Welcome back to Musical Exchange, singers!
Welcome back to Musical Exchange, singers! In the two years since I began to gather material for the Singer’s Audition Handbook, the opera world has continued to evolve. As I once again consider what I wish I had known when I was immersed in my studies, I want to encourage you to give some thought to several themes:
Art Versus Business
Everything that you do to become a masterful, expressive artist is one thing; everything you do to earn a living through the application of your art is something else. Ideally, these two categories overlap in a synergistic fashion, such that you are well-compensated for sharing music that is deeply meaningful for you, but realizing this ideal requires perseverance.
Auditions are job interviews – they’re a part of how we do business – and statistically, everyone receives far more rejections than they do offers in response to the auditions they sing. Nevertheless, you must give your most committed, authentic performance and represent the best of your creativity and musicianship every time you audition, and gracefully accept and learn from the outcome. Like most things in business, auditions are a numbers game. You’re going to have to sing x number of auditions to receive y number of callbacks and garner z offers. Your singing and artistry are personal, but the results of your auditions are not.
Engage as fully as you can in making art and avoid the temptation to strategize and second-guess what audition panels are seeking. Be mindful of their specific casting needs and the kinds of artists a given company or training program is seeking, but once it’s time to put all of that out of your mind and just offer up your voice.
What You Value Versus What Others Value
What you consider to be your superpowers may differ from what others find most interesting and valuable about you, and you may sometimes be surprised by the roles that you are offered! The gigs that pay the rent will not always be the performances that most satisfy you as an artist. If you have a longing for expression that is not fully met by the projects for which you are most employable, create opportunities to fulfill that longing in order to continue to feed your soul while putting food on the table.
The Value of “Exposure”
Singers are often invited to perform unpaid for the sake of experience and exposure. There may be times early in your career when it is worth your while to do this, but weight such invitations carefully. Cindy Sadler’s post, “Why You Shouldn’t Sing for Your Supper,” offers some useful guidelines for deciding when there is enough alternative value on offer to accept a no-pay gig. One scenario where I will consistently advise people to draw the line is when the opportunity is offered by a for-profit organization and the singers are the only participants in the event who are not being compensated. Performance opportunities can be difficult to come by, but when organizations start relying on the willingness of singers to perform for free, it devalues our contributions.
Always Insist on a Contract
Whether your services are engaged for a role with an opera company, a wedding at the church where you are a lifelong congregant, or a private party at the home of a local philanthropist, insist that the terms of your employment be clearly defined and guaranteed in writing. You may need to write up a contract or invoice yourself, if the people who have hired you have little experience with transactions of this nature. It is vital to establish a clear understanding of everyone’s commitments and expectations. If the terms offered in a contract do not match the ones you agreed to verbally, politely point this out and request the appropriate changes.
The Art of Communication
At its core, singing is about authentic communication. The skill with which you communicate with your audience should extend to the way you communicate with colleagues and prospective employers. Most of the people you work with love music as much as you do. Forging strong relationships is as vital as successful auditions for developing your career, so if there is a company whose work you admire or another artist with whom you would like to collaborate, find a way to approach them and express your enthusiasm. Singers often feel that their only permissible contact is an impersonal submission of their materials for an audition request, but it is fine to reach out to people affiliated with production and training organizations to request a coaching or a consultation. It’s an effective way to not only forge connections, but also to initiate creative partnerships and friendships.
Create a Business Plan
“Become the best artist you can be” is sadly not a business plan. Young artists often grow up with the fantasy that their success rests solely on realizing their potential and being discovered; that may frequently transpire in the movies, but it rarely occurs in the world we inhabit, so while you’re fulfilling your creative potential be sure to also map out practical career goals. Where do you want to be in one year, five years, ten years? What kind of repertoire do you want to be performing, with what companies? Will you travel frequently for work, or do you prefer a regional career that will yield greater stability? Your goals may evolve as you pursue them, but you will have a much better chance of success if you start with a clear idea of where you want to go and identify the steps that will get you there.
Developing the full skill set that you’ll need to be a professional opera singer takes time and training. Make effective use of that time by seeking perspective on where you are now in relation to where you want to be and advice about how to best invest your resources.
While it does no good to apply for opportunities for which you are not yet ready, it can be very difficult to assess your own readiness. When considering educational and performance opportunities, research previous participants. What level of skill and experience did they possess when they were engaged, and are you on a par with them? You can also reach out to a coach affiliated with the training program or company you want to work with, as recommended above. They are in a position to give you a candid assessment of whether you’re ready, let you know where to pursue improvement if you are not, and may end up taking a keen interest in your progress.
Do not rely solely on your teacher for assessment and guidance. As a voice teacher myself, I cannot help but occasionally develop a bias in favor of my own students such that I may not hear and assess them nearly as objectively as someone with fresh ears might. My studio represents a safe environment, so that the way they sing for me may not be representative of the way they perform auditions. My students need feedback from coaches and other opera professionals who have highly educated, unbiased ears, and so do you.
There are so many ways to design a life around your passion for singing. A full-time opera career is only one of them, so consider a broad range of options. I have seen skilled singers launch successful opera careers, only to discover that they do not care for some aspects of the lifestyle they’ve signed up for. With the exception of German and Austrian companies that offer Fest contracts of a year or more, you can expect to be on the move most of the time, spending four to six weeks with a given company and then flying off to a residency of similar length somewhere else, often in a city where you may not be terribly familiar with the language or the culture and where you know no one else in the cast. Some of you will find this exhilarating, while others will find it lonely and unstable. It can present challenges for sustaining relationships and supporting families. Be honest with yourself in considering how much time you would enjoy, or can tolerate, being away from home on a regular basis.
Feed Your Passion First!
“Do everything you have to, to remember WHY you love music. FEED THAT JOY WITH ABANDON AND WITHOUT ONE OUNCE OF APOLOGY! Never, ever, EVER give someone else the power to rob you of your joy. Not the teacher, not the coach, not the critic, not the rude audience member nor the jealous colleague. Nope. NEVER give away that power. It’s your singular responsibility to honor your love for music.”
While the art of singing and the business of a performance career may be distinct, your artistry will always be of paramount value to both you and your audience. Your performances provide listeners with a window on your process, but it is your process and your journey that makes for a life in the arts. The challenges of the profession can become stressful and burdensome at times, but if you awake each day full of excitement for the next discovery or breakthrough that awaits, you will have what it takes to persevere and triumph.
Listen to Joyce address this in her own words during her master classes at Carnegie Hall in 2015, particularly during the question and answer section at 1:50.