Kiwi tenor accuses NZ Opera of 'predatory' behaviour over fees for young singers

A top Kiwi tenor is accusing NZ Opera of “predatory” behaviour, by offering young singers low performance fees.

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The Government and council-funded organisation denies the claims but performers 1 NEWS spoke to say they're not getting a fair deal. Source: 1 NEWS

The Government and council-funded organisation rejects the claims, but three performers 1 NEWS spoke to say they’re not getting a fair rate.

1 NEWS has agreed not to name the singers because they fear reprisals from the company.

One singer said “under current management, the fees are definitely lower than what one would expect from similar size companies internationally. NZ Opera seems unwilling to negotiate with artists on these fees. 

“There are less opportunities and there’s less money on offer and therefore young singers feel they have to say yes,” a second singer commented.

A third signer said she would have earned more money teaching.

“What’s frustrating is they have so many staff and much of the funding seems to go to the staff instead of hiring singers and performing opera.”

An NZ Opera performance. Source: 1 NEWS

Internationally-renowned tenor Simon O’Neill said while back in New Zealand he had been approached by singers asking his advice on fees.

“I've been so shocked by the predatory nature of some of these fees to particularly our young singers which are not in line with the going rate throughout New Zealand with things like the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra,” O’Neill said.

He said it was an “abject failure” by the opera company.

“We should all be supporting each other to support the artists and not to be lowballed,” O’Neill said.

London-based Kiwi soprano Madeleine Pierard said singers have also told her about the rates.

“I'm not OK with young singers getting far, far less and I'm not OK with our national company just not seeming to care very much about that... it's not that it hasn't happened before, it's not happened at the level that it is now,” she said.

NZ Opera says fees are set by the market via agents and where that isn’t the case “it works to match all fees to the experience of the performers and the creative brief.”

“NZ Opera values its performers and would be unable to attract the quality of talent it does if it were not remunerating artists fairly,” the company said in a statement.

NZ Opera has been in the spotlight after three members of the 10-person board resigned in May over discontent about the artistic direction of the company.

Now more than 20 past and present opera professionals as well as donors have written to the Arts Minister requesting a review of the sector.

The letter says the signatories are “alarmed that since 2019 the generous investment of almost $9 million funded mainly through

Creative New Zealand, had not been deployed in a manner resulting in the flourishing of opera in New Zealand.” Former board member Witi Ihimaera, who recently resigned, and O’Neill are among the signatories.

In 2019, NZ Opera had revenue of $6.3 million, including $2.7m from Creative NZ. That year it put on two large productions.

Figures supplied by NZ Opera show in 2019 it spend 49 per cent of revenue on production and 38 per cent on administration expenses.

In 2020, NZ Opera had revenue of $5.8 million, including $2.9m from Creative NZ. Last year its main scale production Marriage of

Figaro was cancelled due to Covid, but it put on Semele in Auckland and toured two other smaller productions. In 2020, 40 per cent of revenue was spent on production and 48 per cent on administration expenses, but the company points out the year was disrupted by Covid.

NZ Opera has 20 staff. Singers are employed on a contractual basis. The company says it’s spending has been consistent and appropriate.

The Arts Minister does not have oversight of NZ Opera and directed 1 NEWS to Creative NZ.

Creative NZ says it has no plans to commission a review and has no concerns as to NZ Opera’s financial viability.

“We encourage organisations that contract artists to pay appropriate and fair remuneration within their means and be transparent with their fee structures,” Creative NZ CEO Stephen Wainwright said in a statement.