What does an opera career look like?

I received a question in my "Ask Jenny" section of the blog this morning that I thought a lot of people might be interested in, so I decided to go ahead and reprint it and answer it here. This is for all the young people out there considering pursuing a career in this crazy world of opera. Here's the question:

I found a post online and I was wondering what your thoughts are. I'd love to know if you believe any of this is true or not, from your experience. I am turning 25 and considering a career change. I understand that it will take a hard work and time but I'm willing to listen to my heart and give it a try. I have always sung alto in choirs. My choir class had a guest professor who works in Musical Theater and opera earlier this year. Ever since, I have had opera on the mind! This article honestly intimidated me. http://auditioningforcollege.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/what-does-an-operatic-career-look-like/

If you don't have time to click the link and read this person's post about the opera circuit, I'll just tell you, it's quite bleak. Basically they maintain that you may have to participate in Young Artist Programs until you are 37 and then you can expect gigs that only pay you $1000 per performance, and those are the good ones. There's a whole section about home stays when you are on low paying gigs where you may very well have to help around the house to earn your keep, and a section that talks about how much you have to budget for auditions, which according to the writer, is quite a lot.

What I can say is that the person who wrote this post (it doesn't give a name that I noticed) obviously has personal experience pursuing this career, so for some people, these are possibly exactly the difficulties and struggles that they will also experience. I can only speak from my own experience however, and this was not what I experienced coming up in this field. I will say that each person's path varies wildly, and it's very difficult to predict who will succeed and who won't early on. I will also say that this is probably the most difficult time to attempt to have a career in the arts, and specifically opera in the United States, and that even people who have been working at a very high level sometimes struggle to make ends meet (including yours truly). Without going into specifics, if this calendar year continues as it has so far, I will probably only make about 40% of the income I have made for the past four or five years. It never seems to get easier or more predictable for anyone except a very small minority of singers that reach that level of fame that allows you to relax a little, and even then, some singers still seem to fall off the face of the earth, often for no explainable reason.

One thing that the writer of this blog post talked about was fees to audition for opera companies. I can tell you that in all my years auditioning, the only fees I can recall paying are the auditions I did for young artist program applications. I did end up working at New York City Opera straight out of school, and got an agent by the time I was 24 or 25 (I can't recall exactly), so was doing regular house auditions - maybe there are types of auditions that I was never aware of. But other than the young artist summer program auditions that I did, I'm not sure which companies charge audition fees. 

Another thing I've never done is had a separate job, but I know a LOT of singers who have worked temp jobs and/or waited tables over the years in between singing gigs. That is becoming even more of a reality in today's very saturated market. I also think that some young singers tend to stay involved in Young Artist Programs for too long - if you are well into your thirties and have been doing young artist programs since you were 25, you might discover you have a few large challenges ahead of you when trying to make it to the next level. I also think we are entering a new era, where singers are being forced to think outside the box in order to even be able to exist creatively - singers are forming companies and festivals, becoming not just performers but impresarios in order to create performance opportunities for themselves and their colleagues. 

I won't sugarcoat anything for you - this is a very challenging career in which to find true success, and it's only getting harder. I went to see a performance at the Manhattan School of Music a few weeks ago of The Ghosts of Versailles, and I found the performances from most of the students to be extremely impressive. I was left wondering, however, where all of them would possibly find work after they graduated.  I remembered that when I first finished school here in NYC, New York City Opera was still a large scale company which employed as many as 100 solo singers at any given time. Now, with the company producing four small operas per year, and not even having a theater in which to hold regular auditions, most of those opportunities for singers freshly out of school have vanished. Most of the good agents that I know feel that their roster of singers is already filled to bursting, and have to carefully consider whether to add a single new client. It's good to be in New York since it's where many of the companies come to hear auditions, but if you're not working at the Met, that means you're not working as a singer while you're here for the most part. And unfortunately, the United States, unlike Canada and Europe, for example, doesn't help with any cushion for self employed artists by giving us things like free health care, or unemployment insurance, or maternity leave when we're not attached to a specific employer. 

Having said all that, I think it's important to follow your dreams and your heart. Some people are talented and successful, and they think they want to be singers, but they realize the life isn't for them, and they change their minds and change their careers completely at some point. We are allowed to do that - we are allowed to reinvent ourselves and take a new path if the one we are on isn't working. The thing that is important is how to decide when the path we are pursuing isn't working out. For some people, being artistic is more important than making a lot of money, so they are satisfied with working odd jobs just so they have the chance to express themselves creatively. Other people need more stability and even if they are getting paid to sing, don't find enough regularity in the type of work that may or may not come up. With opera singing, it's a personal decision for each individual. If I had done some of the gigs that the person who wrote the post obviously had to do, like staying at someone's home who expected me to change their cat litter just so I could get paid $100 per week to sing some educational programs, I can tell you I would have given up a long time ago. I love doing this, but I love doing it at a level that challenges and inspires me. I still consider quitting on a regular basis because I hate not having a fixed income that I can count on, and I hate that a few people deciding whether sing at House X can end up affecting the entire path of my career. However, I have also been incredibly lucky to have had the experiences I've had, and am grateful and humbled by the opportunities and support I've found along the way.

So to answer your question - yes - for some people, the stuggles and obstacles will be enormous. For others not. The question is, do you want it bad enough to go ahead and give it a try anyway?