Why Opera Companies Charge Audition Fees and Why You Should Pay Them

$50 for opera.

Opera Candy launched a petition against the application fees that opera companies and competitions charge singers, fees that apply even if applicants are rejected without having an audition. An old baritone colleague noted that he has already spent $600 this year for about 12 applications, and would like to apply for more but is running short of discretionary cash.

As someone who self-produces shows, I have to say I am 100% pro-audition fees. Fees come under the category of earned income in a non-profit, which includes other fees for service, such as income from tickets or workshop tuition. The other way that non-profits make money is through contributed revenue or charitable donations, which takes a lot more effort to bring in.

To get a single $50 donation can take months or years of engagement: marketing and publicity to get an individual involved, mailings and internet campaigns to get them interested in giving, the development and promotion of a membership program with competitive perks for donors, special events to build community etc….

By contrast, even a lesser-known company can haul in dozens of $50 application fees – let’s call them gifts – with one ad on YAP Tracker.

If you had to meet payroll each month, which path would you pick?

Audition fees fill a critical hole in any company’s budget. Not only do they help defray the costs of processing the applications – which are not inconsiderable for companies that fly people to New York for auditions each year – but they add up to a healthy source of cash for other purposes. Rebecca Greenstein of Opera Moderne mentioned to me one year that she would hear 300 auditions that season (80% of whom, she estimated, were sopranos).

300 x the $20 audition fee = the full budget for one of my chamber productions.

(For the record, I haven’t charged fees when I’ve held auditions. I don’t think people would pay to audition for my relatively small enterprise. Instead, I’ve cast singers by recommendations from others, which has proved to be enormously inefficient and a cost burden for me. But that’s another story.)

Ever notice that some companies extend their application deadlines? I saw this a lot after the 2008 financial crisis. It’s not because they just couldn’t find the right Mimì. It’s because they can harvest more cash from another crop of singers and they don’t want to leave money on the table.

But application fees exploit artists! Some will say. They exploit women! They’re charging people to apply for jobs! How about not charging if you don’t get an audition, or don’t show up on the day of? If all of us singers joined together and refused to pay, we’d have them over a barrel!

Art has always been supported by other artists, one way or another. These fees are small compared to the expense of putting on a full season of opera. The overrepresentation of women in the performing arts is a factor beyond the control of opera companies, and if they capped the number of female applicants, that would really be discriminatory. Job application fees are not illegal, and a young artist program or a competition is not a job, even if you receive a stipend. My guess is that tiered pricing would add a level of complexity to processing applications that would require too much staff time and logistics (Credit cards swiped and then refunded? Extra postage to mail back checks?). And right, singers all over the world will join together and agree that not one single person will pay an application fee. Because opera singers are known for their solidarity and compassion.

This exploitation of opera singers is hardly the worst kind of exploitation there is. With very few exceptions, we all come from a background privileged enough to afford the expensive training that opera demands, and one more $50 application fee won’t send my baritone pal or anyone else to the poorhouse.

Opera companies are non-profits with an educational mandate – educating the public about opera through high quality productions, curricula for young people, and opportunities for young artists. If you would like to take advantage of one of these programs you must pay a fee. A young artist program is an educational program, not a job. Just as ticket sales don’t cover the costs of productions and youth education programs need school fees and charitable support to operate, young artist programs must rely on a variety of income streams to stay afloat.

So consider your application fees as your contribution to your chosen art form. You might not get to perform with the company you are supporting, you might not even get to audition for them. But somebody will, and in order for that to happen, and for opera to thrive, we all have to share the costs.

If you are very good and very lucky, you will not be paying application fees for long. You will be a professional, and pay fees instead to a manager and a publicist.

If your applications are not successful, at a certain point you may want to reevaluate how you are choosing to support opera, since you are not getting much out of it yourself. For example, for just over $600 you could see every single opera at the Met this season. You could pay a pianist well to put on a recital. You could make an outright donation to a performing arts company.

If all of us performers did this – even in part – no one would question the future of the Met, the future of opera, or the future of classical music.

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Leaving Classical Singer

I have ended my involvement with The Entrepreneurial Career column at Classical Singer Magazine, which I’ve been writing for nearly three years now. I’ll miss the role, but I feel it was time to leave it. Here’s why.

First, what it’s not. I remember discovering CS on the shelves of Patelson’s (anyone remember Patelson’s?) sometime after college. With audition listings (otherwise hard to find back then), you-go-girl encouragement, and useful ideas for managing your career, it was an 8 ½ x 11 beacon of hope. I’ve been grateful to contribute to this resource for five years now, and I hope to continue the relationship with occasional articles going forward.

But I found myself putting together my columns more hastily than my readers deserved. And given my current lifestyle choices, that is, parenthood, anything that was requiring extra time needed to be scaled back. More than that, my column became my aspirational way of describing what I didn’t have time to do with my own musical endeavors.

Encouraged by the good feedback I’ve heard from readers, I also felt it was time to move this discussion on musical entrepreneurialism beyond the paywall and to a broader musical audience – namely, other musicians and classical music stakeholders.

Even more importantly, I want to speak to and find out more about the people who once were ambitious about joining the performing elite but have found other roles for themselves, or left the field entirely. The 99%, if you will. Everyone from the solid church-gig singer who gave up dreams of an operatic career to the new MBA whose musical past lies buried in her LinkedIn profile.

Also, I no longer wish to give singers – that is, mostly women – the false impression that they are just one product away from the career they want. Buy this pay-to-sing! Get your masters degree! Study with this teacher! Heck, read this column!

I feel that many women come to the performing arts out of our socialized need to win the approval of many, and powerful forces exist to profit from that need, rather than encourage our commitment to the art form in our best capacity. With enormous competition among women especially, there is a good chance that you will do everything in your power, you may even be super talented, but you will not earn your living as a professional performer.

Then the question becomes – what next? What do you do with your education and passion if it’s not working out the way you wanted? If you produce your own musical programming, how do you make it sustainable? If you are no longer active as an artist, are you happy to become an audience member, or is classical music the ex-lover you wish you hadn’t known? How do we participate in music once we start families, especially since few cultural institutions have programming for very young children and their parents?

As technology continues to command our cultural focus and organizational blunders threaten the existence of cultural institutions, it behooves artists – and onetime artists – to address the question of where in our lives classical music should flourish.

If we don’t, then who will?

To these ends, the focus of this blog will be:

  1. Resources for the Musical 99%
    • Entrepreneurialism tips and warnings
    • Music in your life when you are no longer in music
    • Women in the performing arts
    • Humor (we’re gonna need it)
  1. Good and Bad Audience Development
    • Initiatives that build a following by staying true to classical music
    • Sell-outs
    • Comparisons to other fields (food, sports, business)
  1. Ideas for Music for Young Families
    • Promotion of good events/initiatives
    • Pointing out missed opportunities
    • The good and bad of music education
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More thoughts on building your mailing list

Angry reading emails

Don’t make your mailing list recipients do this!

Oh if this doesn’t happen every time. I write something for Classical Singer, send it off, and think of a half dozen things I should have said. Here’s what I might have added to my latest entrepreneurial column on how to build your mailing list.

If you are starting from zero, don’t just dump in every address from everyone you’ve ever met. It’s a sure way to fill your list with people who won’t buy tickets. What you can do is send a short, tasteful email to groups of people you have met in your different circles, asking them if they would like to be added. Something like this would work:

“I’m launching Opera Eggstravaganza, a new company that brings opera into the kitchen. Could I add your name to my mailing list? I promise never to share your name, and I expect to send about 12 emails per year. Please reply to confirm that you would like to have your email added to the list. If I don’t hear back, I’ll assume that you don’t want to receive emails and I won’t add your name. Thanks, and I look forward to seeing you at _____. (bowling practice, Junior League, spin class, etc.)”

Just be clear, only add people’s names if they actively say they want that, and don’t make them send a testy email if they don’t. Obviously, tailor this to your own project’s needs. And please don’t do opera in the kitchen, it couldn’t be safe.

This step serves a few functions: it filters out people who are definitely not interested, identifies people who are, and, most importantly, offers a personal point of contact before you switch to primarily communicating through mass emails. Personal contact counts for a lot, even at the beginning. After all, these people will be your ticket buyers, donors, community ambassadors and more. It helps to start out on the right foot.

Similarly, when people join your mailing list online, send them some sort of confirmation. An automated email, a confirmation page when they sign up, or a regular-enough newsletter that they will receive some sign of life soon after signing up. Just another touch that lets people know you are glad they are interested in what you do. After all, it’s called ConstantContact, not SporadicContact.

Now, does my site have this? No, but change is a-comin’! Feel free to sign up though. I promise to make you feel acknowledged.

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Grantwriting Tips from Fiction Writers

My hobbyist interest in writing fiction began when I started writing grant applications. There, now you know. Whether it’s for music or mental health, education or the environment, it takes a little creativity to interpret a non-profit’s programs in a way that a will match a foundation’s interest. This doesn’t mean re-writing the mission statement, but using the prospect’s own language to describe what you do.

We grantwriters are the waitstaff of the nonprofit world. We are the primary interface between the immutable forces of our paying customers (funders), management (er, management) and the kitchen (program staff). To keep everyone happy takes some juggling, and a bit of art.

The spark of creativity I get from writing grants made me wonder what kind of advice master fiction writers would offer my profession. Turns out, they already did that. Below are quotes from fiction masters (in bold) and my interpretation for grantwriters (in italics).

1) All you have to do is write one true sentence. – Ernest Hemingway
Make sure you get your facts straight.

2) When you catch an adjective, kill it. – Mark Twain
Let your program’s accomplishments speak for themselves.

3) I try to leave out the parts that people skip. – Elmore Leonard
Keep it simple and don’t repeat yourself.

4) Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov
Use specific examples that bring strong images to mind.

5) Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
 – George Orwell
Go easy on the acronyms, and words that are common to the organization but may not be well-known elsewhere.

6) I always prepare a very detailed synopsis before I start writing. – JG Ballard
Write the summary first, or keep a short list of key points in mind before you start.

7) Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words. – VS Naipaul
Bullet points are your friends.

8) The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. – John Steinbeck
Be truly excited about the cause you are supporting and it will come through in your writing.

9) Pity the readers. – Kurt Vonnegut
Foundation staff read a lot of proposals. Make them love yours.

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C4 Concerts this week

 

 

 

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American Classical Orchestra kicks off HANDELFEST with a Children’s Concert

HandelUPDATE: It seems I’ve confused my most loyal supporters (Hi mom and dad!) I’m attending the ACO family concert on Saturday, not performing in it. My toddler, on the other hand, will most likely lift her voice with the performers. 

Imagine spending most of your waking hours with someone who finds wonder in everything. Someone who lingers at her reflection in a doorknob, delights in tossing about laundry, and marvels at sparrows feeding in the snow. This perspective, and the cozy companionship, sparks your own creative impulses, as you re-examine the quotidian for the miraculous.

Parenthood creates a hunger for art.

The paradox of course lies in the practicalities. A busy schedule of doorknob-gazing and laundry-tossing leaves little room for concertgoing or story writing or painting (using non-edible paint) or whatever creative outlet you’d like. There are plenty of opportunities for arts education experiences for children, but few are truly satisfying for adults.

Enter the American Classical Orchestra, with bells and trumpets. Literally, I believe. They have anointed March as HANDELFEST, and are starting the festivities with a family friendly concert next Saturday on March 1.

Continue reading

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