OperaUpClose, which won an Olivier Award for its production of ‘La Boheme’, has come under fire for not paying its chorus. The production was first staged in the Cock Tavern, in a bid to make opera less formal. The leads were paid but the chorus positions were advertised as “industry experience” and did not include expenses, although one chorus member told AP: “I wasn't sure whether my travel was meant to be paid – and the chorus master at the time was a bit unspecific about it. Usually on, say, an unpaid short film, travel and food is provided – but not always.”
When the opera opened, there was no indication that it would enjoy such success, or that it would transfer to a high-profile theatre – La Boheme sold out its first six-week run at Soho Theatre last year and returned this January. The chorus member, who wishes to remain anonymous, told AP: “I think as more chorus were recruited they were told different things or there was confusion – that travel would be covered, or that eventually it might be a question of profit share.” While some members of the chorus were happy with the experience, others felt that because the production did so well and transferred, they deserved a share of profits.
The management of OperaUpClose did not require chorus members to commit to all the performances, allowing for paid work to be taken on. The chorus member told AP that if you take on unpaid work that is advertised as unpaid, then it is disingenuous to complain after the event. However, she did express concerns that the chorus could not even claim expenses (one of the reasons she eventually quit) and that it is unfair for the management to make a profit from other people’s free labour. “After a while, it was costing me to do the show as I was buying a travel card for the sole reason to come and perform – and I know that's only a question of say £6, but a few times a week, that starts to add up. I made it work for me, so that when I was already going to be in town I'd perform – so I wasn't losing out. For me personally, it worked out and I was happy to be with the show in both venues. But with such a huge extension, and the show still running now, it's a big ask for committed chorus members such as myself.”
Another member of the chorus is so angry at being asked to work for free that she has taken her dispute to Equity, which is currently investigating whether employment laws have been infringed. A letter from Equity to the La Boheme company said: “I have been contacted by a number of individuals from the current and past companies of La Boheme in relation to the lack of payment or low pay for the engagement, particularly in light of the production’s massive success at a high profile venue such as the Soho Theatre.” The union then hosted a meeting in February to discuss the situation. The chorus member who spoke to AP told us that the Producer of OperaUpClose says that the company has only recently recouped all the costs of staging the show in the first place.