Given the amount of time I spend banging on about the cost of working abroad, you might think the obvious corollary would be that singing at home, albeit less well paid, is a whole lot cheaper. That, my friends, rather depends on where you live.
There’s a thing I find odd – and here I should point out that I speak here not just as myself but as a sort of unofficial rep for every singer in the land, a conduit for what they all think but never say, a sort of Hans Sachs if you like; I find it odd that English National Opera, for one, presumes that all singers live in London when in fact very, very few singers do. It isn’t called London National Opera after all but English National Opera, and the last time I checked, England extended all the way down to Lands End and as far north as Berwick. Every regional company in the nation makes the assumption that their guest singers don’t necessarily have to live in either Cardiff, Leeds or Glasgow to work for them and accordingly they hand out various expense allowances to help singers cover the added cost of working away from home. Not ENO though. Despite the capital being one of the most expensive places on earth to find digs, as far as England’s “national” opera company is concerned any singer’s decision to live outside easy commuting distance from London is an act of unconscionable eccentricity and certainly not one to be rewarded with any sort of financial assistance. So they give you nothing by way of travel or housing expenses. Not one train fare, not one penny. Zilch. Nada. Not even if you live outside England in Scotland.
Unless you are a foreign artist that is. Describe yourself as a Yorkshireman from Darlington and you’ll have to pay all your own travel costs and living expenses; a Frenchman from Paris, on the other hand, and you’ll get a rail fare and a place to stay in town. Considering both are roughly equidistant from London (and I imagine the train fares are roughly the same), where’s the logic in that?
In an era when anything more than four weeks of rehearsal was an extravagance the issue of rehearsal expenses really didn’t arise, but now that six is frequently the minimum – on top of which getting the odd day off to do other things, like teach or give a quick concert, is like getting blood out of a stone – the lack of any income can be very troublesome and irksome. (In fact I could happily turn that last simile around; getting blood out of a stone is probably far easier than getting an NA from ENO. Climbing Mount Everest in roller skates would seem like child’s play by comparison.)
Now you could be forgiven for thinking – if you have no experience in these things – that rehearsing at ENO entails an easy commute to Charing Cross, but that particular fantasy would have to run along side one where singers usually stroll over to the Coliseum from a night’s stay in a suite at the Savoy Hotel. Only the last two weeks of stage rehearsals ever take place in the Coli. For the rest, if you’re lucky, you might find yourself rehearsing in West Hampstead. This is where ENO owns the old and redundant Decca recording studio. Unfortunately, for a company turning out three productions at once, the studio has only one decent-sized space where the ceiling carries dire warnings about something that lies between it and the roof which must never be disturbed. Asbestos I can only assume.
No, the odds are two-out-of-three that for the first four or so weeks of your entirely unpaid rehearsal period with ENO you will find yourself travelling out to Bromley-by-Bow in East London, where you leave the tube station, trek alongside the A12, past a big Tesco and into Three Mills, a complex of old sewerage treatment buildings now converted into rehearsal spaces. Hopefully it isn’t raining – the spray from the HGVs as they hurtle by can be quite alarming – and if it’s a Saturday morning rehearsal there’s every probability that due to “essential maintenance” the tube isn’t running; which adds a whole new frisson of excitement to the morning commute, not to mention an extra half hour. There are no singers I know who, on being told they have to rehearse out in Three Mills, don’t emit a low and heartfelt groan.
So it is that the out-of-town singer, which would describe pretty-well 90% of all British singers, finds himself either on the scrounge to friends and relatives for a place to camp for several weeks or on the lookout for decent yet inexpensive digs to rent. I take a more scattergun approach, sometimes staying with an elderly second cousin in Ealing (so, completely the wrong side of London for Bromley-by-Bow) and sometimes hunting down cheap hotels in which to survive a couple of nights between the pilgrimage to the sewerage. I’ve stayed in some doozies, including one near Victoria where my basement room had no lock on the door, large holes in the walls, a non-functioning shower and a couple of chips (of the potato variety) at the foot of the bed.
If I’m lucky and careful I can keep my travel and housing expenses for a job at ENO to around the cost of one performance fee. No wonder then that ENO doesn’t want to emulate its cousins in the regions if it means coughing up another fee to every Brit singer resident outside London. It’s just a money thing that would need a lot of administration. (Well it’s either that or they simply don’t give a shit – but we’re not a militant bunch and we’re not usually given to expressing that possibility, except when wearing the Hans Sachs hat.)
Some singers commute for rehearsals from as far afield as Leicester and Bath. Not only is that very expensive and time-consuming but every minute you spend confined in trains and buses increases your exposure to other germ-laden commuters who don’t seem to have any qualms whatsoever about redistributing their viruses via smeared handrails and uncovered sneezes. Only last week I felt droplets of germy moisture land on me as a teenager behind me delivered a massive and uninterrupted eruption of mucus and germs to the back of my neck.
The truth is we all may want to get a bit more time at home and sing in England’s national opera company. It’s just a pity that doing so can be one big, fat, expensive, exhausting and unhygienic pain in the arse. Speaking as Hans Sachs of course.

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