Opera Australia – Unfortunate Decision

Aida, now any student can stand on stage with professionals and be a professional without being paid like one. Or without being paid at all.
Aida, now any student can stand on stage with professionals and be a professional without being paid like one. Or, for that matter, without being paid at all. Image from the Opera Australia website, advertising their grand vision for opera in the open-air in 2015.

Opera Australia has done something thought-provoking – though not by what they put on stage – rather through how they put it on stage. It is a decision that should be reviewed urgently and the whole ill-advised undertaking withdrawn.

I write this as a lover of opera and of the Opera Australia who I have supported as a loyal member of the audience for now close to two decades. It’s a small measure of operatic fidelity compared to some of my audience colleagues, but occasionally, we the loyal opposition must speak up and I do so now.

Someone has had the idea that it would be smart to ask people to volunteer to provide professional performance work – that is – do it for free. But don’t worry, we’re only asking students to do it, students who are studying it in some way – so that gets us through the loop-hole of the Fair Work Act… or does it?

Students are annoying at the best of times, so who cares right? Maybe those persons who could be gainfully employed as performers. Those persons who were once students and are now looking to practice in the industry. Let’s look a little closer…

The well-known and up-to-date source of all operatic knowledge in this country (aside from fawning press-releases) Bel Canto last night published a call out for people looking to do a secondment with Opera Australia in their upcoming Opera on the Harbour project – a production of the Verdi stalwart “Aida”.

The “Call Out” says that the national Opera company is seeking “students currently undertaking a performance based degree to join the Aida cast” and notes that they will get a lot out of doing that including, “You will be in the cast of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, an Opera unlike any other Opera in the world!” and, “You will work under the direction of our internationally renowned creative team and amongst a cast and crew at the top of their games.” But that’s not all – with students being promised that they will have their name listed in the program “alongside our international cast members” and they will “get the experience of working on a production of international scale, from rehearsal room to stage.”

This would be, this morning at least, very exciting for any number of talented students looking for an entrée into the world of professional opera performance.

The deal requires that participating students will need to commit to rehearsals over a period of time and provides an “indicative” schedule and work that really totals to about two months solid full-time work. Importantly, the opera says that students will have to,

“Cover all their own expenses, including travel and food expenses. We unfortunately cannot provide any reimbursements or allowances to secondment positions.”

The roles will play the part of supernumeraries (non-speaking, non-singing actors on stage).

This is a questionable undertaking of the national lead opera company. If the national opera, well-sponsored by Handa, wish to stage a mammoth production of an opera for the whole world to come and watch, then they should do so properly. Getting students (or anyone) to stand on a stage and perform for free is unacceptable. There are any number of young performers in this country who are trying to make performance their craft and their profession and they are necessarily denied an opportunity every time someone takes their place for free.

Why, you may ask, is this undertaking restricted to students only? Could it have anything to do with the recent rulings, reports, recommendations and reviews throughout Australian to the effect that unpaid work experience or secondments are only permissible if the work is in exchange for some form of course-specific credit? Otherwise, if someone is doing work that another person would usually be paid for, then they should be paid for it.

This isn’t a new issue. In 2011, the Fair Work Ombudsman identified unpaid work in Australia as a growing issue that needed their attention – they commissioned a report from Adelaide University Law School Professor Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens that looked at three types of unpaid work in Australia:

  • unpaid work experience
  • unpaid trial work
  • unpaid internships.

The report was delivered in 2013 and in the summary provides (among others) the following findings:

– The report concludes that there is reason to suspect that a growing number of businesses are choosing to engage unpaid interns to perform work that might otherwise be done by paid employees.

– The report recommends that FWO focus on those businesses that are systematically using unpaid
work arrangements to exploit workers, and gain competitive advantage over businesses complying
with workplace laws.

– On the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that work experience conducted under the aegis of secondary school programs involves the exploitation of young people.

The consequences to business of the report, the Fair Work Ombudsman’s interest and the modern market-place practices are well-known. It is a shock to see that Opera Australia is suggesting students from courses who might have a relevant degree should be able to do the work of paid professionals. Or is it that there is little regard for the role of supernumeraries as legitimate professional work?

Opera Australia should urgently reconsider its position. A job is a paid job if it is work that would ordinarily be completed by a paid individual. This doesn’t seem to be a case of a traineeship – it is not an on-the-job lesson – it’s nothing more nor less complex than an actual job. Work experience should never supplant a paid position nor the word of someone who is a professional.

The summary of the report warns of misconceptions and questionable practices:

– There also seems to be a misconception that, if a worker is undertaking some form of work integrated learning, then the worker would be exempt from the Fair Work Act 2009 (the Act) and therefore can be unpaid.

– However, under provisions which were first introduced into federal law in 1996 through the Workplace Relations Act 1996, the only current exemption is for those who are engaged on a vocational placement which is a requirement of an education or training course and is authorised under a law or an administrative arrangement of the Commonwealth, a state or territory.

– If an unpaid work experience arrangement is not a formal vocational placement, and the person is actually an employee working under a contract of employment, then the person is entitled to the conditions and entitlements under the Act and Fair Work instruments – including a minimum wage.

The present “call out” from Opera Australia is disquieting for those who look to get into the industry. Little can be done by them who don’t want to cut their nose of in spite of their face. Speaking up, protesting the obvious, may lead to being in the cold for many years to come. It may not of course, and if you’re not being paid for your work, you really are still out in the cold. So not a great deal is lost by speaking up.

If these secondments are purely for students to observe, to study, to learn theatre and performance craft, then I applaud Opera Australia for their vision, their desire to educate and to provide mentoring opportunities for emerging artists. If it is to have them perform on stage as a performer voluntarily or for free (or however one might define those terms) – then I think it a shameful and entirely regrettable situation and one that ought be stopped by an employer so large and so important in Australia’s performing arts.

Aaron Kernaghan

This article represents the personal opinion of the author
and does not necessarily reflect the views of Kernaghan
& Associates Lawyers nor its staff.

4 Replies to “Opera Australia – Unfortunate Decision”

  1. If this is true, it is sad. Their are a bunch of people that do this job, or have done. People that love the Opera and just love to get on stage and stand there being a soldier or any thing that is required. They do get paid, but not much. They have to turn up and audition for each production that they want to go in. If cast they need to sign a contract to opera Australia. What will happen to these people?

  2. Eva, the experience you have had is unfortunately a common experience for many. The reports are very diverse and no doubt why the FWO looked into the matter. There are a number of issues involved, the biggest of which is that people most likely to take these sorts of opportunities up are those who are in the weakest position to do anything about unfairness and therefore the least likely to complain. Perhaps thats why there has been not a lot of noise about this issue in the press. Hopefully that will change and OA will change its position.

  3. Great insight into unpaid ‘internships’. This is absolutely a mammoth issue in the Communications/Media world and I am so glad I opened my eyes up to this injustice and sonewhat even exploitation of my skills as a recent graduate in a digital marketing agency. It was only a three-month stint but I could have been doing unpaid work for up to half a year had I not been promoted to a full-time paid position with them.

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