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.