Whenever I’m heading off on a foreign job, my friend Stan, a writer, asks me if I am being met with a limo at the airport and transported to a five star hotel.
Okay, okay, if the job is some concerts with a nice orchestra then there is a good chance you’ll be met and driven to a decent hotel (though, curiously, never in Berlin…) but opera is almost always a different beast and before you arrive in a new and unfamiliar city all most companies will do for you is tell you when and where your first rehearsal takes place. The rest is up to you.
This isn’t to say that opera houses won’t help you find digs. They will, but I find that I almost never use the proffered digs because they are usually much more expensive (but also much pokier) than digs I can find on the internet. This is something that has definitely changed since the birth of the internet, and massively for the better.
Here’s a short extract from my book Who’s My Bottom? penned in the days before broadband and wifi. The prices are a little old; you can add 33% at least. I should also point out here that 99% of the time you will have to pay for your digs out of your own pocket.
If you imagine that all opera singers are wealthy camelhair coated, Rolex-wearing types who lead a plush existence in five-star hotels and chauffer-driven limos, then you already have most of the qualifications needed to become the landlord of a rented apartment in a foreign city. Say the words “opera singer” to anyone with whom you are going to perform a financial transaction and you can virtually hear the cash-register ker-chink ringing inside their heads, or see their eyes spin like the wheels on a one-armed bandit stopping on a line of cherries.
How it usually works is this: the opera house for which you are going to work will have a list of apartments available to rent for a couple of months – these are usually owned by people with connections to the theatre – and for which you personally will have to fork out quite incredible sums of money. You can find yourself in an apartment that a “normal” tenant would rent for £200 a month, albeit on a longer let, but for which you pay £1500. How do they get away with it? First, by keeping the price slightly lower than the cost of a hotel. Second, by knowing that it’s a Hobson’s choice. Most of the time you have no idea what the going rate is until you are well and truly committed.
Furthermore, you usually arrive at night-time, tired and laden with luggage, too grateful to have stopped travelling to exercise your best judgement on the comfort-to-cost ratio when surveying your new home, and it is usually not until 48 hours later that you start to realise that you have been well and truly ripped off. When you search in vain for a halfway decent kitchen knife or cheese-grater you realise that once again you’ve been duped; how naïve of you to expect these things when you’re handing over such vast wads of cash! Oh yes, and the owners of these places always want cash alright, strictly hush-hush and well before you’ve even smelled a pay cheque for the job in hand.
I once arrived in Lausanneon a cold November night and checked into what was a very comfy little apartment for which I was paying enough to put the entire Family Robinson through yodelling school. The only snag was that the phone didn’t seem to work and I couldn’t ring home to say I was safe and sound, nor could I connect my laptop so that I could e-mail. The ritual of getting satisfactorily connected up gives me perverse pleasure, and to prove it I have a small sack positively bulging with phone gizmos, adapters and cables, of which I am absurdly proud. I managed to contact the landlord the next day.
“Is everything alright? It’s a lovely apartment. Very desirable.”
Yes, fine, only I can’t get the phone to work.
“Phone?! No it is not connected. You want a phone??! Haven’t you got a cellphone?”
Well yes of course but the cost of international calls is prohibitive.
“Oh (thinking: but you are surely a camel-hair coated Rolex wearer who doesn’t give a toss about the cost of a phone-call), well in that case I’m going to have to rip you off even more and charge you another £100 to have a phone connected.” (Or words to that effect.)
Blimey (or words to that effect).
In the end, outraged by such tactics, I decided to manage without a landline and opted for a Swiss SIM card for my British mobile (to make incoming calls cheaper) and spent long hours in freezing phone booths talking to my children via cheap phone cards.
The same landlord, when it was time for me to leave ripped me off again.
“Have you arranged for the apartment to be cleaned after you leave?”
“I beg your pardon? I am very clean and I’ll hoover, strip the bed etc…”
“But when you leave a hotel someone cleans the room for the next person and I have someone arriving very soon”
“But surely the person who is leaving the hotel doesn’t pay a surcharge to have the room they are vacating cleaned?”
“No no, this is not correct. I am sorry but you will have to pay for a cleaning service!”….. and I ended up, fool that I am, coughing up the Swiss franc equivalent of £85. For that price I hope they polished the floors with wax rendered from the rarest Edelweiss. But I got my revenge by not stripping the bed and leaving the place just a little bit grubby. I also didn’t own up to the fact that a knob on the washing machine had broken off in my (ahem) vice-like grip and I’d bodged it back on really rather better than was necessary with some glue and a chunk of a chopstick. That showed him.
Recently my wife Lucy was working in Geneva. The opera’s list of digs mostly consisted of apartment hotels that cost over £3000 a month for a studio room. She found a large well-equipped flat for less than half the price by spending some time online.
Some points:
  • You can ask your agent to handle all your travel arrangements and digs but, frankly I think they have more important fish to fry, like finding you work. In my experience the fewer people that get involved the better; ultimately it is you who are going to live in the digs for two months so why not make the effort to find a place you like and can afford rather than risk the choice to someone else? You wouldn’t do it for a holiday so why do it for work?
  • Ask on Facebook for recommendations. Google “apartments for rent”. I often use www.homelidays.co.uk and www.halldis.com . Make sure you ask for a discount for a long stay. My top priorities are: location (make sure you can get back there after a show but I don’t see any real need to be within spitting distance of the theatre – just be near good public transport), internet access and laundry facilities. You’ll be living out of a suitcase for eight weeks so your wardrobe will be in the machine a lot.
  • Staying with friends and family will save you money but you’re in town to work and the hours you lead are often at odds with “civilian” hours. Relying on someone’s hospitality for two months can be the quickest way to lose friends.
  • Book your digs at least three months in advance. Don’t rush into a choice.
  • You will almost certainly have to pay a deposit in advance and you may have to pay for the full rental as soon as you arrive. That’s just the way it is.
  • Use Google Street-view to check out the area where you’re planning to stay. It’s amazing how much information you can pick up.
  • Keep in mind what your needs are going to be for the entire rental. If you’re planning to have friends or family over, make sure you have room. On the other hand, there’s no point in paying a fortune for a two-bedroom flat if it’s going to be just you for the whole time or if you think the odd visitor can actually make do on a blow-up bed for a couple of nights.
Very few houses will book your travel for you. Again it’s something you should do yourself rather than hand over to the agent (in my humble opinion). More and more houses these days offer a “global” fee, meaning that it’s up to you to get to their city and they won’t pay any travel expenses at all.
  • Don’t necessarily take the view that as the opera house is paying your airfare it doesn’t matter how much you spend on the ticket. In most cases they will tax the amount they reimburse you. So if you spend £200 on a flight they say they’re going to pay, chances are they will only give you £150 and hold back £50 in tax.
  • A lot of companies, especially in Italy and Spain, have a habit of saying your first rehearsal is on, say, a Monday and then at the eleventh hour, say the Friday beforehand, changing that to the Wednesday. There’s not much you can do about that, especially if you’ve booked a non-changeable flight and rented your apartment from the Monday. Either turn up too soon or fork out to change your plans. Don’t expect the opera house to give a shit.
  • Don’t travel to a city on the morning of your first rehearsal (unless, possibly, it’s an evening rehearsal). Give yourself time to move in, get acclimatised and get your bearings. First rehearsals are nerve-wracking enough and you need to make a good impression. You don’t want to sound like you’ve just been travelling for six hours.
  • Make sure you know where your first rehearsal is taking place. Don’t assume it will be a short stroll from the stage door. In Milan it will probably be the other side of the city. Do some homework to make sure you know where you’re going. First impressions are very important.
If you’re working in the EC (and some other counties), make sure you have your European Health Insurance card up-to-date but more importantly you need to apply for an A1 (used to be called an E101). I’m assuming you’re paying Class 2 National Insurance in the UK (£2 a week?). The A1 certifies that you are already paying NI and nine times out of ten you’ll need to hand an A1 to each foreign opera house for each job you do. It will prevent them deducting potentially whopping rates of social security from your fee.
Oh look! A thrilling but important link about this: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/cnr/osc.htm
  • Your agent can prepare the paperwork for you but DON’T WHATEVER YOU DO sign a form which certifies that they can act as your agent on your behalf with the HMRC. It’s a common mistake. When HMRC says “agent” they mean “accountant”. If you sign the form you’ll suddenly find all your tax stuff is going to your agent, and neither of you wants that. Believe me. My agent prepares my A1 application forms, sends them to me so I can sign them and then I send them to HMRC.
  • DO THIS WELL IN ADVANCE. HMRC are hopelessly slow. I applied for an A1 in April for a concert in Berlin in May. I received it in August but luckily in this case the promoter didn’t need an A1 after all.
  • If you haven’t received the A1 by the time the job starts, don’t panic. The important thing is that the opera house gets it before the end of the job, when you’ll be paid.
  • If you’re not flying on Easyjet or Ryanair (but there’s every chance you are!) then do join frequent flyer programmes. Some day you may get lucky and find yourself flown business class on a few long haul flights (it does happen, especially to the far east) and you’ll quickly earn enough miles for free flights and upgrades. Hotel loyalty cards too. Think like a corporate lacky.
  • Get a non-commission credit card like this one http://www2.postoffice.co.uk/finance/credit-cards-loans/credit-card . Most credit cards charge you hidden amounts of commission every time you use them abroad. The Post Office card is one of the few cards that doesn’t.
  • In the future you may have to consider getting a second passport. This is so you can submit one to an embassy for a visa and continue to travel for work on the other. There’s nothing dodgy about this though it’s unlikely to be hurdle you’ll have to jump for a few years.
  • If you do find yourself being booked for work in countries which require you to have a visa (USA, Australia, Japan, Russia…) then the employer will certainly have to help you, but you’ll probably have to buy the visa yourself. A US visa is about £200 by the time you’ve paid for all the bits and bobs. Time to turn to your agent for some help and expertise.
  • I’m an O2 customer. Before I go to Europe for any length of time I pay about £10 per month for the MyEurope bolt-on which cuts a fortune on roaming charges.  Incoming calls cost me nothing and Lucy (and anyone on O2) can call me for free on my mobile. I’m sure every mobile company has a similar package. Worth setting up before you go. I have in the past bought local SIMs and stuck them in a second phone but I don’t think it’s worth it any more.
  • Why not enrol for the IRIS programme? It can save hours. http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/customs-travel/Enteringtheuk/usingiris/
Next post will be about THE WORK (though reading Who’s My Bottom? will give you a pretty comprehensive insight into that…)

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