UPDATE 2015: A year after I first posted this, it launched quite a discussion. My main ideas are this: singers might consider that their fees help keep companies afloat, which is not entirely a bad thing. Or, if singers are frustrated/dismayed/outraged/demoralized/not having success, they can reassess how they are applying their talents and resources and find a better use for them.
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?
UPDATED, 2015: Companies do not choose to charge application fees over cultivating donors. In all likelihood, they are doing the best they can to bring in as many donors as possible. But since so many charge fees, if one company decides not to, or makes it lower, they are leaving money on the table.
There are any number of ways a company can arrive at how much to charge for application fees. When auditions are guaranteed, charging a fee greatly improves the likelihood that singers will show up for auditions. Companies could factor in the percentage that staff spends on the entire application process, which requires overhead costs as well as involvement from numerous people, right up to the executive director. Some might intentionally keep the fee high to discourage applications, to keep the process more manageable for staff.
On one comment thread, a member of the board of an opera company commented that applications cost the company the same per applicant, whether or not an audition is granted. As for lowering fees and making up the difference with donations, she noted that as a donor, she did not feel motivated to subsidize costs for singers who did not make the cut. You can argue that it’s not always fair how companies decide who wins and who loses. You could also cut your losses and spend your time, energy, and talents in a different way. I believe that the decline of arts participation requires creative answers, and that creative people have the best promise to create solutions.
In the end, companies charge fees because it is what the market will bear. If singers worldwide organized and decided to boycott a year’s worth of application to make a statement, there would be another crop of singers seizing the opportunity to apply while the competition down. It’s true, instrumentalists don’t pay to apply for jobs, but they also don’t have nearly as extensive a network of training programs.
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 pianist fee = the full budget for one of my chamber productions. (UPDATED: See Rebecca’s comment below. My point here is that if I had charged a fee and heard that many singers, I could have funded an entire production. This might not be the case for every company.)
(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.)
UPDATED, 2015: Full-fledged opera companies could probably do all their casting from recommendations, but that would be the least fair option to all singers, even worse than the current system. It’s also more inefficient for them, as I experienced myself. The inefficiency comes from trying to work a production schedule around people’s commitments, not in finding quality people via recommendations. At least at an audition, a singer is there because he or she is likely available for the needed dates.
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.
UPDATED, 2015: I realize I am on sensitive ground here. That’s why I started the sentence recognizing the fact that there are exceptions. And I know what it’s like to be spending close to your rent in lessons, fees, and travel, while working to pay for it all and still trying to make music. But in a global sense, being in that position is a privilege. Did you know that development agencies have several different categories for poverty? Poor, near poor, very poor, and ultra poor, for example, some of which are living on $2 a day right here in America? Yes it’s a struggle to strive toward a career as an opera singer, but there are struggles and there are struggles.
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.
“charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.”
Therefore, all cultural institutions are educational, even if the word education does not appear in their mission statement. They exist to steward cultural treasures and educate the public about them.
To my knowledge, YAPs are all over the maps when it comes to the actual benefits they furnish their participants, and two different singers can have vastly different experiences at the same program. If that’s the case, is it really worth it for everyone to follow the same path and apply for the same programs?
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.