I have been so busy putting up so much information up here trying to help young artists to make a career in this business, and I have been trying so hard to make my own career, that I have practically been ignoring the crumbling of the entire sector around me as I busily jump on the next plane.
This is not something most singers are going to want to hear, but the business has changed from when I started out, 25-plus years ago, as a fresh-faced 20-year-old with big dreams, a lot of talent and a heck of a lot of gumption to work on whatever I needed to do to « make it. »
I still ask myself if I’ve « made it, » and the answer remains yes and no. Yes, in that I’ve had a wonderful career where I have worked in amazing places with amazing people making amazing music and I have touched people’s lives along the way. No, in that there always remains a hill to climb or a mountain to scale, and I may not conquer them all before I turn to something else or just get tired of jumping on another plane and being far from home.
The business has always been « new- » and youth-orientated. However, it has taken a turn for the worse in the past 10 years because of many factors, most of which are endemic to many different sectors, and not just the arts.
First of all, there is less money now in the classical singing business. We « old-timers » remember the day when nobody would’ve dreamed of asking you to pay to do an audition. Perhaps there were fees to apply for programs or competitions, but they were not exorbitant and were mainly to keep the non-serious out of their hair. We also remember when you could get fat deals with record companies, who paid you big sums to sign multi-record contracts, and when opera houses and venues would pay anywhere from $10-20K a night for top singers. A well-respected but not Pavarotti-name-recognition singer could expect to make between $150K-400K a year if he or she were working most of the year. Now, even those of us left standing from the heady days have seen a stagnation or even retrogression of fees, less titles per year, and less performances per year in the venues and opera houses. We have seen beloved opera companies and symphonies close their doors or hugely curtail their seasons.
Secondly, there are more singers. The Eastern bloc countries plus Russia have finally let their citizens travel freely and they have glutted the market with good-looking, talented people. There are more conservatories and university programs churning out singers, each thinking they are going to make a career in this business. And there are more young artist programs, workshops and advice out there for these hoards of young artists to help them learn the ropes, get experience, and put them together for opera houses and auditions. I do not bemoan this, but it does mean less work for everyone, a diffusion of what work there is and more competition especially in the just-starting-out category. The plethora of young artist programs is helping to kill a whole category of veteran comprimario singers, as opera houses can hire young artists for less than AGMA minimums.
My main complaint, however, is not the fact that young people are being seen on operatic stages, as that would seem rather sour grapes from someone who made her professional debut before she was legal to drink alcohol. My biggest complaints are not only that that young, GREEN people are being touted as « the latest, greatest thing » on the biggest stages of the opera world but most of all, that some people are believing the hype.
Our art form requires multitudinous layers of techniqueS happening all at the same time – and yes, I did capitalize the plural S at the end there for emphasis. Some of those techniques (an enormous part) are vocal, some are breath-related, some music-related, some language-related, some acting-related, and some are just plain practical, like knowing how to follow a conductor or how to tune at the top of the pitch to carry across the orchestra. Each one takes time, work, and experience – and failures. All these techniques come together after years of honing each skill, be that in a practice room, in an acting class, on stage, by watching a few years of rehearsals sitting on your butt covering roles or wherever that may be. But it takes time to put all these layers of the onion together. A true artist comes together after all the technical aspects become secondary to expression, because the technique has become second nature. This can not and will not happen if young talents are thrown on the largest stages of the world after a scant few years in conservatory and are expected to churn out immediately an album.
Of course a lovely, lithe 25-year-old will look and sound beautiful in beautiful repertoire and please the ear: but if you put that same repertoire into the hands of a master, it will cut into your soul. If you only hear the lovely greenhorn, you will think that this music only has beauty to tell you. If you experience the artist, you will find that you have something in common with that character and it will touch you to the core. This is what opera is about – not about just entertaining us with pretty sounds.
Besides the brevity of careers started too quickly (meteoric, in the sense that they go up quickly and then crash), this fixation on the « new artist » cheapens our art, as we are burning our way through the new generation, who are ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of the tightrope walking that this career requires. Where do you go, once you have sung the big romantic roles at the major opera houses within 5 years of your professional debut? Moreover, will your young technique withstand the schedule required of « staying on top? » Will you be able to be so confident in all your techniques that you are able to risk or push the envelope of your performance?
I see so many « good » singers who are not « great » singers coming up through the ranks nowadays, and I wonder what will become of them. There is simply not that much work out there any more.
One other thing no one tells you about the business of singing is that it is expensive. And it will remain expensive: teachers, coaches, the continual renewal of learning that must happen and requires paying money to learn this new music. The upkeep and care of your instrument cost a lot of money. There is an entire industry which has grown up around aspiring singers. I was one of the first opera singers out there (the first I know of!) to have a website. Everyone thought I was weird and a little bit crazy. I started this Young Artists’ Corner because there were so many things nobody told you, so many details I thought needed to be heard and so many resources that just didn’t exist. Now, you have to use the internet for almost all your promotion, and there are thousands of sites and programs and young artist fellowships, etc… to help young singing artists « reach for the stars… »
But not everyone who studied voice is going to or should have a career as an opera singer. And you will have to gauge when is the cut-off point for you to stop knocking on that door. If continually no one wants to hear you sing, for whatever reasons, perhaps this is not the career for you… Food for thought… More on this later!