Why It's More Difficult Than Ever to Become an Opera Singer

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - 09:16 AM

Renée Fleming with the Eastman Philharmonia (Eastman School of Music)

Two memorable performances and a conversation in recent days set my mind to thinking about the many things opera singers must now do to launch, grow and sustain their careers apart from knowing their music, expanding their artistry and maintaining their health.

On Nov. 13, I attended the concert marking the return of Kathleen Battle, age 68, to the Metropolitan Opera house after an absence of 22 years. Her frequent contretemps with colleagues and opera executives in the 1980s and 1990s are well documented. Her 1994 dismissal by general manager Joseph Volpe was for behavioral rather than artistic reasons. She was a remarkable singer and one can only wonder what more she could have accomplished had things been different. Battle’s voice and singing at this concert were often exquisite.

On Nov. 14, the Eastman Philharmonia appeared at Alice Tully Hall. This orchestra of young musicians enrolled at the Eastman School of Music did themselves proud in symphonic showpieces by Ravel and Prokofiev under the baton of Neil Varon. Also on the program was a new song cycle by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts that are settings of letters by artist Georgia O’Keeffe. They were sung by the illustrious Eastman alumna Renée Fleming. This was only the latest of many new and unusual works performed by the 57-year-old soprano. The five songs and their richly evocative orchestral accompaniment are excellent and will appeal to sopranos looking for new repertory. Fleming actively engaged with the music and text, leaving a deep impression that went far beyond her starry presence.

Battle and Fleming are, in their ways, among the last major singers who are products of another era, one in which their careers were carefully nurtured by managers, recording companies and conductors. Both worked with top maestros and benefitted from their tutelage. James Levine was important to both of them, while Battle also collaborated with Herbert von Karajan and Fleming worked with Georg Solti as a young artist.

Here they are in 1992 with the wonderful Frederica von Stade, singing the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier in a gala concert conducted by Claudio Abbado. It doesn’t get better than this. 

When these sopranos were starting out, their managers knew repertory and voices — the best of them were architects of their clients’ careers. Couturiers made beautiful clothing to give these singers a signature look. It was possible to regularly make recordings of opera, oratorios and song literature — Fleming has appeared on at least 40 by my count.

Publicists engineered promotional campaigns for top singers who achieved a level of fame that often extended beyond the opera world. Unlike now, most news organizations — including broadcast media — gave extensive coverage to the arts, especially in New York. The debut recital by a promising young singer would receive coverage and all opera productions by major companies would be reviewed.

Fleming, more than any singer of her generation, understood how the business worked and made the most of it without compromising her artistry. There were three older singers she could draw inspiration from — Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne and Plácido Domingo — who were masterful in business, as well as art. All three understood how media work and how to befriend the right people on boards and in government, lending their considerable allure while quietly influencing decisions that helped keep opera strong.

The situation for young singers today could not be more different, or difficult. This became clear to me yet again when I had lunch recently with an American soprano studying at one of the top European conservatories. She told me, “I am coming to realize how much of my time must be devoted to being entrepreneurial.”

For singers just starting out, this includes keeping accurate financial and tax records; mastering and being an unblemished presence on social media; maintaining a website; finding management; creating performance videos for submission; filing endless applications for competitions, young artist programs and study grants; and obtaining proper medical care and paying for it.

In previous generations, some of these tasks did not exist or were handled by others. There are fewer opera companies than a generation ago and, to pay the bills, they tend to perform a nucleus of works (including Le Nozze di Figaro, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Traviata and La Bohéme) for which hundreds of young sopranos must compete by getting noticed and perhaps being granted an audition.

Young artists were once able to spend more time focused on their music, on strengthening their techniques and on developing their inner lives that provide a crucial resource in making music. They, and we, are missing out by their having to multitask.

These challenges affect singers of all ages. Bass Kevin Langan posted on Facebook on Nov. 14: “As I head into NYC today to audition for a prospective job, I recall I have performed with 69 different American opera and symphony organizations in my career of 38 years as a professional singer. The following quote from a good friend and colleague comes mind: ‘If you find yourself having to convince those you thought you had already convinced that you are capable ... you are most likely a singer.’ —Frank Lopardo (American tenor). Bottom line: I have never stopped loving or having the passion to do what I do.”

I contacted Langan, who told me, “I hold no grudge against the organization I am singing for. On the contrary, I would love to get the job as it is my favorite role in the repertoire I do! Life as a singer is what it is! And some of us do what must be done in order to keep doing what has been our passion for almost a lifetime!”

Wisdom, it seems, comes with age and experience. We must find ways, given how we live now, to nourish young artists and help them start and maintain their careers. They will repay us with the music they make and the beauty they provide at a time when we so desperately need it.


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Comments [10]

Davóne Tines from Baltimore, MD

This article gives no real context for how careers happened then as opposed to now. And uses two mega stars as the entire sample/case study for a nostalgic "how things were then." I'm sure there were literally 1,000s of sopranos coming up in the same "last gasp of the golden era" of Battle and Fleming who could have also made the same argument of "Things are just harder today; What happened to the golden age of opera, you know, like back in the early 1900s when you could just live with an Italian master and they'd just hand over the secret keys to technique and interpretation, and you'd just run into Herbert von Karajan and he'd just hire you for a Verdi requiem because he was just tired of doing it with Leontyne Price? Ya know?" No. There are struggles now and there were struggles then. I know for a fact that Cecilia Bartoli's first professional/"emerging artist" engagements were all arranged by telegram. Telegram. One message per week; maybe. Today there is technology that supersedes anything like that (Email, YAP Tracker, discount airlines, low-fare aggregators, throat-coat tea, etc) We can't divorce struggle from context and minimize its reality in order to make our current situation seem more dire, more sympathetic (read: pathetic). What's the use of that anyway? To offer an excuse for why things aren't working out the way we want? I think that beyond singers, many "major" organizations, at their perhaps under-examined core, use that scapegoatist logic to their own downfall. It's not a new thing under the sun to be industrious, rigorous, and entrepreneurial in the pursuit of a passion. Be that in art or anywhere in the world. For example: we are in the midst of a new Civil Rights movement. The argument of "oh, it was so much easier back then" will not hold for work of that ilk. But the glory in being able to look back and acknowledge is that we already have the tools with which to look forward; proven in blood, sweat, tears, and actual progress. The same could be said for many other fields from science to footwear to cooking to sports.

Yes, there are more sham organizations pedaling sham opportunities for profit. That is a new-struggle incarnate. That is more bullshit to wade through. So wade. I think it could be successfully argued that the increase in misguiding paths to success for singers due to misplaced capitalism is inversely proportional to the easing of barriers of entry to successfully communicating.

Media has made it possible to see more of each other at present, but also from the past. It is easier for us to feel discouraged in the context of the influx of news and documents nostalgializing past narratives because of their distance and steepening the rake of the planes between ourselves and the perceived achievements of others. We can't let it be an excuse. New times, new struggles call for new measures. Lucky for us, we have more access now, more

Feb. 20 2017 11:34 AM
JOHN AMBROSE from Akron, Ohio

I recently read Renee Fleming has a net worth of $10 million. After decades performing.

Then I read Taylor Swift, after maybe 5 years singing, has a net worth of $225 million.
For all the work they do, opera people are largely paid peanuts. The system works against them, I read Pavarotti, as an exception was worth $500 million

Feb. 19 2017 04:46 PM
Fdgnyc@aol.com from Manhattan

The key component to having a major career as a singer is major talent. Unfortunately, music conservatories accept vocal students who have some talent, but obviously not enough to be considered for a career in music. I've gone to recitals of young singers who must give a required recital to graduate. Often, it is evident that the voice is problematic, but the singer gets the graduation certificate and abounds on auditions to very little success. Because these music schools are in it for the money, a lot of graduates are going to be sorely disappointed when they hit the real world of the music business. Major talent is truly what will make a career. Unfortunately, a degree can't give you talent.

Davidson from New York City

Feb. 18 2017 10:04 AM

This is a brutal exhausting career.....Deborah Voight said most of her time was in a hotel room, with her mind.
I wonder if Bjoerling, Flagstad and Gigli went thru this....minus the social sites.
My bet is some of the best voices quit, there was too much for a human to deal with.I am glad Europe is easier on singers.

Nov. 19 2016 01:55 PM
Marci Meth from Paris, France

Dear Fred,
I can attest to the fact that the environment has become difficult for singers today.
However, I try to look at the situation as an opportunity for creativity; it has taught me to think out of the box.
When I decided to make a recording of Britten's folksong arrangements, I knew I would have to make something different that what already existed on the market--and I also knew I would have to finance it myself.
Crowdfunding has created new opportunities for singers. Social media allows us to do our own marketing.
It's true; today a recording is a labor of love.
Here is mine:
with best wishes,
Marci Meth

Nov. 18 2016 12:21 PM
ML Hart from Atlántida, Uruguay

Thanks Fred,
Great points to show how the business of opera has changed over the last [recent amount of] years.

20 years ago, it was very different... I've been interviewing people in the opera business for a book I'm working on. It's about tenors, but I've talked to lots of different types of singers besides tenors, plus their colleagues -- some span across 4 generations, and the technology has changed, as has the business itself.

Pre-smartphones, pre-easy-internet-access, singers have stories of traveling with a typewriter... cutting up cords in a hotel room and rewiring to try to get a signal for a clunky, slow, heavy laptop... and up to today's blogs and dressing-room selfies.

Some things haven't changed, though, even going back a couple hundred years -- learning from a teacher who passes along the craft and the art... the passion to communicate through music... what it takes to be successful (no matter how you define that) because it takes more than the gift of the voice.

Nice piece - I'll link to it from my blog if you don't mind. Intending to catch up on it this weekend... no, really, I mean it ;)

Thanks again,

Nov. 16 2016 04:57 PM
John from Southern Connecticut

Let me take the contrarian role here.

1. Yes, there are more demands on singers - but the demands are very similar for a performer in any segment of entertainment today. Increasing competition is inevitable. However, I can tell you from personal experience that on average, the quality and discipline of the majority of todays opera singers is simply not there. Putting aside undergraduates, there are simply too many students at the graduate level who should have washed out years before, but haven't. Too many students think that natural ability is enough, and they don't have a good work ethic. There simply is not a mechanism akin to professional sports that weeds out the aspiring but less accomplished. So what we have is a quantity of voices, not necessarily an abundance of true quality. The challenge for the true quality singers is breaking through the noise, so to speak.

2. With regards to publicity and coverage, the opera and classical communities needs to do some self reflection as well. At the secondary school level, how many opera fans have gone to their local school board to complain when music budgets are cut while the same schools spend outlandish amounts of money on artificial turf for their athletic programs? An extraordinary amount of money goes to support athletics, yet only a relatively small percentage of students have the natural athletic ability to compete at the high school level. We need a mechanism to insure that the arts get their fair share of funding as well. We need an equivalent to Title IX. (As a reminder, Title IX was intended to insure that all athletic money didn't simply go to men's football and basketball programs but insured a modicum of funding for all types of sports and especially women's sports.)

Nov. 16 2016 02:24 PM
Arden Anderson-Broecking from Connecticut

Dear Mr. PLotkin: I could not agree with you more. I have been a singer and vocal teacher and repertory coach for more years than vanity allows me to admit! I have trained a number of young opera singers, many of whom went to Germany and had some engagements and success there as did I thanks to some connections. Later, a colleague and I founded a small opera company in southern Connectcicut. Our purpose was to showcase young professional singers in modest but appropriate productions. We lasted 14 seasons. Several of our singers have made careers. Of this we were very proud. Recently, however, I have heard of so many singers (the under-30 demand for women has discouraged many,) who have ceased even to audition. Of course, not every good singer can make a career. This past summer, I heard a marvelous young dramatic soprano who deserves a career.I hope to be able to help her. This is a sad situation. There are is certainly no dearth of outstanding singers, but realistically there are obviously other factors, some of which have nothing to do with talent.
I salute those talented American singers who stamina to persist, who have the wonderful voices and all the rest of the kind of ability for the drama exciting performance Would that they received the amount of praise, notice and engagement. It's unfortunate that a plethora of singers, especially from Eastern Europe, are dis-placing are own.

Nov. 16 2016 12:36 PM
Geo. from St. Louis, MO

What is missing from this post is discussion of the economics of supply and demand, with respect to the number of opera singers emerging from conservatories, competing for a limited number of places with opera companies. Just to give one example here, at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, OTSL does not maintain a regular chorus like the Metropolitan Opera, or Lyric Opera of Chicago, or any of the major European opera houses. OTSL auditions young singers for its chorus of ~35 singers for each season.

* For the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the number of applicants was just below 1000.
* For the 2016 season, the number of applicants was just over 1000.
* For the 2017 season, the number of applicants broke the 1200 mark.

Think about that last figure compared to previous years. OTSL saw a 20% increase in the number of applicants, but for the same number of chorus spots. This is in a general environment where the number of general opportunities for singers with opera companies, at a guess, is not increasing. I don't doubt that many of the singers who didn't make the OTSL cut are wonderful. But it's just that there are so many of them. Eric Owens made the same point in a talk to young opera singers a few years ago, basically telling them that all of them are "easily replaceable", and I think that Mr. Owens is honest enough that he would not exclude himself from that evaluation, that he himself can be replaced in a production or concert if he gets sick or an emergency puts him out of action.

It's not just about art, sad to say. It's about population biology and economics, all the more so in a climate where opera and classical music still haven't really shaken off their "elitist" image, and where the cultural climate is only going to get much, much worse in the coming years.

Nov. 16 2016 12:09 PM
Jean Kellogg from San Francisco

Thanks for this, Fred! If you have more like this that I can share on Merola Opera Program's facebook page for the benefit of young artists and our patrons, I'd be grateful if you'd forward them to me at jkellogg@merola.org.

Many thanks!!

Nov. 15 2016 05:18 PM

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