Charting a Course as a Young Artist
Editor's Note: The article is excerpted from the Perspectives volume Making Choices: A Singer’s Guide from Classrooms to Contracts.
Navigating the various young artist programs that populate the American opera landscape can be daunting to singers and to those who support and train them. Every season new programs emerge, each offering different opportunities and experiences to participants and each requiring different experience and talent levels. Some programs are summer only and some year-round. Some are of the pay-to-sing variety and others offer a fee-based contract. Many programs are ideal for those still completing their formal education, while some are finishing programs designed for singers on the cusp of a professional career. “Am I ready for Program X?” “Am I too advanced for Program Y?” “Why isn’t Program Z interested in me?” “How much outreach should I do?”
While answers are obvious in some extreme instances, the applicant pool (the competition) varies from year to year, and there is a certain amount of subjectivity that enters the selection process. Applying to programs can be like playing a chess game with a silent opponent.
While many programs were designed to bridge the gaps between academia and the professional world, it seems that there are new mini-gaps emerging for singers entering and exiting the programs. “Career young artists” find it difficult to make the leap to mainstage engagements, while those without a program on their resumes may find it difficult to score that first opportunity. How does a young singer find a path and make consistent progress in today’s system?
While no one believes there is only one way for a singer to establish a professional career, there are approaches to the current system that can consistently serve young singers well. It would be ideal if a magical, effective, unbiased and comprehensive decision-making tool would descend from the heavens, but even absent celestial events, singers can be proactive in determining which programs best meet their current needs and in judging their readiness to get the most out of each very different experience.
First and foremost, regular self-assessment is a must for any singer. The ability to accurately and honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses is indispensable. With the help of industry professionals, OPERA America has developed A Singer’s Self Inventory (available at www.operaamerica.org), which contains non-negotiable items such as the ability to sing on pitch, as well as items of a more personal and flexible nature. By no means is the list exhaustive, but it serves as an excellent launching point for further thought and discussion. Singers would do well to review this list on their own and with teachers, coaches and other members of their team.
Having a realistic and unbiased understanding of your strengths and weaknesses places you in a better position to determine which programs are best for you. Is it important that you get a major role with orchestra under your belt right now, even if you have to pay for it? Do you need further language study? Are you looking for a comprehensive training program that will address skills such as stagecraft and give you experience in a variety of repertory? Or is your “package” together enough that you are ready for the exposure offered by one of the major programs?
There is always the danger of spending too much time in young artist programs, but if you progress through them in a logical way, they can certainly help you to establish yourself within the profession. I recommend that undergraduates in their early 20s consider one of the excellent pay-to-sing programs that offer the opportunity for role study as well as musical development. This is also an ideal time for a summer of language study abroad or an intensive acting workshop. For singers in their mid-20s, there are several summer programs that offer the opportunity to hone your craft, build your network and establish yourself as a noteworthy emerging artist. After graduate school, a year-round program offers the chance to spend some significant time with one company and to observe major artists at work. While some of the major programs (summer and year-round) occasionally take singers in their early 20s, I strongly advise that singers make sure that they and their craft are ready for the exposure that these programs afford. Not only can it be detrimental to be heard by too many people too early in a career, it is also difficult to get this kind of exposure later on when you are more ready for it if you have already participated in most of these programs.
Don’t underestimate the advantages of doing an outreach program or two. These programs offer you the chance to learn about your craft while performing for the most honest audience of all — children! In addition, it affords a company the opportunity to learn more about you as an artist and to make an investment in your skills. At Des Moines Metro Opera, we are always pleased to have successful outreach performers return to us years later as principal artists, and I know many other companies feel a special loyalty toward these singers. I do, however, caution against doing more than two of these types of programs, as the pace can be grueling.
It is important to realize that there is no Holy Grail of young artist programs. Participation in any one program, no matter how great its reputation, will not guarantee future success. I often sense that there is a widespread belief among singers that if they can just get into a certain program, the door to a career will magically swing open. Instead, make the most of every step along the way. Rather than looking at each program as a step up a mythical ladder, enter each program or experience with the goal of having that company want to re-engage you. When you begin to make that transition away from training programs, you want to have a long list of companies and decision-makers that believe in your work. This is how networks and careers are built. A close colleague always reminds young artists that they truly aren’t working singers until they are hired to sing an actual role. While this may be a bit harsh, there is a bit of wisdom, too. Young artist programs not only offer further training, they can also offer you a kind of entrée into that company and hopefully, the profession. As with anything in life, if you approach with the right mindset, the young artist program system can help to make you a better artist and to navigate your way into a successful career.
About the Author: Michael Egel is the artistic administrator/director of education for Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO). During the winter, he works with the artists of DMMO’s OPERA Iowa touring troupe in developing educational materials and workshops and often serves as a stage director for their touring productions. He oversees DMMO’s extensive audition process and functions as a stage director within the Apprentice Program during the summer season. He has previously been on the administrative and directing staff at both Opera Memphis and the Natchez Opera Festival and has served as an adjudicator for the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions.