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An Agent’s Point of View

Comments from Tom Graham, retired founder of IMG Artists and agent to successful artists like Tom Hampson, Jennifer Larmore, myself…


I hear from singers and teachers that conservatories and Universities give almost no information about the ‘music business’ and careers to young artists. In fact two years ago I was invited to talk about ‘agents’ at a young artist’s program in Salzburg. As I recall my opening remarks went like this, «Agents/Managers do NOT: learn music; sing; learn languages;cover for unprofessional behavior.»

I think you have covered the territory very well but maybe I can add a few comments from the other side. Most Conservatories, Universities have programs for beginning artists which not only provide opportunities and experience but also allow agents, opera managers etc. to hear singers. In many cases that is where the so called ‘buzz’ begins. These programs lead on to opportunities with small ensembles, ‘table top opera groups’, covering jobs etc. Acceptance in to these programs gives managers an idea that there has been some judgement made about quality at an early stage. Very few agents rely on their own opinion. In the case of these smaller companies having an agent may be counter-productive. In my day we looked at the Glyndebourne program which led from chorus to the touring company and then to the festival. There was also Santa Fe, The British Youth Opera, The Kent Opera. These days there are more opportunities and if you are not accepted in to this level you might reconsider your career choice. Occasionally there is the exception when someone of great promise goes directly to a high level.

Above all, over a period of time involving trial and error, ‘know yourself’. Not everyone is cut out for an international career. There are many levels of opportunity and few can possibly know if they are willing to make the sacrifices [ personal and financial] necessary for such a career. There are many content artists in houses throughout Europe who find their level and stay and develop a stable life. This development takes place over time and is in someway a realization that ‘you have reached your level’ both in talent and emotionally. I can think of many who hated the travel, the anxiety of waiting for the ‘offer’ or decision, the lack of a stable personal life and then decided to stay in Frankfurt, Mannheim or Augsburg and be a satisfied company member. One of the reasons I was convinced you were the right choice was the fact you agreed to see me early the next morning after your premier in Geneva. Many singers would have slept in but your ambition was impressive [singing was good, too].

When looking at potential clients [they are your clients not your friends] a manager has to judge if the artist has not only the talent but the focus, professional attitude, willingness to sacrifice and perseverance to jump through the many hoops and tests that will confront them. We also look for that chemistry that will allow for candid conversation when things go badly for whatever reason. Decisions need to be discussed from every angle in a candid way. This sounds easy but isn’t. In the first place there is almost no such thing as objective reality so every decision is a best guess situation. The down side needs to be discussed as well as the upside. Finally, after all is said and done it is the artist’s signature on the contract. Therefore if you are uncomfortable discussing these discussions find someone you are comfortable with. I can think of many examples in my time that involved very uncomfortable conversations [I will not give the names]

  1. 1. Telling a very promising [now very famous] singer after the pre-dress of Flute that he should cancel as Sarastro was clearly too low for him [he did much to the management’s annoyance who didn’t have an adequate cover].
  2. 2. Telling a singer after her performance as Marzellina in Zurich I thought something was ‘wrong’ in her singing. She asked me to describe it and I did my best. She went back to her teacher and fixed things.
  3. 3. Telling a successful singer Escamillo was not for him after a performance in Paris and although he could get away with it he should cancel further contracts for the role including one at Covent Garden.
  4. 4. Ringing a soprano with whom I was very close and telling her to cancel all performance for several months and get herself off antibiotics. She did [after a lot of tears] and further conversation about doctors who will do anything the theatre asks.
  5. 5. Discussing with a very successful artist [soubrette] her offer to appear with Karajan in a role previously sung there by a lyric soprano with a household name. I said that the press and public in Salzburg would find her disappointing by comparison. She didn’t accept the analysis. Her lack of success there effected the rest of her career elsewhere and she never really recovered her previous level.

These things are not easy but need to be discussed and a decision made after all sides of the picture are examined.

Finally if the decision to sign with a manager or agent turns sour [something more that a temporary moan from either side] get out and find another solution. If you have something to offer there are always alternatives.


Many thanks to Tom for allowing me to print this helpful point of view from «the other side!»

CHECK OUT THIS SITE — AUDITIONING IN EUROPE — could be interesting. I don’t endorse it, just think it might have some info people can use (i.e. the not-so-up-to-date Agency list)

Musical — up to date lists of managers, etc… — a wonderful tool for research on agents, other artists, conductors, schedules, etc… Be aware that performer’s diaries are not complete, as all venues do not necessarily keep Operabase up to date and it does not show concerts or recitals.