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  • Writer's pictureZach Finkelstein

Goodnight Dollar.

Fatherhood has made me realize my time spent vs. income earned ratio is way off. I was spending too much time making “exposure bucks” and that needed to change.

A year ago, I made a promise to my wife Devora, my unborn son, and myself. First, I would trim down the bottom end of my travelling solo work. No more investing-for-the-future type low-pay gigs, only the cream of the crop: Symphonies, A-list Bach, top pro choral work like Conspirare and Santa Fe Desert Chorale, and short contract opera. Quality over quantity.

The Good, the Meh, and the Ugly

So far, so good this season: I have engagements across the US and Canada to sing major works like Haydn’s Creation, Bach St. John Passion, Handel’s Messiah, tours of the Spanish opera ‘Comala’ with Zohn Collective, premieres of new works from Oberlin to Chicago, and tours with elite choral groups Conspirare, True Concord, and the Santa Fe Desert Chorale. That’s about 90 days on the road this season, manageable with Devora and Remy joining me mid-gig for a few days when I have a long trip in the region, and some critical grandparent support back home while I’m away.

I’ve also made a strong push to work locally at higher levels, including engagements to sing as a soloist with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Carmina Burana and as a Bach tenor soloist with the Seattle Symphony this coming spring.

The other half of my promise was to broaden my base, picking up local but reasonably paid work, such as choral gigs in the $35/hour range, solo work at the community orchestra level, and the occasional retirement home shindig. I’ve avoided these gigs in the past because my wife and I were making enough for a comfortable two-person lifestyle and it wasn’t worth the time away from her in the evenings when we didn’t need it.

There is good mid-tier work in Seattle appears willing to pay a fair wage, with a few solo jobs in the $1k and above range, at least after cajoling, coffees, and counter-offers. Others, in the $500-$700 range for one performance and two rehearsals with chorus and pick-up orchestra, are about a quarter of what I would make on a normal travel solo gig, but still worthwhile as the time commitment is considerably less than traveling out-of-town. And I’m willing to take a reasonable financial hit in order to help build up a local scene- it’s in everyone’s interest for great works like Bach’s ‘Mass in B Minor’ to be seen not just on the largest city stages by those with the deepest pockets, but by audiences in small cities and towns across America.

Those are the reasonable local offers. But the bad offers can be . . . really bad. That’s not unique for Seattle, but rampant throughout the classical singer scene across North America.

One such offer shown to me by a colleague was for Evangelist in Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ in a small city 60 miles outside of Seattle. The conductor’s goal was to “have a chorus made up of people that are professionals” with arias sung by members of the chorus, except Evangelist and Jesus. (So far so good.) Seven rehearsals over four weeks and one performance. (A little heavy on rehearsal time for my tastes, but I’m still with you.)

As for the fee, the conductor said, “As much as I would love to be able to pay everyone, I do not think it is possible in the amount of time we have to raise enough funds to pay the over 40 people involved.”

This was an offer of $0 for: 480 miles of driving (including a two+ hour drive to each rehearsal in traffic), seven rehearsals, one performance, singing the Evangelist and the chorus. The St. Matthew Passion runs nearly three hours with the Evangelist singing most of the show. For reference, an average travel Evangelist performance pays around $2,000 a performance, plus travel and hotel and no additional chorus singing.

Another example came from a fine local soprano offered to sing a role in a regional bootstrap opera company. They asked for her fee to sing a leading role and she replied, “$200” (Way too low.) The opera company promises to get back to our fair-voiced soprano, but ghosts her. She emails them again, and they respond that “yes, the opera is happening, but we’re having a hard time finding other singers” and they’ll follow-up with her shortly. Still nothing.

A few weeks later, a local male singer sent her an email saying, “Hey, I was hired to do this gig and I’m reaching out to you to see if you are still available. The fee is $100”. (Nope right out of there.) The soprano, feeling undercut and lied to, emails the organizer cc’ing said male singer saying, “I think there’s a misunderstanding. I stated my fee, and I’m willing to split the difference at $150, but no less.”

Before the company can respond, the male singer butts in and mansplains re: all, “Well, fees just aren’t what they used to be anymore…” (All that’s missing is the word “sweetheart”.)

The soprano swallows her pride and accepts the contract for $150.

The Unliving Wage Trap

Should any singer, even when starting out, be willing to spend 100 hours learning and memorizing a role to perform for $150? Or nothing? I haven’t received an offer like those above in a long while, but I have started to telegraph that I’m interested in local work and have gotten at least a few offers that are way, way below my normal fee. Always prefaced with an “I know it’s low, but...”

The personal stakes are much higher now for working locally evenings and weekends; with a young family, I have less time but more financial need. For example, a staff church staff gig with a Thursday night rehearsal at 6:30pm across town means I miss seeing my son Remy, since he’s at daycare during the day, and a call on Sunday results in only half the day with Remy and Devora. If I were to make half of the church season, say 20 weeks of Thursday/Sunday, that’s an additional month of long distance as far as my son is concerned, for the equivalent of one week’s pay of travel solo work. When I’m already on the road three months a year, that’s a massive loss.

It’s also a branding problem. I can’t legitimately negotiate with the symphony for my next gig when I am working down the street for a 90% discount.

It’s a conundrum, and I’m not sure how to square the circle. Do I pull back and skip the bottom and mid-tier local work next season? Perhaps. But I’m not sure taking myself completely out of the local scene is a good long-term strategy. I plan on travelling for as long as I can for as many years as I can. But if for some reason -the conductors stop knocking on my door, my health declines- I’m no longer able to travel a few months a year, and I haven’t kept those local doors open, what will be left at home? Am I going to be singing local gigs on my way back down when I’m 60 for less than a living wage? What’s the end game?

Unfortunately, most of my colleagues in Seattle, even established professionals who have sung at major houses, are accepting these pay-to-sing and $150 opera-tunities. Both horror-show gigs mentioned above found a full team of singers. They both happened.

Raising the Bar

So how do we fix the drastic, unlivable wage gap in local work? How do we prevent local organizations, often run by fellow performers, from taking advantage of singers who don’t feel in a position to say no, or at least to negotiate harder?

First, we need to lay out the economics of a soloist career for emerging regional singers.

To the local soloist peeps in every market, not just Seattle, trying to work their way up the ladder:

  • $200 may seem like a lot to you coming out of college to do what you would probably do for free. But unlike a weekly bar gig, where $200 might be close to a fair wage, or an instrumentalist section player where they may have 30 weeks of work just from one organization in the region, we only have a limited number of shots per organization, sometimes as low as one every other year.

Where I live, for example, there are a few major players -the PNB, the Seattle Opera, and the Seattle Symphony- and a few small opera companies, maybe a dozen regional symphonies and choirs in the region that pay for soloists. For choral companies and symphonies, your bread and butter, they may only present one major choral work a year out of an entire year of programming.

A choral company that does five concerts a year might do one Verdi Requiem or Beethoven 9, which means you have one shot per season with that company to perform one gig, and you are competing with every other soloist in the city. You might have as few as 10 possible gigs you are right for in the region every year, that pay, and you are competitive for. Those 10 possible gigs must pay a LOT more than $200 for you to make a living and for any of it to make any kind of economic sense.

  • When you accept local pay-to-sing gigs or $150 opera gigs that require 50 hours of prep, you are telegraphing to the region, “This is what a singer is worth in [city].” Every time a soloist accepts an offer like that, the average fee goes down and the next person will get even less. Presenters, looking to preserve the future of their organizations, will pay you as low as you are willing to take. And at local work, there appears to be no floor on that number.

Second, we need to push back against exploitative presenters and make the case for our true value as artists.

Next time you get an offer for $200 for a local Messiah solo+chorus, instead of auto-responding yes and fist pumping, you could reply:

“Great to hear from you again and thanks for your interest. I've sung Messiah many times -this past season with X, Y, and Z- and it's such a pleasure to sing it in a great hall like [small church]. The dates work well in between contracts.

However, as you mentioned the fee is quite low. My travel fee starts at $1500 a performance and my local work at $750 a performance, especially if it involves rehearsals on multiple dates over a few weeks and a commute to different areas in the region. Can you come closer to my local fee?”

There are not that many working soloists in my region. I can count on one hand the number of consistently working tenors, and it would only take a few of us responding like this to increase the fees for everyone. And in my experience this approach works.

This year, through a series of aggressive emails and quick coffees, I doubled an offer for local concert work from $750 a performance to $1,500. By reassuring presenters that you are an expert in your craft you are providing a valuable service. For example, the mezzo for a major work like the Bach St. Matthew Passion makes or breaks the piece with Erbarme Dich, and a seasoned Evangelist can function almost as an assistant director where a continuo group is inexperienced, and thus save a rookie conductor from a performance meltdown.

In your counter-offer, consider providing value added like coaching and mentorship to your choral section, additional rehearsals, master classes, or an offer to take on additional roles. Again, in the example of the Bach passions, an Evangelist being offered $1,000 could counter at $2,000 including the tenor arias. You could throw in a complimentary Bach recitative masterclass, saving the organization time and money, providing a professional development service, and putting you at a living wage- win, win.

And what if you are not an area expert, but exploring a work for the first time right out of school? Presenters are not always knowledgeable about how long it takes to learn a major work- to some, a 16-bar church solo is the same difference as a two and a half hour Handel oratorio. Spell it out for them, what they are really paying for:

“Thank you for the offer of [New Music Oratorio] soprano solos- presenting new music is a passion of mine and I am available for those dates.

To learn a piece of this size, approximately twenty minutes of new music singing in a foreign language, would require at least three coachings at $90/hour with [local coach]. In addition, for a piece of this difficulty I would estimate at least two hours per minute of music. At twenty minutes of music plus the coaching, it would require $270 of coaching and at least 43 hours of preparation and, based on the schedule you’ve sent, an additional 7 hours of rehearsal and performance.

Unfortunately, your offer of $200 would not cover my expenses or time for this major work. An offer of $1,500 would come out to about $25 an hour after expenses and time, a reasonable wage. Would you be willing to meet me closer to $1,500?

Thanks for your time and look forward to hearing from you.”

This strategy is surprisingly effective. Most artistic directors will understand the value of your time if you explain it. And if they don’t, then you know there is no room in their budget, and you can safely pass on this and all following opportunities with this organization. Or if you are starting out and desperate for work and feel you need something to perform right now, do it ONCE. Get the recording and a nice recommendation. Then write this email next time, and if they don’t budget, move on. Maybe you can circle back when they grow the organization.

And finally, to the musician presenters asking singers to work for free or less than a living wage, you are operating outside your limitations. If you do not have the resources to field professionals for a major work, you should adjust your expectations to your current budget. The dream projects will have to wait until you build your portfolio, your local reputation, and your donor pipeline. In the meantime, there are plenty of world-class major works for the resources you have on hand- choir and your staff accompanist on piano/organ- like Rossini’s ‘Petite Messe Solenelle’, Dvorak’s ‘Mass in D’, and CPE Bach’s ‘Magnificat’ to name a few. But by asking singers to perform for free, you’ve effectively limited your reach in the region and your growth potential. The broader pool of elite performers will be off-limits, and you will be forced to cycle through the same handful of local singers every year willing to work for nothing. Nobody wins.

Soloists at the local and regional level could change the game through our collective action. Instead of fighting over scraps, we could, with a bit of pushback, bring a living wage to the local arts scene and make it a welcome space for singers with families.

Will it happen? I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.

Until then, I’ll be on the road.


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