• Zach Finkelstein

COVID-19 and the Hidden Consequences of ‘Force Majeure’

2021 will see more than a few European opera stars and elite concert soloists declare bankruptcy. Many household classical music names will likely be insolvent or in dire financial straits by this coming summer.


Why?


A little-known boilerplate clause in every opera contract called the ‘Force Majeure’ absolves any company from its contractual obligation when “certain circumstances beyond their control arise, making performance inadvisable, commercially impracticable, illegal, or impossible.”


Here’s an example from one of my recent contracts:


Force Majeure: Neither Artist nor [ORGANIZATION] shall be liable for failure to appear or perform its obligations under this Agreement in the event that such failure is caused by or due to the acts or regulations of public authorities, labor difficulties, civil tumult, inclement weather, strike, epidemic, interruption or delay of transportation service, or any other legitimate cause beyond the control of Artist and [ORGANIZATION].


If, say, a global pandemic hits, such as the COVID-19 epidemic brewing from China and now spreading across Europe, opera companies and concert halls will shutter the doors and cancel performances. Due to the ‘Force Majeure’ clause, they don’t need to pay their singers.


Of course, all artists will be hit financially by lack of touring income, reduced attendance, and decimated tourism in major arts cities like Milan and Zurich. But those with wide-ranging incomes, artists hired on contract for a few opportunities a year with big payoffs are some of the most financially vulnerable.


An opera star at the peak of their career in Europe, who has worked as a staff singer at European houses and won major competitions to emerge onto the world stage at houses like La Scala, can expect to earn huge paydays for longer opera contracts. I’ve heard as high as 100k, but a world-class singer might expect to earn 50k for a six-week contract. And if you are very lucky, let’s say you can fit in five of those a year.


However, as one elite European opera star recently described to me, the expenses on the road, especially at the top, are astronomical. On a contracted opera income of roughly $250,000 in Europe, travelling, he expects to take home only about half of that due to expenses, including:


  • Travel expenses booked ahead of time, none of which will be reimbursed. Flights, hotels, or short-term housing in high-cost of living cities like Milan for $3,000+ a month;

  • Home mortgage or multiple apartments another $3000+ a month;

  • A publicist for $2,000 a month;

  • 10-20% of income in agent fees; and

  • European and self-employment taxes.


One such famous opera singer is still paying off his student and credit card debt. Even on this income he has been able to save little. A 'Force Majeure' could be devastating. What happens to him when he loses even only one or two contracts from this yearly schedule without pay, especially when he has already paid costs related to his cancelled contract out of pocket?


This is no longer a hypothetical: La Scala is currently shuttered, Delta and American have cancelled flights to Milan, and Japan has essentially shutdown as COVID-19 continues to spread.


Do elite concert pianists, opera singers, and concert soloists have enough to cover six months or more of living expenses while the global arts economy rebuilds? One world-famous singer told me he is facing insolvency if things don’t turn around:


“I’ve got a €40,000 surprise tax bill this month despite prepaying €35,000 in quarterlies. Could I survive one cancellation? Probably. But beyond that, I’m screwed.”


And if the big stars are in trouble, what happens to the rest of us, performers in the arts underclass who live paycheck-to-paycheck, who are paid far less, and who require air travel to make a living and support our families?


We are about to find out.



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