Saying goodbye to the opera pipeline
I’m done being a young artist. I would say it’s been a good ride, but it hasn’t.
I’m competing in the Met (now known as the Laffont Competition) for the last time this Saturday. However, I’m barely viewing it as a competition– I’m retiring my young artist mentality while still giving it one last go. As my hand-boiling pianist, Dobby the house elf, would say, “just go beyond the fuck it.”
“GBTFI” is scrawled across the top of many arias in my binder, but I rarely achieve it. I care so deeply about how others perceive me that it strangles my ability to produce art. I respect people who say, “I don’t give a fuck” and mean it because I give so many fucks. So, I’ll let you know if I’m able to GBTFI this weekend. That’s the goal.
The Met competition is a magical place where eager young singers fresh from their conservatories sing careful performances of well-known arias as if to say, “PLEASE pick me.” It’s academic and cautious. Technically near-perfect winners emerge to sing their pristinely coached arias at the next level. Some winners have fabulous careers at the Metropolitan Opera, and others disappear into obscurity. This industry has no sure way forward, but winning the Met competition does help.
Thirty is the soft cutoff for breaking into the opera industry through young artist programs, colloquially known as YAPs. Certain companies will hear artists through age 35 for a young/resident artist position, but most are looking for the youngest candidate with the shiniest resume and surest technique.
For those outside the niche world of opera, let me explain what YAPs are and the traditional pipeline for young singers.
First, we should start with the journey to becoming a young artist in the first place. Most opera singers attend a four-year university or conservatory and graduate with a Bachelor of Music in Voice. During this time, they take lessons with a teacher, study music theory/aural skills, music history, acting, diction, and languages, coach with a pianist, and perform in juries and recitals. The best training programs will stage complete operas, usually with graduate students in the leading roles, but smaller colleges will mount opera scene programs. Where students obtain their undergraduate degree matters considerably for the connections their teacher will have with young artist programs and pay-to-sing programs and the school’s reputation. It will impact their ability to get into a top-tier graduate school.
I went to a choir college because I thought I wanted to major in music education, and then I stayed once I switched my major to vocal performance. Although some singers from Concordia have gone on to have traditional operatic careers, it is not nationally known as a training ground for opera singers. Strike one.
Generally, undergraduates are told the next step is going to graduate school. If a young singer is exceptionally talented and their school is a pipeline for specific pay-to-sing programs (these are precisely what they sound like– you pay to spend a summer doing more training with talented young artists,) they might graduate with some pre-professional experience. I spent my senior year at Concordia making recordings and auditioning for various grad schools for which I was not qualified due to my shoddy technique, lack of performing experience, and singing in the incorrect fach. Although I got into several programs, I didn’t get money. A wise professor told me not to go to graduate school unless I got a full ride because otherwise, I’d be paying for someone else to go to grad school.
I took a year off. I gained performing experience in the Twin Cities but didn’t find a teacher. I coached arias, but my singing wasn’t improving. I auditioned for two more graduate schools and got into UNC Greensboro, but they weren’t giving out scholarships that year. The teacher I wanted to study with advised me to move down to North Carolina and study with her for a year because the potential was there, but I needed the technical work, and I did. I spent the year studying with this teacher, but I also spent the year waiting tables and becoming entrenched in server life. I got the scholarship in the end, but in a way, I wasted two years. Strike two.
Back to the perfect young artist– let’s say they get into one of the name-brand graduate schools or conservatories. During their two years of graduate study, they will take all the same classes they took in their undergraduate degree (not even kidding), plus some vocal pedagogy courses. Hopefully, they will graduate with pristine technique, a couple of pay-to-sings or low-level young artist programs under their belts, a district win at the Met competition, and are ready to audition.
Alright, so let’s talk about auditioning for young artist programs. There’s this website that looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1995 called YAP Tracker, and it’s where pretty much every company posts their auditions for young artists. Accessing this website costs $55 per year (or $95 for two years). There are also many competitions, training programs, and general scams to suck young artists dry of what little money they have listed as opportunities on the site.
During the pandemic, many opera companies finally got rid of their application fees, but before this, most companies charged between $5-$50 to apply to their company. Can you imagine paying money to apply for a job, not knowing whether or not you’ll even get an interview? In 2019, I paid over $1000 in application fees alone. I didn’t receive auditions for over half of those companies. We can talk about my stupidity later, though.
Generally, there are summer YAPs and year-long resident artist contracts. Some premiere summer YAPs include Santa Fe Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Merola Opera, and Des Moines Metro Opera. They are extraordinarily competitive to get into, and young artists spend the summer singing in the chorus in exchange for networking, connections, coaching, visibility, and a small wage. Many talented young singers are hired for these opportunities while they are still in graduate school or shortly after completing their degrees. Although each company will employ a couple of dozen artists, the positions are extraordinarily competitive, especially for sopranos, who make up nearly three-quarters of all auditioning young artists.
Year-long residencies are reserved for those artists who have completed their formal training and are hired to serve as chorus, covers, small roles, and outreach artists with a company for their entire season. Usually, these artists include one soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone/bass, and pianist. They are extraordinarily competitive, especially for sopranos. Do you see a pattern here?
So, what’s on this application? Although they can vary by company, applicants generally have to provide proof of their date of birth, a resume, and headshot, and send 2-3 video recordings of contrasting arias made within the last year. Within two weeks or (hopefully) more of the audition dates, applicants are notified whether or not they have received an audition with the company. Rejections are called “PFOs” or “please fuck off” because they generally don’t offer any feedback or reason for why artists weren’t granted auditions. It is not recommended to reach out to companies for feedback (unless they say so); hence, the emails are a (usually) kind and professional way of saying PFO.
Most companies hold auditions in New York in October-December, and some also hear artists in Houston, Chicago, Cincinnati, or wherever their company is located. Artists are responsible for travel expenses and sometimes securing a pianist for the audition. At the audition, young artists offer one aria of their choice and present the panel with 3-4 additional arias in different languages and styles and sometimes a musical theatre piece. Generally, the panel will choose one more aria to hear, say thank you, and that’s it. Most auditions are around seven minutes long. If they want to chat, that’s a good sign. Some singers get offers in the room, but this is rare. Companies usually call or email to extend an offer within a few weeks of auditions.
This year, I got an email from a prominent company that said they received 1,200 applications and granted 400 singers auditions for something like 30 spots. That’s for a prestigious summer YAP. I figured out for another company, a year-long residency, that they are hearing 150 singers for four spots. Someone I know in the industry shared that nearly all of the 200 applications they had received so far were from sopranos. If you’re attempting to do any math here, our odds as young artists are not good.
An old teacher of mine said music is one of the only industries he can think of where if you’re not the best, you don’t get a career at all. Think about it– there are star doctors, but there are also mediocre doctors. No mediocre musicians are making a living off of being a musician.
Right before the pandemic, I got into one of those prestigious pay-to-sings on a full ride. I thought this was finally it. Finally, I was breaking into the young artist track. Sure, I was 27, but it was better late than never, right?
Hello, COVID-19! But, I found an excellent teacher. We went back to basics. I improved; I went to that summer program in 2021 and was finally on my way.
Some things are not meant to be, and I’ll leave it at that. Strike three.
Some singers go from conservatory to young artist programs to management to mainstage careers. That is the path. However, many singers don’t fit into this path. Some go into academia or go to Europe, others start winning competitions, and some go into church music, professional choral work, or musical theatre. Many young artists in the traditional pipeline get burned out before they can break into mainstage gigs. Lots of people leave the industry. It’s expensive and can be disheartening.
Something I lost in chasing the YAP track was the joy of singing and my sense of creativity. I wasn’t playful or imaginative anymore. I was the singer nervously showing up to the Met competition and begging the panel to pick me.
Well, I pick me. I applied for two grants for projects of my own creation yesterday. Those are competitive too, but I feel good knowing I’m in the driver’s seat for once. I have more control and agency than I thought.
This post isn’t a “poor me, here are all my excuses” lament. I made mistakes. I’m still working through years of technical woes. I don’t feel bad for myself.
I can’t talk about what it’s like at these prestigious programs (I’ve heard some wild stories), but I can speak to what it’s like to be on the outside, desperately trying to claw my way in. A handful of singers have contacted me to say they appreciate my honesty about my experience and the industry, so this is for them. There are genuinely fabulous singers at companies, universities, and programs around this country, and if you know anybody who is a consistently working classical singer, appreciate they have indeed risen to the top of an incredibly cutthroat career.
It feels so good to shed the young artist mentality. After years of study, practice, and performance, I can finally acknowledge that I know what I’m doing. I have valid thoughts on the music I’m singing and don’t need to be told what to do. I recognize where I need to continue growing as a singer and practice that improvement without judgment.
I don’t need to ask permission to be an artist. I’m here.
Goodbye, YA life. It works for some singers, but it was never for me.