Opera Australia slashes singers' contracts

Lyndon Terracini cuts back on key opera principals in order to accommodate another musical.

Two weeks after announcing a 44% increase in profit, Opera Australia has decided to cut the pay for its core ensemble singers. According to the actor’s union, Equity, about 20 singers who are now on 12-month contracts will be rested without pay for six to 12 weeks in 2014. The union claims that the move is in order to accommodate another musical, The King and I, planned for next year.

The ensemble singers who include acclaimed mezzo-sopranos Jacqueline Dark and Dominica Matthews, tenor Kanen Breen and baritone Warwick Fyfe, provide Opera Australia with a pool from which to draw key principals, many of whom appear in starring roles. Fyfe, for example, triumphed as the lead in Verdi’s Falstaff earlier in the year, while Dark is set to play Lady Billows and Breen takes the title role in Britten’s Albert Herring in August.

In an increasingly vehement defence of the role and value of the ensemble many singers have now taken to facebook to express their feelings. “Why are the singers first under the bus?”, writes Kanen Breen. “This is an opera company not a law firm! Admin staff are staying put, the chorus are being retained (rightly so), stage management stay on, music staff kept in place, all presumably contributing their considerable skill to.... The King and I? If it takes relieving the opera singers of their employment to keep everyone else at opera Australia in tip top shape, then I suggest a company name change to accompany this woeful shift in musical allegiance.”

Star mezzo Jacqui Dark agrees: “The principals are the most vulnerable group, as we're not on ongoing contracts and are only contracted from year to year, only finding out around mid-year about whether we have work in the year to come and what our roles might be...It makes me indescribably sad that the professionalism and loyalty shown by the incredibly hard-working group of ensemble principals whom I am proud to call my colleagues and friends should be dismissed in such a way. It also spits in the face of the faith shown by the principal artists when, several years ago, we all agreed to a wage freeze to assist the company out of financial difficulty when its future was threatened.”

She remains upbeat however: "I love my job and I love Opera Australia. I know how lucky I am to be working as a singer and to have a relatively secure job. I love going to work every morning and most days, such as now, rehearsing The Ring with Neil Armfield, I feel positively joyous and so fortunate to be in the centre of such a brilliant creative environment, surrounded by extraordinary talent and supple minds…I also think that Lyndon has implemented some incredibly savvy and brilliant ideas to make us one of the few opera companies in the world that is actually in the black at the moment. Personally, he has trusted me with roles and taken risks with me that few others would have had the guts to take, and has treated me with utmost respect and thoughtfulness, and for that I will always be grateful to him.”

Other comments on the popular “belcanto” facebook page are less focussed and more personal. “This is basically Work Choices for OA. Expect to see more of it”, writes one. Another says: “This abuse of Australian singers has been ongoing since his [Terracini’s] engagement with the company and is devastating personally for a huge number of singers and their families, who have striven so hard for their places within the company and who were always well respected performers prior to his contract with OA”, while another writes: “I have been a subscriber since the early 1970s. I will be writing to the OA Board. It is clearly a waste of time appealing to the Artistic Director.”

Terracini attempted to contradict the Equity claim citing casting and financial motives. “When you're paying someone for 12 months, you can't have them sitting there and not singing,” Terracini told The Australian on Saturday. “You will put them into things that, often, they are not suited for, because you simply have to use them. It’s not good for singers, it’s not good for the audience and it’s not good for the company.”

Opera Australia had a turnover in excess of $100 million in 2012 but its biggest financial successes were both highly commercial ventures: La Traviata on Sydney Harbour ($6m) and South Pacific ($16m).

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Opera Australia slashes singers' contracts
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