I recently decided to open a studio of sorts in New York City in order to assist young singers with artistic presentation and strategic career planning. The endeavor made me start to consider what I think young singers should really know about and focus on when they are about to embark on a career in this rather precarious artistic endeavor known as opera singing.
1. Is this really what you want to do with your life? I know, I know, you've already been asked this by countless teachers and coaches and young artist program leaders and even relatives and well meaning strangers in Starbucks who see you carrying a binder of music. But this question, as annoying as it is, has become more important than ever. Look -- there are far more singers coming out of conservatory than ever before and while there may be more opportunities overall, there are fewer opportunities that allow you to actually make your entire living as an opera singer. So you need to ask yourself whether you are doing this because it's just the thing you've always been good at and you're addicted to people telling you that you have a beautiful voice, or whether you really, truly are up for a life in the arts. Either choice is okay, and getting a voice degree while going on to another career is not a failure. The rigors involved in training to be an opera singer qualify you for a wide array of careers both inside and outside of the arts -- it's okay to change your mind.
2. What's more important to you: being an artist or having money? I hate to come right out of the gate with the same two downer questions your investment banker uncle asked you last Thanksgiving, but this is a legitimate question. As mentioned above, it has become more difficult than ever to make a living as an opera singer. Just comparing life as an opera singer now to how it was 15 years ago when I started out demonstrates to me that things have changed significantly. Even established singers in their 40s who have sung at A houses are having to audition for jobs they were hired for sight unseen as young artists. Famous artists are retiring not because their voices have failed but become their jobs have run out. More artists than ever who are having what most would consider very sucessful singing careers are being forced to take second jobs in other industries because the fees are generally lower these days, and there are fewer jobs (or maybe more competition for the existing jobs) which means filling your entire schedule can be a challenge. These are hard truths that every aspring singer needs to be made aware of.
3. What is your contribution as an artist? What is your point of view? Having sat on audition panels, I can attest to the fact that hearing Norina's aria 17 times in two days can definitely numb your brain. Being a wonderful singer with excellent technique is not only not enough to guarantee you success, it is not enough to make an impenitrable mark in an audition. Of course every singer needs to make sure they are singing to the best of their ability technically, but what really makes a singer unique is what they have to say artistically. No two individuals are the same artist, and what you have to offer that nobody else does is your artistic decisions and your artistic point of view. You are only contributing something to the conversation if you take time to carefully consider what you want to communicate with every note and word that you sing.
4. What are you passionate about besides singing? This is important for several reasons. First, an opera career requires a great deal of commitment, study, attention and devotion. However, singers who focus their entire existence on their singing careers either succeed but have a very one sided life (little private life, lonliness and sadness on the road in between rehearsals or in between gigs) or get into real trouble if their career doesn't materialize soon enough or at all. Of course, knowing what else you love to do can help you find a way to earn additional income at any point during your singing career when you might need it, but it also makes you a more well rounded human being, and therefore a better artist.
5. No matter what kind of shining star you were in school, you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself. This won't apply to everyone, but it's very easy to start to feel like a superstar if you were the star of all your school productions, or got into every young artist program or won several competitions. But being overly cocky will not serve you at the beginning of your career. Knowing your own worth doesn't mean you can't be open and willing to learn and "pay your dues." Finding the balance between being self assured but knowing when to shut up and learn can be challenging in the beginning, but it's very important that you understand that the world does not work the same way as it did in school. You could either really lose your confidence when operating in your school mode, or make people not want to re-hire you.
6. Conversely: not being a school star and/or not getting into the big young artist programs does not mean you cannot have a career. There are many paths to succeeding in this career. In some ways it's become more competitive, but new opportunities have arisen for young singers as well. More and more small companies are forming and they provide perfect opportunities for young singers looking for experience. These smaller companies are also often run by very intrepid and creative people, and can teach young singers about the beauty of arts entrepreneurship. Which brings me to my usual soapbax...
7. You can and should create your own opportunities. Arts entrepreneurship is a growing sector of the operatic community. More and more singers are creating small opera companies and starting recital and chamber music series. Raising money and organizing these things can be very challenging, but so rewarding -- not just for the performance opportunities it can create for you and your friends, but for the added element of artistic value you will be adding to your community.
8. For the love of all that is holy, please don't share every thought you have on facebook and twitter and other social media. This might sound like strange advice coming from someone who wrote a very personal blog about their life and career for many years, but I always took care to keep my subject matter and opinions to things related to myself, and took care when I mentioned or wrote about anyone else in the business. I might have been guilty of oversharing a bit, but in the end telling the truth served me well. This is different than spouting off against the opera industry in your social media circles, or writing angry rants that are discriminatory or cruel. A good rule of thumb in social media for people attempting to make their way in the pubic arena is tell the truth but keep things positive, don't talk about people or things in the industry that annoy you, and don't attempt to oversell yourself or your professional page to your circle of friends. Moderation is always the key.
9. Get creative. If you find you are in that place of having finished with school and are in between singing projects, find ways to keep your creativity alive. I think singers suffer a bit from the idea that without being involved in an opera production or performances of some kind, they have no creative outlet. Unlike visual artists or writers, we are not able to go home and create new things at night after we come home from our day job (unless you consider learning music and practicing to be creating new things -- but it is a bit different than creating something physical). Find other ways to exercise your creativity. It will keep you from burning out on whatever you might be doing to earn money, will add to your abilities as an artist, and will keep you sane.
10. Sexual harassment is not okay and reporting it will not end your career. The casting couch is alive and rampant in all entertainment industries, and opera is no exception. Recently, this issue has been addressed by our union AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) and they have instituted a system for members to confidentially report any instances of illegal discrimination including sexual abuse, harassment and conduct that creates a hostile work environment. I believe this new system will help industry-wide with a problem that is more prevelant than many people realize, but only if people actually begin reporting incidents. If you are not yet a member of AGMA please report the situation to someone you trust.
Now go forth and be creative. You alone get to decide whether or not you are an artist and how that manifests itself in this world. Put your creative power in your own hands and find something to say with it.