May 1, 2018
Chorus feature - Interview with four full-time opera choristers
Mezzo-sopranos, Rebecca Stockland (ENO Chorus) and Sarah Osborne (Glyndebourne Chorus) and two other full-time choristers from a major UK house were each interviewed separately about their lives as choristers.
How long have you been doing this?
Rebecca: This is my 10th season at ENO - I started in 2009.
Sarah: I have worked at Glyndebourne for 14 years. I have two children, aged 4 and 6.
Chorus Member 1: This is my first season as full time chorister but I’ve worked as an extra for years.
Chorus Member 2: I’ve worked as a full time chorister for 7 years.
What are the best things about your job?
Rebecca: I love everything about my job, and each & every day that I turn into St Martin's Lane, I look up at the Coliseum, and pinch myself!!! I get to dress up in fabulous costumes and get to prat about on stage in front of thousands of people - what's not to like?!?
Sarah: I love everything about this job, from the picturesque setting to my fabulous colleagues. I like to be part of a team that strives for excellence. It’s also nice that I work with my husband.
Chorus Member 1: It’s an incredible place to work - I’m onstage with super stars and learn so much from watching them, and the chorister life is unlike any other so the chorus really is like a family. I feel incredibly supported in all aspects of life by my colleagues, especially the female ones I spend hours on end with in the dressing room!
Chorus Member 2: World class productions, singers etc, but also stability.
Are you supported by any unions? If so, what are the benefits of this?
Rebecca: For the most part, the Choristers belong to Equity. I suppose the major benefit of belonging to a union is that they're there when things go wrong: they were, for example, unbelievably supportive when we were undergoing negotiations over our new working contract. They also look after Choristers whose health, both mental & physical, is in question, not only offering pastoral care, but also financial advice.
Chorus Member 1: I am a member of Equity and main benefits are being covered should an accident arise onstage as we all know how dangerous onstage/backstage areas can be plus working hours/overtime etc.
Chorus Member 2: Equity. They support our contract and negotiate on our behalf.
Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
Rebecca: I do think, unfortunately, that there is still a little bit of misogyny within the operatic world... women aren't perceived as 'capable' as men physically in terms of stamina, and yet, I have to say that I haven't encountered this with my job at ENO.
Chorus Member 1: I haven’t felt any negativity in being a woman in the job- if anything the men’s chorus have to work more hours due to there being more men’s chorus scenes/men only opera.
Chorus Member 2: Not really. Interestingly, the male chorus work harder generally as there are more choruses for men!
How do you manage to juggle your family’s needs with your job?
Rebecca: Before I accepted the job, we sat down as a family (my girls are now 19 & 15, but considerably younger when I took the job...obviously!!) and discussed how we were going to manage. It is the single most difficult part of my job - that my time is not my own, and I have been wracked with guilt about missing carol concerts, school plays, Parents' Evenings... Having said that, my family is hugely proud of me and what I do, and have come to nearly every show, even when the girls were little. I hope that as such, I am a good role model for them.
Chorus Member 1: It certainly is a juggling act and it takes a village to raise our son as my husband is a freelancer. That being said, me being full time chorus makes our calendars more straightforward so we can plan childcare further in advance. We're very lucky to have family nearby who help A LOT. There are tough weeks when I may only be home for one bedtime due to shows, but it balances out with weeks when I am around a lot. What’s probably hardest is when my husband and I have very long periods of never ever having an evening together at home, however there are so many benefits of me having the job which far outweigh the downsides.
Chorus Member 2: Because I am super organised, I sort childcare weeks in advance. We have a childminder who is flexible and a brilliant nanny for babysitting in the evening. It has been hard finding people I trust to look after young twins. It costs a fortune but I am lucky that I know my schedule (mostly) a year in advance.
What do you think are the biggest barriers for parents entering the profession, particularly for choristers?
Sarah: The biggest barriers for me are being on call 6/7 days a week 10.30am - 12am, organising childcare around this. Also making peace with the fact that you can’t take holiday for important school events, but will probably have to miss them. Having to explain to your children why you can’t make their first nativity because you can’t get time off work for a few hours can be heartbreaking.
Chorus Member 1: I suppose it comes down to the individual family and circumstances in terms of help with childcare. The biggest barrier is financial - can one actually support a child/children while still maintaining one’s identity as a profession musician? Is it worth the financial strain/going into debt/possibly having a strained relationship with spouse/partner trying to make it all work? In my mind, I can’t imagine doing any other job, so YES: So many singer couples barely break even trying to maintain their identity as musicians and raise kids at same time but I’d like to think the children grow up well-balanced and with an understanding that being rich is not the be-all-and-end-all and having parents who have talent and make their living by bringing joy to so many through music is pretty damn cool and far more rewarding than having investment banker parents!
Chorus Member 2: Generally a permanent job in chorus like ENO or ROH is full time. There is no option for a permanent job share (part time) which I think would be fairly easy to implement but I understand the full time thing is all about voices blending etc. We can’t say no to anything or choose when our holiday is and being in rep theatre we have a lot of split days which means we are at work from 10am-11pm with the option to get home for an hour or two but often this can be more disruptive than good.
How long after having your babies did you return to singing? What physical changes did you feel?
Rebecca: I never 'gave up' singing when having my girls. I even sang at a wedding when my youngest was less than 2wks old!!! I was lucky in that, as I was freelance at the time of having the girls, I was able to cox & box and take work on when I knew their father would be around. I also became expert at expressing milk!!!
Sarah: I returned to work after having My eldest after 6 months and youngest after 4 months. I had to return to the tour for money... more dictated by the company dates and money rather than choice.
Chorus Member 1: After my son I was back singing after about 2 1/2 months but I eased into it. I was lucky I didn’t feel any different really. My voice had gotten richer during the pregnancy and that richness stayed. Of course I felt the exhaustion of having a newborn but as I didn’t have a C section I didn’t have to retrain support muscles as some other mothers do.
Chorus Member 2: 10 weeks for a solo concert but back to ENO after 10 months. In terms of physical changes, not much but I'm bloody knackered.
How did parenthood change your career?
Rebecca: Becoming a parent made me a much more confident person, perhaps because I had to focus on someone who was dependent on me 100%. It made the time that I had to devote to my singing so much more precious, and I used it so much efficiently. I can say hand on heart that I wouldn't have got my job at ENO if I hadn't experienced parenthood.
Sarah: Parenthood has changed my career. I am still a full time member of the chorus, but before children I would receive offers to audition for covers / roles ... now it is assumed I am too busy with my children so wouldn’t want to. It has even been expressed to me that I must find it hard to create time to practice. I feel a little bit invisible now.
Chorus Member 1: To be honest, I’m incredibly lucky it hasn’t. My career path changed pre-children when, for various reasons, my work became more London-based and no longer touring based when my work shifted away from choral work towards opera. I was still freelance when I became a parent and I’m lucky that I was able to continue in the same path I’d been on pre- children. Years ago I could never have imagined that I’d be singing in the ROH chorus. I suppose a huge part of my motivation to prepare for the auditions and concentrate my efforts on being successful came from me being a mother. I wanted my son to be proud of me and I wanted to be able to provide stability for him. If anything, becoming a parent has made me believe in myself more as a singer and has certainly moved the goalposts aspiration-wise.
Chorus Member 2: I’m lucky it hasn’t.
What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry, to make life easier for artists with families/dependants?
Sarah: It would be nice to see opera companies just looking beyond the mother.... give us a crack at the whip - we could surprise you !
Changes that would help parents: weekly schedules being released at 1.30pm on a Friday - this would give us the lunch hour to arrange childcare before the following week and before businesses close. Also the possibility of holidays to be taken for all, if for auditions or school assemblies - it would benefit all in the business. On a plus note - Glyndebourne do let me and my husband choose our contracts so that we aren’t in the same operas and can juggle child care. This has been a huge help emotionally and financially.
Chorus Member 1: Change-wise: more crèches available on site. For freelancers, certainly more advanced schedules. Where I am, (the chorus are) very lucky to have the schedule in advance so I cannot complain about that at all!
Have you come up against or heard of any discrimination as a working mother?
Chorus Member 1: I personally have not come up against any discrimination but have read a lot of comments in my musician mothers groups on FB, especially in terms of no on-site breast feeding facilities available. This must change.
Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
Rebecca: I am in awe of Sarah Connolly and, if I'm totally honest, I fancy her a bit too 😉
Sarah: A big inspiration to me is Kate Royal - she seems to achieve it all.
Chorus Member 1: It's hard to choose just one: I absolutely adore Susan Bickley who has raised children, sings amazingly, AND is an utterly gorgeous human being inside and out. She makes it all look doable.
and finally, some thoughts from Laura Kelly-McInroy, currently in a job-share as a parent in the Chorus at Opera North:
'Having a job share as a mum is absolutely wonderful. Of course I still have to arrange child care etc but it has meant that I get to spend a lot of quality time at home with Daisy. Opera North have been fantastic at making it work well. I have found them to be hugely supportive. It’s been two years now and all going well. I do know that I would find it much harder as a freelance soloist. Having Daisy was my reason for wanting to be a full time chorister and the job share was even better than I had hoped for. I went back to work eight months after having Daisy which was difficult but with the warm support from everyone at ON it was made a little easier.'