Us vs. Them Part III: Proposals for Improving the Audition Process

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For the past few days, I’ve been monitoring a number of conversations on social media regarding the audition/application fee argument, the application process, and the frustrations both singers and administrators feel .  It’s clear that there are things both parties can be doing better. Singers need to do a better job of researching opportunities and learning about the business, developing the perspective they need to know where they fit in at this point in their development, and making sure they read carefully and follow directions. Administrators need to provide more information to help singers do this and to generally be more transparent about the entire audition process.

Many singers and administrators have reached out:  people really do want a dialogue. In the interests of furthering that dialogue and helping to find solutions that fit the needs of both artists and administration, I’ve encapsulated some of the proposals and added my own thoughts on the pros and cons of each. I hope that readers will expand on these. Later, I plan to present them to a panel of administrators along with a list of questions from singers.

For the purposes of this article, the following definitions are in place:

Application fee: a charge to apply for an audition.

Audition fee: a charge to audition.

Young Artist Program (YAP): a paid apprenticeship . Example: Ryan Center at Chicago Lyric Opera, Tulsa Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Chautauqua Opera.

Pay-to-Sing or Training Program: a training program which charges tuition to singers for classes and/or performance opportunities. Examples: Music Academy of the West, Co-Operative, Land of Enchantment.

WHAT SINGERS WANT

1. To pay no application or audition fees, and certainly never for mainstage.

 THE ARGUMENT FOR:  Companies have a lot of overhead involved in processing applications for YAPs and Pay-to-Sings, and for doing auditions, but so do singers, who are footing the whole bill out of pocket. Singers must pay for travel, hotel, accompanist fees, coaching and lessons, wardrobe, and room rental for warmup space. This is cost of doing business; but auditions expenses are cost of doing business for opera companies. We need jobs; companies need singers and specifically, they need young, inexpensive talent for things like educational tours, comprimario roles, and covers.  Why should singers subsidize companies’ audition tours?

 “I've been talking about this for years,” says soprano Marcy Richardson. “It is not my job as a singer to help any opera company pay for travel, room rentals, or administrative costs. That is their responsibility as a business. I take care of MY responsibilities as a business by paying for lessons, coachings, travel, music, and materials. I'm not paying for another business's expenses on top of my own. I make my opinion known by acting with my wallet. I will not pay a fee, and if my manager tells me there is a fee for an audition, I tell him to please pull me out of the audition, and ask him to tell the GD why. I will not put up with it, I will walk right out, I will cancel, I do not care. The check is in the pianist's name, or it is not being written.  It's one thing to talk about it and whine about it and complain about it, and another to ACT ON IT. I act on it, and if it costs me jobs, whatever. Hire the people who want to pay for these admin fees, be my guest. The end.”

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: Some companies say that the cost of the application process, including personnel to review applications (often not full-time employees but people who are paid by the hour) and hear the auditions, travel and hotel expenses for 2 or more staff members, space rental, and pianists, is prohibitive without the income from singer-paid fees. Companies that don’t charge fees, such as Fort Worth Opera Festival, have cut back on audition tours (FWO does them every other year, and regularly receives complaints from singers because they no longer audition annually) in order to be able to afford not to charge fees.

 Clare Burovac, Director of Artistic Operations for Portland Opera says, “It's troubling, since there doesn't seem to be a great answer for anyone --- every solution that's posed has its issues. One thing I will say is that the conversation always makes me rethink the issue and see if we can change our fee or eliminate it entirely, and I'm unable to figure out a way to make it happen  without eliminating or shortening the audition trip, unfortunately, which would not enable us to hear as many singers.”

2.       Many singers don’t object to paying a modest fee to help with processing for training/YAP opportunities, but believe these fees should be fairer and they should get specific benefits for their money:

-          Option 1: Minimal processing fee ($5-$10) with additional reasonable charge assessed if an audition is granted.

-          Option 2: Full fee paid up front;  full or partial (75%) refund given if no audition is granted.

-          Option 3: Pay full amount one time with no refund; but if accepted for an audition in the future, no further fees should be assessed.

-          Transparency regarding how much time is spent looking at each application and listening to sound clips.

-          Written feedback so the applicant can improve his or her application the next time.

THE ARGUMENT FOR: While acknowledging the immense time and effort administrators put into processing applications, it’s not fair for singers to pay the same amount for the privilege of having an application processed as they would for an actual audition, where they receive more benefits for their money. Feedback would help singers know how to improve their future applications and decide which companies best suit their current level of development, which would cut down on the number of ineligible applications companies must process.

 “Almost all of my performing friends have agreed that they would be much more apt to pay if the fees were connected with an actual audition and not with the first round of applications --- having to pay up front simply for the privilege to be respected as an artist is a knife-twist to those who have already committed so much time, passion, and money to this art for,” says tenor and composer Griffin Candey. “For some, the quickly-inflating volume of these fees simply puts a bitter taste in our mouths -- for some, it turns them away entirely. For a business that requires young blood on a fairly regular basis, I don't believe that driving away any new potential is ever a viable consequence, regardless of administrative fees.”

 “From a YA still in YAPland, I have, and always will, look at app fees as a tax deductible donation to the arts,” says  mezzo-soprano Courtney Miller. “If opera was a thriving for profit business, it would be ridiculous. But, it's not. App fees are a necessary evil, but they go towards covering the company's costs that go into having auditions/travel. I get it. It gets irritating when fees are $40+. And that's when I chose to not apply unless I think I have a good chance and it would be a great opportunity. It's also lame when companies don't give you a confirmation/rejection until a week before, therefore making travel more expensive. App fees still, I'm ok with”.

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: More book- and record-keeping for the companies; financial departments don’t appreciate having to issue refunds because it can get messy;  writing feedback for each of the hundreds/thousands of applications is incredibly time-consuming and this time must be compensated, which could make fees more expensive; it’s not a company’s job to provide applicants with feedback.

 “The notion that it (charging fees) should be excused for YAPs because it's on the job training makes no sense to me at all. There have been major lawsuits over this loophole employers find by having ‘interns’ otherwise known as unpaid or underpaid employees who do labor for ‘experience’. But the unfortunate part of the equation is that without YAPs (at least in the states) it's almost impossible to move on to roles with any respectable opera companies and THAT is the real heart of the outrage Cindy references as unique to this generation. The millienials are the most debt riddled generation in the better part of a century and job opportunities are terrible in all fields, particularly the arts. 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 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 ... 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. Perhaps more open auditions (I know it's a pain to have cattle call auditions) because something has got to give. 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.” Another_Young_Singer

 “Unfortunately, companies who charge  a modest fee (that often includes a pianist) or accepts cds/videos and gives them the same consideration are a rarity,” says soprano Christina Hager. “There are companies and programs out there who are currently charging LARGE application fees, and it leads to the question: why?  After paying some small, many, many moderate fees, and then seeing a few companies with HUGE fees, it leads singers to wonder and get upset...then nobody is thinking clearly”.

3.       Greater transparency:  YAPS, competitions, and pay-to-sings should publish specific guidelines for the number, Fach, and developmental level of singers they are looking for each season, as well as other information related to auditioning.

-          What experience does a singer need to be considered for this opportunity (for example: “Applicants should have completed a Master’s Degree or equivalent and sung at least one leading role in school, community theater, or a program”).

-          What voice types are needed this season?

-          How many positions are open?

-          How many people typically apply?

-          How many audition slots are available?

-          What is the fee specifically paying for --- application review, travel and hotel for the panel , pianist, audition space?

-          If an application fee is assessed and the singer does not receive an audition, what does that fee pay for?

4.       Clarification of the application process:

-          How much time is spent reading each application?

-          If sound clips are required, is every sound clip heard? How much of it? Does the processor listen all the way through?

-          What are they listening for  --- is potential taken into account, or are they looking for perfection?

-          Are the recordings grouped by voice type ?

-          Are some applications fast-tracked (i.e. people with previous YAP credits, manager recommendations, etc.)?

THE ARGUMENT FOR #3 & 4:  Singers will have better information on which to base their decisions about which companies to apply for and will be less likely to apply for opportunities they are not ready for, thus cutting down on the number of applications.  Singers who lack the business savvy to apply inappropriately will be identified fairly quickly and obviously. Also,  greater transparency will do a great deal to ameliorate frustration singers feel towards the system.

“There exists a lack of transparency on the companies' parts, and that open information about the right auditions to take is not being readily made available to us. Oftentimes that is looked upon as ‘inside information’. This is part of the ‘us vs. them’ mentality, unfortunately” says soprano Christina Rivera. “There is a real barrier felt and lack of honest communication by a company who supposedly cares about helping generate young artists and improving the art form. There is very little information on how companies operate and even after a Master's degree IN Opera, I still am in the woods (do they teach that IN the YAPs?) I also think any good business transaction involves something worthwhile being received when a fee is paid… I understand that companies have no time and need good singers, and there are administrative infrastructures that are in place to streamline the selection process and the money-making for the greatest of ease … All I am saying is that I don't think it's fair to call young artists ‘entitled’. We look to the leaders, such as YAPs, to guide us, and they are not.”

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST #3 & 4: More work for administrators who are already pressed for time;  will not completely eliminate inappropriate applications; may mean that singers who don’t quite fit the standard but whose talent warrants attention will not be heard. Admins may be reluctant to share some of this information for various reasons, including backlash.

“I think that one of the primary issues is that many singers feel entitled to auditions for companies. That their years of hard work, or their natural awesome talent should make it required for them to be heard.,” says bass-baritone Daniel Klein, who is also the Executive Director of North Shore Music Festival. “No one is forcing anyone to apply to competitions, young artist programs, or training programs. However, because of this feeling of entitlement they do not honestly look at themselves, the business, the craft, and the art. If you don't like it don't buy into it and find your own path. The great stages of the world are littered with singers who never sang in a YAP and who never won a competition. I do think there are many people out there who take advantage of aspiring artists, but I don't know that it is our responsibility to deal with it.

5.       Cheaper alternatives to traditional audition formats:

-          Video screenings  as a preliminary round; singers of interest could be invited to in-person auditions if necessary

-          Group auditions in which a number of companies band together to hear singers over several days in one location.

-          Broadway-style “cattle call” auditions that allow more singers to be seen without applying --- show up early to sign in, wait around until you can be heard. Callbacks for those companies are interested in.

-          More house auditions.

THE ARGUMENT FOR: Many companies request videos from established professionals in lieu of an in-person audition;videos are hard to tamper with; and even though a live audition would be better, videos could be a cost-effective alternative for both singers and admins.  Singers would be assured of presenting their best take. The initial cost outlay for a video might be more than an audition fee, but the videos could be used for multiple applications and also for publicity on singers’ websites.

With group auditions, companies could split application processing, organizational, and scheduling duties and the costs of hall rental and accompanists. They might also be able to hear a larger field of applicants. Singers would have the advantage of paying for only one trip and one pianist; although any fee assessed might be higher than a single audition fee, it would be justified by the convenience and overall savings. Training programs and YAPs could both participate, offering more opporunities to singers who don’t win a YAP position.

Broadway style auditions might allow more singers to be heard and would eliminate the need for applications.

House auditions allow singers to avoid the hassles and expenses of New York which can be overwhelming to young people who have not spent time in such a large city. They might be cheaper. Admins would not need to spend money on travel and housing.

 “As a non-NYC Yap-er, I would rather do LOTS of research on an opportunity, and pay the (potential) extra money to travel to that company's hometown to be heard. “ says mezzo-soprano Morgan Earle . “That way, I rest assured knowing that this company is happy to not be spending money on NYC costs, thus (hopefully) my money is being put to good use by a company I know I can TRUST with my application fee because I did the research. This business is cynical enough, so why make it harder on ourselves? Don't allow YAPTracker to do the work for you. I have had success this season with getting the info I need from opera companies concerning what they're looking for talent-wise. This info isn't always laid out on the YAPTracker page, but it IS available if you're serious and smart enough to ask! If you get a fishy mass-correspondence of any kind that seems ‘predatory,’ email that company and nicely ask for an explanation, then use your sound judgment whether or not to move forward with the application/audition. If the trash can smells, it's probably got garbage in it.

However, I do agree that if opera companies would work together to share costs of renting audition facilities for a month or two in NYC, a lot of the issues could be solved and everyone can go about their business as usual.”

THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: It takes some special knowledge to film and edit videos well, so singers would need to learn this  and obtain equipment or pay someone to do it for them. Some administrators might prefer in-person auditions only. A video screening would create an additional step and more work for admins if they planned on having a second round of in-person auditions.

For group auditions, coordinating the schedules of a large group of administrators (with their responsibilities to mainstage and other commitments) could be like herding cats. The various entities would need to coordinate to delegate various organizational duties, which would be a lot of work.  Singers who were unavailable or sick during the chosen audition dates would be out of luck. Singers who have a bad audition day would risk making a bad impression on multiple panels, not just one, and this could significantly affect future as well as current opportunities. Group auditions might cut down significantly on the overall number of people being heard, since the time allotted for auditions might not necessarily be longer than they would be for individual company auditions.

Cattle call auditions mean singers dedicating an entire day (rather than an hour) to the audition process; singers could be “typed out” and not heard after waiting around for hours; singers would be forced to use the pianist provided rather than  have the option to bring their own; may not be able to show best work due to long waiting period; those traveling from out of town would still have to plan to stay extra days for potential callbacks, which could end up being wasted time/money if not called back. Administrators would lose the ability to pre-select candidates and might have to wade through many singers who are not sufficiently experienced for the opportunity.

House auditions are not necessarily less expensive than trips to New York; plane tickets to smaller markets can be extremely pricey and there are fewer flight options; hotels may be cheaper but taxi service in smaller cities is usually more expensive and less reliable or easy to find than in New York. Singers would be dependent on the house providing an adequate local pianist or would have to go to the expense of bringing their own.

“Exactly how long it would take, if companies without big budgets stopped coming to NYC at all, for singers to start complaining about how much it cost to go to them for auditions?” asks soprano Kathleen Berger. “I'm still waiting for a real answer to that question. My guess is about one-tenth of a billionth of a hot second.”

“Donors would much rather that companies use their money to pay the singer they hire rather than subsidizing the singers they don't,” agrees Ben Schuman, a member of Baltimore Concert Opera’s Board of Directors. “Would you rather have a free audition in Memphis or Albuquerque or Seattle that you have to travel to at your own expense?”

6.       Improvements in professional courtesy, including:

-          Introduction of the audition panel when you walk into an audition (or a piece of paper posted outside the door, announcing names and titles of the panelists)

-          Always receiving a rejection notice, even for mainstage auditions, even if it is just a form letter. German houses do this; why can’t American ones?

-          Not penalizing singers who have paid and gotten their materials in on time by extending deadlines.

-          Not eating or talking on the phone when the auditions are happening.

-          If providing a pianist, make sure that person is a creditable opera accompanist and knows standard repertoire.

-          Advance notice (emergencies notwithstanding)  if there are changes to published information, including matters such changes in personnel hearing auditions, roles available, faculty who will be teaching at a training program, etc.

THE ARGUMENT FOR: Civility and mutual respect are not only professional but improve the experience for everyone and help create a better industry.

 THE ARGUMENT AGAINST: How can one argue against treating your colleagues respectfully?  However, some of the aforementioned do create some extra work for already pressed administrators; and taking the time to implement them may take time from other tasks such as reviewing applications, resulting in fewer singers being heard.

 ***

Here’s my question, and I pose it to singers and administrators alike: what happens next? How do we work together to improve the process for everyone? Where do we go from here? One thing that I think must happen is that there must continue to be civil discussion of these issues. Ultimately, of course, every company, competition, YAP, and training program is going to decide on its own what, if any, changes they can make; and it's unlikely that everybody will be happy with all the solutions. But that's the very definition of compromise, isn't it --- everybody gets some things they want, but nobody gets everything they want. If the Met can do it, why can't we?