Friday, June 1, 2012

The Costs of being an Opera Singer

With the new ABT (American Ballet Theater) season upon us, I was reminded of a fundraising campaign they held a few years ago.  Every member and subscriber received a letter on how expensive it is to be a ballet dancer, and the item that stood out were the ballet shoes.  Ballet shoes usually last for only one act, so you can imagine how many shoes a ballet dancer wears out during his or her career.

It made me wonder how much it actually costs to have a career as an opera singer.  After contacting Will Liverman, Julia Lima and Cullen Gandy for some insight into what it takes monetarily to be an opera singer, I was surprised by the many hidden costs I had never considered.

The costs start to add up as soon as a singer graduates from college, Will explains.  "Starting off as a young singer is quite challenging if we are talking about finances.  As soon as you graduate from your school nothing is free anymore.  When you're a young singer in school everything is there for you.  Your lessons are free, vocal coachings are free, using practice rooms isn't a problem, acting coachings are free, and depending on how the school's curriculum works different grants can be given to go study a language overseas. These things are absolutely essential for singers, especially young singers.  When school is finished these voice lessons and coachings and perks that we get with our school are basically over."

Attending a well accredited music school is also very costly.  For example, Mannes College charges $17,970 per term; which means you take classes for twelve credits or more.  Lots of singers continue on with their education after receiving their Bachelor Degree.  Will just graduated from Juilliard with his Masters Degree and Ricardo Rivera has just finished his Professional Studies Diploma at Mannes College after finishing his Bachelor and Masters Degree there as well.

Estimated budget for a Juilliard student for the nine-month academic year 2011-12 - Courtesy of 

Of the utmost importance to singers are the voice lessons.  Singers will try to have a lesson once a week, and once out of school voice teachers will start charging them their full fee.  Voice lessons range in price from $150 to $300 depending on the individual teacher, so the cost adds up pretty fast.

Not only do singers need voice lessons, but they also need dictation, music and dramatic coaches who help prepare the music.  On average, these coaches run a little cheaper at $70 to $180 a class.  In order to prepare for a role, music scores need to be bought on a regular basis.  These scores can cost anywhere from $20 to $100.  It also costs money to use practice rooms at different facilities so singers can warm up.  This cost usually goes by the hour or the half hour.  As an example, Merkin Concert Hall charges $35 to $50 an hour for a rehearsal space, and up to $40 for a piano studio.

Julia uses a voice teacher once a week, at a cost of $100 to $120.  In addition to a voice coach, she also takes classes once a week with a music coach who charges about $100.  When preparing new material, she also takes three or four classes with a dictation coach, which costs anywhere between $50 and $100.

Each singer has a different routine, so every singer has different costs.  Julia used to take the Alexander Technique classes once a week (at $80), but now she only does it once in a while.  Because opera is very much a visual arts, it is also important to take some acting classes once or twice a month.  These classes can cost up to $130.  Because the voice is a singer's most important asset, they need to take care of it very well.  Voice doctors can cost up to $320, and when medicine is prescribed, that number can climb to $700.

An integral part of a young opera singer's life is the competitions.  Participating in a vocal competition adds a whole new level of costs, especially since these competitions are often held in different parts of the country.  "Flights can kill you when you need to fly to an audition/competition that's only happening in NYC if you don't live in NYC," Will says.  "A lot of singers will fly for literally one audition or competition, spend a night at a hotel (more $$) and fly back all within a few days. They come back in a few weeks and do the same thing again."

In addition to travel expenses, singers also need to pay an application fee to enter a competition.  This can run up to $50.  The application fee for the National Council Auditions is $30.  Every application requires a headshot, and getting those taken with a professional photographer can be an expensive venture running into the hundreds of dollars.  The head shots are part of a singer's image, which they also need to portray on stage.  Every singer needs a special wardrobe of performance wear.  It is important to look good on stage, and the price to look good can quickly add up, especially for the ladies.  Competitions often require the singers to perform in a certain attire: tuxedos for the men and evening wear for the women.

Deciding to participate in a competition can be difficult.  "Once you are out of school, the major inferred costs are application fees, any outside coaching and lessons," Cullen Gandy explains.  "You have to be the CEO of your own voice, which means that your time is also the most premium resource.  Always do a cost/benefit analysis on every offer and engagement."

As Will concludes: "Between the flights, lessons per week, coachings, and music/application fees etc, what it costs to be a singer can go well over $1000 within one month if you are consistent with keeping up with things. Let's not forget about rent and cost of living.  The funny/sad thing about all of these daily expenses is the fact that none of this guarantees you success.  Only preparation to try and get the job or to win that competition is what it gives you."

An average based on the info provided by the singers
As you can tell, being an opera singer is a costly endeavor, but you can help.  By donating to the National Council Auditions Eastern Region you are making sure that singers get a chance to audition and you provide them with valuable prize money that will help them further their careers.

If you would like to make a donation, please go to the MONC/ER website and read our blog post "Taking some mystery out of the National Council Auditions" for more information about the make up of MONC and what your donation can do for the organization and a singer's life.

If you are serious about opera and its future, donate now.

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