        • Neven P. says:

          It would be much easier if you just moved to France 🙂

        • Neven P. says:

          And there, besides some really good wine and cheese, you would discover that things are as messy as they are in the U.S. The only difference is that in the U.S., free enterprise system allows you to change something in your life for the better, while there you are stuck in the mud. Talking from the experience.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            The Land Of The Free, and the Home Of The Brave!!


            Guess how popular your homeland and its Mickey Mouse policies are around the world?

          • Neven P. says:

            I wish I had an American passport, my friend. But I don’t.

        • soprano singer says:

          If you were in the Netherlands people would laugh about your statement coming from a Brenninkmeyer…

      • william osborne says:

        Apparently a person who has never been to Europe and witnessed their high standards of living and culture. Americans are so brainwashed and they don’t even know it.

        • Neven P. says:

          Dear William, you have just given me the greatest compliment I could wish for! I never thought I could pass for a native. As of now we will be best friends.

          Concerning your “Europe”, this is a fantasy land that exists only on a Discovery Chanel and postcards. Had you lived there for ten years or more, as I did, you would have known what I am talking about. Public funding for arts is as messy as private. Everything depends on a whim of some culture ministry official and there is always a heavy dose of unhealthy politicking involved.

          Now back to my Fox News and Donald Trump fundraising campaign 🙂

          • william osborne says:

            I’ve lived in Europe for the last 36 years. Yes, back to your Fox News….

          • Neven P. says:

            If you are in Europe, how do you know we are having it so bad in the U.S.? A good diet of Le Monde diplomatique?

          • Eddie Mars says:

            No money for Beethoven – but bottomless funds for massacring brown people all over the globe.

            American ‘Exceptionalism’

          • Neven P. says:

            Go Eddie! You are my new friend, too.

            If my memory serves me well, the Brits, the French, the Spaniards and the Italians also did their fair share of slaughtering non-Caucasians (to be politically correct). And Germans? God forbid!

        • soprano singer says:

          Where in Europe William?! Tell me! I’ve been looking for so long…

      • Eddie Mars says:

        You have no clue.

        • David says:

          Mr. Osborne, I thought you were going to mention The Sun and News of the World as those towering achievements in UK literature instead of Fox News.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Whenever any US city wants to establish one or more full-time, publically-funded opera companies, they are perfectly free to do so. Almost all the larger ones are Democratic monocultures, so they should be amenable to the idea.

      • Eddie Mars says:

        Here in Europe we have a fable, called The Pied Piper of Hamlin. It’s an allegory of what happens to communities who are too short-sighted, mean-spirited or swivel-eyed to pick up the shared cost of services which provide for the public good. The tale has been told for many centuries by good-hearted and wise people able to discern the message of its ending.

        You are clearly not one of that latter group.

    • soprano singer says:

      Not since several European countries decided to cut cultural funding and implementing the so called “American system”

  • Alexander Brown says:

    I’m afraid even here in Europe things are pretty bleak for aspiring singers/music staff/directors, etc. It is almost impossible to get an audition, either with theatres or agents (letters asking for one are almost invariably consigned to the trash can). Entering competitions is a waste of time, given the very high levels of corruption. If a young singer with talent (and I would add all the aforementioned people without whom no opera would ever be put on) actually does get a [paying] job in a theatre and on to a stage in front of the public, it is more by accident than design… And then if you throw the lack of knowledge and competence among those who are doing the auditioning into the equation (something that is truly mind-blowing), added to the dearth of money for singers (it all seems to go on admin and “productions”, the singers (not the BIG names of course) being last on the list for consideration), the scene is set ultimately for an inexorable decline in this field of Man’s art – a lethal quicksand from which it will be almost impossible to emerge again. Bleak? – sure. Too pessimistic? – you tell me…

    • Anja Rossau says:

      I’m afraid I’m one of the singers who can no longer afford to earn a living as an operasinger. I loved my work and (I think) I was pretty good at it and had a good reputation. Then the recession hit and everything went into decline. I was pushed out of the market and it seems impossible to get back in. Without money coming in I can’t afford to keep going to auditions so am now using my voice in other fields, but I will always miss the opera as it is my first love and the thing I most want to do!

  • Gianmaria says:

    It’s not a supply and demand issue. This should not be looked at as a business: education is the missing link in this. Lots of artists strive or don’t make it despite their talent, but at the same time too many theaters and orchestras close down because of the lack of funding.
    Art should be one of the priorities of governments around the world, both for education and performance: it simply makes better human beings.

    • Neven P. says:

      Sad but true. Con la cultura non si mangia… I read last year that only La Scala, La Fenice and San Carlo manage to keep their deficits under control. But on the other side, what can you do if the demand is falling?