100 singers flew in to audition … and none was hired

We have received the following account from a busy European opera singer.

Last week, along with 100 or so other singers, I spent upwards of 800 euros to fly to Malta for an audition for The Rake’s Progress at Teatru Manuel.  Not a big house by any means but a nice festival to do and they attract some high level artists from all over Europe, which is astounding given the size of the place. This was the second time I have been out there to audition.

It became apparent this week that none of my colleagues had been cast. This was odd as several have performed the roles multiple times on A stages.

Today, we found out through a colleague close to the house that they have cancelled the production altogether due to “unforeseen circumstances”.  All WE received was an email saying “sorry not this time”.

There has been no explanation or apology.  Almost all the singers paid over 600 euros for nothing.

Manoel theatre malta

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  • Very unfortunate!

    Question though… you talk about Malta. Why is there a photo of Palacio Bellas Artes (Mexico City) associated with this article? The Opera Nacional had nothing to do with this story, but your photo has visually branded it. That’s careless

      • My third attempt to write a reply and I’m hoping not to get ‘kicked off’
        Having sung many times at the beautiful Bellas Artes Theater in Mexico City, I am also unsettled and I request that you remove the STILL present photo of this renowned place. It visually connects the theater to your headline…
        I am sorry for the treatment of young professional singers who have to spend money on these often fake auditions and screenings…it’s horrendous!
        Please, Please remove my beloved theater’s picture from your post.

    • That’s what I was thinking… however, I guess the “Cancelled production” is different than the “no, sorry, we just aren’t feeling like hiring anyone today” that happens at orchestral auditions.

      • Sorry but I call BS on that – orchestra auditions are governed by strict union guidelines. Singers NEVER have those kind of protections in an audition setting. As a former horn player turned singer, instrumentalists auditioning for orchestras HAVE IT MADE compared to any singer, at any level, out there trying to get work.

        • Megan — Could you explain? I was only trying to say that cancelling the production seemed like a more legitimate reason for not hiring anyone to sing in it, compared to the usual orchestral “no-hire” situation.

          • Orchestras are not in the habit of holding auditions when there is not a known vacancy – unless that has changed from when I was on the circuit. Whether they hire someone at the audition or not, the job does exist. If orchestras starting holding “general” company auditions like opera houses do (please pay around a $40 fee and travel to us so we can hear you and maybe consider you in the future, but probably we will just take your money and decline to hear you) the AFM would be all over that! Because it irresponsible and in some cases, I do believe it is predatory. AGMA, the singer’s Union, however, is not nearly as organized or well-funded as the AFM and does not even step in to participate in discussions about these issues – much less pursue companies with less than ethical business practices.

          • Oh, I see. Yes, that is a filthy way to treat musicians — OR singers — and the AFM would shut it down fast. AGMA should too.

  • I’m sorry to hear that singers can be left out of pocket like this. Surely there’s a better way of doing things. To be honest, I was surprised when I learnt The Manoel were to stage The Rake’s Progress, as they usually don’t stray far from 19th Italian core repertory. Although perhaps that’s changing – this week they’re performing Orphée et Eurydice, Berlioz version, in French. Maybe when I’m there this Sunday I’ll discover more of what’s going on, and what they’ll be doing instead of Rake this time next year.
    And yes, they do get some top class singers to Malta, this time including Lucia Cirillo fresh from La Scala’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, where she received glowing reviews. I’m so glad it’s not a counter-tenor singing Orphée, but I guess that’s just me.

    • I can’t really see the point. I can’t think of an orchestra worth auditioning for who would hold auditions purely on a whim. It’s simply too much effort; any decent orchestra holding auditions clearly wishes to hire. But it would be a daft orchestra that hired the best at that set of auditions if the player wasn’t good enough to meet the standards of the ensemble. If the right player(s) were elsewhere that day or couldn’t make it, better to wait for them than to make the wrong decision.

      Particularly in most of the Western orchestras, once you’re in, you’re in. If orchestras could remove poor players more easily I imagine they would hire more easily too – but if players expect protection and a job for life, the downside is that those jobs will be much harder to get in the first place. (This is true in most jobs, not just orchestras).

  • Reminds me of my dear friend, violinist Haroutune Bedelian’s shared mutual joke with me whenever a concert performance invitation was cancelled at the last minute because of loss of funding by the presenters. Instead of our asking “When’s our next concert?, it’s better to ask when’s our next cancellation?”

  • This is in many respects even worse than an orchestra not hiring anyone. They encouraged 100 people to fly in to audition for roles in ONE production? At least with an orchestra audition the upside potential of winning is significantly higher. And you’d think there would be better ways of casting roles in an opera.

    • Marriage of Figaro would cost them just as much if not more money!

      It’s a total disgrace what they have done to young singers who are desperate to get work when there is so little around – unless you are a star. Yes, instrumentalists have more protection, certainly in Britain, by the Musicians Union. Singers – because they are not classed as musicians, ha, ha – story of my life as a soprano – cannot join. So you’re on your own in these situations, and more so if you audition abroad where this situation of ‘going through the motions’ of getting everyone there and then engaging no one can you just leave you in debt from all the costs, and where they never probably intended to engage anyone anyhow. Thank God I am at the end of my career and not starting out.

  • This isn’t a case of singers starting out. The singers invited, including myself, are established. The opera world is in a crisis very similar to the NHS. The only solution is a union for all singers to bring the power balance back from the agents and houses and make them accountable for appalling behaviour and a lack of respect. Tech crews, orchestras, choruses, directors and conductors (technically “Musical Directors” for tax purposes) are all supported by unions. Freelance singers aren’t and there is very little existing unions can do as they simply don’t have enough power without having a madaatory membership that allow them to pressure the house by withdrawing their singers.

    A tipping point is coming. If it doesn’t there will eventually be no good singers left. In Sweden recently, the opera schools took no male singers at all. Half the business is run by clueless administrators who have regard for the artform but little knowledge or respect for the time and effort it takes to become a vocal athlete. Supply outweighs demand they say, but quality of vocal production and career lengths are dropping because of no support for singers. Athletes get government sponsorship and a whole team of people around them in particular sports psychologists and motivational coaches. Singers are lucky if they get support from their teacher. The system in Western Europe is broken and needs fixing. This example is just one of many things that are happening at the moment. There needs to be a powerful union and solidarity between artists that has to start at the college level. Without it, the future looks bleak. Why? Because the current crop of singers like myself who are also coaching, find it difficult to encourage young singers into such a mess of a business. These days, getting a chorus position is as sought after as wanting to be a consistently employed A stage principal. The the houses will be ok of course. They’ll just keep adding more musical theatre while intendant after intendant uses as many houses as possible to keep climbing up their career ladder…..

    • What union represents conductors?
      I can’t think of one which ‘protects’ players who are in an audition situation as described in this article either. Nor stage-hands on speculative job interviews. Or Directors pitching ideas where a competitive process exists.

  • I’m curious. A couple of singers have come on here to say that instrumentalists are “protected” in these types of situations by union rules. In my experience, instrumentalists frequently spend several hundred dollars to fly to an audition only to find out that no one was hired. 100 plane tickets + 100 hotel rooms + meals + possible missed work back home … happens all the time. In the US at least, there is no union rule prohibiting, or even discouraging, this kind of scenario. Is there something in British or EU union rules that provide instrumentalists some kind of protection in a comparable situation to what these singers had to dealwith? If so, could someone describe it? I’m asking this question seriously. Thanks.

  • The reference was to orchestral players, not to freelancers. Freelance players obviously have the same problems I would imagine. Maybe more so.

    The Musician’s Union supports conductors, the same as players. But the conductors have much more respect and power due to the “leadership” position they hold and the sway they can have with orchestras. It is a Directors and Conductors business now after all. I was in a situation recently where the cast wanted to strike due to a terrible situation regarding a fee cut by the company well into the contract. The conductor, after saying he would support the singers as he was in the same situation, did a backhanded deal with the company and ended up with no fee cut while happily smiling at the singers onstage who were furious. They were too afraid to strike and consequently ended up heavily out of pocket after a long tour. The company, agents, director and conductor were all fine of course.

    Groups have the power to lobby if necessary, such as orchestras, choruses etc. Freelancers are fractured and these days, unless your marketing, PR and ability are all world class, you’re often treated as though you are the least important cog in the theatre wheel. A lot like doctors and teachers. We live in an age where elitism in any form is now frowned upon, mediocrity is celebrated, middle men and project managers have all the power and the people at the core, actually providing the service that would crumble if taken away, such as teachers, doctors etc are the least valued. The opera world has gone the same way and it won’t change unless this kind of practice is frowned upon and the companies involved are named and shamed.

    Incidentally, it emerged today that the company KNEW they were cancelling the Rake BEFORE the singers flew out but after they had invited everyone. So they could have easily cancelled it. If I didn’t know better I would think they ha a deal with the tourist board.

    And this wasn’t an issue about money. Money is flooding into Valetta as they are European Capital of Culture for 2018. This was incompetence, maybe arrogance, who knows, but not financial.

  • I am Michael Mangion and writing in my official capacity of PR and Marketing Manager at Teatru Manoel in Malta to clarify a number of misconceptions being uploaded on this blog. I can assure everyone that we called auditions in good faith. The decision to postpone the production of “The Rake’s Progress” was made after the auditions as a result of a series of unforeseen events. The decision was not taken lightly or recklessly.

    We have written to each of the 31 artists who flew over for the audition explaining the situation, a significant number of whom have been understanding and responded positively. This is also the first time this has happened in our long history of commissioning artists from overseas and we will do our utmost for it to be the last.

    We have the utmost respect for artists and an enviable reputation for the hospitality we show them when they are here.

    • Dear Mr. Mangion,

      With all due respect, actions speak louder than words!

      You may claim that the decision to postpone the production wasn’t taken “lightly or recklessly” and that “you have the utmost respect for artists and an enviable reputation”, but that doesn’t mean that this, is in fact, the case.

      My name is Emilio Pons (www.emiliopons.com) and I am one of the 31 artists who flew over for the audition on Sunday, February 28, 2016.

      For the record and the benefit of the readers of this blog, I am neither a “desperate” nor an entry level singer, as some incorrectly assume most of us were. I have been on stage for ten years, and I have sung in various “A” level houses, including the Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Teatro Municipal de Santiago, Ópera de Bellas Artes, etc, and numerous “B” theaters. And I am well acquainted with this particular title, which I have sung in Rio de Janeiro and Braunschweig.

      Perhaps most importantly, I am also a presenter myself. I am co-founder and Artistic Director of the Sankt Goar International Music Festival and Academy (www.sg-imfa.com). We present over 60 concerts a year in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, and organize summer programs which include master classes with casting directors of top-level organizations (Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Theater an der Wien, Baden-Baden Festival, Opéra de Lyon, amongst others). I can assure you and the readers of this blog, that NONE of the highly esteemed, extremely professionals who work in these organizations would ever risk their impeccable reputation by causing a fiasco such as the one caused by the Teatru Manoel on this occasion. Just as singers don’t like to be the victims of gross generalizations elicited by the irresponsible attitudes of some of our colleagues, presenters also do not appreciate being vilified by the irresponsible antics of organizations like yours. And it goes without saying that I, as a presenter, would never risk my reputation either by behaving in such an inconsiderate, dishonest and unprofessional manner.

      I should have known that things would go awry the minute I heard about the auditions, which were announced very late. Although there was a preselection process by video and CV, the results of this process were announced less than 2 weeks ahead of the audition. Consequently, travel costs to Malta went through the roof. My bill for the flight to Malta and one hotel night (without any ancillary costs added to this figure) was US$694.03, so hardly pocket change!

      Anyone who has worked in this business for a while knows that it is absolutely customary for singers to have an opportunity to go through the audition repertoire with the pianist ahead of the audition. Your theater’s administrators decided, however, that no such basic concession and sign of “respect” and “consideration” vis-à-vis the auditionees should be made, and in blatant disregard for our expenses, the Teatru Manoel decided to cut corners on pianists. As a result, there was absolutely no opportunity whatsoever to rehearse with the accompanying pianist, which is not only not customary but unprofessional, particularly when the work being auditioned is as musically complex as “The Rake’s Progress.” I was one of various singers who ended up being taken aback by the unrehearsed tempi and as a result, admittedly, I didn’t do my very best in the audition. Thus, when I received the rejection e-mail, I wasn’t surprised.

      Said e-mail, incidentally, stated:

      “Thank you for auditioning on February 28th. *** I regret to inform you that you have not been cast on this occasion.*** (emphasis added)

      Thank you for travelling and we hope that you enjoyed your brief stay in Malta.
      Please keep an eye on our website for future opportunities.
      We hope that you will consider auditioning for us again in the future.

      Kind Regards
      Cathy (Lawlor)”

      Although I was upset by the fact that we couldn’t rehearse with the pianist (which is not my or my colleagues’ fault), at first I was primarily upset at myself for allowing an unrehearsed audition pianist to throw me off. However, my disappointment at myself quickly turned into outrage and anger towards your organization as it became apparent that NONE of my colleagues were cast.

      That’s why, after doing some inquiring, I realized that you had decided to cancel “The Rake’s Progress” and replace it with “Le Nozze di Figaro” as a result of “unforeseen events that happened ***after we had shortlisted and informed the auditionees.***” (emphasis added)

      So, once again, your organization is being dishonest: you claim that the auditions were called in good faith, yet:

      (a) you hid the truth (i. e. the fact that not even Stravinsky’s original cast would have been cast since the title would not be produced at all!) by sending rejection e-mails;

      and

      (b) you hid –and on this blog continued to hide– the fact that you knew that “The Rake’s Progress” would not be staged *after* sending out the invitations but ***prior*** to the auditions! Had I, and others, known about this (and particularly since there is no significant lyric tenor role in “Le Nozze di Figaro”) we would have been able to react: we would have either been able to cancel our flights and get at least our taxes back, or we could have brought other audition repertoire. Instead, you withheld that crucial information and let the auditions take place, pretending that everything was happening according to plan. That, sir, is the legal definition of bad faith!

      That is why, as soon as I found out the truth, I contacted a large network of internationally active singers. Originally, I wanted to give your organization the benefit of the doubt and give you a chance to react in the only ethical way possible, which would be to refund us for expenses incurred in a wild-goose chase for which only the Teatru Manoel is responsible. However, the leaking of this information beat me to the punch.

      Albeit I was NOT responsible for leaking the information to Mr. Lebrecht, I am glad that this is now out in the public and that now you will be subject to the only type of pressure that seems to get reckless individuals and organizations to correct their ways and act in an upstanding manner in this age of social media: sheer public pressure.

      I’m sorry to have to state something as obvious as this, but with all due respect, sir, an apology doesn’t cut it, particularly when the apology still contains elements of deceit. Do the right thing and compensate each and every one of the thirty one singers who wasted anywhere between €500 and €900 pursuing a non-existing goal. After all, what the theater claims stating that “this decision does not mean that we may not stage this opera in the near future” does not constitute any guarantee whatsoever that you will. And frankly, at this point, why should anyone believe you?

      Sincerely,

      Emilio Pons
      Doctor of Music, Indiana University School of Music
      Attorney-at-Law, Universidad Iberoamericana
      Artistic Director, Sankt Goar International Music Festival and Academy
      Member of the European Cultural Parliament

    • “Postponed”

      So would you consider those who auditioned this time for when it is eventually produced without asking them to attend another audition?

  • The problem is, the artists were only written an apology after the theater discovered that word got out. Instead of being truthful from the beginning, singers got a standard rejection letter. From the sounds of it, EVERY singer received one, so saying that there were ones shortlisted doesn’t sound accurate to me. singers are very familiar with rejection so the theater probably thought they wouldn’t ask any questions. This kind of behaviour is so typical for this business. And sometimes to the theater’s dismay the truth comes out.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Pons and commend jump for putting on the line on behalf of all of us.. I am also one of the singers who attended and like Emilio am an established artist. The letter we received basically admitted the decision was taken before we flew out. The anger currently surrounding this situation is palpable and were this a “one-off”, albeit still unacceptable, it would not sting quite as much as it does, due to the fact that this blatant disrespectful behaviour is getting more and more common in an unregulated free-for-all industry. Bearing in mind Valetta is capital of culture in 2018, this isn’t exactly a great advert for it.

    • Thank you Bob! I do believe that unless we soloists finally push back together against the “rotten apples” amongst presenters who do a disservice to the reputation of other presenters by displaying a blatant disregard for artists and/or the public, the situation will only continue to deteriorate.

      Contrary to popular opinion, soloists need not be afraid to speak out against these instances of abuse because, fortunately, not all presenters behave in such a reprehensible manner; hence they are not likely to side with any unscrupulous presenters who could attempt to blacklist artists who are merely demanding to be treated with a minimum of professionalism, cordiality and respect.

  • This is typical of the rudeness and incompetence which is common in Malta.
    I suggest you give it a wide berth in future.

  • Isn’t this the nature of our business? Companies are not required to hire anyone who auditions. It doesn’t matter how much you spend. It is a gamble and most of the time the house always wins. I have done numerous auditions where I wasn’t hired nor anyone in the group I was with. I have also been in the group where I was hired and then the contract was signed, sealed and delivered and the production ended up being cancelled. (Literally the day before my flight to South Korea where the production was to take place). There was nothing I could do…unless I wanted to sue…but even with that, it is not guaranteed. Bottom line: our business is like any other business…you apply, you risk your money to go and audition but the rest is out of your control. You can’t make them hire anyone. Did the company charge you a fee to audition, other than an accompanist fee? If so, then we should be smart enough to realize those auditions are not worth doing. Know what I mean.

    • I think you missed the point. They cast for the Rake’s Progress and invited many international tenors, of which I was one. But they had already decided not to do it before anyone flew out, in favour of Le Nozze di Figaro that had 1 small character part. This wasn’t just a case of not casting anyone. They collectively defrauded us of serious money. There were a lot of singers, the travel wasn’t cheap and most of us had to stay over in hotels due to flight times. All they had to do was tell anyone in advance.

      Ignorance and lack of respect. 2 things that freelancers have to deal with too much these days in my opinion.

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