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Let The Music Move: Opera Singer Jennifer Johnston On The Challenges She Now Faces Working In Europe

British music export success story Jennifer Johnston discusses how her highly successful career in Europe is now at risk because of the new regulations for visas and work permits.

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27.05.2021: British music export success story Jennifer Johnston discusses how her highly successful career in Europe is now at risk because of the new regulations for visas and work permits.

I am a freelance opera singer with, until now, a successful European career. My work in Europe made up about 50% of my annual diary (30% UK, 20% rest of the world), and 70% of my annual income.

My opera career is largely centred on the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, one of Europe’s top opera houses where I have sung 60 performances in principal roles. I have also appeared in opera twice at La Scala in Milan and three times at the Salzburg Festival. I have a significant concert career, appearing regularly with Europe’s major orchestras, including the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw and Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestras.

I am, by any estimation, a British success story in classical music, yet I now find my career in grave danger, because of the issues surrounding visas and work permits post-Brexit.

There’s been lots of discussion about touring, which affects bands and orchestras, yet there are a number of British classical soloists who do not tour, who are employed by European opera houses and orchestras as visiting freelance artists, which is a very different scenario and requires different language when being discussed.

I currently have upcoming contracts with European orchestras and opera houses in my diary, signed and fully agreed, yet I do not know if I will be able to fulfil those contracts because of Visa procedures and paperwork requirements.

If I am employed to sing a role in a new production of an opera, the standard rehearsal time worldwide is eight weeks, with a performance period of four weeks, which is around 84 days in total.

In the past I could work in Germany as much as I wanted without having to apply for a visa, but now if I do consecutive productions this takes me over the 90-day limit that the country allows for visa free work.

There is uncertainty surrounding whether my visas will be granted. In applying for a visa in any EU country, I will now have to show that a European citizen could not carry out my contract. This requires paperwork from promoters and opera houses confirming that I am ‘unique’.

In the past I would intersperse my work in Germany with several concerts in different European countries. Now each EU state has different regulations as to if I can work without a visa and for how long. I must calculate when the clock stops on my visa free work for each country and if I apply for a visa each state has a different visa process. It’s all very complicated.

Spain, for example, requires a visa for any length engagement, even of a few hours. I work in a part of the music industry where I can be called in at the last minute to cover a concert or an opera where someone else has cancelled through illness. Opera singers are equivalent to elite sportspeople, and my voice type is rare, so it is conceivable that I may be asked to fly in somewhere even on the day of a concert or an opera to cover it. In that instance, there would be no time to arrange paperwork – so can paperwork be acquired with after the fact? Will I be turned away at the EU border and sent home? Or will I have to turn down any last-minute work?

If I lose work because organisations do not want to deal with the uncertainty and paperwork of employing a British singer, that potentially puts my career in serious jeopardy. Add to that the additional costs of applying for visas and work permits, any extra social security I will have to pay and the potential loss of contributions to my German pension that I get from the opera house, it raises the question of whether accepting any European work I am offered is financially feasible.

If European work disappears there is not enough work in the UK to sustain the numbers of British opera singers that exist. This is especially the case post-pandemic, with theatre and the music industry having been severely impacted restrictions, and uncertainty as to how long it will take to recover. What work there is in the UK tends not to be as well-paid as in Europe and cannot guarantee me minimum standard of living.

I am also a lone parent, and when I do work the British tax system does not allow me to claim childcare as a legitimate business expense and must be paid out of my net income. I also have to factor in paying national insurance in the UK, plus tax, VAT and agent’s commission.

Those of us in my position acknowledge that we are a minority, but we are a high-profile minority, a world-class and highly successful aspect of British music exports.

I am British born. My permanent residence is in Liverpool. I do not have residency in another European country and do not hold a passport apart from my British one. My taxes go to the British Government.

We deserve our voices to be heard in asking the UK and EU governments to return to the negotiating table.

– Jennifer Johnston is a mezzo soprano opera singer, teacher and a member of the Liverpool City Region Music Board. Find out more about her here.

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