There is no formula for starting a career in opera. There is no step-by-step program to get you to the professional level at which you want to be in your career. There are no guarantees and no fail-proof approaches to becoming a professional opera singer even after investing in years of voice study and education. It’s tough and it’s brutal but it’s the truth.
Now, I didn’t say it’s impossible.
Obviously singing professionally is a viable career but you have to be smart about it. That’s why I want to share my advice with y’all on this subject, and what I learned during those crucial times in anyone’s development. These are my opinions and I’m putting them out there to help those who find themselves at their first professional crossroads.
Your Deciding Factor
If you take one thing from this blog post, let it be this section.
Diction, stagecraft, musicality, and your presentation as an opera singer are important but there’s one thing that trumps it all.
Vocal production is the most important deciding factor for your career.
I’ll say it again. Vocal production is the most important deciding factor for your career.
Don’t get too tied up with the teachable things, like languages. Eventually, they will become very important, but not at first. You can always improve your musicality, presentation, etc. but nobody is going to pay you for your accurate French vowels with a busted technique. They’re going to pay you for your voice. The biggest investment you can make is with consistent vocal development and improving the quality of your voice.
If you build it, they will come.
If you achieve the highest potential of singing that your voice can produce, the career will follow. People will line up.
When you realize this, you gain power over your career because the more you invest in your voice, the more your career will prosper. And if you’re not singing at your highest potential, you need to face the fact that changes need to be made, i.e. find a new voice teacher, school, coach, technique, change practicing habits, etc.
Don’t hold yourself back by delaying the technical changes that need to happen; you’ll know what they are. Oftentimes, when you are aware of what needs to change, then the only thing standing in your way and holding you back from reaching your potential is you. Be honest with yourself and just do the work: I believe in you!
Now let’s move on to the nitty gritty.
Mind The YAP
For many singers, their career begins with a YAP. Young artist programs (YAP) are a huge part of the growth of a young singer, because this is when he/she takes the time to develop, perfect their languages, learn musicality and musical styles, build connections, and find their voice.
Once you’re out of a Masters degree at 24 or 25 years old, it’s simply too soon to start a major career in opera, at least for the majority of cases. So this is when you basically kill time while developing skills for your career until you’re ready to make it. Even a post-graduate program such as an artist diploma would benefit a singer at this age because the goal is to not introduce yourself to the opera world earlier than you or your voice is ready. A good age range I’d say for starting your professional career is 26-32 so if you’re younger than that, then take the time your voice needs to mature.
As an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera, I’d perform small roles in operas and cover the larger ones. That used to be pretty standard across all YAPs. But these days, opera companies are finding a way to have “cheap labor” through their young artists singing bigger roles because of budgets cuts. What this does is create a vacuum between people just out of YAPs and people establishing their careers, making less opportunities for young professionals. The smaller roles that are suitable for a singer’s debut are being transplanted to young artists rather than young professionals.
Sometimes even, young artists are cast in large roles and this creates even fewer opportunities for young professionals. Those chances to break into the scene are diminishing. There’s a clear advantage to being a young artist because of the bountiful opportunities, but on the flip side, there are more challenges for entering the young professional world: You have to work your way to those roles again, almost feeling like you have to start over.
In some cases, a YAP will only put you in the chorus, which can be a great way to study the repertoire and develop acting and language skills, but can sometimes also be counter-productive to your actual goal of becoming an opera singer. Do your research first and make sure that the YAP you audition for is the right one for you.
I’d like to stress that a YAP doesn’t guarantee you a career, but it sure helps.
Now for your Lucas tidbit: One of the best things I did as a young artist was make myself available socially. Yes, as in inviting singers and directors out to a movie or coffee. 9 times out of 10, Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Frederica Von Stade would say no, but all of a sudden my image changed from being the cover in the corner into Lucas, the nice baritone who lives in San Francisco. Then they’d hear me sing and think (hopefully), “oh, this guy is nice AND really talented!” Don’t be afraid to say hello and be personal, while staying humble. You’ve got nothing to prove so just be your kind self and treat them as real people. It goes a long way.
That First Step
The most important thing a singer gains in a YAP is connections. Who you meet and who you’ve gotten to know over the years goes a long way. These are general directors, casting directors, stage directors, conductors, other singers, etc.
Keep in touch with these people in a nice, genuine way. No pandering allowed. Don’t talk about your open periods, unless they ask. Just ask them how they’re doing, what you’re up to, and your life outside of opera. These people want to foster connections themselves and develop relationships, so it’s a win-win for everyone. The point is to put yourself out there because people remember two things:
- Exceptional Talent
- Nice People
If you’re an average talent and you’re not nice, their memory of you won’t be as strong as someone who has approached them on a human level and fostered a relationship.
Investing in these relationships big time will be one of the first steps you take to becoming a professional singer.
These are one of the most helpful things you can do for the beginning of your singing career. Even if you don’t win them, apply and compete. Anyone who is anyone that wants to help or engage young artists goes to competitions. I met my first agent at a competition.
Which competitions should you apply for? I’m a big fan of taking any opportunity that comes my way. However, you have to be self-aware and ease into it. When you find success in the smaller level competitions, move on to the next level. If you’re at the beginning level of competing, don’t start with the Met Competition but with something like NATS instead. The level is normally reflected in the prize money amount as well, so the higher the level, the more moo-lah you’re gonna win. If you’re not placing, you have to evaluate your singing, performance, and presentation. Your teacher, friends, and colleagues should help you with this.
After or during a young artist program, an agent will find you, so don’t worry about doing that yourself. Just put yourself out there and perform. There’s a lot more to say about agents, so that’s why I wrote this.
If you’re in school or a YAP and you weren’t cast in a role for the opera, ask if you can cover a role, role study, or be in the chorus. If they say no, ask if you can help stage manage. If they say no, ask if you can build sets or somehow work your way into the process. It will pay dividends for your future because you will watch your friends performing the operas and you’ll learn about what works well on stage as well as what doesn’t. You’ll be a cog in the wheel and that’s better than not being in the wheel at all.
And even if you’re not cast in something but you know a role is perfect for you, find a coach and learn the whole thing. There’s nothing stopping you.
Simply the Fest
If you’re not getting a lot of work in America after your YAP and you’re getting good feedback from your colleagues, Europe may be a good option for you. The best thing about auditioning in Europe is that no one knows who you are, and you go in with a clean slate. Use that to your advantage.
Fest positions (a year-long contract to sing small-medium roles with a company) are more available to young singers especially in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. They’re excellent for gaining experience quickly and learning lots of new roles, since most companies put on dozens of productions a season. Once you pick up speed in Europe, America usually follows.
Get Your Social Media Game Face On
Your Plan of Action
Find yourself the best possible voice teacher for your voice, compete, and put yourself out there for every opportunity. Plant seeds at every opera company you work for and even if that seed doesn’t sprout immediately, know that it takes time. Have a course of action, as best and as realistic as you can, since that’s the only thing you can control when it comes to your career.
My plan wasn’t perfect (whose is?), but I took every opportunity that came my way and I made my singing my first priority. I could have done things differently but I didn’t, and that’s why I’m bestowing upon you all my humble words of advice.
The point is everyone cultivates their own career in their own way and no two stories are alike. That’s why I’m leaving you all with some more advice from other professionals (and dear friends of mine!) to give you a wide-range of perspective.
Levy Strauss Sekgapane, tenor:
First of all I’d like to say that the transition from being a young artist to being a young professional for me … starts with “the hunger for the art form”. Without hunger to be a singer/artist, there will be lack of respect, commitment and dedication. These 3 words that have defined me as a young professional and even other artists can relate to this as well. I think one has to has be ready mentally as well. Dr. Myles Munroe once said, “every successful person has a story to tell,” and it all starts from somewhere.
We also have to bare in mind that the journey will be bouncy and straight sometimes—I’m speaking more about challenges we have to face in the business. It’s not just going to happen. Someone, somewhere will be waiting to push you down, or to ruin the small light you have in front of you to keep you going. When I started this career, I was hungry for it and I worked extremely hard. There were challenges, of course. However, I knew deep down that I was a born to be a singer and I could do it well. I had to really close myself off from any negativity. I had to focus on what was important (singing) because I love it.
The good thing about the business today is that things have changed a little bit. The business is looking for young people/professionals. Young artists don’t have to worry about being in the business, they only need to be always ready, have discipline and dedication. Lastly, they should forget about everybody around them and have fun, don’t take things too seriously—just enjoy!!! There’s enough work for everybody, anyway lol. One of my mentors said to me: “Levy, focus on doing the right things and be the best artist you can be, and the career will take care of itself.”
Ken Benson, Head of Ken Benson Artists Operatic Management:
The transition from Young Artist (YA) to Young Professional (YP) can and should be an exciting time. The singer has done all the correct things-most likely, they’ve earned their degree, and made their way through one or more YAPs. They’ve paid their dues and are now ready to emerge as YPs!
But this is a tricky time to negotiate that transition.
More and more opera companies are casting increasingly more important roles (especially younger characters) from their YAPs. This is great for all of those young singers (and saves quite a bit of money for the opera companies). But it is somewhat shrinking the amount of roles available for YPs. Those singers still need to sing the repertoire that is healthy and appropriate for their voice. A Susanna cannot turn herself into a Tosca, just to become more employable!
The YP must be more creative than ever, maintaining their previous connections, and building new ones.
I’ve always maintained that a young singer should look for 2 basic things, in a program or early professional engagements.
- Artistic growth- in the form of working with excellent coaches, directors, conductors. Also adding key roles to their repertoire.
- Programs/ engagements that will give them exposure, and help to keep building and developing the all-important network of contacts for the future. This is one of a singer’s most important assets!
I completely understand that a job is a job, and everyone needs them!
But, whenever possible, try to be aware of these goals.
It is totally ok for the singer to say “What’s in it for me?”
Best of luck. We are all in this together!
What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in with a comment below.