Lately, I've been contemplating the differences between working in Europe and working in the U.S., since I think I've now had adequate experience working at Opera companies in both places to make some observations. One of the big differences is that in Europe, there is no union representing the solo singers, and the unions that represent the choruses and orchestras function very differently than in the U.S. Some perfect examples of this occurred during the dress rehearsal here in Liege. I was standing back stage next to one of the guys who also works backstage, and he had his nice SLR camera out and was taking photos of the singers from backstage. He caught a great one of me jumping out the window, and showed me on his little camera screen after I left the stage. Then he gave me his card and said I could email him for copies of all the pictures free of charge. I remembered that when I was singing in New Orleans, I had recently gotten more interested in photography having purchased myself an SLR camera, and since I was singing Stephano in Romeo and Juliet, I had a lot of downtime offstage. So I brought my camera and was in the wings snapping photos during a dress rehearsal, until one of the stage managers told me I had to stop - I wasn't allowed to do that. I wasn't going to sell them or anything, but one of the unions (maybe AGMA, but I'm not sure) prevents anyone from taking pictures who isn't the company photographers - I suppose, to protect the singers from having their image taken without their permission. But I was personally very happy that this nice guy backstage was taking photos of me, and so I give one point here to the no union for singers category.
Then later on in the dress rehearsal in Liege, I had a bit of an accident on stage, and fell into this gap between the back of the rake and the platform behind it during a scene where another singer is staged to push me. I lost my balance and fell down into this gap, and didn't break anything, but managed to get a big bruise all up and down my leg from smashing into the back of the rake. When I left the stage, nobody had seemed to notice my fall, because nobody asked me about it (except the baritone who had watched it happen from the stage). I was fine - I didn't need any medical assistance, and if I had needed it, I certainly could have asked the stage manager, but I am used to any accident on stage being extremely well attended to and reported, from my experience with U.S. companies. For example, back to New Orleans; during one of the scenes on stage with Romeo (who was being sung by Paul Groves), he was supposed to shove me out of the way, and during one of the performances, I tripped and fell down onto my hip and hand pretty hard. As soon as I left the stage, stage management was all over me, wanting me to fill out an accident report, and there was an ice pack waiting for me in the dressing room. So I guess that's one point for the unions compelling the company to look out for the singers.
There has been a lot of discussion about AGMA recently among the New York singer set, because of the negotiations between New York City Opera and AGMA. Because AGMA also represents the chorus of NYCO, and they are in a large dispute about the terms of their contract, solos singers have been informed by AGMA that if there is a strike, they will also be required to strike, or face legal action from the union for being considered scabs. While most singers are in full support of their fellow AGMA members, some take umbridge with the fact that the soloists are required to strike with the choristers, since even though we are part of the same union, said union is not able to provide the same job protection for soloists as it is for choristers because of the fact that soloists are freelance artists. There has been some argument amongst people about this issue, and it has lead to discussions about what exactly the unions do for soloists, who require different protections than people with full or part time employment. Having had a lot of experience in non union houses in Europe, as well has having worked for years at City Opera and other AGMA houses in the U.S., I think I can make a pretty fair assessment of what a union can and can't do for a soloist.
Two things that stand out are safety (see above story) and rehearsal hours. There aren't really any restrictions on rehearsal hours in Europe, nor is there anyone around to enforce a rehearsal being over at 7 when the schedule said it was over at 7. In Italy, the rehearsal call was often 4 PM til 10 PM with no break scheduled in. Of course, we were always given a break, or a few, and rehearsals generally ended much earlier than 10PM, but I know some American colleagues who would have been horrified by the idea that they couldn't count on eating dinner until after 10 PM. In AGMA houses, you have no more than 6 hours of rehearsal a day, with scheduled breaks, and rehearsals begin and end promptly when they are scheduled. There is literally a stage manager with a stop watch, who will stop the director mid sentence if needed, in order to end the rehearsal on time. I personally love rehearsing, and prefer to just finish the scene we're doing instead of stopping in the middle, but I also find that the imposed rehearsal times forces directors to be more organized in what they are doing, and also forces a kind of economy and time management, which is what allows most U.S. companies to go from the first rehearsal to the opening in only 3 weeks, where in Europe it often takes as many as 6 weeks to arrive at the same point. In Europe there is generally more stage time and more orchestra time, which accounts for some of the extra time, but there is definitely more leeway during the staging process. Some argue that this produces a better artistic result, and it definitely does in some cases, but in some cases it results in a lot of wasted time. It totally depends on the director and the situation.
One reason that I actually love the lack of unions in Europe is their ability to video rehearsals and performances both for distrubution, but also lately, for web consumption. Liege not only has many videos of the rehearsals from Nozze up online, but they will be live streaming an entire performance on October 29th, to anybody in the world who wants to watch it. To me, that is an absolutely wonderful way to share the art form and to keep it alive and kicking in difficult times, and I think it's a pity that both AGMA and the orchestral unions make this almost impossible for U.S. companies to consider doing. Speaking of the live stream, here is a link to the website where the transmission will take place, 8 PM Europe time, October 29th. There are also lots of fun videos from rehearsals, interviews, etc. I LOVE that Liege is sharing in this way - I think it is a great idea, and allows them to have an audience around the world!
I'm not one of those singers (and there are some) who compain that AGMA does nothing for solo singers - I have seen first hand certain ways it can protect soloists. But I haven't had any particularly terrible experiences in Europe as a result of not having had a union either. I guess my opinion is that I am lucky to get to experience working on both sides of the ocean, and I wouldn't necessarily want to change either one to be more like the other, because they both have their positives and negatives. One day, when I run an opera company, maybe I can figure out a way to get the best of both worlds to come together. Until then, enjoy the live web stream, from whichever side of the pond you find yourself on October 29th!