Friday, July 04, 2014

Dawn Fatale on the Met

I ought to have linked to Dawn Fatale's Parterre Box series on the Met when it was published earlier this year, but here they are now.


jean wrenham said...

I have a few thoughts on wages of the choristers.

I realize that part of this has to do with the high cost of living in Manhattan and I admire Peter Gelb's diplomatic approach to this, but $200,000 a year for a chorus member is ridiculous under any circumstances. They might command that much if there were an opera company on the Moon and they constituted only exactly the number of qualified singers available, but, much as I generally support organized labor, supply and demand does not justify such a remuneration in New York or anywhere on the planet Earth. Similar can be said for the blue collar workers. These are not supposed to be elite jobs for an elite of talent. If they can't afford to live in mid-town Manhattan, I know some nice places in Jersey City on Craigslist which are an easy commute.

How supremely wonderful do they have to be? I know that the Met chorus probably consists of mumblety number of singers who would all like to enjoy solo careers and probably have something going on the side, but that simply isn't necessary for a chorus, and as you know very well can often work against the interest of one as they fail to rein in their solo voices for the sake of the ensemble. I cannot think of a
single opera in which the part of the chorus is as demanding as any important separate choral work, or even close, and most of those are
usually performed by largely amateur forces. On top of that, many operas require no chorus at all, and how many times per year do they
have to perform anyway? The Met could break a strike of choristers by calling in the same number of starving singers from New Jersey and the boroughs (Connecticut will do) and paying them at a piecework rate, and no one would know the difference. The reason they don't do that is historical wealth-supported convenience and labor solidarity, since an attempt to do such a thing would surely initiate a sympathetic strike by less immediately expendable forces.

I don't understand such contract exclusivity in a market where the depth of underemployed vocal talent can scarcely be plumbed. It's just
not necessary to pay your singers 200 K per year to guarantee that you won't have a passel of antique sopranos on you hands. Fire the bunch
of them and do an all-call for a piecework rate and just watch what happens. (They'll have to put up Porta-Johns in Lincoln Center Plaza
and sell hot dogs as the afternoon wears on.) Die Meistersinger or no, choristers are but one talent step up from supernumeraries. The reason
they should be paid at all is to make sure they will show up, and anyone who's ever been in a paid choir knows that the level that
guarantees this does not approach a six-figure salary. And we haven't even touched on the fact that the season only runs from October
through May.

Also, many professions require night work without paying a premium. We wouldn't have civilization if police officers and health care workers did not work at night and into the early hours, or if utility workers were not on 24-hour call. My basic problem here is with the term
"skill set." I understand why it applies to the soloists and the orchestra. Some blue-collar folks such as electricians and those who
handle the other technical aspects of a production with great and not easily learned expertise also deserve consideration, though I'm not
sure at what level of compensation. But chorus singers? Anyone ever heard of interchangeable parts? Able to pronounce properly in all
opera languages, CHECK. Fine basic vocal skills, CHECK. Ability to blend in with an appropriate choral sound, CHECK. Ability to sing
while moving, CHECK. Ability to sit for make-up, CHECK. Willingness to rehearse, CHECK.

I just described myself, and I don't expect to be earning $200,000 a year for a couple of hundred performances any time soon.


Henry Holland said...

Shorter Dawn Fatale:

If the Met would only hire the singers *I* care about, doing operas *I* care about, only then will it be saved!!!!

Seriously, all those words and a good chunk of them are about getting this or that singer to come to that barn at Lincoln Center. Typical Parterre Box singer-centric nonsense.

bgn said...

Sorry to disappoint Ms. Wrenham, but most operas the Met does have choruses. Of the twenty-four productions the Met has announced for its 2014-15 season, only one (Hansel und Gretel) has no grown-up chorus, and that requires a children's chorus.

Lisa Hirsch said...

> $200,000 a year for a chorus member is ridiculous under any circumstances

Well, no, it's not. They work extremely hard for that money. As bgn notes, 23 of the 24 operas coming up have a chorus. A met chorus member was interviewed by a major newspaper about what a typical week is like for her, and it came out to around 70 hours during the season. The Met has 7 performances a week during the season. Each opera takes chorus rehearsal time, staging rehearsal time, sitzprobe rehearsal time, runthroughs, dress rehearsal, costume fittings, makeup, practice time when you're not at the house. It is not an easy life.

I also think it comes down to maybe $700-1,000 per performance when you divide that average pay of $200,000 by number of performances.

The Met chorus makes that kind of money because they've got a strong union. I'm all in favor of musicians getting paid well, myself, every last musician.

jean wrenham said...


Ok, I accept the correction of your experienced point of view. One problem with mine might be that all that high-fallutin' extreme professionalism is not particularly obvious in the actual production, as it is for other professionals (the orchestra, the soloists, the conductor, the technical staff). I suppose that making it look easier than it is is part of the job.

But I will say this: it really did stick in my throat when I attended some Met broadcasts earlier this year that it was an elitist organization asking for donations as if it were a charity. You have to live within your means. We ordinary folk do. So if the wage bill is stratospheric then it needs to be cut to bring it in lone with reality. Why should highly paid people be subsidized by the donations and taxes that people pay who are far less well off? I get tired of people trying to rescue the arts when those arts are just an excuse for people being on a gravy train. Yes, I do realize that technically most operas and orchestras are charitable organizations. What I mean is that they are not a charity which will (for example) feed the poor or house the homeless. Rather, they seem like a charity for the benefit of wealthy people. Of course the Met should try to engage the best artists but not at the price of bankrupting the company.