Us vs. Them Part II: Why Singers Are Angry

Angry Face
Angry Face

Last year, inspired by (anonymized) singer shenanigans my friends in administration were sharing on social media, I wrote an article for Classical Singer Magazine entitled “Singers Behaving Badly”.  You can read it in their archives if you have a subscription. It chronicled some of the more outrageous behavior certain singers indulge in: examples of entitlement, failure to engage reading comprehension skills, unrealistic expectations and arrogance.  However, each administrator I interviewed admitted that these horror stories represented a very small percentage of the singers they deal with; most, they said, were professional and polite.

And while the same can certainly be said for most administrators, horror stories about the audition process still abound. Every singer has them. Some result from company policies; some from disrespectful behavior by company personnel; some from embarrassing clerical oversights; and some from singer misunderstandings. Regardless, they contribute to the adversarial relationship some singers feel exists between themselves and those running the show.  Singers should be accorded professional courtesy in the audition process at all times (and offer it to administrators as well); but when a singer is asked to pay for the privilege of auditioning, it’s rather beyond the pale to be treat them with disrespect, rudeness, or disregard.

Here are a few tales and thoughts from the front lines. Most singers have asked to remain anonymous.

“I think it's important to stop using ‘Audition Fee’ and ‘Application Fee’ interchangeably. There is a big difference. There are very few reasonable minded singers who begrudge a reasonable audition fee. We understand the costs and are happy to help offset the costs for the sake of making these audition opportunities available. It's the application fee paid by those who don't receive the audition that is the real crux of the issue. Simply put, those that aren't getting auditions are subsidizing those that are. This is why people are feeling victimized and use language like ‘predatory’. I agree that the language in the petition was needlessly inflammatory, and the overall demands are unrealistic and counter-productive, but I understand where the sentiment comes from”.

***

"Last year, I applied for some local auditions. The initial audition was set after I paid my $50 application/audition fee, but the audition had to be rescheduled because of the AD's flight delay/cancellation coming from Chicago.  The second audition date was yet again rescheduled due to weather conditions (we did have a bad winter).  

They offered the local applicants a chance to submit audition materials via a recording, but a live audition is ideal when you are vying for a spot as a Vocal Fellow (which is fully funded by a scholarship).  I wanted to make sure I could sing for the AD in person, as I have a lot of performing experience, but was particularly interested in the Fellowship and all that would entail.  

So I attend my (twice-rescheduled) audition only to find that we were auditioning for the AD's assistant and a laptop.  I'm pretty sure this assistant did not have any real say when it came to a singers' admission to the program or scholarship consideration.  All local applicants were NOT informed, in advance, that the AD would not be at the newest audition.  We all received the same surprise at the audition, and I know that I am not the only singer who felt misled by the audition process.

Needless to say, I feel like I spent $50 to attend an audition via laptop and will not ever apply to this program again". 

***

 “I don't wish to say who, but one audition they ate through the entire time I sang, and a day later I got a rejection letter in the mail from them postmarked prior to my audition. This was a while ago. I never applied to them again. The fee was about $30. Honestly, in that case the fee wasn't so much the issue as the feeling of being rejected as being an artist before they even heard me. And I'm sorry, crunching and eating through an audition is just, well, disrespectful. I know you have to eat, just take a lunch break.

I've also had judges remark such things as 'Aren't you a big girl' when I walk in (I'm a touch over 6'). I was so humiliated. Thankfully, I did not know that judge by name. I've often had people comment on my size because of roles like Gilda, Lucia, etc. But I'll tell you one thing, you'd be hard pressed to find a scarier Queen!”

***

“The issue of application fees (which I consider different from audition fees) does not only exist in the YAP and competition world. Some companies do charge fees just to apply for their general auditions. This *is* an employment application, and to pay for the privilege of submitting a couple pieces of paper after which you may or may not actually be heard does begin to make you feel like part of their income stream and not a potential employee. The fact that it is obviously in their financial interest to extend deadlines and encourage applications from as many singers as possible does not help the perception. We all know no one is getting rich from this, but it does feel like some places are managing to stay afloat on the backs of singers who aren't even working for them”.

***

"I sang for a competition last year where 1. The pianist was horrible and couldn't play standard repertoire, 2. The conductor/artistic director didn't know standard repertoire, and 3. The concert that was supposed to result never happened. It was listed as "multiple auditions reported" on YAPTracker for a year following, and no contracts were ever given out. I don't remember how much the fee was - I was only doing it because I was already in New York that day, but I felt terrible for several people who flew in from out of town just for that competition."

***

“I’ve been in the business for a while and although most of my interactions have been positive, I do have a few horror stories to tell. Let’s start with the Met Competition judge who sat there with his beer belly hanging down between his knees and told me I’d never have a career because, at size 14, I was too fat;  and the notorious small company GD who told me I wasn’t pretty enough to be a leading lady. I appreciate honest feedback and knowing why they don’t want to hire me, but there’s no need to be rude about it. There was one in which one of the panelists who happened to be my voice type glared balefully at me throughout the whole audition, even though her colleagues were very enthusiastic ... she ended up singing the role herself. Girl, do what you need to do to sing in front of people but don't agree to hear me and ask me to spend money if there's not a snowball's chance in hell that I'll be cast! There’s the GD famous for running VERY late and for giving rudely worded feedback to professionals in auditions, who walked out of an audition for which he’d requested me to go to the bathroom. His assistant insisted I go ahead and sing. When the guy came back he said, “Thanks for coming, but I didn’t really hear you sing what you needed to sing.” I’d been singing the aria he requested from the show he was producing during his potty break. That was the last time I sang for him, though he continued to request me for years after. Also, on two different occasions companies have canceled auditions at the last minute, leaving me to eat $400 plane tickets. I chalk it up as cost of doing business, but that money is coming out of my pocket, not a donor’s, and it hurts.”

***

“The YAP system acts as little more than an extension of academia, wherein singers without certain schools and connections on paper are not even considered and thus this further entrenches this hierarchy of overpriced music schools. There are some companies that will not even hear a singer for a YAP unless they attended a major conservatory, and then these same bureaucrats are the ones encouraging singers to ‘find their own path’. It's completely dishonest. The discussion that needs to be had is of the efficacy of the entire YAP system and how it blocks certain young singers from moving further in their careers because they lack certain qualifications on paper or are late vocal bloomers at the same time there is a death of fuller bodied operatic voices (Verdi, Wagner and even Puccini) on the great stages of the world. Opera companies need to do more than offer 4-8 slots to young singers who all invariably attended 1 of about 7 schools or a handful of other YAPs... Cindy is right to keep encouraging young singers to make more informed choices, but at some point the business has to take some credit for limiting those choices.”

***

“I applied for and was turned away from a competition run by an opera company. I demanded answers and a refund and some of the answers I got should be public knowledge. I was told by the AD that they are encouraged by YapTracker to set and then extend application deadlines for the purpose of having more applications. When I explained that I felt it unethical to charge me a fee and then do this I was laughed at. I then asked how application fees were used if not to ensure my application process was in working order and handled ethically and I was told flat out that application fees are used towards the prize pool. I received a form letter from them through YapTracker encouraging me to apply for their Summer PTS at another 65$. When pressed on how this is not another fundraising scheme I was told the two programs (competition/festival) are two separate entities whose monies are considered different, despite the fact that the competition offers contracts to this program. All of this should be public knowledge. There needs to be transparency in the allocation of funds called application fees. I had a 45 minute constructive conversation with the AD on the phone today but I still feel that there is injustice afoot. How can they collect donor money and name their awards yet use application fees as prize money?  Also if YapTracker is encouraging these tactics it needs to be publicized.”

Julie Baron of YAPTracker responds: “In terms of this particular applicant and the policy on extending deadlines, I explained to him that we neither encourage nor discourage companies from extending their deadlines. We provide guidance to those that ask about when to extend a deadline (meaning extend it today or extend it a few days from now) but it isn't really appropriate for me to disclose the nature of the conversation I may or may not have had with any one organization about deadlines. We were not offered an explanation as to why this particular company decided to extend their deadline."

***

 “I traveled from NY to the midwest to audition for a leading role. They had expressed great interest in me based on my recordings, and I felt I had a good chance of getting the gig if I did the audition. I flew and booked a hotel at my own expense. I paid an audition fee (don't remember the amount), and they provided a pianist. When I walked onto the stage and greeted the pianist, I told her what I was singing, and she responded by saying she, ‘wasn't familiar with the show’.  Um... they were auditioning FOR THAT SHOW! I had sung that aria with other pianists who weren't familiar with it in the past and, while not perfect, I was still able to show what I needed to show, and it was always obvious that I knew what I was doing and the pianist simply wasn't quite with me. I decided to chance it. BIG MISTAKE. Not only could this girl (she looked to be maybe 20 years old) not keep up, but she clearly had ZERO sight reading skills. It was horrific. I sang and acted my ass off, a capella at times, but I was COMPLETELY on my own. After that mess, they asked for a very straight forward Mozart aria. She couldn't play that either!  I couldn't believe that they had hired this girl to play PROFESSIONAL main stage auditions when she didn't know the repertoire they were auditioning for, and couldn't sight read to save her life. I was super pissed because I spent a lot of money on that audition. When I shared my story with colleagues back in NY, every single one of them said, ‘Oh, they are KNOWN for having atrocious pianists’! Two different people told me they had been YAs at that company and that the powers that be purposely get green pianists for auditions in order to save money, and that it is overall a terribly run company. Wish I had known that before dropping hundreds of dollars on a wasted audition!

I've also had SEVERAL companies and agents tell me in the audition room that I'm ‘exactly what (they're) looking for’ or I ‘made their whole trip to NY worth it’, or ‘you'll be hearing from us in the next few days’, only to hear crickets and get the dreaded rejection when I initiated follow up contact. And I truly am not exaggerating or being egotistical. Those are actual quotes I heard in the audition room numerous times. That is actually the main reason I've pretty much given up auditioning and have decided to focus on my own company. I got tired of being told ‘you're the best’, and then not getting the gig. I'd rather they just say ‘very nice’ in the audition room and leave it at that. Don't make promises in the moment that you may or may not end up keeping.”

***

“Some ten years ago I busted my ass to prepare an audition. I learned and coached the big aria from the opera they were casting, ‘Il m'en souvient’ from Béatrice et Benedict , for this audition and traveled from NY to DC to sing for them - and the pianist they hired for the audition COULD NOT PLAY IT. Under most circumstances I always bring my own accompanist, but there are times such as this one when simply isn't feasible and when you would assume that the pianist would be able to play rep from the opera they are casting. It was so awkward and embarrassing - it is a long aria and we were all emotionally wrung out by the time it was over. Suffice it to say that I did not get cast. I don't recall who did, but it was probably someone who either brought their own pianist or sang a more accessible French aria. ”

 ***

"A MAJOR opera company (the biggest one in the state) could not provide an accompanist that could play any of my literature. And we're talking standard stuff, like 'Bella Siccome'. That audition was a plane ride AND a rental car. Threw that money away..."

***

"I've had a few auditions where they eat while I'm singing. I thought the phrase was singing for my supper...not theirs. Also, I wonder what they're so busy typing behind their computer monitors. I understand if they're taking notes, but occasionally I wonder if they checking facebook or tweeting while listening to auditions. 

 At a few auditions, the question they asked after they saw my face was not 'what are you singing?' but 'where are you from'. I enjoy those. I'm originally from India. I like to pick what they think of as completely unexpected places for a person of my complexion...Iceland...I'm from Iceland. I had a coaching recently where someone asked me that immediately after seeing my brown face. I usually brush it off but it gets annoying after getting asked that repeatedly. It's totally ok to ask where someone's from but there needs to be a finesse to it. If they expect us to be polished with our repertoire, languages, and all the other skills needed for this profession, I expect them to be a little more cosmopolitan about talking to people they might not encounter regularly."

***

 “Two years ago, I found my name on an audition list ... three months after the auditions had taken place. I had applied, but they'd never responded one way or the other, so I assumed they'd rejected me. I tried to get in touch with them numerous times via phone and email to ask for a refund (starting very professionally and escalating to anger), but I was always connected to voicemail and they never responded. It was a $70.00 application fee...I felt like they absolutely took my money and took advantage of me.

 Earlier this year, I submitted payment for an application and received a PFO (rejection notice)  two hours later. Luckily the application fee wasn't huge, but I was still pretty angry. It felt like they saw that I was female and immediately tossed out my application.”

 ***

 “An admin in the DC area is notorious for pretty much requiring any singer to ‘do time’ for very low pay in the chorus of her company before one can ever get considered for a named role - that is, at least, if one is a local singer. Out-of-town singers apparently are much preferred to local talent (as seems to be the case everywhere for some inexplicable reason).

 In my case, I went to audition for a leading role. I paid around $40 for my audition fee. It was pretty darned obvious from the start that the admin had less than no interest in hearing me...or anyone else singing for her that day, for that matter, because the entire audition she spent with her laptop screen up blocking her view, and not once actually looking at me. Moreover, not only didn't she bother to turn off her cell phone, but it actually rang during my audition and she fumbled around under the table to find it in her bag, then answered the call. At that point, I stopped singing - thinking I would resume when she was off the phone - but she waved at me to continue WHILE SHE TALKED ON THE PHONE.

 So I finished my aria, and when I was done, she asked me if I would be interested in singing in the chorus.

 I have never auditioned for her again, and never will.”

 ***

“My stories are almost all from pay to sing land, although some more reputable than others, of course. I have personally auditioned for a 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!”

***

"Years ago, I auditioned for what was a well known and respected summer festival that charged an audition fee to sing for the chorus positions - not an apprentice position or anything like that. In a 10 minute audition slot, I sang a 2:30 minute aria and then the panel started berating me and saying things like, 'You have no business pretending to be a singer', 'You'll be better off teaching' and 'We never want to hear you again, so don't waste our time'.Obviously, that didn't stop me from working in the grand scheme of things, but it always bothered me - that an administrator and chorus master decided to harass me with that negativity instead of just saying 'Thank you, we've heard enough' and moving on to the next audition. I've run across them in other companies and settings and I know they don't remember what they said to me as an impressionable student, but I definitely remember.

***

“A few years ago, I auditioned (after paying a fee) for a YAP. At the audition, I discovered that they had scheduled only five minutes of audition time per singer, apparently without any breaks. When I got to my audition in the evening, they were running more than a half hour behind. There was no monitor. We all simply crowded by the room and checked the list taped to the door. When I got inside to sing, I discovered there was also no pianist provided. The artistic director would be accompanying us. They were so behind at this point that I sang two lines of one aria, and a verse of another, and left. I don't mind singing partial pieces, and I understand that sometimes scheduling screw ups happen. I did feel that after paying a fee, they could have hired a pianist so that the artistic director could have focused his undivided attention on the singers who were auditioning. It seemed like they were only interested in collecting the maximum number of audition fees.

 Finally, this year I received what are obviously audition advertisement emails from two companies for their YAPs. Both referred to the fact that I had applied before, and both encouraged me to apply again. I was waitlisted for one of the programs, but for the other I was rejected without an audition. I have heard many administrators talk about how every year they receive a new record number of applicants, so I cannot believe that either program is desperate for more applications. The only conclusion I can draw is that they are hoping more people will apply so that they will receive more fees I actually received three(!) from one company, which was beyond irritating!

 I do feel a lot of sympathy for administrators who are have to do more with less and also deal with an overwhelming number of applicants. But both of these experiences left a bad taste in my mouth. I think there's no explanation for the behavior in either of them except greed, plain and simple.”

***

It’s admittedly unscientific, but my observation of the dialogue on these issues over the past few days reveals that the vast majority of singers are frustrated but willing to work (I’m sure the same can be said of admins). They aren’t demonizing the “other side” but they do want better treatment, better information, and a process which is more fair. In the next installment, I will publish a compendium of singers’ requests and proposals for improving the audition process. In the meantime, please feel free to continue to (civilly) share your stories and observations. It would be great to hear from any admins who want to weigh in, and you certainly can be anonymous if you prefer.