What if, every single time you wanted to work, you had to do a job interview? Let's say, for the sake of argument, every single time you wanted to work on a new project or assignment, even if you'd worked on a similar project before, even if you'd worked for that manager or client before, even if you knew everything there was to know about that project ... what if you had to submit your resume, letters of recommendation, and go in for a face-to-face interview?
What if, furthermore, every single time you wanted to work on a new assignment, you had to buy a plane ticket, pay for hotel and ground transportation and food, arrange for someone at home to care for your kids or pets, make sure you had a good-looking outfit and haircut, and spend an entire day traveling to get to the interview (leaving one day ahead of time so you wouldn't be too tired to give a good interview once you got there) and a day to get back?
What if, on top of that, you had to hire someone at an average of $70-100 an hour to help you get ready for that interview? And another $20-$50 for a highly skilled someone to go into that interview with you, to help you with your presentation? Every time?
That's what singers do. We have to interview for every job we get, especially in the beginning of our careers. We call it auditioning. Every engagement you see on my calendar represents an audition that I did at some point in time, and a large outlay of money to prepare for and get to that audition. Most of the auditions I do, as an established artist, are in New York City, though occasionally I will travel to a specific opera company to do what's called a "house audition" (i.e., in their own opera house as opposed to a rented space in NYC). This season, for example, I traveled to Madison, WI, (in a snowstorm, no less!) just to sing for Madison Opera. Usually, though, it's New York; and if I'm lucky, I can get several auditions, as well as voice lessons and coachings on upcoming roles, into one trip. I don't sightsee when I'm in NY. I rarely go to shows. I'm there to work, and to try to spend as little money as possible doing it. I don't stay in hotels; I'm lucky to have an arrangement with a friend where I can sleep on his couch. Before I made that arrangement, I rented a room in someone's apartment for $100 a night, and before that, I stayed in a convent that rented rooms.
Now, it's true that once you're established, even if you're not one of the famous singers performing regularly at the Met and other international houses, you may not have to audition for every single job. If you have a good manager (and I do), they can usually get you work, even for people who haven't used you before. And you may get invited back to sing at places where you've previously worked, without an audition. But I still spend thousands of dollars a year trying to get hired.
For young singers just starting out, it's harder. A lot of times they're auditioning for apprenticeships, called Young Artist Programs or Artist in Residencies, and for the privilege of simply applying for those --- with no guarantee of being granted an audition, let alone getting a job --- they often must pay anywhere from $25-$100. Just for the privilege of sending in their materials, and --- presumably --- having them read. If they do get an audition, they still must pay to travel to the audition. Sometimes the application fee includes a pianist; other times, it doesn't. Even if it does, it's advisable to bring your own, someone you've worked with and who is familiar with your voice and interpretations, especially if you sing pieces outside the standard repertoire. (I do, and always have; and without exception I have always bitterly regretted it if for some reason I fail to bring my own pianist to an audition).
I can understand why YAPs, competitions, and training programs charge application fees. Typically, they receive hundreds (if not thousands) of applications, many of them from eminently unqualified applicants, and it takes a great deal of manpower to sort through them all. I run a training program, and last year I finally implemented a modest application fee (applied to tuition if the singer is accepted, refunded if not --- we only keep if if they are accepted and decide not to come) because there were so many people wasting my time by applying and then canceling at the last minute, even after they'd been accepted. That uses up a lot of extra resources, and it's fair to ask the singer to pay a modest fee to offset some of the expenses (although one could certainly argue that this, too, is the cost of doing business, especially for a training program which funds itself partially on tuition). However, if you multiply those fees by the numerous applications young singers must submit in order to have a chance of getting a fraction of the auditions they apply for, in order to perhaps get one or two job offers, you can see how quickly those fees pile up. For a young singer, just out of school and often paying off student loans, application fees alone are a significant expense.
Some mainstage opera companies also ask for an audition fee, to offset their own costs of traveling to New York and holding auditions. I find this unconscionable, and have asked my agents not to submit me to companies that want me to pay for the privilege of singing for them. It's one thing if they are providing a pianist --- but then, they should offer the waive the fee if you're bringing your own. Earlier this season, I was surprised on my way out the door, after an audition, by a request for $15. Neither my agent nor I were expecting it. The room that this company had rented goes for $20/hour and you can hear between 4-8 people in an hour, depending on how generous you're willing to be with your time. No pianist was provided. If this person was hearing only four people per hour, and I happen to know the room was booked for two hours, he was making $80 pure profit. Most auditions go on a lot longer than that and cram a lot more people in per hour, so you see how the extra dollars can add up.
I already have my own expenses of getting to the audition, and those are coming out of my own pocket, not a company budget. It's the cost of doing business, for me and for them. If they don't want the expense of coming to New York, they can hold auditions at home. Singers will still come. I'd rather audition in New York, where I can add value to my trip with other auditions, lessons, and coachings, but singing a house audition has its own advantages, and for the right roles, I'm more than happy to do it.
These musings, BTW, are inspired by a discussion on Norman LeBrecht's Slipped Disc blog, often a source of interesting, highly current conversations about the classical music industry. The topic there chiefly concerns opera companies in Great Britain, where the business is run somewhat differently than in the States, but there are sufficient similarities to make it a valuable read for any interested party. What intrigues me fully as much as the commentary from the experts is the response from fans --- even self-professed dedicated opera fans --- who often seem to have very little idea about the realities of beginning and maintaining a career. There really are folks who think all opera singers ride around in limosines, stay at the Ritz Carlton, and dine nightly on steak and caviar. Hi-diddly-dee! Sign me up! (OK, full disclosure: I did get picked up from the airport in my very own white stretch limo once, but that was for a symphony gig, not opera).
Bottom line, things are unlikely to change. Mainstage companies that charge for auditions are unlikely to stop doing so --- they feel justified, and they will always be able to find singers who are willing to pay for the privilege of being "interviewed". And also, in this business as in any other, exceptions are always made for people who are of sufficient interest to those doing the hiring. Artists make their choices about how to use their resources, and one of my personal soapbox issues (I even have a consulting/workshop business centered around this) is that artists MUST learn to be businesspeople. And they need to start in college.
But it's never too late to learn ,and to start treating your career like the small business it is and not a really, really expensive hobby.