There's a post titled "I Could Have Been a Great Opera Singer, If I Were Rich" on The Billfold blog making the rounds this week. The writer bemoans the tremendous cost involved in training to be an opera singer and the low odds of success.
If it is your passion and ambition to become an extraordinary artist, athlete, or anything else, you are going to have to marshall the resources necessary to build the requisite skill and experience while accepting the reality that there is no guarantee of success.
Excellence in any field requires a significant investment.
At least your training has the potential to lead to a lifelong career. If instead it were your ambition to be an Olympic athlete, your investment could be exponentially greater and any rewards short-lived. Here are the 7 Olympic Sports with the Highest Training Costs, according to The Fiscal Times. Most Olympic aspirants have trained "since they were young, 300 days a year, at a hefty price to cover equipment, facilities, coaches, and travel costs…all for the chance at a gold medal, $25,000 in prize money, before taxes, and possible corporate sponsorships."
It's misleading to suggest that the only people who make it are the ones who were born into wealth. Many of today's most successful opera stars come from relatively humble beginnings. Renée Fleming is the daughter of music teachers and earned her bachelors degree from a state school. Jonas Kaufmann is the son of a man who worked in insurance and a kindergarten teacher. Angela Meade began her education at a community college. They surely all had a good deal of help along the way, but when you continually express talent, dedication, enthusiasm and drive it has the power to attract assistance from any variety of sources.
The problem as I see it is not the necessity of investing in your education and career but rather the formidable challenge of choosing sound investments. Far too many singers complete costly degrees in performance without achieving a professional level of skill. There are competitions charging application fees of $150 or more that offer no cash prizes, just the opportunity to perform an aria or two on their awards concert. There are training programs that amount to unpaid chorus work and tech hours for a company's mainstage productions.
When there are so many organizations competing for your money and time without being able to promise anything substantial in return, it feels more like a gamble than an investment. Here are some guidelines to help you invest more wisely.
Get good business advice.
Consult with someone in the industry who can give you an honest assessment of where you are now and what it will take to get you to where you want to be, someone with nothing to gain by filling your head with pipe dreams (i.e., someone who won't take any of your hard-earned money beyond their consultation fee). If possible, look for a veteran artist manager who offers consultations of this nature. They have the advantage of knowing what kinds of singers and voices are currently being hired for what kinds of roles all over the world. They can tell you how you compare, what you need, and where you'll be most likely to succeed.
Get top training.
Work with teachers and coaches who have students performing at the highest levels. Ideally, work with teachers and coaches who have students who weren't performing at the highest levels before they started working with them. You need a team of people who have experience training ambitious but green singers to become the best in the world.
Stay abreast of what's happening in the industry.
Who are the singers whose careers are most in alignment with what you want for yourself? Go see them perform whenever you can. Attend operas and recitals every chance you get. Learn about their backgrounds, their training and the path they took to where they are now, because you'll find that every career is a unique mash-up of talent, hard work and luck.
I'm often asked whether a graduate program is a good investment. My answer under most circumstances is yes, if you can get into one that regularly produces world-class singers and are guaranteed placement in a studio that will provide you with top training (as defined above). Do look at it as an investment of your time and money, and form clear expectations about what you need to get out of it in return. Those things include getting your technique, diction, musicianship, acting and audition skills up to the level they'll need to be at for you to be competitive in the current professional market. Ideally, grad school also will provide some useful performance experience and a wealth of networking opportunities. While you don't have to go to grad school to get all of these things, they're all things that you need, so if you opt out, you'll need to find some other way to get them. If you don't get into a good graduate program, don't go to a bad one - make an alternative plan to get the education that you need and/or find out what you need to do to be more competitive and re-apply to the good school, because if you can't get into a good graduate program there is likely something important lacking in your training. Find out what it is.
I'm also often asked whether it's worth going into debt to get a graduate degree. It's better if you don't have to, but remember that we're talking about an investment. If it's an excellent school with a teacher who will give you what you need, that may be the right choice. Better to borrow money to get the training that will take you all the way to the top than accept a scholarship to a program that won't get you anywhere. If your combined scholarships, grants, and available federal student loans have you covered, go for it. However, private student loans should be avoided like the plague.*
Young Artist Programs
If you get into a paid young artist program, go. While some of them pay better than others, all of them will advance your career and provide valuable training. Between travel and living expenses, you may have a hard time just breaking even, but if you do a good job the experience will pay dividends in the long run.
There's a great variety of opera training programs that charge tuition. On one end of the spectrum are prestigious, competitive programs like the Aspen Music Festival and School; at the other, small organizations that produce concert performances of opera with piano accompaniment and have high acceptance rates. How can you tell whether a PTS is a good investment? You'll need some good business advice (as defined above). If you need more training and experience before you'll qualify for young artist programs and/or professional mainstage roles, the right PTS is a good investment. Prioritize outstanding faculty over a big role - for example, it's much wiser to accept an offer to sing Annina at Aspen than Violetta at a lesser institution. Performance experience with an irreputable organization will not further your career and will prove a poor investment. Invest rather in the training that will make you competitive for the good ones. Don't just do any PTS that will have you - know what you're getting out of your investment. If you need to learn a role, a small local PTS may be perfect for you, but consider whether you'd perhaps be better served by coaching it with an expert in the genre.
Competitions can be highly lucrative, as well as excellent for building your brand, but do some math before you apply to one. If your expenses (application fee, travel, hotel, accompanist, dry-cleaning etc.) exceed the potential winnings, skip it. Bear in mind that "competition winning" is in some ways a distinct skill set from "opera singing". Some of our most admired opera stars never so much as placed in a competition, and many competition winners do not go on to distinguished careers. If you have a flair for competitions, make the best possible use of it, but don't despair of never having a career if competitions aren't your thing.
Don't sign with a management firm that demands a monthly retainer from everyone on their roster. The artist manager's job is to help you secure work, negotiate contracts, and build your career; in return for this, they get a cut of your pay. They make money by helping you make money, and that is all they should be charging for their services. There are some excellent management firms whose rosters include an "emerging artists" division. These younger, less experienced singers need help getting their careers started, so when they join these divisions they are asked to pay a retainer to cover the expense of publicity materials the firm produces on their behalf, and in this case a retainer is justly warranted. However, the expectation is that their careers will develop to the point where they will join the more senior ranks of the manager's roster and will then no longer be expected to pay a retainer.
Express the value of your brand
Your head shot, demo recording, web site and business cards must convey the value of your artistry. Don't bargain shop - invest in state-of-the-art materials. Susan Eichhorn Young outlines the reasons very succinctly here, and Sir Percival Blakeney (a.k.a. the Scarlet Pimpernel) offers us this manifesto against mediocrity:
In his outstanding book The Dip, Seth Godin makes a clear case for being the best in the world at whatever you do. Prepare to make a substantial investment in your career and your artistry. You're competing with people who are willing to do whatever it takes. There's no point in going for it with anything less than 100%.
*Federal student loans carry low interest, can be placed into deferment for a number of years, may be repaid on an income-sensitive basis, and will be forgiven if not repaid after 25 years. If grad school is part of your business investment, a federal student loan is like an awesome small-business loan. Private loans, however, offer very limited deferment periods, must be paid at a given monthly rate regardless of your income, and will never be discharged or forgiven even in the case of bankruptcy. If you can't afford grad school without a private loan, wait a year and try again for a better deal. If you can't afford your first-choice option without a private loan but you have a reputable and affordable second-choice option, take it.