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 an entire, long, grueling process that most aspiring singers have no idea even exists. This post is to help open your eyes to the struggles you never hear about. There is a great book for musical theatre students called Making it on Broadway that tells the same type of stories to aspiring MTs, but I have never seen an accurate book on career development for opera singers. So here is a cold, hard look at the dirty truth about the climb to the top. The descriptions below represent many people out there because currently there are over 9,000 students studying vocal performance (according to the National Association of Schools of Music) and only around 100 opera companies. Yes, the examples below represent the extremes. No, everyone does not go through all of this. This post has been informed by the experiences of myself and my numerous friends who have gone through the very situations I describe. Some have gone through the worst of the worst and come out on the other side as shining stars. Others have not. This article is only meant to open your eyes to what may lie ahead and encourage you to ask questions about the good and the bad.
Step #1: Bachelor Degree
The Bachelor degree is step#1. In all reality, it is often the equivalent of a high school diploma for the opera singer. Without it, its hard to get started, but with it by itself, its not really anything special. Some students choose to major in music education instead so that they can work in music without going to graduate school. 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.
Step #2: Graduate School
Grad school is where the real development happens for most voice majors. With general education requirements out of the way, the singer can spend more time focusing on their singing and since their voice is more mature they can usually finally start making progress in some of those difficult technical areas. Some have a graduate assistantship, which will often give them a full tuition waiver and sometimes a small salary of $3,000-12,000 a year to assist with teaching a course, teach non-major lessons, or to assist with office work.
Step #3: Choose A, B, or C
A) Performance Certificate/Artist Diploma – Many students choose to continue college study in a certificate or 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.
B) Doctorate – Many students continue on to get their Doctorate. Most 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.
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 attempt to pursue a professional career. Notice I said age 21-35 above? I literally mean you are sometimes a student/young artist until age 35. Its a much different “student experience” than being in high school or even undergraduate, but you are still considered an artist-in-training during these steps. Below are more details on the YAP circuit.
A) Pay-To-Sing – PTS programs require the singer to pay a fee 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 these programs usually range from $2000-8000. Some 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, usually no more that three. Some are fortunate to get into one during undergrad, most do one in their masters.
B) Non-union YAP – YAPs come in union and non-union form. In a non-union YAP, there are no minimum requirements for treatment, housing, or pay for the artist. Last time I checked, the worst 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. The better paying YAPs offer between $1500 and 2000 for 8 weeks, with one day off a week, but still with 10-12 hour work days. The better paying ones sometimes rely on home stays, which means you will live in a spare room of a family who supports the opera. Sometimes the families ask you to help in the duties of the house or in some cases they may ask you to house sit while they are gone for the summer, leaving you to take care of the dogs, cats, garden, etc. In a home stay situation, you may often find yourself staying at a significant distance from the rehearsal and performance spaces and will have 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, you will usually still need more money than you are getting paid to survive. Some of these take place during the academic school year, September to May, and consist of performing in K-12 schools as well as singing in the opera chorus and occasionally small roles at the opera company. These tend to pay slightly better.
C) Union YAPs – These are the highest level of the YAP circuit. Union gigs limit work hours per day to six. They require that your costume is cleaned on a regular basis. And they require that the company pay you a minimum fee that is usually better than the non-union rate. These tend to be somewhere in the $250-525 per week range. Many offer housing, although some of the better paying do not and you will have to make your own housing arrangements. Some of these programs also run during the academic school year and in those cases, since you are on a longer term contract a few will offer health insurance and other benefits. With the economic downturn, those benefits have in some cases been pulled back or completely eliminated.
Auditioning For YAPS
In the theatre world, a company is considered to be a scam if they charge you to audition. In any career field, it is considered illegal to ask an applicant for their age or marital status. Equity (the professional theatre union) forbids companies from charging fees to audition. They also require companies to see repeat auditions by any Equity member who shows up at an audition. In theatre and dance, performers show up at the audition site the day of the audition and are seen in the order they arrive. In opera, none of these rules or procedures apply.
-Charge you an audition fee to audition (usually between $25 and $100 per company) and often require you to pay for your own accompanist, either bringing your own ($25-50) or paying for theirs (~$20). Therefore, you need to budget $50-$150 for each audition.
-They regularly ask you for your age and sometimes marital status on applications. If you are too old by their standards, they will not grant you an audition AND they will keep your audition fee. So you need to plan on paying $25-100 in audition fees for auditions you may never be accepted for.
-If you sing for them once and they don’t like you, 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. You will never know if this has happened to you and you will need to keep re-applying and paying the applicable audition fee to see they have changed their mind.
-They plan their audition dates in advance and you have to follow a series of deadlines for applications. Sometimes their deadlines and your trip planning deadlines will not line up and you will be left in a situation where you will need to decided 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 period in November and December.
Budgeting to find a gig
Because of all of the costs involved, you will need to budget for each year’s auditions. A sample budget may be:
-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 friends floor or couch during their visit.
TOTAL: $2,275 REMEMBER – You will have to do these auditions every year during your YAP years (age 21-35). Most people do not YAP for the full 14 years, but plan on 5-7 years of this phase. Also remember you will only be making $600-2000 for the gig once you get it. So you will already be working at a loss compared to what you spend on auditioning. Budgeting is absolutely essential in this phase.
Side Step (#4.5) Competitions
Some singers do well singing in competitions. The competition circuit can be very lucrative with top prizes in the range of $10,000. Its not unusual for one singer to win first, second, or third in every competition taking place during a season. Others 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.
Step #5: YAP TO SMALL ROLES
Your next step is from YAP programs to singing small roles. The easiest way to do this is to have done enough YAPs that people in the business know you and start recommending you for auditions or just giving you jobs. Many YAPs will also then invite you back to the program as a main stage artist 2-3 years after you’ve left their program (assuming you’ve done other and better things since your time with them). This is also not a money making phase, but things tend to be a little better since hopefully you can live with your parents or friends in-between gigs and therefor bypass renting a place to live. This phase of your career is usually somewhere between 27-33 if you were an early bloomer on the YAP circuit. If you are a little behind, it may be the age 30-37 part of your career. 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. Usually you rehearse once or twice then perform earning $500-3000 per performance.
Step #6: SMALL ROLES TO AGENT
The next step in your evolution usually happens somewhere in your thirties depending 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 then pick the ones that they would like to hear in person. For this part of the 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 arranged in level by their budget: “A” being the highest (Met, Chicago, San Francisco) and “D” being the lowest (Small town opera companies). You may start out singing supporting roles at B houses and leading roles at D and C houses. Eventually you will progress to lead roles at B houses. Or you may sing leads at D houses and work all the way up to leads at A houses. Every path is different and its very hard to predict. 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 career, perhaps 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 usually 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. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding as you stand on the stage as a soloist with a full orchestra and chorus singing un-amplified for 3,000 people. Understanding your career prospects is an important step in planning which schools you audition for and deciding how much to take out in student loans. Hopefully this post will inspire you to do your own research and start forming your own game plan for the future.