Company comes under fire after seeking unpaid supernumeraries for Aida.

Opera Australia has come in for criticism today after posting a callout for students currently undertaking a performance based degree to appear in next year’s Handa Opera on the Harbour. Gale Edwards’ production of Aida is being trailed as the biggest outdoor opera so far, yet it seems that the producers are unable or unprepared to offer any form of payment to those they thereby hope to recruit in supernumerary roles.

The seeming attempt to get something for nothing has prompted an immediate backlash with people accusing the national opera company of trying to engage “slave labour”, an ironic reference to the status of many of the onstage characters in Verdi’s Ancient Egyptian blockbuster.

In a well-argued piece on his blog, Aaron Kernaghan, a senior lawyer at Kernaghan & Associates and a vocal Opera Australia supporter, takes the producers to task for what he considers “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.”

OA’s advertisment, reproduced on the popular bel canto website, says that students will need to “cover all their own expenses, including travel and food expenses” and therefore they “cannot provide any reimbursements or allowances to secondment positions.” Kernaghan considers that restricting the offer to students smacks of attempting to find a loophole in the Fair Work Act. “Why, you may ask, is this undertaking restricted to students only?” he asks. “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.”

The actors’ union Equity agrees. Limelight contacted Director Zoe Angus who was emphatic. “Opera Australia did not consult with Equity regarding the use of unpaid Opera extras on their forthcoming production Aida,” she said. “We are seriously concerned about the use of unpaid artists to fill roles that would ordinarily be paid appropriate rates under the Equity-negotiated collective agreement, and we are looking into the matter.”

The commitment being asked of potential supernumeraries, who will “have significant on stage time and play an important part of the production”, is considerable – rehearsals from March 9 to 24 (many of them out at Sydney Olympic Park) and then a run of performances until April 26 at Mrs Macquarie’s Point. In response to the outcry, Opera Australia scrambled to apparently adjust their position and issued the following press release:

“For the first time ever, around 30 members of the general public will have the opportunity to experience a bit of the magic first hand, by becoming an on-stage volunteer. They will join Principal Artists, over 50 Opera Australia Chorus, 16 Dancers, 50 Orchestral players and other professionals. The on-stage volunteer opportunity is a new addition to the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour volunteer program which has been an invaluable component of the event. In previous years some volunteers have joined to be guides on site – welcoming guests and guiding them around the enormous pop-up opera theatre site. Others have assisted behind the scenes, gaining valuable experience while being mentored by stage hands, technical staff and in the production team. This opportunity is modelled on the on-stage volunteer project implemented for The Melbourne Ring Cycle in 2013. In this, around 60 members of the general public formed an integral yet non-professional component of the performances. People interested in applying for the on-stage Aida opportunities don’t need any performing experience as they will have a presence on stage that requires no singing, acting or dancing. The opportunity will be valuable for anyone interested in getting an inside glimpse into life on the stage through participating in rehearsals, costume fittings, being in front of an audience and learning about a professional production. They do not perform roles that would otherwise be given to paid professionals – these are straight-forward activities designed to create a spectacle on stage, through sheer scale.”

It’s unlikely to satisfy sceptics like Aaron Kernaghan, however, already concerned that the position of supernumeraries (long considered an important – and traditionally remunerated – element of operatic productions. “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,” he argues. “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.”

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