My favorite X-Files episode involves no paranormal phenomena. "Hell Money" relates an all-too-human parable. (Before you keep reading, spend a little time and $1.99 to watch it on amazon.com and enjoy cameos by the young Lucy Liu and B.D. Wong)
In "Hell Money," recent Chinese immigrants assemble for an underground lottery where they either win money or lose an organ. Mulder and Scully discover that the lottery is fixed – there is no winning tile among the ones from which the player must choose. In spite of this, the organizers escape unpunished. The lottery will go on, the players continuing to give up their organs and their lives. Their desperate need for hope trumps incontrovertible evidence of fraud.
The more down and out you are, the more likely you are to buy lottery tickets. According to Wired Magazine, "On average, households that make less than $12,400 a year spend 5 percent of their income on lotteries—a source of hope for just a few bucks a throw." You may be significantly more likely to be struck by lightening than you are to win the Powerball or Megamillions, but that won't dissuade you from spending 5% of your meager income on lottery tickets.
To many aspiring singers fresh out of school, the path to a professional career appears terribly murky and mysterious. So much seems to depend on luck or fate. Success feels as elusive as a lottery jackpot.
They're easy prey for anyone offering to sell them a little hope: a voice teacher who trades on cult of personality, an artist manager who demands a high retainer from everyone on their roster, an opera company that requires cast members to sell hundreds of dollars' worth of tickets, or an entrepreneur who offers to set up an audition with international casting agents, provided you pay a high fee and make it past a preliminary hearing.
These Hope Peddlers may well believe themselves to be strictly in the business of nurturing talent and producing art rather than the business of fleecing aspiring singers. Nevertheless, it's the aspiring singers who end up funding their projects.
This week I tried to raise awareness about organizations whose operating costs are largely contributed by such singers. Some 80% of the singers who spend upwards of $300 to participate in the NYIOP auditions do not make it past the preliminaries. The newly minted Manhattan Opera Studio just offered contracts for a Magic Flute to be held this coming June 26th that holds principles and covers alike to a ticket purchase commitment of at least $420 for a performance that will be thrown together in a two- to three-week rehearsal period. With so little time to prepare and rehearse, I have to assume that they are offering at best a concert sing-through, on book, with piano. The MOS web site does not go into the details of their production values, but whatever they may be, it's definitely the singers who will bankroll this endeavor.
I received quite a few responses to my posts from singers who were grateful for the information, but I also received some responses fiercely defending these grand expenditures that will likely yield no professional benefit.
That had me completely baffled until I recalled the X-Files episode. When people are desperate for hope, they cling to their illusions as though their lives depend on them.
The path to a professional singing career is not mysterious. While you could all use a little luck, your success is not the equivalent of a craps shoot or a lottery. It only feels like that if no one ever explained to you how things really work or helped you develop a business plan. Unfortunately, most schools do not do a very good job of either.
This is a business. There are standards that you have to meet and procedures with which you must comply. Some aspects of the opera business are not as readily transparent as I would wish, but it just isn't all that mysterious. It is possible to codify the skill set you must master in order to become professionally viable. There are qualified professionals with whom you can consult to discover how your skills measure up and where they fall short, and they can point you in the direction of other qualified professionals who can help you make up the difference.
If you seriously mean to make opera your business, you should be hungry for a comprehensive assessment of this nature.
You'll need to have the maturity and equanimity to deal with constructive criticism, because realizing your dreams means leaving your illusions behind.
This is no small challenge for most aspiring singers. They Want To Believe. They want to believe that they're ready for a career. They desperately want to believe that this is something they can actually accomplish. In spite of how mysterious and elusive it seems, they're ready to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes.
They just want a little validation first.
That is what makes these singers such easy prey. Validation is readily available… at a price. There are teachers who will flatter you, opera "companies" who'll offer you a role for the price of 10 tickets, etc.
You don't need validation. You need information. That also comes at a price, but it's crucial for your success. Validation evaporates almost instantly. Information is something you can take to the bank.
Get as much information as you can about your strengths and weaknesses. Resolve your weaknesses. Once you achieve this, you'll be amazed at how much less mysterious the business becomes, because if you're really good at your job people will take notice and want to work with you - people like the casting directors David Blackburn assembles for the NYIOP auditions, for example.
This business can indeed be madly challenging and highly competitive, but it need not be mysterious. Hunt down the information that will lead to your success.
Among classical musicians, it seems to me that this is essentially a singer problem. I don't have any actual statistics to support this, but I suspect that a lottery mentality is not something that instrumentalists generally fall prey to. While many of them also covet long-odds dreams in the shape of tenured full-time positions with major symphonies, once they complete their formal training, they settle into some patchwork of freelance playing, studio work, self-produced performances, and teaching, while continuing to sit appropriate orchestral auditions as they arise. They find creative ways to support themselves using their musical skills. They certainly don't pay hundreds of dollars for opportunities to publicly hack through a favorite symphony on a few hours' rehearsal.