Us vs Them Part IV: Pros don't pay to play

Stock-illustration-2827573-cash-cow
Stock-illustration-2827573-cash-cow

Just in time for audition season, the controversy over audition fees reasserts itself. This time around, the fuss is over agencies and opera companies charging mainstage, established artists for the privilege of being heard. 

A few weeks ago, the boards were buzzing with news of several artists' managements --- including a couple of relative newcomers such as Couret & Werner and Asawa & Associates --- who were charging fees for artists to audition. Both managements were advertising for singers to audition --- Couret & Werner was reportedly asking $40 to hear singers (plus another $15 if you wanted to use their pianist), and defended this practice, citing the costs of doing business and their dedication to representing emerging artists. Asawa & Associates was asking $35 to hear singers in New York; initially defending their position by citing how much money the West Coast-based agency was spending to hear singers in New York. However, after many singers protested, Asawa reconsidered and issued a statement that they had listened to the feedback they were getting and decided that moving forward, they would not charge.

In the past week, the subject of opera companies charging various fees to hear mainstage singers has arisen. These fees vary in nature and it is not always clear from anecdotal evidence (reports from singers who were charged) into which category they fall; whether they were charged to some singers and not others (unmanaged singers vs managed singers, for example) or if there were different fees in different parts of the country (lower fees on the West Coast than in NYC when West Coast-based companies traveled to NYC to hear auditions, for example). For the purpose of this post, the following definitions are in place:

AUDITION FEE - a nonrefundable fee the singer must pay in order to be heard. May or may not include a pianist.

APPLICATION FEE – a nonrefundable fee the singer must pay in order to be considered. An audition slot is not guaranteed. May or may not include a pianist.

PIANIST FEE – a fee paid by the singer directly to the pianist provided by the company; if the singer brings their own pianist they are not required to pay this fee.

While no one objects to pianist fees (unless the pianist can't play your repertoire!), needless to say, most singers are against audition and application fees. Companies that charge such fees argue that the costs of auditioning in New York are very high; without charging singers a share of the cost for administrators to travel and rent space, they might not be able to afford to come to New York at all. 

And at least one administrator argues that singers make great cash cows. In a post written last year, Amanda Keil of Musica Nuova composed a rather flippant list of reasons why singers should pay up without demur : because it's much easier for a nonprofit to raise money via audition fees than fundraising; because it's expensive to hold auditions and to run a nonprofit in general; because art has always been supported by artists; because singers are unlikely to ever actually band together to accomplish anything; because it's not illegal; because singers have suffered worse exploitation so what's a little more; because "one more $50 application is not going to break the bank"; because singers all come from a sufficiently privileged background to be able to afford it; because opera is educational and you should pay for that (even, apparently, if you're the one doing the educating);  because you should consider audition fees a "gift" to the art form; and because even if you're unsuccessful in being hired, you've supported the art form. Whew!

Ms. Keil's rather astonishing arguments aside, I believe most companies would simply say that travel for auditions is expensive, and they need to charge singers to help pay for them. They feel justified because the singers --- at least those who get jobs as a result --- benefit, too. 

And it's true that if a singer must travel for auditions (as I do), there is usually more value to traveling to New York than to a smaller market. When I audition in New York, I can see my voice teachers, coaches, and managers; visit (and network) with friends and colleagues; take advantage of the marvelous array of cultural events available in such a city; and sometimes even bundle more than one audition to a trip. It's definitely an advantage to have the majority of auditions in one place, clustered at certain times of the year. Furthermore, should more companies decide to stay home and have house auditions only, it's unlikely my managers would come to these auditions.

For these reasons, although I still don't like it and don't think it's fair,  I could see my way clear to pay a little something towards room rental. But let's take a moment and do some math, shall we?

The recital hall at the National Opera Center , the most expensive room you can rent there, costs  $165/hour standard, $130/hour for non-profits, and $94/hour for members. The rehearsal hall is $105/$85/$68 respectively. I've auditioned in both spaces, but far more often in the rehearsal hall. One of the big rooms at NOLA costs around $30/hour. The big rooms at Shetler are $175-375 per day. So let's break it down. Let's say you're hearing between 6-8 singers per hour.  If you're hearing singers at the most expensive room at NOA, at the most expensive rate, the most a singer should have to pay for their share is $27 (not including a pianist), and that's if the company isn't taking on any of the expense --- which they should do, because they are benefiting from it, too. So let's say that the singer should pay half of that --- $13.50. Considering that perfectly decent cheaper spaces can be had,  let's just make an educated guess and say that the singer's share should be closer to $5-7.  Some companies provide a pianist and rightly ask the singer to pay a share of that fee, so that could be another $25-40 but ONLY if it is paid directly to the pianist and ONLY if I have the option to bring my own, which I (or my manager) always do.  That much, I can get behind; and I know from chatting with other singers that I am not the only one. 

Where most of us draw the line, however, is at subsidizing a company's expenses for travel, lodging, food, and processing auditions. That is the company's cost of doing business. Is it expensive? Oh, my yes! I know because I do it many times a year, on top of my day-to-day career expenses. A company usually only comes to New York once a year to audition; I go anywhere from 5-10 times. Singers who live in New York may not have the travel expenses, but in general pay a higher cost of living than those of us who live further away. Each of these trips usually costs me $800-$1,000 done on the absolute cheap --- taking the subway, sleeping on a friend's couch, no fancy meals out or theater tickets --- and there is no one subsidizing those expenses. For those emerging into established careers from the fee-heavy world of young artist programs, it's easy to see how singers can begin to feel that they're being treated as cash cows. It's discouraging, and often seems like adding insult to the injury of expending so much effort for little reward if you're not cast.

"I'm of two minds about the audition fees," says Maestro Brian DeMaris, Artistic Director of Arizona State University Lyric Theater, Music Director of Mill City Summer Opera, and Artist Faculty at Aspen Music Festival.  "On one hand, I value the free market, but the reason I do is so that companies that don't charge fees have the opportunity to look better, and I think, to draw from a more diverse pool of applicants than those who are limiting themselves by charging fees. ASU and Arizona Opera are actually starting a tuition-free, no application fee highly selective training program for upper level undergraduate singers. We're driven by the knowledge that there are highly talented young singers who aren't being discovered because they can't afford the training, or even the audition opportunities. In my view, the application fees, though they are attempting to keep their business viable  and also add a buffer to make young singers think twice before auditioning, are actually missing out on talent."

This is not --- should not --- be an "us vs them" situation. We know that nobody  on either side of the fence --- at least nobody on the regional circuit --- gets rich from producing or singing opera, and we all know that this is a very expensive business to be in. We all want our beloved art form to flourish. There's a long history of entrance fees for competitions and application fees for YAPs, although many think these have also gotten out of hand and that a new model must be found. But pros don't pay to play. Companies should not, in the words of AGMA president Jimmy Odom, ask singers to crowdfund their own salaries. Singers are key employees for an opera company, and companies don't ask their designers, stage directors, tech or office personnel, or executives to pay for the privilege of interviewing. Why not? It's one thing to ask for donations (singers, hold up your hands if you've ever gotten a fundraising phone call or a mailer from a company you've sung for) and another to require financial support in order to merely be considered for a position.

Most singers do very much want to support the companies they sing for. We may not be able to write big checks, though I personally have donated and know other singers who have as well. I figure part of my contribution, besides doing the very best job I can, is to promote, promote, promote. I am happy to chat up donors, talk a company up on social media, and do that 6 a.m. TV interview that nobody else wants to do. I am happy to meet audience members after a show and to sing for a fundraiser or publicity event at no additional fee. These things are part of my job, and a gift to the company and to the art form.  

But let's put our creative heads together and brainstorm some ways we could , as a community, help solve the audition expense problem for both parties. Here are some suggestions from singers and conductors.

Baritone Dan Kempson suggests a two-prong attack: fostering local artistic talent, and building the local arts donor base.  Most donors, he says, care more about local stars whose careers have developed in a home company than unknowns who might have bigger credits on their resumes, and points out that festival formats are becoming more popular and having greater success because their brand reflects unique values and connections at the local level. 

"Ava Pine grew her career at Fort Worth Opera and Dallas over multiple seasons in leading roles. Andy Wilkowske is a great and frequently used asset at Minnesota Opera. Kevin Glavin, Sari Gruber, Marianne Cornetti (grew careers) in my time at Pittsburgh. Stars don't sell seats if they are faceless NYC singers coming to a small company - they can be touted, but a known local (good) quantity actually excites boards and communities," he says. "Smaller companies with local-sized budgets need to work more to foster local artists. There is no reason for certain D and C companies to make multiple audition trips to NYC each year (and then charge for auditions). This is also done through supporting former YAPpers, and helping them to build careers by rehiring them. Granted, all of this is easier said than done, and doesn't even begin to approach the difficulties of fundraising for the arts in today's climate (bye bye corporate giving). But the idea of name recognition in opera is dead - even Fleming can't sell out Merry Widow after the super bowl. Yes, out of town singers should also be hired (and the local talent focus should maintain the same artistic standards), but everyone needs to stop pretending to import the Met - their local multiplex already does that for $25."

Soprano Tamara Wilson suggests preliminary casting by video --- something which is already happening and could easily become more widespread. My agency, ADA Artists Management, encourages singers to videotape arias for both the roster's and personal YouTube channels and websites. It's a useful tool for companies to pre-screen artists. "You could weed out who you didn't want, then invite a select few to audition live, if that would help financially, " says Wilson. "Obviously every company is different with different budgets but come on, hearing singers should be part of that budget."

 " 100 x $25=$2500," says baritone Curt Olds, referring to the number of singers a company might hear in one trip. "That's a line item manageable for any opera company and an excellent opportunity for a local donor where they directly see where the donation affects the company. All of the expenses to travel to hear singers are also tax deductible." 

 Soprano Emilie Storrs expands on that idea. " Underwrite our whole audition trip and you can come with us and sit behind the table with us for 4 hours to get an idea of the audition process..." she suggests. "The person gets a trip and shopping (or whatever else for the rest of the time...)and gets a great story and can hear some singers, and company gets the trip funded."

"Mill City Summer Opera doesn't even hold auditions in NYC," says Maestro DeMaris. "We hold local auditions (no audition fee), and we've found many singers from out of town who have actually flown to Minneapolis on their own dime to sing for us. That of course is their choice. But we do pretty much all of our casting from outside of Minneapolis through agents, recommendations, and media on singer websites or submitted by singers and/or their agents. Obviously the situation would be different if we had a YAP. But first I think we'd find a donor who's willing to support the audition process, or utilize our connections who are already in NYC. But even in our less formalized efforts to have students in training involved in our productions, we've mainly worked with colleges and universities directly, and established relationships. I think singer training has already begun to stress to young singers the importance of making connections and seeking your own opportunities. The other piece of this is that opera, like nearly everything else, is becoming more locally-focused in the new economy. It's not as important to have a big national presence as it was even a few years ago. It's your local engagement - on all levels - that aids sustainability. I think young singers' money is better spent going to see operas, to find places where they want to perform, and they can arrange their own auditions while they're there."

 Opera is an expensive business for everyone involved, but singers need opera companies and opera companies need singers. We're on the same side --- but we each have to hold up our end.  For producers, that includes fundraising, budgeting appropriately, getting creative with resources, and fostering talent. For singers, that includes perfecting our craft, being great ambassadors for our art form and for the companies we're working for, and getting to where the auditions are. It shouldn't include paying for job interviews. Pros don't pay to play. Or at least, they shouldn't have to.