What comes first, the union or the gig?

What comes first, the union or the gig?

Greg Finney

“How do you do it?” “Don’t you get tired?” “That sounds exhausting!”

These are probably the three most common responses when I tell people about what makes up a typical day for me, which looks like this:

Up in the 6:30-7AM range. Commute to Dayjob. 9-5 in the office. Usually an hour break for meals, personal communications and travel, rehearsal from 6-10 or 11 (depending on the contract), commute home around midnight, dinner, ablutions, sleep around 1-2:30AM. Repeat.

You, my dear readers, know me as an Opera Singer/Critic/Talking Head via the work I do onstage and through various online publications, but there’s another side to me. As there is to a remarkable number of your favourite artists on the opera stage in Canada today. That’s right. Our day job side.

“WHAT? You have to have a day job as well?”

Umm… Yes. Absolutely we do. And here’s why…

1) Unions: Le sigh. I’ve never been more torn up about something in my life. Yes, they’re great for benefits like Health Coverage, Dental, life insurance, pension plans and all that other deliciously adult stuff. However, I also feel like the existence of the unions seem to force a lot of people into stalled/delayed careers or even kill them altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, Like I said, they have their upsides for sure. They protect the artists (anyone doing a community theatre/amateur company production who’s lived through at 16-hour tech day understands) so they don’t become slaves. That’s great. The problem is, once you reach a certain echelon of companies (Canadian Opera Company, Opera Atelier, Pacific Opera Victoria, Toronto Operetta Theatre, et al…) you won’t even be considered for anything if you’re not a card-carrying member. I’ve worked in Toronto non-stop for almost 10 years now, across the lyric theatre spectrum, and was only ever offered ONE union opportunity (that was kaiboshed by a company I was in a current contract with). I’m not saying I deserve to be a member either, but I think the community and audience speaks for itself when I’m cast in on average 12 productions a year with some of these companies. Why is this a big deal you say? Let me put it into perspective. When I’m working with an Equity performer (Equity being our stage performers’s union), their WEEKLY salary will be more than what I get paid for the WHOLE RUN – rehearsals, tech, and performances, with no option of protection against overtime. I understand the majority of companies are in dire straits with funding, and artist salaries are the biggest cost, but that’s a disparity that’s not just ridiculous, it’s rude and insulting to the non-union performer playing roles just as large and complex as any of your Equity soli.

2) Audiences: I love you guys, I really do. But I have to say one thing – you’re almost NEVER going to find a Blockbuster production for a $20 ticket. I work in the industry and can’t score a ticket that cheap. Ticket prices are probably one of the major detractors from us bringing in an audience. That ticket price is so inflated because to produce an opera is FAR MORE EXPENSIVE than most other live theatre productions. Selling tickets to a Nozze di Figaro or a La bohème is not as difficult as say Verdi’s Otello. Otello still sells well, but it’s a risky flight – and god help you if you program a Handel that isn’t Semele. The amount of people needed to produce these for you is astounding. I like to think that for every person you see onstage, there are 5 people working invisibly to pull this off. Everyone needs a paycheque, and because we’ve lost so much in the line of funding (government cutbacks, the death of charitable organizations, and the depleting coffers of the ones that have survived) means that cost can only be made up by ticket prices.

3) Not-for-profit and charitable organization status (I may be misinformed on this but this is how I understand it and I’m MORE THAN WELCOME to be corrected): Most companies have to operate in this sector just to survive from year to year. The problem is, that these organizations are somewhat restricted in the types of funding they can chase down. So the lucrative “Title Sponsor” position isn’t something that can be instated by these companies. That lack of corporate sponsor funding translates directly into reduced budgets and higher ticket costs.

4) Knowledge (or lack, thereof): Most people I know can recognize more than one piece of operatic glory. Whether it’s “Largo al Factotum” and it’s “FIGARO, FIGARO, FIGARO” etc. ad nauseum, or the flower duet from Lakmé, or even the Ride of the Valkyries, but they have no idea that they come from operas. Compare this to my European counterparts, who grew up listening to artists like Pavarotti and Caballé on the same city streets as hearing Michael Jackson and Madonna. I love pop music too (Beyoncé is my spirit animal) but I feel our communal lack of education on classical music is what’s killing our genre and devaluing current contemporary pop music.

5) Young Artist/Emerging Artist status: At exactly what point do I get to just call myself an artist? I’m in my early thirties but I’ve been onstage for close to 20 some odd years now – yes, I’ve spent more time on stage/in rehearsal than in a classroom (I did the math). I’m still often classified in the Young Artist category (most probably because I’m currently without representation) which I think is unfair to me and my audiences. I could accept emerging artist, but as a Dora Award Nominee who’s been working with professional companies in Toronto alone for close to 8 years now, I feel even that is a bit of a misnomer. No, I’m not a household name, but I’m not the “new kid on the block” either. This classification purgatory is stressful. Incredibly stressful. I’ve seen so many artists with glorious talents and résumés walk away from the stage, because the industry wouldn’t look at them as a finished product, now being refined (as they should have), rather than a “Young Artist” still learning about their fach. Also being in this category is incredibly expensive. These artists are expected to shell out thousands of dollars to do summer programs that, while they can be beneficial, sometimes the stress of the cost outweighs the success of the work in the program.

That being said, there are a lot of initiatives out there for young artists. Various grants, fellowships, and sponsorships are available, and there’s always the fairly lucrative competition circuit (provided you win them, of course) to help ease the burden. They’re difficult to obtain and usually buried in kilometres of red tape, but they’re there.

But what will remove this burden? It’s time for the old-guard to pass on the torch to the new-guard. Opera can’t continue to be produced the way it was in the past and still survive. People want more bang for their buck and the definition of “bang” has changed A LOT since 1973. At this point, if they want to see a full-on production without breaking the bank, it appears that cheap night at the movies is your only option.

My advice: go see a new company’s production. Even if you know nothing about them/it. Just go! More than likely you’ll be pleasantly surprised, your ticket revenue will go where it’s needed, and these smaller companies that are working with new business plans will grow and succeed and give the ever-needed jolt to the flatlining industry that is live performance opera.

Then and only then will ALL artists actually get paid enough to live on.

*** – I grew up in a house that was dependent on a Union and I’m thankful every day for the support the United Mine Workers of America gave to our families on the East Coast as the Coal industry sang it’s swan song during my late teens.

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