Bridging the Gap Between the University and the Stage

An American Point-of-View on Trends in the Performing Arts

This article is adapted from a presentation I gave at the International Congress of Voice Teachers in Paris, France in 2009. Though some of the dates are a bit old, the information is still largely correct. The gap I speak of here is that period of years after graduation from conservatory or university and before the singer’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Richard Harrell, The Director of Opera at San Francisco Conservatory says: “There is usually an uncomfortable period of several years between university training and a blossoming professional career. That, alas, is one of the most difficult aspects of the world of professional opera.” (Opera America Career Guide)

This uncomfortable period may last from three to five years as Manhattan School’s Gordon Ostrowski says, or it could last much longer depending on the singer and his or her individual circumstance. As Denyse Graves puts it: “Each singer’s path is different.” To put a slightly better spin on these uncomfortable middle years, we must put them in thecontext of a life: The Student Years – The Apprentice Years – The Professional Years. As you can see there are lots of choices to make during the The Apprentice Years. You might ask yourself: Should I go back to school? Audition for management? Learn a role on my own? Get a church job? Get a day job?

First let’s get a perspective on the trends in the field of opera and the performing arts.

The Student Years

Over the past 10-15 years the US has graduated thousands of singers from colleges and universities degree and diploma programs into their Apprentice Years. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Higher Education Arts Data Services, and the College Music Society: There were 1739 institutions in higher education in the United states that have degree-granting music programs as of 2008. Musical America sites 924 music schools while NASM has only 600 or so accredited institutions. Keep in mind that Julliard is not a NASM accredited institution. The Musical America number is probably the best indicator of good music schools. If we take the Musical America number and round up to 1000 (considering the total number of music programs) and if each of these schools graduates one to five singers per year, we would have 1000-5000 singers going out onto the market each and every year. If, as some say, the gap is only three years, we could still have 15,000 singers out there looking for jobs all at the same time. If, as it is more likely, the gap is longer, maybe closer to seven years, the potential number could be 35,000 singers scratching for time on stage. No one knows the exact number but we know it is large. In turn, hundreds of resources have popped up to serve this vast population. This group, now called Young Artists & Emerging Professionals, has created a large
demographic for potential markets in information, resources, and programs:

  1. Summer programs or so-called “Pay-to- Plays” extend the singer’s tuition years but give the singer great experience and valuable contacts. (highly varied in experiences offered, quality and price)
  2. Certificate programs at universities extend education and keep a singer on the university stage a little longer. (Post-Bac, Post-Grad, AD)
  3. Young Artist Programs and Studios are highly competitive and highly coveted. Some are year around and others only occur in the summer. This is considered the proper next step between school and management in the US. According to YAP, there were 2484 audition opportunities in the past year for American singers. These auditions included master class participation and competitions as well as for summer “pay-to- plays,” young artist programs and main stage roles for both managed and unmanaged singers.

Small, local competitions can be a good way to get audition experience, make some extra money to finance coachings, lessons or travel but can take away from valuable technique building time. Some competitions are career makers – e.g. The Mets, Operalia, other international vocal competitions. Treat these as job auditions; only do them when
you are absolutely ready.

Most organizations for Young Artists and Emerging Professionals require that the singer pay a fee to join. Many offer audition information, career building information, or lists of opera companies and their hiring staff and requirements. Each of these web sites will lead you to ten more. Buyer, beware! Some of these organizations exist only to take your money and give you very little in the long run.

Due to this glut of resources and the high quality of training at American universities and conservatories, we have more professional performers in the market than ever. According to the RAND Corporation: The number of Professional Performing Artists has doubled since 1970. Professionals are created based on willingness of arts organizations and producers to employ them. There are over 3000 managed singers in the US as of 2009.

In our field singers come in two categories: Professional (paid to sing- either managed or unmanaged) and Amateur (un-paid) that can be broken down into subsets: casual hobbyists, amateur aficionados, part-time professionals, full-time professionals, and superstars. The distinctions among these categories would be based on multiple criteria, including artists’ educational qualifications, membership in credentialing bodies, income earned, amount of time devoted to performing, and peer acceptance. The bad news is that over the past 10-15 years though the number of well-trained professionals is risen dramatically, the number of well-paying performing/opera jobs has diminished. According to the RAND Corporation performing artists face more difficult employment circumstances than do most other professionals.
So who is hiring singers?

Generally, performance venues are way up but profits are down. More performers are in the market and consequently are also on the stage, but they are making less money. The numbers of opera companies, performing arts series, orchestras and performing arts venues seem to be healthy. There are more performance venues than ever and the most prevalent type of performances are musical ones. The Association of Performing Arts Presenters has reported the types of organization that present the performing arts. Ironically, the venue that does most presenting of music and opera by far (a whopping 37%) are colleges and universities who do not have performing arts as their mission, but rather education.

In terms of real revenue growth, the fastest growing nonprofit category over the past fifteen years has been opera, averaging almost 2 percent per year per company. By the standards of most established industries, this was a healthy growth rate, confirming those who have claimed the existence of an “opera boom” over the past 15 years. However, mid-sized opera companies with budgets between $100-500K, have had a hard time making ends meet due to three trends: 1. Many large and beautiful arts structures built by local governments to house local companies are standing empty due to high prices of union staffs required to run them. 2. The majority of opera audiences are getting their opera from the big names and venues that are more and more accessible (movie theatres), and 3. Government-funding for opera usually goes to the large
companies who present big named singers and have a long track record. Small companies with budgets under $100,000 are popping up in large numbers even in small communities, to serve the vast numbers of very good singers looking for stages on which to show and hone their skills. Singers for these companies get paid little or nothing, often for very skilled performances. Little to no government funding goes to
these small companies.

Here are two staggering facts: According to RAND...
1. Musicians and Composers make 10K American dollars on average by working 48 weeks per year. These are SUCCESSFUL professionals either full or part time.
2. About three-quarters of all artists hold non-arts jobs at least part of the time (Alper et al., 1996) According to Alper; approximately 3% of today’s opera singers are superstars and make millions of dollars per year. Approximately 22% of today’s singers are full-time superior performers making little more than minimum wage when configured yearly. Approximately 75% of professional singers are singing and performing at high levels for much less than minimum wage when configured annually requiring them to take a second job to make ends meet. According to the RAND study: Career Dynamics for Performers and Athletes are the same:

  1. 1. earnings peak early and decline more quickly than other professions
  2. 2. employment is sporadic and fragmented – most have day jobs & work for multiple
  3. employers each year
  4. 3. most leave field in mid-30s due to career mobility
  5. 4. They are vulnerable to injuries from repeated practice and performance at times
  6. cutting promising careers short
  7. 5. jobs are concentrated geographically (large cities)
  8. 6. very few make it big in the field but many are inspired by success of superstars.
  9. It seems clear that artists need to rely on multiple sources and types of employment to
  10. make ends meet.

The Superstar Market

Over the past 10-15 years the superstar market for opera has grown and is continuing to grow paying higher fees to the big stars. Superstar markets exist in labor markets where small differences in ability lead to large differences in compensation. Marketing of a particular artist as “the best” is so common—that demand coalesces around a very few stars, driving their wages far above those of everyone else in the field
(Frank and Cook, 1995; Rosen, 1982). In a superstar market, few artists earn huge rewards while most artists earn very little due to:

  1. Advances in reproduction and distribution in the recording industry, broadcasts of live operas in the movie theatres, marketing of opera singers to commercial venues and movies, getting a few big names out to millions of people.
  2. More pervasive marketing due to higher potential income of superstars. The presence of the superstars is a strong force in the arts labor market just as it is in sports and business. Although these stars represent a tiny fraction of the entire professional workforce, they offer a powerful incentive for aspiring young artists to go into the profession.

This superstar market trend has fueled the increase in revenues for large companies, brought more audiences into the theatres, and inspired more and more students to study singing in hopes of becoming a superstar, which sends more and more potential singers to school, creating a glut in the number of singers that graduate into their Apprentice Years and add to the pool of Professionals from which managers and promoters can choose talented singers to make into big stars which makes money for the companies and starts the cycle all over again. The superstar market trend is still going up forcing wages of all other singers down. This will not change anytime soon. Though the internet has helped create and propel the superstar market forces in opera, it also provides a much lower standard to enter the field through independent websites, record distribution, and self-promotion to niche markets. Many already think of the Internet as a venue for performing arts, the result being a wildly un-juried mish-mash of singers on at the low end and free web sites for classical singers such as and on the high end.

Fewer and fewer performing artists must go through the intermediary of the manager/promoter or producer to get their work to their audiences. Through the Internet, the Apprentice Singer has the possibility of bypassing the manager/promoter and taking her work directly to her audience. The second good trend for singers is the rise of employment opportunities for teaching artists.

The Teaching-Artist as a Career

Due to government funding for the arts making bigger earmarks for education, a new field has popped up for serious performing artists: the teaching artist. Opera companies and arts organizations that receive government funding are required to spend a large portion of their revenue to hire artists and send them out into the schools. These jobs pay professional artists from $40 to $95 per hour and most provide workers compensation. Artists may be hired for single gigs, week or two-week workshops, 1 to 3 month residencies, or up to 9-month contracts. This is a new field that we all need to be aware of and that serious singers who want to stay in one place should consider as a
career move.

If you have an interest in teaching – going back to school for a doctorate is a good option and is necessary for a university teaching career. University teachers were the first teaching artists! With the numbers against the performing artist, singers might consider other parallel career paths might include: stage management, singer management, and singer marketing. Add another passion to your singing and create a business out of both. Some examples might be Teaching and Singing, Yoga and Singing, or Cooking and Singing or even Selling Books and Singing. The many new small opera companies provide venues for more interesting and edgy repertoire and will help the young singer build her resume and gain skill as a performer for free. So, what should the aspiring singer in her apprentice years be doing? Practice every day like you have an audition tomorrow because you might. Get ready. Training is never lost. Know the industry standards and where your skill level is right now.

Industry Standards

  1. Impeccable vocal technique
  2. Awesome Musicianship
  3. Good Facility in Languages (English, Italian, German, and French)
  4. Varied Repertoire (4-5 style periods, contrasting selections)
  5. Performance experience (You need 10,000 hours to be an expert)
  6. Take advantage of all the myriad resources that have popped up to “help”
  7. Do a self-inventory and keep track of your skills and readiness

Audition and perform as much as possible while you learn the business. You need 10,000 hours to be a professional. Give yourself a leg up by knowing how to build your own business. Get to know the business trends in your field. Learn how to play to your strengths in marketing yourself. Learn how to make and keep contacts by networking. Learn how to take care of your money. Learn roles and marketable repertoire so that you have something to market (use the small companies as free training ground). When you are ready, make your move - knowing the odds. Have a plan for time and money. Here are some options for your big leap: Go to NYC for fall auditions. Move to NYC to audition for a few years. Go to Europe for a year of auditions. Move to Europe for a few years. Audition for Management. Settle in one city and start career there by free-lancing, being a teaching-artist, starting your own business, etc. Consider the definition of success. Define success for yourself as artistic and professional excellence. Keep singing no matter what (keep getting better). Develop your role of “artist as citizen” by creating venues for yourself & others to perform in your own community. Record your repertoire and distribute it over the Internet. Be the superstar of your own life.

Remember that the love of the art is why you are here, not fame or fortune, and forego disappointment by singing better and better your entire life as that is your only real chance to become a professional or a superstar anyway.

“Success means having the courage, the determination, and the will to become the person you believe you were meant to be.” (George Sheehan, American physician, author and running enthusiast, 1918-1993)

So to all the Apprentice Singers in the middle years I offer this quote from Albert Einstein.
“Life is like riding a bicycle, the only way to keep your balance is to keep moving forward.”