As the recession marches on, the summer of 2010 has been the leanest patch of work that I have known in many years. I’m sure it’s the same for most people and I’m very grateful to actually have work in my upcoming diary. (Thank goodness for Steve Reichâ€™s 75th year of music making)
The first big problem was…… the end of the Israel in Egypt tour last Christmas. Big Orchestral/Choral tours are very expensive and whilst the musicians get a fixed rate for concerts, there are the travel and hotel costs to cover. The ‘Group’ (in this case the Monteverdi Choir) gets paid differing amounts in each country and the sum of the parts makes the finances work for the whole tour. The final leg was to be in Scandinavia and suddenly we were informed that this part of the tour was cancelled when a German Bank withdrew it’s sponsorship. The whole tour was suddenly in jeopardy so Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Choir and the Musicians all performed free in a fundraising concert at Cadogen Hall. The money raised went to try to make the tour break even. David Attenborough (a staunch supporter of the Monteverdi Choir) made an appeal in the interval, which seemed very apt. Handel’s music vividly describes the plagues of Egypt with it’s frogs, flies, lice, pestilence upon the cattle added to the terror wreaked by the other forces of nature.
This was just the start – Spain and the Far East went the same way – just an email to tell us those things had been cancelled due to the financial climate.
In April I happily went off to LA and New York for two concert performances of La Comedia by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. This was a repeat of the opera Synergy Vocals had premiÃ¨red in Amsterdam in 2008 with the Asko-Shoenberg Ensemble. On the day of the concert I was in the queue of a certain well-known, discount clothing outlet and I overheard a man saying his trip to London was cancelled as a volcano in Iceland had erupted. We were due to fly home the next day and I had been booked to sing at some concerts of Lord of the Rings Symphony during the following week.
That evening in our Carnegie Hall dressing room, the Synergy men spent every spare minute trying to contact the American Airlines to get any information they could – a fruitless task. We did the concert and went off to the Airport at 6am, knowing that we wouldn’t fly but hoping to get some better information. We then waited there until the Asko Shoenberg management had found us a hotel. They promised they would cover the first three nights but after that we were on our own. At this point we had a provisional re-booking a week later – but it was unlikely to fly. The TV news was warning that if the sister volcano blew we would be there for the foreseeable future.
Friends were sending messages on Facebook saying how great it was to be stuck in New York – and that was true – there were so many worse places to be, but I was getting really worried. The fact is that when you’re a freelance singer, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid and everything snowballs from there. Carnegie Hall couldn’t help us, so I put a message on Facebook (I knew it would have some use one day!) asking if anybody had a friend in New York that could put me up.
Astoundingly, loads of friends came to the rescue with offers from lovely people I’d never met before from all over the world. I eventually went to stay on the couch of a lovely lady theatre sound-designer that my friend Steve Brown (Head of Sound at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre) had met in Prague! Rachel, my fellow alto, met a wonderful woman at the Metropolitan Opera house.Â They got talking in the interval (people were being very friendly to visitors because so many were stranded) and she generously offered her a room in her apartment. It turned out to be a HUGE place overlooking Central Park!
Rachel had left her two young children with very intricate childcare plans between her husband, mother and various child minders – a military operation. All of that went out the window along with many of our group and we were all left too worried to really enjoy ourselves. A week later the planes finally started going and I secured a place for Rachel and myself (the last in our group to go home) by ringing the airline every half an hour. We were just hoping for a cancellation and by being extra nice to the poor people fending off irate passenger calls they eventually slipped us into first and business class – one piece of marvellous good luck!
Meanwhile, I had had to cancel my work at home for the following week. (This had a knock on effect that I wasn’t booked for this September’s repeat week of the same job). Not only were we worried we might have to pay for the hotels and the high cost of living in New York – we were also worried we wouldn’t get the fee from the concerts we had already done. The Ensemble had to cancel their second concert at Carnegie Hall, as their extra musicians couldn’t fly out of Europe. They were flown by KLM who were sponsoring the tour so that was a worry too â€“ airlines were in big trouble.
As one of our tenors checked out of the hotel he told me that he was going for a walk in Central Park before his flight. I was surprised as that week he had walked the length of Manhattan. He told me that he had been so worried and guilty about leaving his wife and three children who had all been ill, that he had been walking in a daze.
For me, it seemed that my singing career as I knew it was over â€“ no flights, no tours, no work. I woke up in the middle of the night and spent my waking hours checking on university courses on midwifery. Maybe it was time for me to re-train.
It seems funny now, but at the time I was very unsettled by the whole experience. We take our lives for granted and when the fickle hand of fate deals us an unexpected card – illness, bereavement or even natural disaster – our ordered existence comes crashing down.
We often get booked quite far in advance, (especially for concerts) but session work often comes at a few days notice. This month I have been doing sporadic concerts of the Monteverdi Vespers â€“ you may have seen the Monteverdi Choir performance at the BBC Proms this year. After my empty summer, in the space of three weeks, I have been offered seven film score recording sessions and have had to say no to them all.Â Iâ€™ve been off to Belgium on the Eurostar at Oâ€™dark hundred hours, or checking into Heathrow Terminal 5 at 7.30amÂ â€“ not actually possible from Brighton so I usually end up spending most of the fee in hotel and travel costs.
The Financial choice is no comparison â€“ the session paying in an hour and a half the same as I would be paid for a three-hour rehearsal and a full concert and usually the whole day travelling.
I once had to say no to a film session in LA for the film Troy. I had been previously booked to go to an American University and workshop student compositions for a week. Annoyingly, the students werenâ€™t particularly interested but felt I couldnâ€™t let my colleagues down purely for money. That moral choice financially meant the difference of a big fat zero on the end of my fee â€“ and a doubling of that fee in royalties, paid over the following two years. (American singers donâ€™t get bought out in their contracts and still get paid money from films and records they sing on for years to come).
Musically this month there was an interesting choice.Â Singing my heart out, recreating some of the best music ever written. Making music with a stage full of wonderful and gifted colleagues and being led by the most inspiring (and often challenging) conductor I have ever worked with. In the studio, we would be trying to deliver perfection to order, often having to sound like somebody else â€“ flitting between breathless, straight toned piano to stonking, epic forte. (Actually thatâ€™s the same!) Never being allowed to take a musical breath, as we have to make a seamless sound – like the synthesiser the composer is used to hearing. Thatâ€™s a skill in itself.Â Donâ€™t get me wrong â€“ I love my work â€“ all aspects of it. I have been lucky enough to be involved in so many forms of music-making and because of that I could never be bored.
It just seems maddening when I get the call asking me to do 6 hours on the last Harry Potter movie ever to be made, and I have to say no. Any other day of that week is totally free, (the summer had endless weeks free) but that particular day I have a commitment to a concert that pays a quarter of the money. Sorry Mr bank manager â€“ I know Iâ€™m still struggling from the Ash cash hiccup, but Mr Monteverdi comes first!
I met a very successful Record Producer last night who was boasting that he was off to Prague to record an album. This month I had a Kathryn Jenkins session cancelled at two days notice as the recording went to Prague. Apparently recording in Prague is very cheap â€“ I canâ€™t believe that Ms Jenkinsâ€™ record company doesnâ€™t make enough money that they canâ€™t afford to pay British musicians the union approved rate of Â£113.40 for three hours work. Work that is also desperately hard to get – HOW BLOODY CHEAP DO WE HAVE TO BE?
I never dreamed when I went off to music college that I would have such a rich and varied musical life â€“ itâ€™s just mighty infuriating when Mr Murphy grabs my buttered toast and flings it marmalade side down onto the cream carpet.
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