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Us vs. Them Part I: The Petition and The Problem


In recent days, a strongly-worded petition has been making the rounds on social media. It decries the "predatory fees" young singers are charged and demands that Opera America work with independent businesses such as YAP Tracker and Classical Singer Magazine to "prohibit" advertising any organization that requires an application fee. At the time of this writing, it has 961 signatures.

The petition, authored by the proprieters of a website called Opera Candy, is problematic in both its wording and design.  The language (referring to fees as predatory) in unnecessarily inflammatory and the demand, as worded, is unreasonable. It lumps travel, housing, accompanist fees, and wardrobe --- all cost of doing business --- in with the application or audition fees some companies assess. It decries the fees as "unregulated" -- but individual companies report only to their respective boards; there is no authority in charge of "regulating" all opera companies in this country (although certainly AGMA signatories must abide by agreements with the union --- but many companies are not signatories).  It claims that people seeking employment should not be subjected to predatory fees, but competitions and YAPS are not employment opportunities. YAPs are apprenticeships in which participants are paid to sing, but are also there to receive training and experience. And instead of asking private companies to decline advertising which makes up a large part of their bread and butter, thereby putting accessibility to their other more desireable services at risk, why not encourage singers to take responsibility for making better decisions about how to spend their resources? Companies won't stop charging fees just because they can't list in Classical Singer or Yap Tracker. They know singers will still come to them. And no one is forcing singers to pay audition and application fees. Every singer makes a choice to do so.

Nevertheless, however poorly worded and thought-out the petition is, the sentiment behind it is a good and worthy one: to address the problem of crippling expenses for starting a career as a classical singer.

The problem, as I see it, begins with the lack of information and training in the way the business actually, currently works.  It's a soapbox issue for me: my sideline, The Business of Singing, is dedicated to helping close this education gap and I often work one on one with singers who find themselves spinning their wheels, unable to progress as they would like in their careers due in large part to this lack of understanding. I also hear frequently from opera company and YAP administrators who are frustrated by this. It hinders their efforts as well as those of singers.

Keith Wolfe, Executive Director at Fort Worth Opera Festival (which does not charge audition fees), mentioned that when reviewing applications he often found that singers don't pay attention to their stated needs for the season and submit applications even when there is no opening for their voice types. "The responsibility goes both ways in making sure you fit the needs of the company," he says.

"I am quite sure that the majority of people who oppose audition fees have zero idea of the actual expense and time - uncompensated extra time on top of everyone's full time work - that a yearly audition tour entails," writes coach and conductor Kathleen Kelly. "Before you react to that statement, let me add that this cluelessness is endemic throughout the business, at all levels, and can be found in every type of musician. Far, far too few of us have even the most basic idea of how our work is funded and who is paying for what".

"Singers need to better self-select the programs that are realistically within their reach right now (and research to see which ones are not in the up and up!), " says soprano and University of Houston voice professor Cynthia Clayton. "Companies (and some do this already) can help by putting up bios and performance videos of the level of singers they hire. Until self selection improves, companies will be inundated with applications that are simply wishful thinking, denial, or just clueless about where they fit in, developmentally and talent-wise."

Where are students to get this knowledge? This is part of the problem. Universities and conservatories (speaking generally, not specifically) are not doing a good job of training singers to be business-savvy. Young singers entering the industry are often already loaded with debt and faced with massive expenses to get the career for which they have trained off the ground.  Yet they frequently possess little to no practical business training and sometimes are have been given advice that is out-and-out wrong. No one has told them that they are starting a small business and need funding, knowledge, and a practical plan. No one has formally educated them on how they're going to support themselves and pay down their massive debt while they try to climb the next rung up the career ladder. It's overwhelming for these young singers, and they often just don't know where to turn for advice. Meeting rejection after expensive rejection, many understandably become frustrated or even bitter.

"Either I was being told to grab every opportunity and apply for everything, or I was not being guided at all on what to apply for," wrote soprano Christina Rivera. "We are fed ridiculous anecdotes of application, audition experiences, and success stories through strange and fateful events and coincidences. We are told that it is a crapshoot and that we must 'get out there' and not be swayed by rejections, that it is 'part of the business'. We already read bios of singers getting into major programs with no degree and/or little to no training from remote parts of the world. Therefore, many young singers are already going into this with minimal foresight but a whole lot of gumption."

 "This past year I did a gig with a handful of singers still in the YAP-lication part of their careers and over heard A LOT of complaining about app fees and feeling 'victimized' by the process," wrote mezzo-soprano Alissa Anderson. "Along with the complaining, there did not seem to be much awareness as to which of these companies these singers should actually be applying to based on their experience and skill level. It seemed like they were either throwing their money at dozens of audition opportunities with abandon or assuming it was all a racket and not applying to anything."

Alissa's statement reflects the increasingly polarization between singers and administrations.  Now more than ever, young singers seem to feel preyed upon by their own industry; and lacking the information or even the skill set to obtain it, they sometimes begin to see every administrator as an adversary, taking their hard-earned money and giving nothing in return, except to those lucky few who win a slot in the YAP or the competition. A general presumption that administrators don't care about their situation or their challenges seems to be developing among many young singers.

Language and rhetoric in discussions on social media reflects this --- although to be fair, many singers also defend the administrators and the system even while calling for reasonable reform in audition/application processes. Still, the voices of those who feel battered by the process are loud and passionate.

"I think it's unethical to take financial advantage of people just because they are talented and passionate about what they do," wrote one singer in response to a discussion about audition fees.  Another wrote that companies can "absolutely afford" New York audition trips and have "absolutely no reason" to charge audition fees. "They are obviously intent on making a profit out of it which I find sickening", she wrote. Yet another bemoaned the observation that "a lot of people feel like it's not just a competitive business but also, often, a rigged business -- rigged against singers", adding "But of course, that's not 100% of the business."  One frustated singer raged against having to spend fees for rejection, no refunds, and no feedback. "How are we suppose to learn and improve upon something if we don't know what was missing? I find it depressing, discouraging, and stressful. Especially these days with the economy going the way it is ... I want to sing and live in music, but I don't want to be at mom's and/or homeless".

"It is disgraceful to suck the last $5 that already poor artists & musicians have in their pockets to pay just to submit their application," wrote a commenter on the Opera Candy website. "It’s a shameful practice that should be disbanded." Another commenter added, "Most of these companies know who they are going to hire, have those singers flown to the audition site in some cases, and the hundreds of other candidates are just killing themselves to audition for maybe one opening. The entire opera industry is about privilege".

Are these strong opinions unjustified? Not entirely. Many singers have audition horror stories.

One such singer, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote, "I'm upset that some of the most conscientious, fair administrators are reacting to language that is being used to describe 'them', not realizing some of the things that happen to singers quite regularly at the hands of some of their less than stellar colleagues.

I have personally auditioned for a pay-to-sing program where one of the lead soprano roles was advertised as available, only to be filled by the director's wife, who gave birth the week of the auditions. (I'd really like to know if SHE paid the $65 fee to apply!) I have received rejection letters with 'feedback' that included arias not on my list, meaning I got someone else's comments and someone else got mine, acceptance letters at my address where the inside letter was addressed to someone else, and no letter of acceptance or rejection where months down the line I was included on an email about flights to Italy, which involved trying to figure out if I was actually supposed to be accepted or they just offered me a spot after they made that mistake!

In addition, the steep fees, lack of guidance from profs about which level singer should be applying to what, etc. make the business of it completely overwhelming to singers. Not everyone that is taking singers' money is taking as much care as those beautiful people at Fort Worth."

 Two singers wrote me separately regarding the Mildred Miller Competition associated with Opera Theatre Pittsburgh. They paid the $65 application fee and applied on time; the deadline was later extended; and both singers were rejected from the competition but invited to pay an additional $65 to apply for the company's SummerFest 2015 Young Artists Program.  One singer was told that he had originally been shortlisted for the competition, but someone who applied during the extended deadline was a better candidate and was given his slot. In further investigation, he was told that the competition and summer festival are separate entities, although the competition awards include monetary contracts for the festival, and that application funds supplemented the awards and the contracts.  While there may be no actual wrongdoing here, it's easy to see how a singer would feel taken advantage of, and how this sort of practice could contribute to an adversarial attitude between singers and administration.

 In discussions with my colleagues who are established in the profession, and even younger working singers in the early years of their careers, we've agreed that we don't recall this kind of "us vs them" mentality when we were beginning our careers. It seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon and is perhaps related to the state of the economy, the cost-cutting measures many companies are having to take just to stay afloat, the massive debt many young people now incur in an attempt to educate themselves, and the general lack of work for college graduates in all professions.

But this "us vs. them" mentality is quite unhealthy and counterproductive for singers and for companies. We should not have an adversarial relationship with the people responsible for our training and eventually, our jobs --- fellow lovers of the art who are just as dedicated to the genre as the performers and who make it possible for us to work.  And while there certainly are companies, competitions, training programs, and individuals who are unscrupulous in their business dealings and who take advantage of some singers' naivete, those who advocate for young singers take great offense at being lumped into one stewpot with the charlatans.

"I find the petition overly simplistic and inflammatory, and particularly take offense at the word 'predatory'," says Laurie Rogers, Director of Young Artist Programs and Head of Music Staff at Saratoga Opera (responding while she waded through a record number of applications for the 2015 season). "While that may describe some shady competitions who charge triple figure fees, it categorically does NOT describe the traditional Young Artist Programs who mostly charge between $30-40. We are not getting rich off the backs of young singers, which is what the petition implies... I am rather rankled by the accusations being hurled around about incompetent administrators, poor budgeting choices, 'predatory' fees, etc. Very few opera companies are rolling in it these days. Budgets are stretched precariously thin. NOBODY is getting rich off of this." 

Laurie is also vocal in her dislike of the popular term "PFO" ("Please F*** Off"), which singers often use as a darkly humorous description of their rejection letters; it does not, she says, reflect the spirit with which she and her colleagues deliver these rejections.

Darren Keith Woods, General and Artistic Director of Fort Worth Opera Festival,  also defended his company's deeply involved audition processing practices -- which involve two employees wading through 800 applications (including sound clips) for 4 spots before adding Darren to the mix; more days spent scheduling auditions and accounting for hundreds of manager recommendations; and audition tours lasting two to three weeks. All those involved in the process are at the director level.  "I know Laurie Rogers, Michael Heaston (Head of Music Staff and Assistant Coach/Accompanist at Glimmerglass Opera), Bob Tweten (Conductor and Head of Music Staff at Santa Fe Opera) and many other companies do the same," wrote Darren. "It is not frivolous - if someone has concrete evidence to the contrary, I would love to see it."

"When professionals take the chance to try and communicate about the process, they often get corrected and second guessed by people who have very strong ideas about how it should all work based on...well, not based on experience. I'm more than a little flabbergasted by that," said Kathleen Kelly.

What can be done to overcome this destructive "us vs. them" mentality?

I believe that the solution is multi-faceted. I believe it begins with better business education for singers --- educating them about how the business currently works and teaching them to be better consumers and businesspeople themselves ---  and continues with greater transparency and an improved audition process from the YAPs, competitions, and pay-to-sing programs.

This opinion piece has focused on the petition and the baseline problem.  The next article will focus more on the actual audition process, on transparency, and proposals for solutions.

I hope that many will continue the dialogue in the comments so that we can put our many creative minds together and reach some solutions. However, a caveat: KEEP THE DISCUSSION CIVIL. I will delete any posts that include rudeness of any sort, including name-calling, profanity, or trolling. We can be passionate AND professional.