Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Monetary Confessions of an Opera Singer

This wonderful article was submitted to me by one of our District Audition participants, Kiri Parker.  As she was warming up in the green room at Casa Italiana, she overheard some singers and organizers talk about how expensive it is to be an opera singer. When she found out I was in charge of the blog, she came to me offering to write an article on the subject. We have had this discussion before here on the blog, but I always love a fresh perspective, especially on a subject as important as this. Enjoy!   


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"Overheard moaning about my financial situation at the first day of the MONC NY District Auditions, I was asked whether I would like to blog about it. Pleased to do what I can to help the cause, I am now writing my first opera blog.

What was the cause of my being so vocal about my financial situation at that moment? A combination of the rush of openness I experience after performing, bumping into a lovely colleague I hadn’t seen in a while and the tingling of my still swollen eyes from the day before.

The previous day I was trying to find an alternative to the $200 asthma pump that had been prescribed. After a frustrating day of looping among my insurance company, my doctor and a pharmacy, a rather exasperated pharmacist finally told me that there are no significantly cheaper alternatives. I promptly burst into tears. Dignified? Not exactly. True to the life of a young singer – I’m afraid so.

Opera singing is a technical feat – each note we sing has a different frequency, which is achieved through a balance of air pressure, tension in the chords and the right shape in our mouths to create a resonance chamber. A singer must train for years in order to be able to do this optimally – the voice is said to be ‘lined up’ when we can do that throughout the range. This creates the strangely but gloriously resonant sound operas singers have. Then add onto that that the optimum combination changes depending on the note before and after (e.g. if we had a low note followed by a high note, we would choose a resonance on the low note that would be optimal for the high note and sacrifice some of the low resonances on the low one).  If we vary dynamics (amplitude) this also changes the combination. To master this it takes about 10 years of training. A lot more complicated than rubbing your head and patting your belly …

Training is expensive. Luckily, there are generous people who donate and thus allow us to compete for scholarships and prizes to help us in this long, arduous and wonderful journey. I personally have been incredibly lucky to have generous scholarships throughout my studies, as well as the opportunity to study with some of the most amazing teachers and coaches. I’ve done some prestigious young artist programs and was ‘spotted’ by an agent in my first year of leaving school. This doesn’t mean I haven’t lived a shoe-string budget lifestyle since leaving home and had various financial crises from which kind angels have rescued me.

So why was I crying in a pharmacy over an inhaler? Well, as we all know, life is expensive. There is rent, health insurance, food, transport. Once you’ve left school, as an opera singer, you need to continue working on your voice and repertoire. Throughout your career you need regular lessons and coachings. In New York, these are $125-250 each – today we consider one a week luxurious and optimum. The proponents of ‘bel canto’, the technique developed during the time often considered the golden age of singing, reported that singers would have a lesson everyday and until fairly recently this was common practice in operatic training. Coachings ($80-$150 each) are needed whenever you are learning new music, which hopefully is all the time! We also have to pay for auditions. Young artist programs charge us to apply to keep down their costs and even some professional companies have begun the practice of charging for our equivalent of a job interview. The audition is, as freelancers, a regular practice throughout most of our careers. Then add on the fact that we need to look like we stepped out of the pages of a magazine if we possibly can and you can see that the costs add up. Most young singers have to choose a balance between their finances and the fact that they need time to study and practice. In addition, if you are an international, like me, your visa severely restricts what you can do to earn money – only being allowed to do exactly what your visa has been granted for. Shall we say the inhaler was a straw landing on a very sore camel?

There are those that are lucky enough to have wealthy families who want to support their children in the pursuit of their dreams. But that is the exception, rather than the rule. Quite often opera singers’ families aren’t able to support them or don’t understand why their offspring would choose such a career and so choose not to help (much more commonly than we would like to think). Those that are blessed with larger voices are not blessed with an easy path – it takes longer to coordinate the more hefty chords (which produce the heavier rich sound) and the voices mature much later, meaning they are training longer and likely to land contracts that can pay the rent much later on. Even for lighter voices, the person who doesn’t struggle financially is very much the exception. Even if one has contracts with major houses, you need enough of them to cover your costs. I have friends who are lucky enough to sing regularly for major houses and they still have points where they don’t have enough for the basic bills.

Why should you help? Everyone has their own reasons for supporting different causes, in the same way no two singers sing for exactly the same reason. I would say that opera, due to the combination of elements that it combines, has a unique potential to transport us to a different place – to something bigger than ourselves. In a time where it is so easy to lose ourselves in the chaos of modern life, the arts are an anchor that is too valuable to lose and it is far easier to support and nurture something that is waning than to reignite something that has gone out.

There are too many singers for the number of jobs and so we could let simply those who have the private means to fund themselves or those most quickly out of the stable be the ones who succeed. This is the trend right now, but as we all know that talent doesn’t always correlate with wealth and it isn’t the product that is made quickest that is of the best quality. One just needs to look at the annals of the great singers to see that often the greatest voices meet with much adversity before they come to fruition as artists. Without young singers being helped to train and supported in the difficult years of establishing themselves, the art of opera will be lost.

The world of the arts is in the realm of dreams, and so we could consider them dispensable in the face of the multiple needs of humanity - but in our dreams both the turmoil and hope of humanity is inherent. What would the world be like without the room for the expressing that?"

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- If you would like to support the MONC Eastern Region and the wonderful singers who walk onto our stage, please check out our website.