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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Hard Reality of What It 'Takes' to Become an Opera Singer in Today's Business

So earlier today I read this article titled "So You Want to Be An Opera Singer" on Huffington Post, which I saw advertised in Opera America's Newsletter.  Even though I had never heard of the article's author, I thought to myself, "That's no big deal- this field is huge! Maybe he has something really helpful to say." Well, I was way off!  And utterly disappointed after reading the article, I might add.

The reason why I am taking up your time and mine right now to write a post about said article must make you wonder though, right? Of course. The answer as to why I'd choose to examine such a generalized piece of journalism such as this is because I simply can no longer stand idly by and do nothing as I have in the past. Previously I may have believed that because I was "still a student" or "hadn't gotten my first meaningful and noteworthy professional gig yet" meant that I wasn't qualified to talk about these subjects with any sort of authority nor express my opinion because surely someone else more knowledgeable and more experienced would take up the task of doing that when it came to refuting the obvious garbage that you sometimes come across on the Internet having to do with Opera singing.

Much to my dismay, however, this person many times did not appear wielding the divining rod of operatic justice and set the record straight with their honesty and transparency. No, oftentimes ill-informed authors were free to disseminate their opinions about the profession without any negative repercussions (except for people like me thinking things like "What a load of crap that was!" or something similar). So, if you had also fallen prey to reading that article and thinking something like what I said in the previous sentence, you're not alone. In fact, I'd like to write a small rebuttal to that article, so that we can all know what is really helpful to "Be An Opera Singer" and what is just basically leading more unaware lambs to the slaughter.

First off, I'm not sure in what world of privilege the author lives, but I know that many of my colleagues who decided to pursue vocal studies did so with the understanding that they would need college loans, and many of them, and that those students whose education was paid for outright were very few indeed.  This leads us to observe that students who must take loans cannot take one to two years off after finishing their undergraduate degree because their school loans would swallow them alive after they come out of deferment. That of course makes the likelihood of being able to work to pay off these loans as well as simultaneously get accepted, enroll and complete a graduate studies program very slim indeed. So that means that most of us, myself included, whether or not we wanted it, had to go from one degree straight into the next simply because there was no financially feasible alternative.  To clarify: I'm not saying that the Huff Post Author's take is wrong, it's just not realistic for most students. And make no mistake, any of the top-tier music conservatories are going to cost you: $29,000 to $45,000 per year are the prices that I remember from my degree days. These are not public university in-state tuition prices we're talking about! Tuition has probably even gone up in the past few years- so be prepared for a huge blow to you or your parents' savings account when investing in a music degree program.

The other thing that the author neglects to mention, though he does a good job in the final paragraph of noting that there are a lot of other things to mention (how ironic- the last paragraph of the entire article is basically the only time in which he really gives some useful advice to the reader, though he doesn't elaborate on it at all) is that there is no barometer which you or anyone else can use to determine whether or not all the money and time that you invest into this profession will ever pay off. And that it's incredibly risky and nearly impossible to try and make a living from singing.  Basically the only way that you can be guaranteed a career is if you devote your entire life to singing, sort of like a nun or monk, but somehow while still maintaining a good network of influential connections, keeping your audition arias polished at all times, managing to keep your physical appearance at 100% as often as humanly possible, somehow have or make money to live on, and develop stalker-like habits in regards to your application-material-sending-strategy. This is, of course, predicated on your ability to stay sane and be a nice person like you were before all that sacrifice, too. This may sound grim, and that's because it is, but do not despair- there will always be some masochistic nutcase out there who is more possessed than you about getting hired for the role, so spare no expense and don't be afraid to shed your morals when trying to jockey for your next gig. (I'm being ironic, people.)

But seriously, isn't that what the author is trying to say in a more politically correct way at the very end?  I mean, he could have spared himself all that blunder about which school to attend and what to do when you get there because he basically negates all that in the last paragraph of his article! Those of us who are currently trying to eke out a living in this field have all realized slowly (while lying to ourselves over the last few years as it got worse and we noticed it) that this business as it exists today and has existed in years past is quite extraordinarily broken, and it must be radically revamped in order to be fixed. Or, we abandon the ship and all make our own boats. That's the other option. Because let's face it, if I were the one who was asked by the mother of someone interested in studying to become an opera singer, I would have said to her "Lady, have your kid study business administration (or marketing, or anything for that matter!) and languages, take lessons and coach privately with amazing people, and then just apply for every summer and pay-to-sing program known to man. Because there is certainly no guarantee that if they go to Juilliard or MSM or Mannes or Curtis that they'll have a professional career and studying privately with the teachers who teach at those schools is a much cheaper way of getting the same knowledge. And, they will most likely be happier too at the end of their studies and not burned out about the ugly side of the 'business of singing'. That way, if this industry collapses completely (which, if it keeps going the way it has been, is certainly likely) your child at least has some marketable skills which will enable them to earn a decent middle-class wage, instead of being stuck working boring temp jobs in various offices for the rest of their adult lives and feeling unfulfilled while just scraping by monetarily."

Yes, perhaps that is a bit bleak, and perhaps that may scare the poor woman off entirely from allowing her child to pursue music at all as a career, but that may just be the most sound advice that a person can be given nowadays, due to the drastic surplus of singers who are being churned out each year from conservatories and universities all across the country into an industry where there are less and less spots to fill. At least I certainly wish someone had been that honest with me while I was studying, because we singers aren't dumb. In fact, I'm convinced that most of us still could have studied something completely different and managed the singing thing pretty amazingly on the side until we got that 'breakthrough' gig. (Or have you had a different experience? Please, I'm all ears!)

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