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  • Teresa Fream, violin

Working Without Pay

What do a furloughed TSA agent and a short, late-middle-aged opera violinist have in common? More than you might think.

My family and I traveled to Oklahoma this December to continue an important tradition established after the death of my mother in 2003, spending Christmas with my extended family.

Unlike previous holiday seasons, however, this year there was an entire month without work at the opera. Most of my non-musician friends thought this was a great luxury for us, until I pointed out that that meant an entire month without a paycheck, at the most expensive time of year. What with gifts and travel, a LOT of planning, budgeting, and sacrifice was necessary just to get through.

But still, you might think, it’s time off! You can take a break! That’s gotta be good for you, right? Well, it’s not that simple.

As my family and I were navigating the airports, of course we knew that, thanks to the government shutdown, the (totally awesome, very professional, remarkably cheerful) TSA workers were working without pay. And it made me think - why would they do that? I believe they were aware of the importance of holiday travel to all of us, and their dedication to professionalism dictated they show up and work. Perhaps they believed that eventually they would get back pay (they did), and chose to perform their duties for as long as they could afford to do so. In any case, they were working for time they were not being paid. Just like my colleagues and I did over the holidays. What, you say? Yes, it’s true. Because every time I opened my violin case between December 9 and January 8, I was working for the opera without pay. Sure, I could have kept the case shut that whole month and only opened it up for our first rehearsal in 2019 – but we know that’s not how this thing works, is it? This skill we have is like a garden or a beloved pet. If you don’t tend to it, bad things happen. You just cannot ignore the upkeep and think everything will be okay. Or good enough. We know this and live with it, so even when we are furloughed for a month, we are practicing our scales, learning Elektra and Ariodante, getting rehairs, making reeds, changing strings, and refreshing our Bohemes and Cendrillons. There is a famous quote attributed to the great violinist Jascha Heifetz: “If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” I had a teacher who said it differently: your playing is biodegradable. Dear audience, you would know if we didn’t practice. In this line of work, the saying, “you shouldn’t get paid for time you’re not working” - which we heard often in our contract negotiations - makes no sense. In fact, it is the exact opposite: We are unpaid for a majority of the work we do to perform at this level. But like the TSA workers and the thousands of dedicated federal employees who did their jobs without pay during the shutdown, we know it is critical that we do so. So about that time off thing: next season, as part of the new season framework that Lyric has adopted, there will be six(!) weeks around the holidays in which we are not under contract to the opera and will not be paid by Lyric. This is an enormous lifestyle adjustment for us and will be difficult. But you can count on the fact that as always, we will still be working that whole time to assure the highest quality performances for you, our audience.

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