The odds are against you – so beat the odds!
The vast majority of opera singers have no prospects for job security finding long-term jobs. A portfolio career is inevitable.
The German Bertelsmann Foundation – who runs the prestigious Neue Stimmen Vocal Competition – has presented the results of a study it has sponsored on May 6, 2019 in Berlin. The year-long study itself was carried through by the Berlin-based Institute for Culture and Media Economy. The book is currently available only available in German on Amazon but there are plans for an English version to be published in 2020.
Although the title of the book is a positive sounding – Opera Singer with a Future! – the findings of the study are anything but positive. The study concentrates on the education and training opportunities at music academies and conservatories as well as the job market at opera houses in Germany; using employment data collected at the 80 state-subsidized German opera houses. In fact, there are as many additional institutions that are not directly subsidized by the state or federal government – their employment statistics are not included here, but it can be safely assumed that they show similar tendencies.
The key takeaways from the 183-page book: (for the sake of simplicity, the author uses the term music conservatory for all music schools, conservatories, academies and universities)
Undergraduate and graduate education at music conservatories:
- There has been a significant increase in students in the category of singing at music conservatoires, universities, colleges and academies:
- + 63% from 2000 to 2017, with an overly high proportion of soprano voices as opposed to other voice types.
- The more on-stage experience a singer receives during his/her time in a music conservatory, the higher the chances for post-graduation employment.
- Academic productions should be designed with the involvement of all trades, if possible with their own rehearsal department and workshops. Best practice example: Theater Academy August Everding in Munich.
- For real-life, practical production and performance conditions, there should be more cooperation between the music conservatories and opera houses.
- Timely and constructive criticism should be promoted through close-to-market feedback from voice teachers and active professionals in the music theater business, including agents, all of whom should not be shy to give realistic professional assessments.
- Practical subjects such as basic legal and rights issues, time-management, self-marketing, professional social media competency, psychological focus techniques, digital competence, self-management or agency management topics should be an integral part the curriculum.
- Opera singers should receive a broader curriculum with drama, orchestral music, visual arts making them more able to integrate into the rapidly expanding field of cultural education outside the opera houses (for example in the UK where there are over 14,000 “Community Music Workers)
- There are no perpetrators or victims in the classical sense: the current higher education policy is fixed on quantities of students rather than quality. Too many are encouraged to study without real life job prospects available upon graduation. Note: From 2016, German universities receive a bonus from the state of 4,000€ for each student who successfully completes their undergraduate studies.
- This situation can only be solved with individual sober-realistic assessments at a very early stage by selfless individuals who have no vested interests such as increasing their own quota of students.
The reality for an opera singer market for young professionals:
- Between the 1994/95 and the 2016/17 season, there has been a decline of -18.5% opera performances and -57.6% less operetta performances
- The decline of the category “constantly engaged” solo singer: -19% from 2000/2001 to 2016/17. This category refers to the German “Fest” contract where he/she is engaged for an entire season; “solo singer” as opposed to member of the chorus, which is another tariff category.
- The length of a career is shortened: “If you are older than mid-30s as a soubrette and your voice does not develop in a lyrical direction, you most likely will have to look for a different job.” (Wolf Borchers, ZAV – state run employment agency)
- Considerably intensified competition by excellently trained singers from other European and non-European countries: In 2017 alone, 218 work permits were issued to singers from the EU for employment at a state-subsidized opera house – this corresponds to around 20% of all solo singers with a “Fest” contract.
- The small number of opera singers with a future in the music theater business requires them to not only show vocal brilliance but also fulfill the contemporary casting requirements in an age increasingly dominated by the stage director. Young, slender, good looking singers will be have an advantage.
- The ensemble structure of an opera house has to be flexible enough to serve audience preferences by presenting new “faces”. Put another way: the length of a “fest” contract may very well just be for one season.
- “Star” names continue to be important for the main roles, especially at festivals: “You do not think so much in terms of the ensemble. You try to cast the top name you can afford.” (Daniel Herzog, opera director Staatstheater Augsburg)
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While it is difficult to get accurate statistics because of the many divergent factors, the German Hans-Boeckler-Foundation has asked Maximilian Norz (artist, Global Public Policy Institute consultant and Harvard MBA) to make a study on “Fair working conditions in the arts and in music?!” in 2016. The 120-page study (available only in German) goes into great detail to define the German job market situation and prospects.
The gist for opera singers comes down to this statement: “there are about 80 free lance opera singers worldwide who are constantly engaged. Then there are about 8000 free lance opera singers worldwide who do not have a job. The rule of thumb has been so far – three free lance engagements per season are enough to make a living for the entire year.” However, with the current tendency to pay lower fees, and the lack of job opportunities, this rule of thumb may not apply anymore.
Even in the smaller ensembles, opera houses should be careful to fill the roles with singers that match the level of development of their voices. A young singer can easily “over sing” and thus shorten a career.
Opera singers currently in a “Fest” contract at opera houses must prepare for precarious earning opportunities after the termination of their contract. There are no guarantees that they will find further employment in other German houses in a “Fest” position. The days of “climbing the ladder” from an initial contract in a small “C” house up to a major “A” house are as good as over.
Some Key Facts for Self-Employed Singers:
- There has been a significant increase in primarily self-employed opera, operetta and musical singers registered with the KSK (state social security agency for artists): + 129% from 2000 to 2016.
- The development of income levels among freelance singers (-11% from 2000 to 2016) is below the average for all industries (+ 33%)
- Self-employed singers in the survey actively pursue freelance work and participate in competitions (as long as they still qualify within the age limits) in order to gain visibility.
- Most alternative fields of work (gigs) are characterized by low earnings and temporary, project-related working conditions.
- The so-called free music scene (in Germany: any organization that does not receive state subsidies) is being organized on an ever higher professional level. The “amateur shows” are on their way out, the public expects a professional standard.
- At the same time, the criteria for organizations receiving grants from any state, federal private institution is getting more stringent. The bureaucratic processes for applying for grants is getting more complex (this is especially true for any grants from the EU).
Opera Studios/Young Artist Programs
- As of the 2019/2020 there will be 28 Opera Studios/Young Artist Programs operating as part of the respective opera house. In some cases, these YAPs work in conjunction with the on-site music conservatory, in most cases not.
- The contracts for the singers last anywhere from one to three years. The participants are given vocal and scenic coaching and small roles, less so diction coaching or coaching on other topics that will prepare them for the time after the contract runs out.
- The main criticism that is heard regarding the YAPS is that its participants are a source of “cheap labor” because the opera house saves on entry level ensemble members’ contracts.
- By and large, though, these YAPS are a welcome addition to the system as they provider much needed stage experience.
Viable alternative: the chorus
- So as not to close on a pessimistic note, the study goes to great length in exploring the opportunities for becoming a member of an opera (or other paying institution) chorus:
- Good opera singers can build a future in the field of chorus singing:
- The number of choral positions at opera houses has remained relatively stable: only a decline of – 3.2% from 2000/01 to 2016/17.
- Salaries of choristers are often higher than the salaries of many soloists.
- To be a member of the chorus in an opera house requires specific vocal profiles and artist personalities.
- There is a need for a change of awareness and anchoring in the training system for choruses: “If a chorus had its own professional image, it would relieve the burden on the theater. So far, it’s more like a bunch of frustrated soloists just waiting for the soloist to make a mistake” (Christian Firmbach, General Manager Oldenburg State Theater) “Here it should be the task of the training institutes to make the professional chorus recognizable as a good career option. Ideally, by setting up a master’s degree program “Chorus singer” (statement by ZAV)
- Alternatively, or additionally, students interested in chorus work should be able to gain practical experience in well-managed university choruses or through cooperation with opera and radio choruses.
For opera professionals the Bertelsmann study confirms what has been known for some years now. It is “reassuring” – of sorts – to have one’s intuitive knowledge be confirmed by an official study.
The clear picture that emerges is that it is up to academic institutions to prepare their budding opera singers – and other musicians – better for real, practical life beyond the academic cocoon. What is missing is a collective and concerted culture of responsibility with design competence for alternative career paths within the training and placement system.
All singers must be prepared for a future beyond opera, with the exploration of different career path opportunities already at the time of their academic education. Students must be prepared for “portfolio” careers based on a freelance existence. These options need to be firmly anchored within the curriculum.
In the current (worst case) scenario, the free-market system will disillusion the young singers soon enough – but at what cost, both financially and life-time spent on a course of study that will not provide the qualifications for a profession with a sustainable income. Surely it is in everyone’s interest to find and implement positive changes.