How does one get work as a more mature singer?
What are the obstacles to either expanding upon existing work or entering the field when one no longer qualifies as the next sparkling young phenom of the industry?
Certainly, it is entirely possible to have aged out of Young Artist Programs and many competitions without much headway in those and still have a career. Though many competitions are expanding somewhat ageist limits to offer their benefits to more than just the 20-something crowd, it remains to be seen whether the Young Artist model is sustainable both for the careers of singers and hiring companies themselves. The doors of entrepreneurship are perhaps more open to the enterprising, tech-savvy millennial, but as the gig life expands in every field, so too do outside-the-box opportunities for like-minded singers of all generations. If anything, gig culture has presented the idea that there is more than one way to skin a cat. A few working singers offer insights here.
Is a late start in the study of voice as career truly a drawback?
Jessica Cooper, soprano, attributes her late start in part to having had teenage parents who lacked the resources to give her early years much guidance. “I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do until I was 22.” On the advice of an uncle, she began studying voice. After two years of voice lessons, she began at San Diego State University for her bachelors. At age 27, she went on to New England Conservatory, graduating when she was 30 years old.
According to Cooper, being an “older” singer at the Conservatory level actually had its advantages. “My voice was more mature, I was more mature, and I was able to navigate politics in competition a little more easily than I might have had I been younger.”
Cooper says the pitfalls of starting later were obvious though. “Once I was in my mid 40s, it was very plain to see that sopranos between the ages of 28 and 35 had the distinct advantage. There is a lot of ageism in this field, and it is a cold awakening to be overlooked for someone with less experience. On the other hand, it is exciting to see other young singers get their start. I can’t say that (aside from disappointment) there’s any jealousy – I truly feel happy for my younger colleagues.”
By the age of 32, Cooper had placed in the Metropolitan New England Regional district finals twice, just two years before they lowered the age limit to 30. She ultimately gave up the New York City audition circuit after garnering more local work with the Boston Cecelia and more fully entering the Boston soloist circuit. She makes about a third of her income from gigs, the remainder from teaching, as well as continuing to foster her own project, The Henry Purcell Society of Boston, of which she is a founder.
Baritone David Kravitz also had an unconventional career path. He entered the field having aged out of Young Artist Programs because of having doubled down on his education. “I went to grad school for voice right after college, and law school a couple of years later. After practicing full-time for about six years, I decided to see if I could build a more serious singing career. So, in my early 30s, I stopped practicing law full-time, although I continued doing some legal work as a consultant, and started auditioning and seeking out management. In my early 40s, I had built up enough singing work to make that my only professional occupation, and so for about eight years I took a break from law and was only a singer. And, a little over a year ago, I went back to law, this time for the Attorney General of Massachusetts. I’m still singing actively, but now within the confines of a full-time job.”
With his most recent career shift/return, Kravitz finds himself able to still perform in short-term opera and oratorio rehearsals, but perhaps not as heavily involved in the extended traveling he did before he went back to practicing law.
On the challenges of entering the profession later, Kravitz believes success comes from thinking and working outside the box. “Of course, certain opportunities to make a splash, like young artist programs and most competitions, are not available to singers who start later. So you have to be more creative and entrepreneurial in making your own opportunities and finding ways to bring yourself to the attention of folks in a position to hire.”
Knowing your niche
Regardless of whether you went through a traditional career trajectory, the biggest key to job prospects in an older age bracket is probably honing one’s niche. Baritone Andy Papas had what he describes as a somewhat typical trajectory with regard to his graduate degree and a few YAP programs, but he came at his professional career by hitting small companies of the regional circuit. His success is due to a combination of a specific character baritone niche with versatility in opera, operetta, and musical theatre as well as a dogged determination toward seeking out auditions. Not having been cast in lead opera roles as an undergraduate, he instead did a number of musical theatre roles at the University of Michigan. He credits this with enlivening and refining his acting skills, because he was surrounded by excellent theatre actors on their way to professional broadway careers.
“The next few years after grad school, I would work at small companies on the regional circuit, often doing cover or comprimario roles and teaching in my spare time. I did my first Major General in The Pirates of Penzance, (now a signature role), at Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis at 26, but spent much of the following three years cutting my teeth singing for Opera for the Young, a professional touring company based in Madison, WI. Though it was hard work, and transportation from home wasn’t covered, we Earned between $600 and $700+ a week (actually just M-Fri), and it was incredibly fulfilling work. A decent paycheck on the regional circuit!”’
Remarking that is has taken him many years to piece together a full living at singing, he supplements his gigs with teaching, church jobs, and other performing like caroling gigs, etc.
“The biggest pitfall of starting late, or creating your own path, as I did, is that everything has to be self motivated. I’m blessed to have lots of Jewish and Catholic guilt in my heart that doesn’t let me sit idle, but it gets daunting to spend my free time every week looking up auditions and figuring out non-traditional ways to make money from singing. I have many friends and colleagues who have given it up because it’s too difficult to stay motivated, especially in the face of rejection.”
Papas recommends “finding an industry professional to mentor you and assess your raw talent and ability before you quit your job or make a total life change. It’s not easy, and it’s not glamorous, but if you can hack it, it’s worth a shot.”
Several years ago, while speaking at the Opera America Conference, Fort Worth opera director Darren K. Woods suggested individual singers implement their own “board of directors” to regularly strategically plan and check in on career goals. This seems particularly relevant when approaching how to land jobs in a place between “Young Artist” and managed singer.
Reigning in the power of online resources
The wonderful thing about our current gig economy and the way the internet has enhanced our entrepreneurial reach has an unfortunate inverse result. Everyone else has access to the same auditions in a way that has expanded competition in the last 15 to 20 years. The reach of YAP Tracker has increased the number of singers being heard for each company in a way that just didn’t exist for people entering the field decades ago.
Still, there are opportunities to earn income like never before through online apps. Unrelated freelance work apps like Lyft and Taskrabbit are important to supplemental income but there are even apps that help within the field; those that support the creation of teaching studios, connect singers with studio space and more. Creating one’s own marketing is now dramatically more accessible to the general public. Singers today can design their own websites relatively easily and inexpensively, and their online portfolios can be scouted out and reached by more audiences than previously possible. And it’s never been easier to create an online presence for the launch of a new ensemble or company. One’s online presence can include other correlating career skills like editing, massage therapy, and Alexander Technique, as well as expansions on the career itself like teaching, directing, composition, and career coaching.
The dramatic voice
Considering that the largest voices don’t dominate the audition circuit, it is still worth noting that dramatic voices tend to take more time to train and develop their often unwieldy instruments. This population then has the inherent problem of often having to enter the field later. It used to be about biding your time until the voice locked in, but now the cost of education, (i.e., paying off loans), and the rising cost of living makes staying in the career difficult.
Thankfully, programs like the Dalora Zajick Institute for Young Dramatic Voices at least offer training, exposure, and connections to those who face this issue. Hopefully, more will follow suit.
The late-blooming career: male vs. female
It is also worth noting here that the majority of singers with an unconventional career path, through my purely anecdotal research in a survey of the singing community, tended to be male and that the profession is still saturated by female singers in tight competition with one another for paying gigs. This reality of the business doesn’t have an immediate solution, but one can always find a supportive singing community within which to flourish. And in fact, it pays to befriend singers in the same fach for when subs are needed and opportunities arise; in both directions.
The hustle is real:
Papas weighs in on the hustle it takes to maintain a long-standing career that also pays the bills; “The summer after my first professional principal role, the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance, I was faced with an upcoming year with lots of holes in my schedule. Having seen the crowd roar the night before (after my performance of the MG’s famous patter song), my home stay host turned to me and said, “I saw you last night. You killed and the crowd loved it. So, what if you never do another show? Someday, when people ask, you can say “I did it, and it killed”. I revisit that advice all the time, and take solace in the fact that even if my singing career ended tomorrow, I can say that I did it.”
Similarly, Kravitz says: “Do it because you love it, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else!”