Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: September 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Aled The Ashtray

Despite being a non-smoker, I own an ashtray that's made from a piece of granite from the old London Bridge. And it's just like Aled Jones.
No, I don't mean that Ex Boy Soprano and TV's "Cash In The Attic" Presenter Aled Jones has carved out a career as an object without any practical use; that he's a crumbling fragment of his past and he's living off his former glory. I wouldn't do a thing like that. Uh huh. No way. Tsk.
I should explain.
My ashtray is a chunk from the London Bridge that was dismantled in the late 60s and transported to Lake Havasu in Arizona, where it was re-erected and now spans one end of the lake for no better reason than to act as a tourist draw. The bridge that is, not the ashtray. Whether the bridge is covered in ashtray-sized pockmarks I couldn't really say as, despite having been to Arizona many, many times I've never felt much compunction to go and visit the mother of my ashtray. The ashtray used to be my father's, who was big in the City of London which, I can only suppose, entitles you to chunks of old bridge turned into ordinary household objects when they become available.
There is an urban legend that the man who bought the bridge, one Robert P. McCulloch (who was big in chainsaws), thought he was buying Tower Bridge and was hugely disappointed, having coughed up over a million quid for the thing. My dad, eager no doubt to get his hands on a granite ash receptacle, was actually at the photo op in his capacity as City bigwig when McCulloch took possession of his new-but-old bridge. The photographers lined up the shoot with McCulloch leaning against the parapet of his purchase and with Tower Bridge in the background. One of the photographers indicated the far-off bridge and said, larkily "Hey Mr McCulloch I bet you wish you'd bought THAT bridge, eh?" and McCulloch, joining in the fun, replied in mock disbelief "Oh no, you don't mean I bought the WRONG bridge?!" How they all laughed.
Well of course the media ran with the story in the way they so often do when there's a chance to make all Americans seem completely stupid and ignorant. And the public, happy to believe that a man could, through his own industry, amass a vast fortune and yet be as dumb as a stump, lapped it up. I suppose the fundamental problem was the notion that anyone who was eccentric enough to pay a million pounds for a massive old edifice and ship it thousands of miles away to a dessert must be several ashtray-sized granite chunks short of a full river-crossing.
Yet, no matter how ridiculous the assumption is that a shrewd businessman would buy the wrong bridge, the myth continues. Only recently I heard it repeated by the BBC's top investigative sofa-jockey, Bill Turnbull on Breakfast News. Yup, a television news anchor man in the 21st century was all too happy to share a snippet of Americans-are-so-dumb drivel as fact. And have a little patronising chuckle about it too. Right there on the telly box. I was shocked.
Then a few days ago I saw a TV ad for a new album by Aled Jones. The voiceover described him as "one of the nation's great singers". Again, I was shocked.
And, like the London Bridge story, it just proves you shouldn't believe everything they say on the telly.
Which makes Aled Jones just like my ashtray.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Gillett's Gobs Of Advice: 5, Keeping Your Head Together

All the stuff that has gone before in these Gobs - getting the work, doing it, and the logistics - those are in so many ways the easiest aspects of singing abroad. The hardest task when singing abroad is stopping yourself going out of your mind with boredom and loneliness.
"How can this be?" you are probably asking yourself.
Let me give you a scenario. You are in your early thirties. You career is moving along and you are in demand on the opera circuit. Your agent feels you should no longer be aiming at regional British companies but at the more lucrative world stage. It's all part of the half-formed plan you have in your head which probably features good roles in good houses, posh concerts with the major orchestras, and some recordings thrown into the mix. Nothing wrong with that ambition. If you weren't ambitious the chances are you wouldn't be reading this blog in the first place.
But, as your are in your early thirties there's also every chance you are in the depths of a very important personal relationship. You may even be married. I was, and had two young children to boot.
Scenario: You go abroad on a job, let's say to Liege. You have five weeks rehearsal and then shows every third night over a period of three weeks. What does your partner do? Come with you? Have you ever spent eight weeks in Liege? Come to think of it, have you ever spent eight hours there? Eight minutes just about wraps it up. Believe me. And seven of those will be spent cleaning dog poo off your shoes.
Have you spent eight weeks anywhere while your partner goes off to work and you have to find something to do to amuse yourself?
Say you have children, are they in school or are they young enough for your partner to bring too? Again, I ask, what do you do for eight weeks in Liege with two young toddlers and no-one else you (or they) know in town? Beside the shoe-cleaning thing.
This is assuming your partner doesn't have their own job which keeps them tied to your home. There's a good chance your partner is also a singer. Which of you gives up the important job that's on offer to look after the children? Eh?
What tends to happen (though there are some exceptions) is that someone stays behind at home with the children and the singer flies home as often as is humanly possible. This isn't without its own set of problems. Because everything is scheduled day-by-day you won't know until the eleventh hour when you'll be free to fly home during rehearsals (let alone what day you are needed back), by which time the enormous fares will make you wonder how you'll ever again afford to buy clothes for your dear offspring, and when you do get home, one of your dearly beloveds will complain of a sore throat and then cover your mouth with adoring and slobbery kisses. You get the picture.
Chances are you will fly the family out to join you for a week or so once the show has opened and you have more free time. So then you are faced with a dilemma when you first book your digs as to whether you book a large enough apartment (at a much higher cost of course) for the entire gig or whether you make special arrangements just for the time your family is with you. And that's complicated too.
When your family is with you, you probably have shows in the evenings and won't get to bed much before 1 a.m. Then your kids are bouncing on the bed at 6.30 the next morning, a good four hours before you normally haul yourself out of bed the day after a show. You spend the next two days trying to be SuperDad (or SuperMum) to make up for all the time you haven't seen them in the last two months and when it comes to the next show you are surprised to find yourself utterly knackered.
But at least your are not lonely. That will kick in the moment you wave the family off at the airport, the day they return home and you are left behind to finish the job. That is the day when you say to yourself - and believe me, you will - "remind again, me why do I do this job?" It doesn't become long before you find yourself depressed at the idea of every upcoming job that takes you away from home, and that's not the right frame of mind in which to rehearse and perform.

So how come you will be bored? Quite simply because you spend so much time in a virtual waiting-room. You're waiting for your next rehearsal, you're waiting for your performance. You might like to think of yourself visiting all the galleries, sites and cute restaurants (but can I just play the Liege card here one more time...) but when push comes to shove you are in town to work, to perform at your best, to earn your fee and pretty-well any activity on your days off that doesn't involve lying prostrate on a sofa gazing at something mindless on the laptop or telly quickly seems far too much like hard work and something that will detract in some way from the hard task of singing opera. It's nothing to feel ashamed of. You don't see Olympic athletes or Test cricketers pottering around the National Gallery on their days off. They're in their hotel rooms playing Nintendo.

There has been a significant number of singers who try to escape their loneliness and boredom by resorting to rampant affairs, heavy drinking and even the odd but of drug abuse. Guess what? It doesn't work. I could name names but on one hand I'm far too discreet and on the other it saddens me too much to think of once-great singers who have ended up on the scrapheap or even dead.

Here's my solution, but it's one that can only work in a relationship which allows it to work and it only works if you are making the effort to be present, and I mean truly present, when you are at home and not working. Use your time away as "personal time". As Billy Connolly once said, and we have it pinned to our fridge at home, "you cannot spend your whole time away missing the ones you love". So don't sit around moping. Get up and do something that interests you but for which you don't have time at home. Write lengthy emails to friends with whom you've lost touch. Paint. Draw. Read. Build your own website (I did, in between rehearsals in Milan). Start a blog. Knit. Be indulgent in something that interests you but which is perhaps of no interest to your partner. It doesn't mean you are ignoring their needs. It means you are taking care of your own. And by doing so, you are probably making yourself a much happier and more pleasant person to be with.
There'll be times when the stay-at-home partner may envy your freedom to do what you want for yourself while he or she is left at home in domestic drudgery. Make sure you do your best to ease that drudgery when you get home, but please don't think for a moment that sitting in your grotty rented apartment desperately trying not to enjoy your time away will actually make your partner feel better. Uh-uh. Let's face it, that's absurd and doesn't reflect very well on the health of the relationship. It's an easy trap though and I fell into it in my first marriage. See? I speak from experience.
Of course most of the pastimes I mention are fairly sedentary. Some people use the time away to visit a gym regularly and get fit. Many opera houses have arrangements with local gyms. I do a lot of walking and, in Amsterdam especially, cycling. Cooking is another thing I enjoy, especially in Italy and France, though it can be deflating to be constantly cooking for one in a poorly-equipped kitchen. Have colleagues round for meals. If you get into the habit of eating and drinking out with your colleagues, just be aware that you probably won't have an understudy. Very few opera houses employ them. No-one, but no-one, is going to be impressed if you are too hungover to work or if you fall sick due to what your co-workers or management interpret as the result of over-indulgence. There's also nothing worse than finding yourself hoarse from shouting just to have a conversation in a noisy bar or restaurant, something of which, bizarrely, opera managements are woefully ignorant when they plan cast parties.

I said it to the young-uns at British Youth Opera and I'll say it again: a lasting career in this profession we call opera depends less on those little cords in your throat and more on what is in your head and your heart. Keep the latter two happy and your voice will thank you for it. However if you have the greatest voice in the world but neither the will nor the wit to stick at it and to endure this difficult lifestyle, all those singing lessons will have ultimately been for nought.

That's the last of these Gobs, though there's every chance I will think of something I've forgotten to wag a finger about. So who knows. I have a notion to set up a website as a singers' resource, full of specific info about as many cities as I can, but this is a huge task. I could only do it with lots of input from other people and also if I can find a cunning way to pay for it!
Meanwhile do read "Who's My Bottom?" which not only lifts the lid on my personal experiences as a jobbing singer but which is also now on Amazon and order-able in all good bookshops!
Oh look, here's a link for Brits:
And for Americans:

Anyone else will have to google and figure it out for themselves.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Gillett's Gobs Of Advice: 4b, More On Money

It's interesting to report that of all my recent Gobs, the one that provoked the largest response from fellow old pros was the one on money. Some of them, prompted by their own experiences, felt that there were more gobbets of information that I should be sharing. I'm not remotely surprised by this. I was once at a post-concert dinner in Amsterdam where the salaried administrators were all talking about music and the working musicians (including two top composers) were talking about the best place to exchange their fees into pounds. (It used to be the Bank of Abu Dhabi near Hyde Park Corner but anti money-laundering laws came in and the bank hurriedly closed; not surprising as you could walk in with a thick envelope of foreign cash, but without any ID, and quite simply change it into pounds, and at brilliant rates. Now, if it's cash it's Marks and Spencer for me. Much less exotic.)
So here, in fairly random fashion, are a few more things on the money subject, some of which may have nothing in particular to do with singing abroad, but which are mind-numbingly dull:

  • Cash-flow is almost certainly going to be a worry at some point in your career, no matter how successful you are. As I said in the Money Gob, you will come across times when you have massive and regular outgoings but you have to wait for a good while, sometimes two to three months, before you get paid. You will almost certainly need an overdraft facility of some sort to tie you over. Personally, but it's not everyone, I have found a mortgage bank account to be a life-saver. But of course you need to have a home/mortgage to have the account and, ideally, a fair amount of equity in the home to spare too. So, if you're reading this as a struggling beginner who's still living at home, then you're probably already thinking "yeah, well, bollocks to you, thanks for nothing". But, further down the line, when you're up and running, it's something to bear in mind. In the immediate future, be prepared to talk to your bank about a facility. Shop around for a bank that understands your needs. A small business account may end up being your best bet, especially if they offer you a couple of years of free banking. This is all sounding worryingly like the Personal Finance section from the Mail on Sunday.

  • Someone suggested I should bring up the idea of having a euro account. You can have them in the UK now but I've always thought they're not worth the money; last time I looked I thought they were too expensive to run. Besides, you may well find yourself having a bank account opened for you if you work for various companies. As I said before, in Barcelona the Teatre Liceu opens you an account - a proper account with internet banking and the works - which I kept open for a while. Los Angeles Opera offers something similar, though in dollars obviously. My wife worked in Strasbourg where they did the same thing. We also have a German account, a hangover from Lucy's days on contract in Cologne, which is handy mostly for the next thing on my list. Just a few euros in one of these accounts (and you probably should stick with one in the long term) should keep it ticking over.

  • German pensions. I alluded to this in the last Gob. If you work in Germany for any length of time there's every chance you will be enrolled in the Bayerische Versorgungskammer, a pension fund. While you're working there, payments will made into the fund, building you up a little nest egg. However - and this is the reason I bring this up - if you stop working there you MUST keep paying €150 a year into the fund or they will wind it up. If they do wind it up you lose every pfennig that's ever been paid into it. Having a German account makes it a lot easier to set up a standing order to make sure you keep enrolled. It may not seem very exciting right now to be thinking about your old age but a little German pension when you retire could prove to be a very good idea.

  • Being paid abroad. There are so many variants on this. I'll give you as many as I can from my own experience. Most houses will ask you where you want your fee wired at the end of the run. Chances are you will just say your bank account in Britain. You will probably be landed with half of the wiring fees, sometimes all of them, sometimes none. I would strongly advise against any express wiring as it will cost a bomb. These days a normal international wire should take very little time indeed. Some houses pay the day after your last show, some leave it until a specific day of the week when they do payroll and some (tut-tut Italy) leave it a good fortnight for reasons best known to themselves. It is not unusual for there to be a flurry of emails between colleagues who have just returned home from a job along the lines of "I'm getting worried as I haven't been paid yet!" Italy is the only country where I have not been paid for a job. It was a long time ago. I was doing three concerts in Tuscany. I got 2/5ths of my fee in cash while I was there and was promised the balance by wire. It never came, nor did it for the British soprano. In trying to get it we hit a mafia wall. Seriously. The fees had been purloined by a promoter with connections to the mob and it disappeared into a bank that didn't really exist. Back then there was nothing we could do. Italy has long had this reputation and it is still quite common for a theatre's money man to come round in the interval with your pay statement to demonstrate that you have been paid. This is to encourage you to continue with your performance - a throwback to the days when things got so bad that people refused to return to the stage for the second act until they'd been handed their fee in cash. Anyway, back to the present. There are still some dodgy practices around (Nice Opera had a bad record for quite a while - again, a mafia town) but though I've had to wait longer than I would like for my fees to come through, a little trust generally seems to get you by. Though in these straightened times I wouldn't be surprised if there are a few horror stories getting ready to hit the airwaves.

  • Some houses will let you take your fees in chunks, as long as you've earned them, but if you're wiring them home piecemeal be aware that you will probably have to pay a wiring charge each time, even if it's to a euro account. Some won't pay you until the run is done, full stop. In the USA they may well give you a cheque at each performance, which you then have to pay into the bank account they have helped you set up. It's rather out-dated but what they're used to. The Monnaie in Brussels used to give you a cashier's cheque at the end of the job, which you then had to take to a specific bank to cash and from where you could arrange to wire the fee home. I'm not sure if that's still their arrangement but it was a pain in the backside. In Milan, you never have any dealing with a money man in La Scala. Instead you have to go a particular bank around the corner, take a ticket, wait for about 20 minutes, then talk to a specific cashier who deals with the theatre's account. It's all rather strange but given the chaos in the opera house it at least reassures you that your fees won't be purloined. Probably. Don't forget your passport.

  • Whatever method you choose, it's a good idea to have a record of your BIC, IBAN and Swift Code numbers before you leave home for a foreign job. These are your bank details in funny form which are probably somewhere on your bank statements. I seem to remember that this may be changing and the Swift Code at least may now be defunct. Whatever - take every scrap of detail about your bank account, including your bank's address.

  • For what it's worth, in general and if I can, I try to live within a budget determined by how much cash I can draw from the opera house as an advance on my fee plus the reimbursement for my airfare. That usually covers most of my cash needs and saves me having to visit ATMs and drawing money out of my bank at home. The rest I pay with my trusty Post Office credit card (see Gob 2: Logistics) which not only means no exchange commission but which also means, with luck, that I may not have to pay the credit card bill until after I've received my fee. Of course if the opera house won't give me an advance then that whole scheme goes for nothing.

  • When your wire comes through from an opera house the exchange rate at which your bank will convert your fee from, say, Euros to Pounds can vary enormously from bank to bank. It's annoying. You could possibly save some money by using a foreign exchange service like Travelex that give better rates of exchange on large amounts but I've yet to be convinced it's worth it. Have a google and see what you think.

  • If you get a foreign bank account, make sure you can easily arrange wires home, say via online banking, or you could find yourself stuck with a pile of cash in a foreign account and no way of getting it out of the country!

  • It has been pointed out that some European countries are currently taking 15% in withholding tax and others, as well as Holland, are taking nothing. I wish I could draw up a chart. Not even the good old internet has a list that I can find. HMRC does a list of withholding rates for counties with which the UK has a double-taxation agreement (I can feel your eyes glazing over) but that's for share dividends, not hard graft. Needless to say it's complicated. "Double-taxation agreement" means that the tax you pay abroad can be offset against UK tax. If you can find a country that pays you as a singer that doesn't do this then I will eat a very large and extravagant hat, topped with hat sauce and served with a large side portion of hat.

  • Somebody thought I wasn't clear that you should take an A1/E101 to every EU country to prevent them taking social security payments off your fee. As I said, some houses won't need one, but err on the side of caution and get one anyway. Things change.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Gillett's Gobs Of Advice: 4, Money

It's time to talk about money. But let's not get our knickers in twist about whether or not we should. We should. We are professionals after all. This is how we earn a living and anyone who does it because they think it's a lark, and that a fee is some kind of fun bonus, will probably end up on the scrap head faster than a soprano can flutter her eyelashes (albeit in vain) at a casting director. 
When I was young no-one told me about tax. When you sing abroad, with very very few exceptions, you will have tax deducted from your gross fee at source. The only places that don't, off the top of my head, are the Netherlands and Monaco, though don't ask me why. The tax rate varies wildly from nation to nation. Last time I was there, Italy and Spain took 25%. That's about the going rate you should expect, and as I said in Gob 1, they will usually take it off your airfare too.  
In the USA you pay not only 30% Federal tax but a State tax too. In California it's another 7%. In Germany there was a time when they were trying to discourage footballers from living over the border in Lichtenstein so they hit any non-resident earners with a massive surtax. Add onto that the reunification tax and singers found themselves having over 50% of their fee withheld in taxes. 

At the end of your job, the opera house will send or give you a fee statement which will show how much tax they have withheld. They may also give you a tax certificate. Either way, these are EXTREMELY important documents. Put them in a safe place. When you come to do your annual tax return back in Britain, you give these documents to your accountant. He then gives them to the Inland Revenue as proof that you have already paid so much tax and, in principal, this is offset against any tax you are due to pay on your annual earnings. If you work abroad enough in a year there's every chance that you will end up paying no income tax in Britain because you've already paid enough abroad. So, the fact that foreign companies withhold tax can seem a bit rich when it happens but at least it saves you the bother of having to set aside a chunk of your fee for the tax man, which is what you sensibly should do with every job (but which practically no-one I know actually does).
I'll spare you a long and dreary discourse on more complex matters to do with this tax stuff. Be warned that some accountants don't fully understand the complexities of "foreign tax credits" so make sure you have an accountant who does. From time to time the Inland Revenue gets snippy about the issue and threatens various measures that would be bad news (like we need more of that...) for the struggling singer. But so far so good. 

Reading an opera house's pay statement can be a baffling experience. In France it will have all kinds of things that seem to be deductions from your fee but which (so long as you have given them the precious E101/A1 that I warned you about in Gob 1) are in fact all paid by your employers. If you haven't got the E101/A1 then a whole slew of your dosh will be winging its way to various organisations from which you'll never get it back. 
However, the nice surprise in France is Congés Spectacles. French theatres are obliged to pay you holiday pay. The amount depends on the length of time you have worked there and the fee you were paid. With your payslip you will be given a small blue Congés Spectacles slip. It's another important document. My first, because I had no idea what it was, ended up in a bin. These days it's all done online and here is the website with an English explanation of what it is.

It may seem like a lot of faff, but come the spring after you have done a French job you can find yourself picking up a nice little bonus. It's well worth it. Quaintly, you can even book a discounted holiday train with SNCF. I've never done that bit but it does conjure up wonderful images of French theatricals pottering off to the seaside à la Monsieur Hulot. (Mon Dieu, I hope you get that reference...).
The ONLY theatre I have encountered in France that refuses to pay the CS is the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. I think they're breaking European employment law but they say they're not. It's a long and frustrating story and too dull for these pages.  

If you work in Germany you may find yourself subscribed to a German pension fund. I'm sorry, at the moment I have no more info on this but it's something to look out for (and something which somebody might like to comment on at the bottom of this post... hint hint).
American houses will make you join the union, AGMA. You have no choice. It's $500 to join and they take 2% of your fee. There are benefits though, the best of which is their Health Fund. You will end up with a pot of money they hold which can be released to pay medical bills (including visits to your dentist or a new pair of specs) - though they only pay out in dollars of course, though the expense can take place at home in Britain in pounds. 

If you earn an awful lot in France then you'll end up having to do a French tax return with the help of a French accountant. German fest singers will have to do the same. I've never had to do either.

So, your massive fee that you thought was going to keep you in champagne and frocks for quite a while is already looking a lot smaller. You've had to pay for digs and you'll have to leave behind the tax. That's about 35% of your fee already accounted for, if you're lucky. You're probably going to have to pay your agent at least 12.5% of your gross fee too (plus VAT). Take off various other expenses like local travel and food and the fee is down to half what it was when you signed the contract. And that's your usual rule-of-thumb. Any foreign fee: slice it in half for an idea of your take-home pay. 

I talked in Gob 3 about the people you should befriend in an opera house. I didn't mention one other person: the money guy. Somewhere there'll be a man (well, it's usually a man) who you have to see about money. Normally you'll take him a copy of your air ticket and your A1/E101. He'll ask you where you want the fee wired at the end of the job (though in Barcelona they open a Spanish bank account for you into which they pay your fees and leave the rest up to you). There are some houses, but hardly any, who will pay you a rehearsal fee or per diem of some sort. If not, some houses will let you take half or a whole fee (minus tax, natch) in advance of the first night so that you can pay some bills. Some won't. Your agent should be able to find this out before you get there. That advance can be a life-saver.
Imagine you're starting a job abroad in late January. You're paying a mortgage or rent on a home in Britain. You haven't worked since a few Messiahs before Christmas (but for which you still haven't been paid). Christmas itself was crucifyingly expensive what with the new Mario X-Wii Play-Nintendo that the kids had been clamouring for and the cost of having your entire family including two grandmas stay for a week. You've had to shell out for the flight to the new job and the landlord of your digs wants a fat deposit as well as a full month's rent on arrival. And it being the end of January, it's time to pay your UK tax bill. The upcoming job pays well, but there are six weeks' rehearsal and you won't open until mid March. Your bank account is already in the red and your credit cards are groaning under the weight of debt. You arrive in the exciting city for the exciting job you've been looking forward to for ages. How on earth are you going to feed yourself for the next six weeks? 
Ooh, that was a bit gloomy but I hope you get my point. Think ahead. Plan. The last thing you want (but which unfortunately I know too well) is the feeling that when you've finished the lovely job abroad all you've done financially is fill a big fat hole. 
Keep every receipt you collect when working abroad. Get good at managing your accounts. Being something of a nerd I have a spreadsheet app on my iPhone. I start a new spreadsheet for each job I do and in it I keep a log of all my costs, from groceries and rail fares to agent's commission. It works a treat; in a slow moment during a rehearsal when I've nothing better to do, I can tap my expenses into the phone and keep everything up to date. I'd like to pretend that was cool, but clearly it isn't.

Oh, and one last thing. I can bet you all the tea in the Coliseum canteen, that when you are in the last week of the foreign gig with the prospect of finally sending home your fee, you will watch the exchange rate turn against you (thanks probably to an anti austerity riot in Greece or a bunch of sharp-suited wide boys having fun on Wall Street) and the fee you once thought was so huge will suddenly shrink by 5%, not because of anything you have done or could have done, but simply because that's just the way it is and no doubt will always continue to be.

Next and final Gob will be called KEEPING YOUR HEAD TOGETHER.