No number of wrongs can yield a right
Guest comment from Emilio Pons
A new, unexpected kind of cultural revolution
The last decades have borne witness to the previously unimaginable power that activism, heralded by celebrity and coupled with social media, has to organize all members of society, forge even the most unexpected of alliances, and bring about much needed change in all realms, from politics and economics, to science, philosophy and even religion. It seems as though society cannot and will no longer stand impassible to injustice –whether perpetrated by dishonest politicians, unscrupulous key figures of the world’s financial markets, or morally corrupt religious leaders– and is finally willing to stand, together, for what is right.
The latest battle is currently being played out in the realm of culture, and of classical music, in particular. Contrary to the popular assumption that the arts unfold in a sphere alien to and beyond the influence of any negative traits, the arts are, in fact, not unlike any other human enterprise. Deceitfulness, incompetence, nepotism, despotism, oppression and a notorious lack of transparency are, unfortunately, also rampant in the arts.
Making matters worse, whether as a result of a deeply rooted sense of pessimism, a generalized lack of solidarity amongst artists, or an understandable fear for retaliation, cowardice had historically translated into secrecy. That was until celebrated Austrian mezzosoprano Elisabeth Kulman decided to break the silence, and to speak out and stand for her rights and those of her peers, thereby jeopardizing the fruits of a challenging and arduous professional career.
In a profession dominated by the super egos of many artistic administrators and the assumed infallibility of the politicians who appoint them, Ms. Kulman had the boldness to publicly question the policies of Mr. Alexander Pereira, one of the most emblematic, influential and long standing cultural managers of recent times. Mr. Pereira, who is currently the artistic director of the world renowned Salzburg Festival, is credited for having turned the Zurich Opera House into one of the most distinguished theaters in the world, bringing not only an impressive roster of artists but also much coveted sponsorship.
Ms. Kulman’s criticism was, at least initially, targeted at Pereira’s policy to only pay for performances, and thus to neither pay rehearsal fees nor to cover the living expenses arising from the weeks long rehearsal process of every operatic production, thereby leaving singers financially unrewarded for their hard work and even potentially facing substantial losses in the unfortunate event that a disease forces an artist to cancel a performance.
To be fair to Mr. Pereira, however, he is hardly the only individual around to implement this or any other policies typifying the notoriously asymmetrical nature of the relationship that currently exists between artistic administrators and artists. These policies may well, in turn, be the result of the equally inordinate power that politicians can wield over artistic administrators, and which economic considerations may exert. One thing is clear, however: no number of wrongs can yield a right.
The public debate about Salzburg’s rehearsal policies sparked an uncommon expression of solidarity amongst opera soloists once other key figures joined the debate. On the arts journal of cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht, distinguished American soprano Laura Aikin weighed in on the difficulties that even established singers like herself face when forced to forego rehearsal fees, which struggles become nearly insurmountable for young singers. Other artists followed suit, particularly after Maestro Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London), complained during the season’s launch about young opera singers being prone to cancellations, generating even further outrage. This time, artists included figures of such prominence as American superstar mezzosoprano Susan Graham and veteran mezzo Rosalind Plowright, as well as the Metropolitan Opera’s principal conductor, Fabio Luisi.
Ms. Kulman is calling for an “Artists’ Revolution.” It is time for the general public to become aware of the abusive practices in our field –and to put an end to them. Just as in the corporate world, artistic administrators earn high six to seven figure annual salaries. Their employees, by contrast, struggle to make ends meet. The annual average salary of an opera singer in a German opera house, for example, is roughly $44,000 (before taxes!), hardly enough to get by in today’s economy, and scandalously disproportionate considering they are the ones who rehearse countless hours and actually stand on stage day after day, for dozens of shows of numerous productions per year. Emerging artists in opera studios (a corps of young soloists associated with an opera house) are being exploited, some even singing leading roles for an annual compensation of roughly $15,000. Yet the costs of building and maintaining a career are exponentially high –from the financial investment required to earn a degree, to the cost of traveling to and participating in countless auditions, and the private instruction which is essential to hone and preserve any artistic skill.
To make matters worse, these low fees are paired with increasingly taxing production challenges and disrespectful, disparaging work-environments. Many administrators routinely breach their contracts with soloists –some going as far, as is, notoriously, the case most often in Italy, as not paying their artists at all!– knowing full well that the latter could but will not sue out of fear of retaliation or of being burdened with costly and lengthy litigation.
There is a dire need for a strong union for artists, capable of defending their rights; an affordable and expedite, yet legally binding mediation process for dispute resolution; an accreditation process to guarantee the competence of all individuals involved in artistic administration; and finally, of an independent body to regulate and constrain the activities of artistic administrators, especially since they operate, particularly in Europe, largely thanks to public funds.
We must not fall into the trap of concluding that further budget reductions are required to curtail these abuses. What is necessary is transparency, fairness and competence in the handling of financial and human resources in the arts. It is vital for those who understand the crucial role that the arts play in a civilized society, to also acknowledge those who make it possible, accordingly.
After having worked several years as lawyer, the international wellknown tenor Dr. Emilio Pons is now managing various artists as well.