Singers and their Finances, Part One: The Challenges

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 04:00 PM

Following up on my article about opera singers and issues involving their health, I have decided to write about, and for, singers concerning their finances. This will be the first of two pieces on the subject because, sad to say, it is challenging and complex. I have discovered that most people don't understand how difficult it is for singers to manage financially unless they are superstars.

Let us begin with a few premises. The first is that most young people who aspire and train for lives as opera singers do not manage to have big careers. Like all performing artists, they must audition for roles unless they are big stars. Casting directors and conductors make subjective decisions about who should perform. Just because a singer is not cast for a role does not mean she is not good. It simply means that another artist was deemed more qualified for this particular production.

Second: even if a singer has a successful career, it seldom takes off until she is at least thirty and perhaps older. While dancers and athletes are in their primes at young ages, the singer -- for physical and other reasons -- comes into her own later on. But they still have to live and pay for the expenses of life. Imagine that a singer has gone to college, studied music, languages, literature and other disciplines that will enhance her skills as an opera singer. This education costs money. Then there might be an advanced degree at a school in America or any number of institutions in Europe. This costs even more money and, although some young singers receive some financial aid, there is never extra money around.

To survive, many singers enter singing competitions. This earns them some money if they win or place and might attract the attention of managers. But this is a very small percentage of the overall population of singers who hope to have careers.

This mention of competitions gives me the opportunity to send a big shout-out to American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (below), who just won what is often called the top prize among competitions, the Cardiff Singer of the World. In 2007, Barton was part of a stellar group, including soprano Angela Meade and tenors Michael Fabiano and Alek Shrader, that won at the Metropolitan Opera National Council finals. Meade, who is one of the top stars of her generation, is also rare in that she won more than fifty competitions. Winning a competition requires some different skills than being cast in a role, but Meade has the knack for both. Mark your calendars now for October 24 and 28, when Meade and Barton sing Norma and Adalgisa in what will surely be one of the must-attend performances at the Met next season.

Finding the Day Job

The likes of Meade and Barton, though, are exceptions and most young artists have a hard time making ends meet. Because working in their chosen career starts later than it does for most people (apart from physicians, whose school debts are large but whose earning potential is greater), most aspiring opera singers must find jobs to pay the bills and student loans while aiming for the stage. Many do clerical and office work, often as paralegals in law firms. Like many New Yorkers, I knew people who died in the attacks on September 11, 2001. These included several young opera singers who had office jobs in the World Trade Center.

Other young singers get jobs in the food business; or as athletes, truck drivers, manual laborers, and just about every other field you can think of. Some will get jobs as teachers of music or other subjects, while still others join choruses or do freelance work singing at weddings and in houses of worship on religious holidays. I have met many Christian singers who know Jewish religious music and, conversely, Jewish singers who regularly appear in Catholic and Protestant churches singing holiday music.

Young singers, like most young people, also want have love lives, perhaps get married, and perhaps have children. They also have to pay rent, buy clothing, continue to have singing lessons (which easily cost $100 each) and go out on auditions, often in cities where they do not live. If they are women, they also give consideration as to if and when to have children. Even in a situation where a woman is able to plan a pregnancy, it must be worked out with her partner in terms of finances, child care, and more. Because access to health insurance is so difficult in the U.S., American singers face additional challenges.

More than a few young singers go to Germany or a few other European countries to look for jobs as contract singers at opera houses. This gives them a place to be based and also, it most be noted, health coverage. There are pluses and minuses to this choice. Once it was customary for an American singer to be based in Europe, not only because there was more opportunity for work but because they they were able to acquire languages, culture and to nestle in the safety net of social programs. The tenor Bruce Ford told me "the one reason I went off to Germany at the beginning of my career was to build a repertoire at less expense."

Setting up abroad also means being away from home, family and friends. Not everyone wants to live in a foreign country. I happily did much of my opera training in Italy (with detours in Germany, Austria and France) but I realized after several years that I am a New Yorker and I wanted to be in my city. Had I stayed in Italy much longer I likely would never have come home and I was not quite willing to make that change in my life.

If a singer gets a manager, that person is entitled to a percentage of the singer's income, just as writers have agents who typically earn between ten and fifteen percent of the writer’s earnings from books. A problem nowadays is that many opera houses are lowering their fees and asking singers to accept that. Singers feel pressured to do so because they want to be collegial and likable and, frankly. because they want to sing and have bills to pay.

The young soprano Anna-Louise Costello, in a couple of tweets, noted that it is difficult "Being offered little or no fee, because the 'experience' is deemed valuable enough. It is a difficult situation. I am just trying to clock up stage hours & pay my bills!"

Waiting for Payday

Soprano Leah Partridge, in a series of tweets, wrote, "It took me nine months to get paid from Italy. European companies don't pay after every performance but will wire 2-6 weeks after closing. However, singers pay flights and housing up front. Fees are down. I make less than what I made when I started. I had a company offer a fee, then come down on the offer because they knew another singer would come for less. I was told to take the new offer or lose the job! Still love what I do and keep going! But I am still paying for my college (sigh)."

Partridge is not the exception in this regard. I know of several young artists who are waiting to be paid for performances done in Italy. This is why many of them do not go there (apart from cities such as Milan and Turin). This saddens me no end, because they cannot draw from the wellspring of opera's birthplace and because Italy itself is being marginalized as a consequential place for opera. Most of the top Italian singers now work and live abroad.

You may not realize that opera singers in many theaters are not paid for the rehearsal period. They must find the money for food and lodging ahead of time. They are only paid when they perform. If they become ill and must cancel, they lose their fees for that performance. Many theaters require that a singer do at least one act to receive a paycheck, which is why you often see an unwell singer soldier through to the first intermission.

Other challenges are more personal. A young American tenor wrote to me, "My primary financial issue as a singer is budgeting. Even with a wife with a steady paycheck, it seems many of the smaller opera companies are booking later and later. Also, planning for the months of not working after the months of working is a unique challenge, not unlike teachers who don't get paid over the summer months. Deciding whether you have time to find other income earning jobs during these breaks."

He continued, "Even when you have a supportive and loving spouse, as I do, another challenge is the guilt of using so much of a tight money supply for flights to auditions for jobs/agents and taking jobs that do not have a large paycheck. As my wife is a contract worker, we provide our own health insurance. We chose a plan with a high deductible due to the lower monthly payment."

In an upcoming post I will discuss some ways for singers to better manage their financial lives.


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Comments [15]

Singer... from Turin, Italy

Great article, and many thanks for making this clear. Most young singers (and even established singers I know) think that getting a "day job" is somehow a cop-out, and not a necessity. I know a lot of great singers who now need a second income stream to supplant the spotty amount of work they have. And I wish young singers would all realize that you may need to "pay your dues" by doing that crappy restaurant job or secretary gig, so you can LIVE. This is a long-term career, and bills need to be paid in the short term. You can't just be an artiste and expect to be able to live.

BUT - Fred, PLEASE quit giving Turin a pass on the "paying on time" bit - - they are NOT paying people on time, and everyone's getting sucked into the "they're one of the few theaters in Italy that function" b.s. that has been touted by the American press. Obviously some PR agent is doing a good job. The house has serious financial troubles. Casting has been less than stellar in recent years, as the casting guy doesn't even seem to travel to see other theaters' (and artists') work, and Noseda hates sitting in on auditions. It is not the rosy picture everyone in the US press keeps painting, simply because they're touring. They pay at least 6 months late for visiting artists. I've worked here.

The tours are for Noseda to burnish his credentials, but I don't see how they can make money, seeing that the entire cast, orchestra, crew and chorus are having to travel. (No matter how much sponsorship they may have, that's still super expensive!) I know most US symphonies make no money touring - it's for prestige. And they have sponsors, too. So how an opera company, with so much overhead, could feasibly be MAKING money from touring is beyond me. Add to this that the local gov't in Turin has just changed over from the very competent and committed-to-the-opera Mayor Fassino to an idiot from the 5 Stelle movement, a populist movement which has no connections in the business community (for sponsorship, etc...) and has shown no interest in high culture at all. I can't see it getting better. Even under Fassino, the funding was difficult because some of it was given in REAL ESTATE! So instead of receiving money that they could actually pay people, they got buildings, that either you sell (at a discount, as the market sucks right now) or that you could collect rent on (for just a pittance of what they'd need, since a 2million$ building will not earn that in rent...) or that you would have to take a loan out on with the building as collateral (and end up paying the extra percentage of the mortgage, so you're out the interest on the money, anyhow.) Please, let's stop giving Turin a pass... until they've earned it.

Dec. 01 2016 07:49 AM
Pauline Heath

Great article! This really helps a lot. I’m currently searching for some articles about singing ’cause I am really interested in singing career. This article is very informative. Thanks! Also try to check this article that I have read For some info. about singing jobs.

Feb. 23 2015 03:58 AM
steeveave from Hyderabad

Thanks for sharing your information.this is very useful information


May. 22 2014 06:50 AM

I have written a little (inexpensive!) e-book that features a simple plan to help freelancers with the budgeting issue!
After years of scratching my head, trying to deal with a wildly sporadic income, I worked out a little system that has meant a LOT less stress and worry. Hope some of your readers might find it helpful as well!

Dec. 01 2013 10:58 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

There has been a complaint by non-performers that performers should not attempt to promote themselves but havesome mercenary agents or publicists to do that. Unfortunately many performers who traverse their career opportunities with self-deprecating attitudes that minimize their potentials, assuming that the world will recognize their talent and reciprocate in financial terms. Most creative artists are reticent to evangelize for potential fans. If one has indisputable talent as JOE FRAZIER and MOHAMMED ALI unquestionably did, FLAUNT IT !!! We all have detractors. But even Tschaikovski after hearing the Ring at Bayreuth declared it was lacking melodies. Virgil Thomson after seeing Leonard Bernstein's WEST SIDE STORY declared it ashcan music. And Barbara Walters volunteered that SHAKESPEARE is overrated. Verdi was denied admission to the Milano Conservatory; they told him that he had no talent for music. So it goes.

Jul. 09 2013 12:32 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Two highly respected newspapers with full time professional music critics that reviewed my work were the NEW YORK STAATS-ZEITUNG UND HEROLD [a German language newspaper with a reviewer whose career covered WAGNER performances] and SHOW BUSINESS. My close working with composers FRANK LOESSER, MARC BLITZEIn, MARTIN KALMANOFF and IRVING CAESAR singing their songs, and in LOESSER'S case his Most Happy Fella and his Guys and Dolls, coached by them at their request. I was the leading singer with the Platoff Don Cossacks singing throughout the USA, Canada and Mexico and had my own program OPERATIC SPOTLIGHT on WNYC. As host, interviewer, and singer, I sang solos and duets with stars of the MET OPERA and New York City Opera as guests. It is nothing new for even geniuses to undervalue competitors. Virgil Thomson called Leonard Bernstein's WEST SIDE STORY ashcan music. Tschaikowsky at Bayreuth was unimpressed, calling the RING unmelodic and Barbara Walters complained "Shakespeare is given too much credit."

Jul. 08 2013 04:04 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ

To address ANONYMOUS FROM NYC's query. MY PERFORMANCE NAME IS KENNETH LANE, not until recently have I used my full name of Kenneth Bennett Lane. If you merely READ the listings of professional music critics reviews of my performances in the NEW YORK TIMES, MUSICAL COURIER, MUSICAL AMERICA, FANFARE MAGAZINE, NEW JERSEY MUSIC AND ARTS MAGAZINE [Sigmund Spaeth the editor], OPERA NEWS, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, NEW YORK DAILY MIRROR, DAILY RECORD [of Morristown, NJ] THE JERSEY JOURNAL [of Jersey City, NJ] HUDSON DISPATCH [of Union City, NJ] and since my career has started many years ago even when I was still a student at Juilliard and Columbia University, The New York Herald Tribune, The Journal American, The World Telegram and Sun, the Newark Evening News, which no longer exist. Besides I sang either the title role or leading tenor role in operas by SERGE PROKOFIEFF AND GEORGE ANTHEIL ET ALS. ALL have been reviewed by major music critics.

Jul. 08 2013 09:57 AM
Anonymous from NYC

Kenneth Bennett Lane: Nobody had ever heard of you!
Have you ever performed at a major opera company given your unique heldentenor?

Jun. 30 2013 11:01 PM
Anonymous from NYC

Mr. Lane, you have never been reviewed in any significant newspaper or other periodical devoted to serious music. Stop promoting your non-existent operatic career!

Jun. 30 2013 10:58 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

My cousin Michael Blankfort who wrote THE JUGGLER with KIRK Douglas a 1953 film and BROKEN ARROW with James Stewart and Jeff Chandler [as Cochise] a 1950 film HAD THE STUDIOS [COLUMBIA PICTURES] TO PAY FOR THE PRODUCTIONS. WAGNER like most opera composers with orchestras and chorus and principal and comprimario singers and sets and costumes to pay for needed funds to lavish a good one third of their lives to acquire financial support for the mounting of their ambitious works. WAGNER more than most composers because of the size of his opera orchestras and the stamina of singers not prepared for his lenghy, high-intensity big voice-requiring music dramas HAD TO RESORT TO TIME AND EFFORT-CONSUMING campaigns unlike any of his predecessors. MOZART and HAYDN had royalty help them as did WAGNER midway in his career with KING LUDWIG II. A career in the theater involves much more than talent and rep and technique and appearance individually. It requires all that and also a business sense.

Jun. 30 2013 12:11 PM
Laura H.

Excuse me, Kenneth Bennett Lane, your self-promotion on this site is becoming very tiresome. Enough, please. If you have something to say, say it, but please leave the long self-aggrandizing stuff on your own website.

Jun. 27 2013 12:54 PM

The difference between comparing a new business owner and a singer is that if the owner gets sick for a business, production Usually doesn't stop for the business. A business owner can continue working through a sickness if necessary or hire someone else to work or help out when needed.

A singer can't always keep on singing through an illness or risks harming themselves by trying. An illness can completely shut down the singer which makes the health of a singer so important. Then a singer's backup and/or competition will be brought in to take over the job. This is why the article about a singer's health is so important and a good prequel to this article.

Jun. 27 2013 06:05 AM
Kenneth from NYC

I'm not sure that the issues you describe are any different that anyone trying to start their own business right out of school. Isn't that what it really is, a business? and the product is one's instrument and the talent to go with it. Are the "start-up costs" really any greater than for most other new businesses?

Also, you make the comment that "Just because a singer is not cast for a role does not mean she is not good. It simply means that another artist was deemed more qualified for this particular production." I would take issue with the simplicity of this, since many times politics, or favoritism, or other issues also play a part, which can be doubly frustrating for young singers on a budget.

Jun. 26 2013 11:31 AM

Talk about taxes for the opera singer. This is huge and was something I had no idea about and wish they had taught me in school.

Jun. 26 2013 07:11 AM
Maria from Montreal, Canada

I was waiting for this article with great interest...thank you Fred for explaining the intricate challenges opera singers are facing. Wasn't it Herbert Breslin himself who said that opera houses are "small potatoes" and that, as a singer, one doesn not want to be too dependent on them. What you said about Italy does not even surprise me, I mean, how many singers and musicians are based in Zurich alone?

Keep it coming, all the best!

Jun. 25 2013 09:35 PM

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