NOTE: Thank you to everyone who has stopped by to check out the blog and helped spread the word. There have been over 4,000 Facebook shares of this particular post and it has been seen by over 40,000 people! However, I think there has been some misunderstanding. I am NOT anti-opera. I love opera. I did not write this post to scare people and I am NOT trying to be negative. I am trying to be realistic. The business has changed drastically in the last ten years and the information about many of the changes is not available in a format accessible by aspiring performers. If you love opera and want an operatic career, you will look at this post and be motivated to work harder. If this post scares you, hopefully you will walk away inspired to think about things a little more. I don’t want to depress people or ruin dreams, I just want to remove the blinders and help aspiring singers to see things clearly. I hope those of you who love this art form will go out into the world and conquer it! My Facebook feed is full of friends who are singing at the MET, winning and earning spots in the finals of major competitions, and otherwise enjoying life as opera singers. Believe me, if that’s what you want I wish you nothing but the best. There is nothing more beautiful in this world than the human voice sharing the human experience through song. Good Luck!!! ~Matt
Anna Netrebko is a beautiful woman. She is a successful operatic superstar. She sings in the world’s greatest opera houses, wears fine jewels, beautiful gowns, and dines at some of the finest restaurants. But to get to that point there is a long, grueling process that most aspiring singers never hear about. This post is intended to help shed light on what it takes to build a career and some of the struggles you may encounter along the way. There is a great book for musical theatre students called Making it on Broadway that is full of stories about the difficult climb to the top, but I have never seen a similar book for opera singers. This post was inspired by that book and takes a similar approach to the subject – a cold, hard look at the dirty truth about the climb to the top. (This post has been slightly edited from the original version to address some of the wording that stirred up controversy amongst a few of my colleagues in the teaching world. The content is the same but explained more clearly than it was in the original version.)
There are currently over 9,000 students studying vocal performance (according to the National Association of Schools of Music) in the Untied States. According to Opera America, there are around 150 opera companies in the United States and Canada. The examples I write about below come from my own personal experiences through thirteen years of pursuing an operatic career, the experiences of my wife who is also a singer, and the experiences of many of my friends who are also in or have been in the industry. Not everyone will go through all of the steps as described below nor will everyone face the same challenges. Some of my friends have gone through the worst of the worst and have come out on the other side as successful singers. Others have decided that the career path was more than they could handle or that it required more than they were willing to sacrifice. Many of my friends who have come to one of those conclusions have still enjoyed performing part-time or have found other fulfilling careers that involve music: casting, artist representation, arts administration, music education, music therapy, and/or starting their own small businesses. Many of them would tell you that their academic training in vocal performance prepared them for those alternative career paths and they wouldn’t change a thing. Others would tell you that if they would have known in high school what they know now, they would have majored in something completely different.
This article is meant to open your eyes to what may lie ahead and encourage you to ask questions about the good and the bad. If this article scares you, I encourage you to talk about it with your teacher. Ask other professionals that you may know and get their opinions as well. My opinions are strong and they have been formed through my own personal experiences with other singers in my generation. Things are always changing, so you must keep exploring on your own if this is the career you really want to pursue. If you decide this IS what you want to do for a living, great! Make the most out of your education, learn more about the topics I address on your own, and dedicate yourself to making things happen. You CAN do this, but it will take lots of hard work and dedication.
Step #1: Bachelor Degree
The Bachelor degree is step #1. The bachelor degree builds your foundation as a professional musician. You will learn theory, history, languages, and acting while building a strong vocal technique. Unfortunately, the bachelor degree in performance is really only a starting place for your education as a professional musician. Most students will discover that to truly be competitive as a professional musician, they will need to continue their education for the rest of their lives in and outside of academia. Some students choose to major in music education, which will allow them to work in music full time upon graduation. Others double major or even earn a degree in another field while minoring in music. However, anything less than a bachelor degree in music can often make entering graduate school difficult if not impossible. In needs to be clearly stated that a bachelor degree alone in vocal performance does not qualify you to teach voice, teach at a university, teach in public schools, or to walk directly into a career as a professional singer. The degree is a stepping stone that will provide you with the fundamentals essential to success in this field while preparing you for further training in or outside of academia.
Step #2: Graduate School
Grad school is where the real vocal development happens for many classical singers. With general education requirements out of the way, singers can spend more time focusing on their singing. Since the voice is usually more mature by the time a singer reaches graduate school, students can usually make significant technical progress during their degree. Some students are awarded a graduate assistantship, which will often give them a full tuition waiver and a small salary of $3,000-12,000 a year. In return, the student will assist with teaching a course, teach non-major lessons, or with office work. If you have taken on a significant amount of student loan debt during your undergraduate studies, you may have limited options when it comes time to apply for graduate school. This is yet another reason why you need to take financial planning seriously while doing your research.
Step #3: Choose A, B, or C
A) Performance Certificate/Artist Diploma – Many students choose to continue their academic study in a performance certificate or artist diploma program. These programs do not lead to an official degree, but instead give the student an opportunity to stay in school and study performance related courses only. These programs usually run 1-3 years. Some offer assistantships or scholarships, others do not. (Next progress to B or C)
B) Doctorate – Many students stay in academia to pursue their Doctorate. Most students at this level have a graduate assistantship, which provides them with a full tuition waiver and a salary of $6,000-12,000 a year to teach a course, teach private lessons, or to assist with office work. (Next progress to C or begin teaching at a university).
C) Start auditioning for the YAP circuit.
Step #4 – The YAP circuit
The YAP circuit is slang for a roughly tiered level of Young Artist Programs that student singers (age 21-35) move through as they pursue a professional career. Notice that I said age 21-35 above? Everyone’s path is different, but it is not uncommon for heavier voices to take longer to develop. For those singers, the artist development process often takes longer; some end up staying in this circle of student and young artist programs until age 35. Granted, it is a much different “student experience” than being in high school or even undergrad. But nonetheless, you are still considered an artist-in-training during these steps and the pay scale will match that classification. YAPs take place during the summer as well as the academic school year. Those that take place during the school year often combine performing in K-12 schools in educational outreach programs as well as singing in the opera chorus and occasionally small roles at the opera company. Programs that combine educational outreach and main stage performing tend to pay slightly better than those programs that focus on main stage performing alone (i.e. summer YAPs). Progressing through the YAP circuit will usually include the following steps.
A) Pay-To-Sing – PTS programs require the singer to pay a fee (tuition) to sing in a season of concerts and/or operas. Famous programs of this type include Brevard Music Center, Aspen Music Festival, and Opera in the Ozarks. The fees for participating in these programs usually range from $2000-8000 (some offer scholarships including full rides). A few of these programs give you the opportunity to sing in Europe, thus adding a European credit to your resume. Most singers do at least one of these programs, but usually no more than three. Some singers are fortunate to get into a PTS during undergrad, which can help them progress through the career path more rapidly. However, it’s not at all unusual to participate in a PTS during graduate school.
B) Non-union YAP – YAPs come in union and non-union form. In a non-union YAP, there are no minimum requirements for artist treatment, housing, or pay for the artist. Last time I checked (2010), the lowest paying YAPs were somewhere around $600 for 8 weeks, with housing and lunch provided. Performers in this YAP had one day off during the 8 week period and worked around 10-12 hours a day (this information may now be outdated). The better paying YAPs offer between $1500+ for 8 weeks, with one day off a week, but its still not uncommon to encounter 10-12 hour work days. The living situations are not always glamorous. Some of the YAPs rely on home stays for housing, which means you will live in a spare room of a family who supports the opera. At one of the YAPs I participated in, some of the families asked their artists to help in the duties of the house or in some cases they asked the artists to house sit while the home owner was gone for the summer, leaving you to take care of the dogs, cats, garden, etc. In one of my stays, I was given a master bedroom suite in a home with a beautiful pool in the back yard. There are definitely good situations, bad situations, and everything in-between. In a home stay situation, you may find yourself staying at a significant distance from the rehearsal and performance spaces, which will require you to pay for your own gas as well as food. My farthest home stay was 30 minutes from the performance venue and 20 minutes from the rehearsal space. Even though these are not pay-to-sing programs, you will often need more money than you are getting paid to survive.
C) Union YAPs – These are the highest level of the YAP circuit. The union, AGMA, limits rehearsals to six hours a day (as of 2010) and requires companies to pay established minimums that correspond to the size of the role. These programs tend to pay somewhere in the $250-525 per week range for the education and chorus duties with additional pay for any roles performed on the main stage. Many of these programs offer housing, although some of the better paying programs do not and you will have to make your own housing arrangements. Those programs that run during the academic school year may also offer health insurance and other benefits. With the economic downturn, those benefits have in some cases been pulled back or completely eliminated, but as the economy improves that may change.
Auditioning For YAPS
The audition process for young artist programs is not the same as in other fields of the performing arts. There are numerous opinions about the fairness and validity of the YAP audition process. I will present some observations from my own personal experiences that I found surprising. I present this information because I believe that everyone should be aware of the system ahead of time in order to navigate it successfully when they are ready.
I had a lot of theatre friends during my undergraduate training and we often talked about the process of auditioning. In the theatre world, an audition is considered to be a scam if the company charges you to audition. In fact, Equity (the professional theatre union), forbids companies from charging any type of fee to audition for a production. In theatre and dance, performers show up at the audition site the day of the audition and are seen in the order they arrive. Equity also requires companies to see auditions by any Equity member who shows up at an audition, even if they have auditioned for the same company or production several times before. Federal law says that it is illegal to ask an applicant for their age or marital status when applying for a job and theatrical agents and casting directors are therefore forbidden from asking for any demographic information when casting. I expected that auditioning for opera would be similar, but I quickly found out that its not.
In my audition experience, I found that opera companies:
-Charge you an audition fee to audition (usually between $25 and $100 per company) and they often require you to pay for your own accompanist, either bringing your own ($25-50) or paying for theirs (~$20). Therefore, I found that I needed to budget $50-$150 for each audition.
-Many of the audition applications regularly asked for your age and sometimes marital status. If the company felt that you were too old by their standards (which could vary by voice type), they could choose to not grant you an audition, yet still keep your audition fee. This was one of the most difficult aspects of this process for me to accept. There were many times I would pay $25+ in audition fees for an audition I was not accepted for. I was also advised by some of my mentors to lie about my marital status since listing myself as married could be problematic.
-If you sing for a company and they don’t like you, it is possible that they will put you in a file to either never be seen again, or to not be seen again for a certain period of time. I have listened to YAP directors talk about this in masterclasses. Some of them feel that certain technical faults will not improve and they would rather take their chances hearing a singer they’ve never heard before than on someone they have already heard before and who did not impress them. You have no way of knowing if that is their perception of you. Sometimes when you apply, you will receive a response saying that they would like to see you in a few years after you have developed your resume. Sometimes you will only receive a notice stating that you did not receive an audition time slot. If you are really interested in a company that did not grant your audition request, you will need to keep re-applying in the future (and pay the applicable audition fee) to see if the company has changed their mind. This is why it is very important to listen to your voice teacher and only apply for the programs that they believe you are ready for. If your teacher tells you not to audition for a program, they are looking out for your best interests. They are trying to help you, not hold you back.
-Opera companies plan their auditions for young artist programs several months in advance with specific deadlines for applications that usually fall several months before the actual audition date. Sometimes the companies’ deadlines and your trip planning deadlines will not line up and you will be left in a situation where you will need to decide whether or not to book a trip to NYC for auditions that you may or may not be granted. Because of this, most singers plan on picking a 1-4 week period to stay in NYC during audition season, which runs for a 4-6 week period in November and December. You need to plan for this and save/budget accordingly. Your time in NYC is a great opportunity to see performances, network, and get familiar with the way the business operates. Take advantage of it.
Budgeting to find a gig
Because of all of the costs involved, you will need to budget for each year’s auditions. Here is a sample budget:
-Fees $1,125 (15 auditions with combined fees of $75 each)
-Ground Transportation $200 ($85 city transport pass and $115 for taxis)
-Practice Rooms $150 (15 half hour slots to warm-up before your auditions at a cost of $10 per half hour)
-Food $300 (Breakfast, lunch, and dinner over a two week period)
-Lodging not included. Most people sleep on a friend’s floor or couch during their visit.
You will probably participate in these type of auditions every season during your YAP years (age 21 to 30-35). Most people do not YAP for the full 14 years, but it is reasonable to plan on spending 5-7 years in this phase (especially bigger voices and lower voices which take longer to develop). Just remember that you will only be making $600-2000 for the gig once you land it. So you may be performing at a loss when you factor in what you spent on auditioning. Budgeting and pre-planning is absolutely essential in this phase. A church gig or other side job during the academic year may help you save to cover audition expenses and fill in the gap between your income and expenses during the summer. If you have another marketable skill (web design, photography, etc.), consider developing it as a way to help cover your expenses.
Side Step (#4.5) Competitions
Some singers do very well singing in competitions. The competition circuit can be very lucrative with top prizes reaching $10,000+. Its not unusual for one singer to win first, second, or third in every competition taking place during a season. Others will spend significant money on competition fees and never win or place. Some singers do very well in competitions and never work in opera, the opposite is also true. A good balance of both is often a good option for most singers. Just like opera companies, many competitions require application and/or accompanist fees. These are in addition to the costs associated with covering your own travel for the competition. So if this is something of interest to you, plan on budgeting for it accordingly.
Step #5: YAP TO SMALL ROLES
The next step in your career development will often be from YAP programs to singing small roles. The easiest way to do this is to have participated in enough YAPs that people in the business know you and start recommending you for jobs. Many YAPs will invite you back to the company as a main stage artist 2-3 years after you’ve left their program (assuming you’ve done other bigger and better things since your time with them). This phase of your career is not a money making phase, but things tend to be a little better than the YAP years. Since you will be traveling frequently, hopefully you can live with your parents or friends in-between gigs and therefore bypass renting a place to live. This phase of your career will usually begin somewhere between 27-33 if you were an early bloomer on the YAP circuit. If you got started a little later, this phase may come along later in your twenties or early thirties. Average fees are anyone’s guess in the current economy. But it is doubtful anyone could work for less than $500 a performance (assuming 2-6 performances). Bigger companies may pay $1000 per performance (6-12 performances). You will also hopefully land a few concert gigs (oratorios, masses, pops concerts) with orchestra, which tend to pay well for the time commitment. You will usually rehearse once or twice and then perform earning $500-3000 per performance.
Step #6: SMALL ROLES TO AGENT
The next step in your career evolution usually happens somewhere in your thirties, again it often depends on when you got started YAPing. In this phase, someone recommends you or invites you to sing for an agent. Agents in opera are essential for making the leap from small roles to leading roles. An agent receives requests from orchestras and opera companies in the United States and abroad who are looking to hire singers. The agent then submits singers they think are a good fit, the company reviews the singers resumes, and the companies then pick the singers that they would like to hear in person. For this part of your career, you must live in NYC (there are rare exceptions). You will usually have a part time job in the day or evening and go to auditions as your agent instructs you. You can also seek out auditions on your own. Then as you get a gig, you will leave town and your day job, do the performances, return and do it all over again.
Step #7: Blossoming into a full career
If you are lucky, each gig will lead to another bigger and better gig. Opera companies are classified by their budget: “A” being the highest level (Met, Chicago, San Francisco) and “D” being the lowest level (Small town opera companies). There are many different paths in this phase. You may start out singing supporting roles at B houses and leading roles at D and C houses. Eventually you hope to progress to lead roles at B houses. Other singers may begin this phase by singing leads at D houses and then work their way up to leads at A houses. Every path is different and its very hard to predict how any individual’s career will progress. It is not unheard of for singers to never make it to A houses, or to make it there singing supporting roles and still have a day job on the side. In this phase, singers are usually on the road 6-10 months a year, often carrying their lives in their car and moving from hotel to hotel.
At some point, many tire of life on the road and move into teaching or some other aspect of the music profession, perhaps even pursuing a different career altogether. Some never tire of the life style and spend their entire career on the road. Europe at one point was a great option, but changes in the European Union have made it easier to hire an Italian to sing in Germany than an American. It used to be that singers from both countries were on an equal playing field in terms of hire-ability and due to the better training system in the U.S., Americans would often get the roles. That is no longer the case and you cannot plan on having a career in Europe like your parents or teacher did. That issue is beyond the scope of this article, but in depth discussions can be found in various publications including Classical Singer magazine.
Pursuing an operatic career, in my opinion, is currently the most difficult of any of the possibilities for singers. Some of my colleagues may disagree; I will happily post any other viewpoints if you would like to submit a comment. Even though it can be extremely difficulty, performing as a classical vocalists on the professional stage can be one of the most thrilling experiences of your life. Very few people will ever get the chance to stand on the stage as a soloist with a full orchestra and chorus singing un-amplified for 3,000 people. Those who are fortunate enough to worry about the small details of climbing the professional ladder as I describe above are very lucky people.
Understanding your career prospects is an important step in planning for any career. Your planning begins with choosing which schools you will audition for and how much student aid you are willing to take out in student loans as you pursue this career. Hopefully this post will inspire you to do your own research and start forming your own game plan for the future. Hard-work and dedication can make any dream a reality. Good Luck!