Why Opera Singers Need Affordable Housing

Despite illusions of glamour and wealth, mostly they're just trying to get by.

Colin Ainsworth as Jason and Peggy Kriha Dye as Medea in Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Medea" at Toronto's Opera Atelier in 2017. Photo: Bruce Zinger.

Housing for a young opera singer, when it exists, isn’t always appetizing. In my 25 years as a professional opera singer, I have experienced just about everything. Now that I am the General and Artistic Director of Opera Columbus, I am aware of what singers are used to, and I try to offer better.

When I started out in NYC, studying at the Manhattan School of Music and later singing at the Juilliard Opera Center, living on a modest stipend and working a part-time job, I lived in a small apartment in the then-undesirable Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. I slept in the top bunk that I shimmied into because, on my back, my face was inches from the ceiling. The shared apartment was on street level across from a club, with the most peculiar odors coming through our one window. I had room for my radio and a suitcase.

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Then I had a four-year stay in San Francisco, working at the San Francisco Opera, in a rent-controlled apartment not far from the opera house. Management was reluctant to fix anything, in the hopes that we would move out and raise the rent. I will never forget the day I awoke to my own indoor garden: mold so prevalent there were mushroom patches growing in the carpet. Toward the end of my time there, I was pregnant, and the health concern was real.

Once my career took off, I traveled around the world from show to show, opera house to opera house, from one housing situation to another. Eventually I traveled with a nanny and my two small children, while my husband stayed in our apartment in New Jersey. On one engagement with the Washington National Opera, my entourage of children in tow, the housing was particularly interesting, for although the level of my career at that time was better than most, my housing wasn’t. I needed to stay outside of downtown to afford housing. Because of limited space, I remember my beautiful one-year old slept in a drawer in the closet so he could have quiet to rest. Who puts their baby in the closet? I was singing at the Kennedy Center! The big illusion of opera is that while the art form and its artists exude glamour and wealth, singers are mostly artists trying to get by.

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A lot of artists choose horrible accommodations when they travel from city to city in order to maximize their fee; when offered housing by the host opera company, they don’t complain of issues for fear they’ll be seen as “problematic” and not get hired again. It isn’t atypical for opera companies to provide housing for artists at the home of a local patron. This is a real crapshoot: you don’t know if you’ll be an entertaining fish in their fishbowl, or lacking privacy, or asked to sing for free, or, frankly, have a bizarre host. I’ve experienced them all. Performers never complain, because your landlord is paying your way and is dear to your boss financially.

Now I’m that boss for singers, and this issue is on my desk every day. I have learned a lot — sometimes the hard way — about how to take care of the artists that perform with Opera Columbus. I pay more for housing a cast than for sets and costumes for a show. I always try to put the artists first, because they are people.

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Housing is a line-item in our budget that is in constant discussion, simply because of the size of it. Opera Columbus is not a large company and our resources, though growing, are not big. Still, we provide wonderful housing for our artists, with a kitchen, a private bath, laundry in a newly-renovated historic building located downtown within walking distance of the rehearsal hall and theaters, and breakfast is provided. Our performance fees aren’t the highest, for sure, but we provide dignity to my guests. I’ve heard about conversations in my city about ideas for affordable artist housing — but I haven’t seen any concrete plans yet. Until I do, I march on, always in favor of the artist.

This post is sponsored by Make Room USA.