I started this blog about two years ago as a way to document life as a soprano in an overcrowded field. Unfortunately, I did not post as regularly as I’d intended. This blog suffered a fate similar to that of many a New Year’s resolution — enthusiastically attended to until the grind of daily life eats away at good intentions. Yes, I feel guilty, and yes, that guilt is prompting me to revive this poor, neglected blog. The focus won’t be so much about being a soprano in general as it will be about crafting a career as a singer in the 21st century, with all the perks (like IMSLP and YouTube) and downers (like the economy) that are now part of the landscape.
This is partly due to the fact that, in addition to a guilty conscience, I’ve also been suffering from a pre-post-master’s crisis, a very common thing for singers who are about to graduate, during which you wonder what the point was, if it was worth it, and how in the world you’re going to pay your bills/loans/rent. I know I’m not alone, and I think there are enough of us who feel this way that we could potentially change the way this industry works by redefining what success is and by creating opportunities rather than just auditioning for them.
This isn’t a new idea, and I know many people who have decided to form their own companies or groups in an effort to provide more opportunities and to showcase new talent: Opera Revolution (Tempe, AZ), Thompson Street Opera (Ann Arbor, MI), and SHINJU (New York, NY) are three examples. Opera Revolution seeks to promote and expand opera in a place that doesn’t have all that much opera going on (I get to say that because I’ve been living in that area for almost two years now), and in its first year has already been involved with several concerts and productions. I’m not affiliated with the latter two groups, but I know people who are and what they are doing is impressive: Thompson Street Opera focuses on works by living composers, and SHINJU is a new Japanese fantasy opera being previewed and workshopped with full productions scheduled for later this year. My point is that this kind of start-up, entrepreneurial, adventurous, independent, experimental mentality should become the norm for classical singers and not the exception.
The reality is this: there is a staggeringly large number of singers auditioning for a smaller number of jobs, ticket sales are down, and our prospective audience is a generation of kids who thinks auto-tuning counts as singing. No wonder singing is such a hard business. No wonder I’ve been having a pre-post-master’s crisis.
I’ve been told many times that winning the Met or doing a young artist program aren’t the only paths to success, and it’s probably a safe bet that many other young singers have been told the same thing. I know that not every professional singer got to where they are now by winning the Met or doing a young artist program (there are many more singers than there are competition prizes and young artist spots), which means it is true that there are other paths to a successful career. Yet for some reason, the majority of young singers I know see the Met/young artist route as the desirable and enviable one, with alternative routes being relegated to a secondary status as back-up plans if someone isn’t good enough to cut it at the top-level. I haven’t done any scientific polling, but this seems to be the outlook of many singers as they contemplate the transition from school to real life.
At the very least, this was certainly my outlook and what was leading me to doubt my chances of success. Once I left school, everything would depend on being good enough to get hired. If I wasn’t, if I was rejected over and over, if no one liked me, I wouldn’t be able to make a living … which would force me to give up singing, which meant I’d have to find something else to do with my life, which would be embarrassing because I’d be in my thirties or forties by then and starting from scratch. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I’d be starting over while all my friends have been promoted to manager/director/VP/CEO, and are flooding Facebook with posts about their awesome 401Ks, babies, owning a home, and being successful human beings.
So then I had to ask myself why it was necessary that my success come in the form of being validated (i.e. getting hired) by someone else. There’s no denying how good it feels to be validated in that way, but why does it have to be at the core of our definition of success? Aren’t there other forms of validation, and therefore, other forms in which success can be achieved? Why did I equate not getting into a young artist program with failure? I mulled over this for a while, and it hit me: because for someone who wants to be an opera singer, getting into a young artist program is key because this is the first step into the professional world. Being a young artist is an entry-level job; if I can’t get an entry-level job, then my career is over before it starts.
Or is it?
We might not be perfect singers, but where is the rule that only the perfect singers should make music? If you want to be a professional singer, you better believe in yourself and what you have to offer. Even if there are things you still need to work on, it doesn’t mean you have to wait on the sidelines until someone else thinks you’re ready. If you’re not ready to win the Met competition or do a young artist program — and by “you’re not ready” I mean if someone else says you’re not ready — or if you have no interest in those things, there are many other musical and singer-ly things you could do. You could do a scenes program, put on a concert, throw a party, establish a recital series, create a lecture recital, do concert readings of foreign language operas in English, make a music video… Just think how many more performing opportunities there would be if people created as many opportunities as they went out and auditioned for. Here’s our chance to keep it alive and to make it interesting and intriguing. So let’s do ourselves and each other a favor by stepping up, improving the odds, and actively re-energizing the world of classical singing.