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She coulda been a contenda

"Imust have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient." - Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

A recent post by a young singer, disappointed in her hopes of an opera career, has prompted much furor in the community. She asserts she could have had a great opera career, if only she'd been rich. (Funny how so many of us who aren't rich have managed). Claudia Friedlander has chosen to address it with her usual positivity and common sense on her blog, The Liberated Voice, offering some balanced advice in response to counter some of the very, very bad advice the author must have received as a student.

The furor over the original piece was caused in part (in my humble opinion, anyway), by the young author's hyperbole, flippancy, and bad fact checking --- she blames her lack of success on not being able to afford to pursue a career ---  but it's clear from her writing about her own experience that she received some very poor advice as a student. We're only hearing her side of the story, but she was told:

 - to only take taxis to auditions, never the subway (hey, I'm a pro, and I take the subway most of the time)
-  to do at least one expensive international summer training program every summer (I did domestic programs that never cost more than $1000)
- not to attempt to support herself via any kind of day job after graduation, but to rely on a "financial  buffer" (apparently without any instruction on how to acquire such a buffer)

Bad advice aside, the writer is also suffering from a keen lack of understanding about the opera business and vocal development, and these no doubt had a hand in her failure to launch as an opera singer. But it's very sad to me that young people are so misled, and so willing to believe whatever they are told by schools and teachers.

In between singing engagements, I teach workshops on the business of singing. I've written a book about how a student can get the most out of his or her music education. I consult with other singers on how to jumpstart and problem solve their careers. This is sort of a soapbox issue for me. And one of the first things I tell my clients is this:

You have got to take ownership of your education and your career from day one. You have got to be responsible for educating YOURSELF about the business. You can't just ask your teacher or go on the internet to one or two websites or, God forbid, read a book or two and expect to have all the answers, boom ,ready to go.

That's just the beginning.

By all means, talk to your teachers. Read Opera News and Musical America and Classical Singer and the Opera America publications. Read advice from people like Laura Claycomb and Kim Witman's Wolftrap blog, or Suzanne Mentzer's contributions to HuffPost (Witman is also on Huffpost). Read my articles in Classical Singer, and my free Resources for Singers site. There's a wealth of information out there at your fingertips.

And then get out there and read some more. Read opera company and Young Artist Program and agent websites. Find out who is singing what and where they're singing it, and what their career paths have looked like. I can guarantee you that the ones with trust funds who never held a day job before their careers took off are a minority. Want names? International tenor Carl Tanner was a truck driver and bounty hunter before he became a singer. Soprano Lauren Flanigan famously worked her temp job on the day of her New York City Opera debut.

Talk to people, Talk to singers who are making it. Talk to singers who are a couple of steps ahead of you on the career ladder. Talk to conductors, directors, agents, general directors and other opera company personnel. The internet makes it a lot easier than it used to be to have access to these folks. Be sure your questions are smart and specific. Don't write one of these busy people and ask, "What do I have to do to have an opera career?" No one has time to educate you on a huge topic via email. Instead, give a very brief background on yourself and ask something like, "I've been told this very expensive European summer program will provide a huge boost to my career. Do you think something like this is worthwhile? Are there other alternatives?" or  "Do I need to go to a  big name conservatory to have a career, or can I do it with a degree from my state university?".  Or, "Who should I be auditioning for right now"?

I get it. Opera careers ARE expensive, and they are difficult, and there aren't a whole lot of easy answers just lying around waiting for you to scoop them up. You are simply not going to get all the answers you need from one source, no matter how much you're paying for your education (and there's another soapbox issue: it's a very, VERY bad idea to go into thousands of dollars of debt for a music degree). 

It's overwhelming; but you have to be an active participant in your own education, and after you've got your degree, you have to be an active participant in creating your career. No one is going to do it for you, and if they promise they will, it's a fantasy.

Look, there's a place in this world for those who follow their passion, only to find that it doesn't lead to the spotlight they dreamed of and expected. An important place --- I'd venture to say, no less important than the prima donna's.  A lot of those folks end up as arts administrators, educators, parents of kids who DO end up in the spotlight thanks to Mom and Dad's care and guidance, audience members, donors, board members. We need ALL these people and all their wonderful passion for this beloved art form (for ANY beloved art form). There is no shame attached to not making it, or to changing one's path to something that works better. There's no shame to singing in community theater and never quite giving up the dream of the big stage.

But as a singer, teacher, and consultant myself, I want you to be HAPPY with your choices, and to make them from an informed position. So do your research, my chicklings. Know what you're getting into. There are very few absolutes in this business or in life in general.

If you understand that, you WILL be a contender.