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The Progress of a Singer's Career: A Manager's Perspective
Susan Meyer
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No matter what profession we are in, we will inevitably encounter difficulties at some point in our professional lives. For singers, these difficulties can range from having vocal problems to being stuck with a career that does not develop satisfactorily. It is not uncommon for an artist’s career to hit a plateau where either the type or the level of the engagements, or indeed the fees, do not change for the better.

In many instances, a singer chooses to deal with these difficulties by reconsidering management relationships. Although a change of perspective or direction can be instrumental in reigniting an ailing career, it is by no means a guaranteed remedy. This is especially true in cases where a singer changes managers again and again, a situation that is not uncommon in the opera world.

The singer-manager relationship is like any other human relationship: It can flourish and grow when properly tended, or it can become stale if neglected. When the relationship ceases to be effective, it takes courage, insight, and soul searching for both parties to assess the situation and work through whatever is preventing what should be a mostly harmonious collaboration. In some cases, this assessment may reveal that it is indeed time for a change; however, a change of management, in and of itself, is seldom the “magic bullet” that turns a career around.

Any number of circumstances can cause a singer’s career to falter: Physical changes, gaps in the singer’s vocal technique, etc. Sometimes a singer simply does not develop artistically beyond a certain point and ceases to be of interest to those who are in a position to hire her or him. Often, it is not the circumstances themselves, but a singer’s reaction to them, that ultimately have an impact on a career. A few “case histories” follow:
An extremely gifted tenor, upon finishing a respected training program, begins a professional career full of promise. Knowledgeable professionals make predictions about the glowing future that awaits him. However, as his singing schedule increases, more demands are made on his voice, and the signs of a faulty technique begin to show. Colleagues suggest that perhaps he should seek the advice of a different voice teacher, but he refuses; he is doggedly loyal to his teacher and will not trust his voice to anyone else. Stubbornly, he carries on until irreparable damage is done. What had all the makings of a first-rate career dwindles down to a respectable but unexciting comprimario level.

A promising and charismatic soprano begins to make her mark in the opera world. Her performances are characterized by great panache and vocal brilliance, but alongside the praise and admiration, people comment about a few worrisome aspects of her singing: sloppy diction, uneven attention to stylistic detail, and occasional mannerisms in her vocal production. For several years her panache carries the day, but eventually her inability to correct those flaws confines her to the unflattering category of a has-been.

There are many tools that can help a singer get unstuck from a lagging career, and most of them depend on the singer’s willingness and ability to implement them. I would suggest beginning by taking a good hard look at the repertoire and asking yourself, “Am I really singing the right roles?” Promising careers can be horribly damaged when singers take on roles with an eye toward marketability rather than their own specific vocal strengths. Next, preferably together with your manager, develop strategies that include artistic and physical presentation, auditions, and repertoire planning. Not every singer’s talents and temperament are suited both to the opera and the concert stages, but if they are, follow the advice of the stock market specialists: “Diversify, diversify, diversify.” Singing recitals and oratorio pieces is good for the voice and good for the soul, and will inevitably make you a more interesting singer.

For singers who have already been in the business a few years, a good exercise is to write a chronological career history—where you sang, for whom you auditioned, what comments you received, with which conductors and directors did you have the best collaborations (and why), what circumstances in your personal life may have had a positive or negative effect on your career. When this is done, patterns often emerge that shed some light on your present difficulties. You may also (re)discover possible contacts and opportunities that have not been followed up. Your manager—or another member of your personal network—can be a helpful sounding board as you complete this exercise.

Here’s another case study—one with a happier ending.

A first-rate character tenor is determined to sing leading roles in pursuit of higher paying engagements. He works hard with a voice teacher and eventually succeeds in securing a few engagements singing these roles, but it is clear that he is asking more of his vocal equipment than it can deliver. He takes stock of his abilities and reaches the conclusion that he could continue singing leading roles in regional houses, or he could return to singing comprimario roles in international houses. Happily, he chooses the latter and enjoys a busy career.

It is impossible to generalize or to suggest one remedy for “career malaise,” as every singer has a unique set of assets and liabilities. Why does a career begin promisingly and then, a few years later, reach a plateau and just sit there? I don’t know if it is possible to teach self-assessment, but there are tools that a singer can implement to work through the difficult patches in their performing lives. Seek the advice of people you trust, whether it’s from your manager, your voice teacher, a colleague, or a conductor you have worked with and liked. Listen and evaluate what is being said to you, even if it is difficult to hear.
If several trusted people have similar opinions on what needs correcting, chances are that they are right. Become as informed as you can about all aspects of your career, so that you can continue to progress.
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