Opera star: I won’t claim benefits. I’d rather stack shelves

Opera star: I won’t claim benefits. I’d rather stack shelves


norman lebrecht

June 19, 2020

The international coloratura soprano Laura Aikin has just signed off for the last time as a shel-stacker at a Rewe store in Berlin.

She tells VAN magazine: 

I never even thought of applying for unemployment benefits because I thought that only permanent employees would get that. There is no such thing in America, nor in Italy. I never got any help from the state there. I thought the idea that Germany would do something like this was crazy….

When my daughter had her last riding lesson, I was shopping and saw the poster at Rewe that they were looking for employees. I worked there a few days later. They were just desperate because they needed so many people to keep up with the bulk purchases that were just starting.

There was chaos. The company … told us we should work quickly, quickly, quickly. On the other hand, of course, Rewe wanted everything to be properly arranged. And in between the many people who wanted to shop and sometimes needed advice. My job was only to clear shelves and clear away garbage. I have been moving non-stop. Sometimes I was really sweating. It was like my daily gym, I actually lost weight. But at some point the pain came. I wore a mask very early on before it became mandatory, which made everything difficult: when I had to walk, lift, carry a lot, I became dizzy and my blood pressure went very high. At some point my knees started to suffer.

Q Did people in the supermarket know you were an opera singer?

Yes, everyone knew, but they weren’t very impressed….

Read on here.



  • Ron Swanson says:

    Well good for Laura Aikin.

  • A.L. says:

    Most opera singers and instrumentalists ought to take notice now that their main source of employment and income has dried up.

  • V.Lind says:

    I can’t read that — I have very little German. But from what you have provided, I have two main thoughts. First, good on her for going out and getting a job instead of sitting around and whingeing.Second, the US has no unemployment benefits? I’m surprised about Italy, too — I would have thought the EU might have some labour laws covering this. But the US!

    I was initially shocked, but upon reflection, of course I shouldn’t be. It’s consistent with their absence of other decent social services that the rest of the western developed world, and a lot of other places, take for granted.

    They do seem to have made some lockdown provisions, but God hep their people when this is all over and they have million of unemployed people trying to get back into struggling, shrunken industries.

    I’m sorry she found the physical demands of the work too debilitating to carry on, and suggest she take advantage of the benefits Germany offers now — she has earned them.

    • JJC says:

      Of course the US has unemployment benefits and in the current crisis they are supplemented by another $600 per week by the federal government. A visiting singer would not likely work enough weeks to qualify.

    • Ted Pendergrass says:

      In the US, one must generally work at a regular job where the employer pays into unemployment tax (usually through the State in which the work occurs) and the employee pays their share. Both of which have become more expensive since Obama’s term hence the loss of opportunities.

      The employee must be a legal resident and have a federally issued Social Security number thereby receiving their tax form W-2 or 1099 which dictates how much tax they pay based on both their gross income and other factors.

      One can claim unemployment benefits in their state based on how long they’ve worked and the reason they are claiming…again generally paired with the state of emergency the globe was inflicted with by China.

      The fact is that record numbers of Americans found themselves applying for unemployment due to the pandemic.

      Further, many jobs will not be coming back since it’s too expensive to maintain and operate a business with no sales and factors like mortgages, rents, insurance, utilities, etc have killed them off.

      The selfish rioters destroying shops exacerbated and accelerated job losses forever. So those people hurt others more with their lack of humanity as they were blinded by hate.

      A lot of people here were unnecessarily hurt by China and rioters not to mention all we’ve lost to suicides as folks can’t meet their financial responsibilities.

      We don’t receive foreign aid either. We’re expected to simply take care of ourselves and foreign countries beg us for financial aid.

      • V.Lind says:

        Thank you, and JJC, for clarifying the US’ unemployment scheme.

        They are not the only country in which people in certain lines of work fall through the cracks. Theirs seem wider than many, but I was reacting to what Ms. Aiken had written, in the context of general US attitudes to social services. (Like health care).

        • Bernard Feingold says:

          Health care is secondary to having an income with which one can pay a mortgage or rent as well as feed yourself.

          Now people like her won’t be able to accomplish that on menial wages.

          How is your country currently supporting their people’s housing and food needs V.Lind? Do you work? Are you a housewife? Business owner?
          Employee? Manager?

          I’m in solid shape in industrial construction fabrication (specialty parts) plus my own savings and investments. Love Duparc and Mahler!

          • V.Lind says:

            My country is doing pretty well. God knows what the national debt will look like when it’s over, but that’s the same as everywhere — Boris and the Tories are spending in ways that no Labour manifesto would ever have dared to propose.

            I don’t work much any more — I am disabled. But I was a writer and still do a bit.

            My country also provides universal health care, so is not an issue — people use their incomes to house and feed themselves as well as they can, and contributions to health care are income-related. I believe this is the way in … the list is too long and includes countries yours does not approve of.

      • Lee says:

        The biggest damage was done by the pandemic. The rioters – not the protesters – only added to it.

    • Girl With an Opinion says:

      The US does have unemployment benefits and always have. But the rules governing them meant that independent contractors/freelancers (which all soloists like this singer are) were not allowed to apply. In March the federal government passed the CARES Act which allowed freelancers to be able to apply for benefits for the first time ever and gave everyone who applied a $600/week supplement on top of what their home state was offering. It’s been a difficult process for some of the freelancers because each state government has different rules on how benefits are administered. And in the first week of the lockdown nearly 30 million people applied at the same time, overloading the system. So it took weeks for some to receive their benefits (and some didn’t get all they applied for). Also the government sent each qualifying citizen a stimulus check ranging from $1200-$2900. Again, not a perfect system and not everyone got what they thought they would get or got it in a timely manner. But it was still helpful.

      So now you know and maybe next time before going on a xenophobic rant against the US maybe read a news article or something.

      • M2N2K says:

        It is not true that USA “always” had unemployment benefits. There were none at all for the first 156 years of the country’s independent existence.

    • Mr. Knowitall says:

      As far as I know, freelance musicians in the US don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. They do qualify for the $1200 stimulus payment.

      But Ms. Aikin did qualify for unemployment benefits in Germany. She says that she just didn’t realize that they are available to her and when found out they are, she was too tired from her REWE job to apply for them.

      • Pagano says:

        Not living up to your name. Yes in normal times self employed people including freelance musicians do not qualify for unemployment. But an exception was made for the pandemic so these people are eligible for what their state will pay plus an additional $600 a week only until July unless extended.

  • Justin DeMarco says:

    “Q Did people in the supermarket know you were an opera singer?

    Yes, everyone knew, but they weren’t very impressed….”

    This is exactly why I stopped my daughter from going to school to study opera. She’s a pharmacist today with both respect from her employer and a nice, steady paycheck.

    It’s not worthwhile to bother with an opera career anymore. What a waste of time and money these places get kids hooked into. And that’s after the scholarship money is exhausted. Endless fees, masterclasses, trips to Europe, contest fees, audition fees, non-reimburseable expenses in general, union fees from AGMA which is only a status symbol you get nothing for.

    She’s happy now and bought a nice house, has savings plus a great 401K. She does miss junkets to the Met and vacations to hear singers she likes all before vivid-19. However she is glad of her life especially after how poorly the met treated everybody a couple of months ago just dropping folks like they were nothing. Singers basically need a rich benefactor and good connections since work was already too hard to find even abroad. So much for opera now. Really sad at this stage with the closures. We each have our dvd collections to keep us happy though.

    • V.Lind says:

      Provided by the talents of people who chose the hard path in favour of a nice house, savings and a good 401K. Plus trips to the Met to hear them. She must be glad not everyone made her choices.

      • Inga says:

        Besides your crude comment, why haven’t all of these bright minds of the opera world created a sustainable financial ecosystem to ensure stability and security for singers after all these years??

        They can add and subtract, no???

        • V.Lind says:

          What’s crude about it? Some made the sacrifice of material wealth in order to provide the art this lady pharmacist and her CD-collecting father apparently enjoy. His facts.

          And presumably you know, if you ever read this blog, the overall condition of the art even pre-corona.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      A sad summary but realistic. A very competitive field. Traditionally in Europe Germany has been the destination for young singers building a career and perhaps this will resume

    • RW2013 says:

      There is no shame in not being able to afford to put your daughter through school (or maybe you were too cheap to), or telling us that she didn’t have enough talent to study, but I would really hate to have a father like you, and I hope she is as ashamed of your comments as I am reading them.
      And maybe Laura should have sung to her co-workers. She was the best Lulu to grace a Berlin stage in the last decades.
      Enjoy the steady paycheck.

    • Jeremy says:

      Good father. The same people who are criticizing you are most likely the same ones that would have made it impossible for your daughter to have a career. And they certainly wouldn’t have supported her financially. I’ve seen opera singers living in a roach infested rooms at the YMCA close to the Met living off of instant noodles. It’s so glamorous!

      It is also a career move to speak viciously about the competition. In many cases, this is completely unwarranted and results in careers being ruined because sheeple musicians are sometimes influenced by the comments of jealous wannabees. Imagine that someone wants to destroy everything that you ever worked for simply because you exist and they view your talent as a threat.

      I’ve seen so many mediocre artists “make it” simply because they are talented at networking or came from wealthy families. It’s a rigged game and the musicians who deny that will never tell anyone about their own backstory. There ALWAYS is a backstory.

  • Brettermeier says:

    “Opera star: I won’t claim benefits. I’d rather stack shelves”

    That’s a daring interpretation of “I never even thought of applying for unemployment benefits because I thought that only permanent employees would get that.”

    “I thought the idea that Germany would do something like this was crazy….”

    It is possible that the translation of “irre” to “crazy” is not correct in this case. It also could mean “great” or “rad”, but it’s impossible to say without more information.

  • James Vaughan says:

    What an artist!
    I didn’t think I could be any more impressed by Laura Aikin.

    I was wrong…

  • Robin Smith says:

    I had to look up what a 401K was (referring to the comments below). It’s a Defined Contributions pension scheme. You learn something new every day.

    • Sam says:

      What country do you live in?

      What benefits are offered there??

    • JJC says:

      Yes, and most musicians don’t have one. Rather, they have a 403B which is available to employees of non-profits. The employer does not match the employee contribution but there are certain tax advantages as well as the ability to invest a higher percentage of income each year.

  • John H. says:

    Meh. There is a big difference between “rather” and “will.”

  • There is a long and dishonourable American tradition of treating those who claim benefits as the scum of the earth. Ms Aikin appears to be doing her patriotic duty.

  • Laura Aikin says:

    Forgive me for not responding to these comments sooner. I’ve only just seen this post on slipped disk. To clarify, I honesty didn’t believe I was entitled to any kind of support, and I was so exhausted after work, especially the first weeks, when money was made available to artists in Berlin, that I simply didn’t get the news it was out there. I missed that. It only happens for a couple weeks, and many people missed it. Then I was no longer eligible for unemployment because I had the job at Rewe. I took the job to try and help. I have family in Italy, and I feared literally for our lives. It wasn’t because I had no money. I just wanted to be part of the workers to provide for the people who were desperate. It was my favorite grocery store, and I really enjoyed getting up every morning to work. I taught my students online for free in the afternoons, although very few could sing, as their neighbors wouldn’t tolerate it. So we mostly just chatted. When I started to be able to really teach again, and and my students began slowly to be able to pay, I felt it was more important to concentrate my energies on them. That is why I quit. Yes, after two and a half months of stocking shelves for hours everyday, I had some aches and pains that made it more difficult. And clearly this was never going to be a real job. In the end it cost me more money than I earned. But no regrets. I was able to shop every day after work for several people I care for, so they could stay safe at home. No one had to search around for things. I could make it all available to them. And I became really fond of the people I worked with. It was actually hard to leave. I offered to sing, but the response wasn’t strong enough for me to have made the scene. So I let the idea go. And that’s my story. Not that big a deal. :))