In recent weeks English Touring Opera (ETO) has received several queries about our system for identifying freelance musicians with the skills to perform in our productions. In answering these questions we felt that there was enough interest to merit posting our response more widely.
The musicians who perform for ETO are of the highest standard. We are wholly dependent on the quality of the freelance artists we engage, and we do all we can to sustain the freelance community. For example, when the pandemic led to the cancellation of most of our recent touring performances, we felt it was right to ensure that the musicians recruited for the cancelled shows should be paid in full. They were not eligible for furlough and we believed it was morally right, and in the long-term interests of the company, that freelance talent was rewarded in these difficult times. Without them, touring high-quality opera would become impossible.
ETO’s audiences demand and deserve the highest possible standards of musicianship. ETO engages its company on a production by production basis and this has been extended for many years to our orchestras, where there is no single and continuing ETO Orchestra. For example, ETO uses a different orchestra for baroque and period work (The Old Street Band) and has engaged other orchestras for specialised repertoire. In the Spring 2022 tour, there are two orchestras engaged for different repertoire. ETO selects musicians for productions from a pool of orchestra players known to ETO for their skill and repertoire. Each engagement with ETO is on a freelance basis and a musician being engaged during one ETO season does not mean that they will be engaged in any subsequent season. This approach is clearly stated in our Collective Agreement with the Musicians’ Union, and is consistent with our approach to the engagement of freelancers generally.
Although ETO frequently holds open auditions for singers, it had not done so for the pool of freelance orchestra musicians for many years. Up to this stage, the pool was made up exclusively of musicians known from previous seasons or recommended to ETO by associates (including players already in the pool).
In Spring 2021, Gerry Cornelius was appointed as our Music Director, and we formed a Music Advisory Panel, consisting of the Music Director and other distinguished musicians. The panel endorsed the holding of inclusive freelance orchestra musician auditions, to identify the best available talent and thereby extend the pool of musicians suitable for the ETO. We also felt that this would help us to progress our ambitions in the fields of equality, diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. In the audition notice, which was publicised widely, ETO stated that “we actively encourage applications from all backgrounds and are particularly interested in hearing from performers from ethnically diverse performers and also socio-economic backgrounds who are currently under-represented in our sector”.
The auditions were held in front of a panel composed of the Music Director, the Orchestra Manager, and a conductor and a player who have recognised expertise in orchestra development. The auditions themselves were for new and emerging talent - musicians who had played for ETO in recent tours were already in this pool and hence did not need to take part in the auditions. They were very much in the minds of the Music Director and the Orchestra Manager and not excluded from consideration for future tours.
Applications to audition were received from 266 musicians, and 44 were auditioned in July 2021. Candidates were selected for audition on the basis of their experience. There were no predetermined positions for which players were auditioned and ETO sought to audition a good cross-section of instruments across the orchestra and that was reflected in the number of very high-quality musicians who applied and were selected for audition. As already mentioned, musicians who had recently performed with ETO were automatically included in the expanded pool of freelance players. The auditions heard a very high standard of musicianship across the board, from musicians previously not known to ETO. All of those that auditioned were added to ETO’s pool of freelance orchestra musicians.
In August 2021, the provisional selections of orchestra musicians for ETO’s Spring 2022 Season orchestras were made from the expanded pool. This selection was based solely on those musicians’ capabilities, on the grounds of excellence only. For the Modern ETO Orchestra (one of the two ETO orchestras for Spring 2022), 13 of the musicians who were invited to play were new to ETO’s pool of freelance orchestra musicians.
With so many high-quality players in the pool it was inevitable that some would be disappointed as the selection process for a particular tour was concluded, especially amongst those who have played in ETO productions recently. On completing recruitment for the Spring 2022 Tour we recognised that it was important to communicate the decisions well in advance. ETO wrote to the affected musicians on 9 September 2021 to give them good notice that they would not be asked to play in that particular season, to thank them for their work in other seasons, and to emphasise that they remained in the pool for future seasons.
Going forward, it is ETO’s intention to make auditions a regular feature of our processes for selecting musicians for the freelance pool, and we are making plans to hold a further round of auditions for musicians in Summer 2022. In advance of that, we plan to consult widely with other performing companies, and relevant industry organisations, including the MU, so that we can provide further reassurance of equal and fair treatment.
ETO has just concluded a successful Autumn tour with the excellent Old Street Band, marking our return to live performances, and we are looking forward to an exciting Spring 2022 tour. Players and singers are enthusiastic about the return to live performances as the threats from the pandemic become more manageable and we look forward to greeting you and all our audience members at our Spring and Autumn tours and other events. We value your opinion, and should you have any comments or further questions about our approach to staging excellent work at venues across England, please contact us at email@example.com.