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

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. 

$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?

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.

UPDATED, 2015: Businesses claiming tax exemption under section 501 c 3 of the Internal Revenue Code must be organized and operated for one of the following exempt purposes, according to the IRS:

“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.

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.

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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25 Responses to Why Opera Companies Charge Audition Fees and Why You Should Pay Them

  1. lauridgoldenhersh says:

    Your post title is intriguing, as the issue of audition fees is complex, and I believe, must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. When I clicked, I was looking forward to a fresh perspective. But your result isn’t convincing: the argument that audition fees are a legitimate and necessary part of a company’s budget just doesn’t fly, as the act of holding auditions is not an educational or fundraising exercise: it’s part of the business, and should be deemed a necessary business expense.

    You also seem to be mixing apples and oranges, lumping all opera auditions together, where a very small company holding auditions for what is probably a gratis performance is not the same as a large company charging to audition members for a young artist program. A listing on YAP Tracker should never be used as a fundraising opportunity — it’s a blatant misuse of personnel, engendering bad faith, not good working relationships.

    Finally, vocal artists deserve to be treated with the same respect as instrumentalists, who do not stand for this. Saying that it’s not as bad as being a sex worker or “hey, we’re all privileged” is oddly callous, and a strange way to make your point. When our own field is stacked against singers, telling us we’re the problem neither changes the bigger issues nor opens any doors for real discussion. Considering some of the other, more laudable things you’ve championed on your blog, this particular stance is baffling.

    • Thank you Lauri, for your thoughtful reply.

      It’s true, instrumentalists don’t pay audition fees, but it’s also true that have fewer auditions. An orchestra doesn’t need to fill its entire roster every season, the way an opera company does. It is a cost of doing business for both orchestras and opera companies but for the latter – I’m guessing here without looking at their balance sheets – it’s a more formidable cost.

      If you argue that it’s a case by case basis, do you propose certain standards? Say, fees on a sliding scale, and none for companies with endowments? I think that gets into a slippery slope, and any company could make the argument for fees.

      I’m not suggesting that audition fees are a form of fundraising, but a way of sharing costs. Without the fees, companies might not hold auditions at all, relying only on past performers and recommendations, closing opportunities to new talent. Can you clarify on what you mean by “misuse of personnel?”

      I agree that singers should be treated with respect, and please don’t confuse my strong language for “telling us we’re the problem.” My goal is to challenge singers to consider how they are participating in the art form they love – auditioning for companies is one way to do it, and if it doesn’t work out after a while, it’s not that the “field is stacked against singers” but that the singer should take the opportunity to assess where his/her talents really lie. I paid my share of audition fees for years before accepting that it’s ok if regional opera companies are not going to hire me.

      At a time when all of classical music is under serious threat, my argument is that we’re all in this together.

  2. lauridgoldenhersh says:

    Hi, Amanda — sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. The different in business reality between singers and instrumentalists is probably a topic for another time– that’s a rabbit hole I can’t travel down too far today. But I can’t dismiss some of the things you imply and actually state above as a mere misunderstanding of “strong language”. And no, I’m not suggesting a universal standard for who should charge and who shouldn’t — it must be left to the common sense and integrity of each company’s leaders, as every situation has many variables. (Of course, I’m largely an optimist.)

    However, it sounds like there are quite a few points where we agree: First and foremost, YES, we’re all in this together. Hear, hear. Also, singers should absolutely build an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and make career decisions accordingly. Finally, there may indeed be situations where audition fees are appropriate. I, too, have certainly paid quite a few, and chose situations where I was happy to do so. But charging fees does not equal collaboration, and it often both sends the wrong message and sets an unsustainable precedent. There are better ways to get the result we really want — a strong, vibrant arts community.

    I shall now attempt to offer the following example without making it sound like a commercial… 😉 :
    I am in full support of collaborative projects, productions and companies, as evidenced by unSUNg, our own summer concert series here in Southern California. With three varied showcase-style concerts in the off-season, we provide the opportunity to perform new and unusual “passion projects”, and most of the performers volunteer their time in return for venue, marketing, production costs, reception, pro recording and other perks. Some performers are paid by private arrangement with their presenters, but the series pays no one — not even ourselves. It’s a zero-sum project, presented by my company (Lauri’s List) and paid entirely with ticket sales, volunteer hours and my own contributions. This is one (albeit experimental and in-progress) approach to doing work that matters to performers and to the community, and encourages active collaboration between creators, singers and instrumentalists.

    I suspect (hope) we can agree on some of the following: I would love to see more small companies set up as collaborative troupes rather than top-down employers; more relationship-building where singers as well as instrumentalists perform with partners rather than hired accompanists; and above all, more personal and artistic investment in work that means more to the singer than just another gig.

    But a company charging audition fees is a one-sided answer to a complex question, and even if singers embrace your imperative to pay them, it doesn’t address the much larger issues in the arts. My quibble is really with the way you made your point, and rehashing that any further probably isn’t productive. Sounds like we have plenty of areas where we can all work together, and I look forward to seeing more on your blog.

  3. AV says:

    Two more things: start thinking of it more in this manner: these days, non-profit companies NEED to start thinking like for-profit companies to survive at all, because opera companies are closing right and left. Maybe consider getting investors that give actual cash rather than relying on the backs of your artists. Restaurants do it, why can’t you?
    And in regard to the “we’re privileged” comment: I think you know how horrible that sounds, and it does. Not everyone is in the same boat. Think about i.
    Basic point: don’t start (or continue to run) a company in this financial and artistic climate unless you have the solid financial backing to do so.

    • I won’t publish your previous comment due to foul language. For the record: I have never charged fees for auditions.

      Non-profits have been looking to for-profits for business ideas for years. The one difference is that “investors” in non-profits will never see their money back, let alone with profit. Investors are in the business of making money off of ventures that make money, like a good restaurant or a promising tech company. Non-profits are in the business of providing a public good that is not profitable on the open market, like a homeless shelter or a company devoted to non-commercial music.

      Opera companies might or might not make any profit by charging fees. In any case, fees can only help defray costs, and for a business with few revenue streams, any bit helps. As the live arts play a smaller and smaller role in our culture, I don’t think there is any such thing as “solid financial backing” anymore. If we all love opera and want it to thrive, we’re all in this together. Either be okay with the idea that your fees in some way help opera thrive, or find a more palatable use for your funds.

  4. Amanda, I acknowledge that this post dates from a year ago, but it’s making the rounds again now because this has once again become a topic of heated debate. Welcome to audition season!

    There has been a great deal of discussion in various singer forums about this over the couple of years. The consensus among singers now seems to be that a moderate application/audition fee is warranted for educational/training programs and competitions but *not* for professional mainstage auditions. The costs a producing organization incurs as part of their casting/hiring process is *their* cost of doing business. The singer should be responsible for theirs – preparation, coaching, transportation, audition pianist – but not for the expenses involved in holding the audition.

    I am in agreement with this point of view, and I don’t personally have a dog in this race – as a voice teacher, I am an advocate for singers and opera companies. Here is how I look at it. Suppose an opera company charges an application fee with no guarantee of an audition. The application fees that come in end up being equal to the company’s cost of holding the audition (so at least the company isn’t making a profit on the enterprise). They then grant auditions to 20% of the singers who applied, and then hire 5%. This means that 80% of the singers who applied provided 80% of the the expense of holding the audition without so much as being heard; another 15% made their contribution without being hired; and only 5% saw any return on that investment. I feel that if you are going to charge a fee, the person paying the fee must receive something of value in exchange for their fee. I do not believe that the opportunity to be considered for a job by a prospective employer carries a monetary value, whether or not you get an actual interview, but even if you argue that 15% of the unsuccessful applicants got *something* for their fee because you granted them an audition, the fact remains that 80% of your operating costs were provided by singers who received nothing at all in return. 95% of these fees went to creating opportunities for 5% of the contributors.

    I well understand how challenging it is for opera companies to remain viable, but they must find some way to meet their expenses other than foisting them off on their prospective employees. We cannot abide conditions where the 95% are footing the bill so that the other 5% can be gainfully employed for a little while. This is not a cooperative where singers are pooling their resources so that the fortunate few can make a go of it.

    Opera Candy’s petition was sweeping and incendiary, and we need a more nuanced approach. We do look to you for advice on business and budgeting issues, and I encourage you to revisit this issue.

    • Thank you, Claudia, for a considered response among some anonymous screeds. I only just saw this renewed discussion on Facebook – been a busy month for me too! – and I will clarify and address in the coming days. I dashed this off a year ago in response to that petition, with a title and a tone to get people’s attention. I was less successful in communicating my main points: the live arts need all the help they can get, each of us as artists has to be honest with ourselves about what we are really best suited for, and creating your own performance opportunities might, for some people, be a more fulfilling and productive way to contribute to the art form we love.

  5. rustygold1 says:

    I mostly agree with you. One caveat: refund application money if not a live audition! Definitely very upsetting.

    • rustygold1 says:

      Also, the concept of extending deadlines to keep cash coming in is clearly not legal and, I assume, conjecture on your part. Really would undermine your argument.

      • There are laws about deadlines? There are any number of reasons a company might extend their deadlines, and one of the conjectures many people have offered is that it simply is to collect more fees.

      • rustygold1 says:

        Angry singers; I’ve been one myself. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Application fees are usually or often part of educational and other “venues” for perfecting, displaying and developing one’s genius.

    • An opera company board member commented in an FB thread that the application process costs about the same per applicant whether or not an audition is granted. Issuing refunds would also incur its own costs in staff time and bank/credit card fees.

  6. rustygold1 says:

    Anyway, Frank Lopardo shared your blog on FB and we have been having a lively discussion! Check it out if you can.

  7. Fred says:

    You’re confusing a big issue: the source of your income. You say it’s easier to for a company to derive income from artists than through traditional fundraising. Of course it’s easier, you are talking about a revenue stream that comes from the youngest, brokest, most idealistic members of your professional community. These are folks who have sacrificed so much and likely have mountains of debt from the years of school and programs they need to follow this career.

    You bring up valid criticism regarding the mess that is Young Artist Programs. However, by your own statement, you are play a fundamental role in perpetuating this thing. Rather than seek out money from people who have lots of it, you are relying on those who very clearly do not. (and if the idea is to use the fee as a deterrent from applying, you are ensuring that less well off folks are less likely to apply)

    Artists do support other artists, however not usually with direct financial commitment. What artist has established a self-perpetuating endowment? Artists tend not to provide capital in artistic endeavors. This comes from our friends who have far more disposable income (also pensions), from community organizations, and from business. These are the folks who buy give money for our goods and services (tickets, merchandise, lessons). It is not unreasonable to ask artists to contribute financially to a given project but to rely on this as stable income is extremely short sighted.

    Why are you continuing to raise money this way? Because it’s easier, you say. Of course it’s easier, you are taking advantage of young, naive, highly broke people. Build up your community, don’t tear it down, there’s already so many forces trying to do that. The money is out there!!! If racking up $50 fees once a year is the key to your organization’s financial stability, than you some big problems. It’s always better to know where your income comes from than to assume folks will continue to play your game (especially when you’re no longer the only game in town, thanks internet!). And Things Are Changing:

    Colleges have begun eliminating application fees as they discriminate against low-income students. Guess what. College isn’t a job either, to reference your comment, but many universities have found other ways of balancing their budgets.


    Please stop exploiting young professionals who gave up financially stable careers to pursue one in the arts.

    Good to know you seem to give a great deal of respect to your employees and peers: “…Because opera singers are known for their solidarity and compassion.”

    • This comment gives me the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions: My one-person company has never charged anyone an application or audition fee. I am a singer who wanted to create my own productions. It has proven to be financially unsustainable for me, but is immensely fulfilling artistically and has given me opportunities I would otherwise never have had. I encourage all singers to consider their options.

  8. Carrie says:

    It’s a great way for a company to make money the same way a scam is a great way for someone to make money. For this reason, even in the worlds of acting and modeling, charging for auditions is considered the act of a scam. It is only in the world of opera where this is somehow a gross norm.

    • You’re right Carrie, it’s unfortunate that singers are the ones stuck with fees. I’m not sure what it would take for companies to stop charging fees altogether, or if they will ever have the motivation. Meanwhile, singers should rely on themselves to decide if their careers are benefitting from this application of their resources, and if they might find other forms of success by creating their own opportunities, pooling their resources, or otherwise being creative.

  9. operamoderne says:

    Dear Amanda, I appreciate what you’re trying to share here with this article, however, I and Opera Moderne have been misrepresented in this article and if you could please set the record straight…

    Opera Moderne charged a $20 – $25 pianist fee in which we always provided a top pianist and all of their info if the artist wanted to meet beforehand to coach or coordinate. The going rate for most pianists is generally $35 to come out and play an audition…thus we wanted to provide a more economical option for the artists. Never have we ever charged an “application fee” (of which this article refers), nor do we rely on the pianists fees to fund our programming. Our production of “Der Kaiser Von Atlantis” alone was over $25K to produce one run in NYC and was over 150K in Euro to put it up in Vienna, Austria. Much fundraising and grant writing was done to accomplish this and we take great pride in our efforts. Thus you can see how fees such as these only cover the auditioning and not a production. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding in interpreting or the comparison of numbers was misleading?

    Please make this clear in your article.

    Best regards,
    Rebecca Greenstein
    Executive Director
    Opera Moderne

  10. Constantine Kitsopoulos says:

    With respect, I think that charging an audition fee takes advantage of the seldom discussed notion that singers are hungry to sing and will do just about anything to be heard. In the world of music theatre and plays Equity companies do not charge audition fees. I would venture to guess that the number of actors out there is far greater than the number of singers. Actors are equally hungry to perform. The expenses associated with holding auditions are part of the cost of doing business. I understand the way non profit funding works all too well. To burden those that make the art with that part of the earned income equation is like asking a master electrician to pay for the privilege of giving you an estimate for his/her work. If the ratio of earned to unearned income is skewed in the “wrong” direction then it is incumbent on the non profit organization in question, and its board, to find a way to make a change that respects the artists. Without them there is no art.

    • Thank you Constantine, a lot of good points here. You’re right, actors and musical theatre performers are not charged fees. No doubt the fact that they have a union has something to do with that. On the other hands, actors are even more likely than singers to have to work for free, as they cannot practice their art in the practice room as much as we can. The fact that opera companies charge fees reflects the reality that it’s a cost that the market will bear.

      Auditions are a cost of doing business, but as one board member of an opera company put it in a comment thread on this topic, as a donor she did not feel motivated to subsidize the costs to applicants who do not make the cut. Electricians build the cost of estimates into their fees for service.

      The non-profit model is to rely heavily on donations, with the idea that the work is so worthwhile that donors will be motivated to move up the engagement chain. It’s true, for our art to thrive, we all need to find more creative ways to make it sustainable.

  11. “…we all come from a background privileged enough to afford the expensive training that opera demands…” Excuse me…! Apparently you do not know completely about the efforts that most opera singers have to do to pay for a singing lesson or a coaching session. not counting travel expenses for auditions, wardrobe, study materials, etc.

    Not all have been privileged to have the financial support of a family or a sponsor. Many have worked up to two jobs to pay for our studies and progress in this long and difficult career. And the saddest thing that even counting with the talent, voice and other elements to succeed in this career we are not noticed and remain in the largest musical anonymity without any chance to succeed.

    • Thanks for your comment Armando. You did choose to edit my quote, leaving off the first part “with few exceptions.” I do know the efforts singers go through: I did it for years before I decided I’d be more artistically fulfilled by striking out on my own. The system we have is flawed and yes, even tremendous talent doesn’t mean a pathway to success. That’s why I encourage singers to reassess what they’re doing with they’re limited resources. If the traditional path is not fulfilling – financially, artistically, or otherwise – it’s up to us to find a different, more creative way to make music.

  12. eric says:

    Every highly regarded company has a budget to fund the engagement of its creative and executive employees.This isn’t even a conversation – the arts have debased themselves so low – and to their appropriate stature as economic entities in society – to the debased level of requiring even those who would be their chief executives to pay for travel and expenses to interviews. There is no point to justify singers paying to audition or executives paying travel expenses to interviews. It is indicative of a company that is poorly run, poorly governed and broke – you don’t want to work for these people anyway.

  13. Pingback: Let’s Be Clear; The Real Problem Isn’t Application Fees | A Retro Diva in a Modern World

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