Gender Disparity in Opera, Part Two: : Opportunity versus Debt

Three out of every four singers that graduate today with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in vocal performance are female. So it stands to reason that there should be an expectation for good gender parity in school operas. And yet enrollment, scholarships, and performance opportunities are hardly equal between men and women.

This is a complex issue that starts with admissions. Voice and opera programs, especially at the better known institutions, are very big. More and more vocal performance degree programs are being offered in small colleges across the country, and now just about anyone can find somewhere to get a singing degree.

Why are programs accepting so many voice students? Unsurprisingly this boils down to money, and unfortunately many schools take advantage of people willing to pay full tuition or close to it. Complicating this further is the painful-but-true fact that students with the biggest scholarships are usually the students with the best performing opportunities in school.

Female singers as a whole take on significantly more school debt than their male colleagues. College voice programs end up in bidding wars with each other for the best male singers. Thus, male singers often win bigger scholarships and get more performing opportunities than females.

Soprano Ashley Gryta recently finished graduate school at a well regarded conservatory. “My current debt from both undergraduate and graduate education combined is $180,000,” she says. “At this point, I have put my federal loans in forbearance in hopes of making a dent in the private loans.”

Gryta explains how her debt affects her life. “The debt is something I think about at least a few times a week,” she continues. “‘I’d love to do X but I have XX amount to pay this month, so I can’t.’ ‘I’d love to live in a nicer place, but I can’t afford it.’ Sometimes, just the thought of the actual number that I owe makes me feel like I’m suffocating. It is the equivalent of a really nice house in my hometown.”

Marie N. Harrington, a sophomore vocal performance major at a prestigious conservatory, feels the financial weight of her situation. “I have what is considered a great scholarship,” she says, “but am still paying $30,000 a year for my undergraduate education.”

Many singers become so consumed by debt that they have to give up singing entirely. “I was always told that my instrument is very special and that I have a lot of potential,” says Amanda Villegas, a 35-year-old soprano. “Unfortunately, the cost of the career coupled with the overwhelming burden of student loans (I owe $150,000) made it necessary for me to make the difficult decision to change careers in order to have a financially viable future. I am now a public school teacher in NYC. I love my new path and I still sing when I can—but if my student loan debt wasn’t so crippling, I may still be pursuing a full-time career in singing.”

Many of these women with incomprehensible amounts of debt did not get to sing even one full role during their degree programs. “I didn’t have many solo opportunities in school,” Gryta says. “I sang in a children’s opera, did an opera scene, and was a concert soloist a few times with the choirs. I had several colleagues tell me that they didn’t know what my voice sounded like until my recital.”

Harrington says the situation at her school is similar. “There are exactly 60 sopranos at my school, and only a small handful of them are getting roles (whereas nearly every male has at least one role). So in this program, designed to give people training opportunities and prepare them for the real world, so many women are not getting anything at all. That isn’t good, considering what they pay to go here.”

Let’s take a look at a pretty common scenario. A soprano is accepted into the graduate vocal performance program of a well known conservatory with a modest scholarship. The cost of two years of her education, after fees, is $64,000. She takes one federal loan of $45,000 and two private loans totaling $19,000. The federal loan is locked in at a 4.5 percent interest rate, and the private loans are locked in at 3.8 percent. It takes this soprano 12 years to pay off the private loan and 25 years to pay off the federal loan. (Note that the yearly tuition, interest rates, and payoff time frames are all optimistic.)

The total amount this soprano is paying after interest is approximately $100,000—for two years of graduate school. Let that number sink in. It is likely that her monthly loan payments will be equal to or greater than rent payments for the next decade or two. Chances are slim that this woman will be able to pay for all of her expenses solely from paid singing work. Will she be able to manage pursuing a singing career as well as a correlating career? Probably, but it won’t be easy. Handling a dual career (which is necessary for almost all working singers; see my September CS article, “Getting Real: The Correlating Career”) is much easier when the singer is not burdened with unfathomable amounts of debt.

Conservatories are certainly not the only institutions leaving young singers with crippling debt. “I attended state schools for both degrees on significant scholarship, and still ended up with over $80,000 in debt,” says Jesslyn Thomas Echeverria, a 30-year-old soprano. “Without my husband’s financial support, I would probably be living with my parents or with many roommates and working multiple restaurant jobs.”

Taking on debt for undergraduate studies is arguably slightly less problematic than for graduate studies, as a bachelor’s degree in music can serve as a strong base for any number of careers, many of which are non-music related. One can use this time to “find themselves” and figure out what it is they truly want to do and choose graduate studies accordingly (should graduate studies prove necessary for the chosen career path). It is up to the student and their family to determine how much debt is too much debt for an undergraduate education, based on their personal financial situation.

After graduation, men are far more likely to find quality singing opportunities and paid work, whereas women (who have more debt) have a much harder time finding opportunities—especially ones that pay. “I grew up being told that I had to go to college and that taking out student loans is no big deal, everyone does it,” says Echeverria. “I was assured I could pay it all back with the job I would get upon graduating. Ha! No one prepared me for the fact that it doesn’t work this way in our field.”

Some Possible Solutions to the Problem

The solution to the “debt versus opportunity” issue starts with you, the singer. Changes will not be made until students speak up. The student is the consumer! Students must advocate for themselves to ensure that they get the most amount of scholarship possible and, just as importantly, make it clear that they expect to have significant and worthwhile performing opportunities while in school. If it is clear that a program will not guarantee you an affordable education with plenty of opportunities, don’t take the leap. When you are dealing with the amount of debt that the majority of female singers are, it is really important that you get what you need.

Student as consumer does not mean that a student should march into a voice lesson and say to the teacher, “You work for me.” Nor does it give the student the right to treat faculty members with disrespect, blow off assignments they don’t like, or voice unreasonable demands. Rather, students should feel comfortable having conversations with administration and faculty about their expectations and needs throughout their education. Once you do the math on per-credit cost, you should feel more than validated in voicing concerns and advocating for yourself.

Institutions also need to take responsibility. Yes, a college degree in any field does not guarantee a job in that field. But degree programs preparing students for a field with as little opportunity and as low a median income as ours should be smaller and more selective. Two essential solutions for adequately preparing and supporting students in undergraduate programs are a) limiting program size and b) offering ample performance opportunities to those students accepted.

When undergraduate faculty members listen to auditions, they can’t know what will become of an 18-year-old’s voice and future career. All the faculty can go on in the audition is potential. If a singer is very talented and shows promise, then the undergraduate program should accept them. Graduate voice programs should be even more selective and difficult to be admitted to. If the faculty feels that a graduate school applicant cannot handle even a small role onstage, they should not accept that student into the program. This prepares applicants for the type of competition they will encounter in the field.

It’s true that some singers will bloom and grow massively during their studies, going from an average singer with seemingly little potential to a singer of note with huge potential. But the amount of money being spent on degree programs by so many women is a huge gamble no matter which way you spin it.

There are always gray areas and exceptions. There may be singers on major or full-ride scholarships that do not have many performance opportunities while in school, and singers paying a fortune and getting every penny’s worth. Those with significant school debt don’t always regret taking it on. It’s difficult to foresee exactly what type of experience a singer will have, but it is important to realize that you have more control over your “school fate” than you may think. While I am hopeful that institutions will take steps to alleviate gender disparity in voice and opera programs, more immediate action can be taken by incoming female voice students addressing the inequality and strongly advocating for change.

Time in school is often very fulfilling and can even be magical. I do not wish to discourage singers from pursuing degrees that interest them, but rather hope to arm and empower young people considering degree programs. Do your research prior to applying to schools and question whether or not the degree will truly serve you. Ensure that you are as prepared as possible for auditions to improve your chances at scholarship. Once enrolled, advocate for yourself, have open and honest conversations, be a great colleague, and strive to be a committed, hardworking student.

***Take Control of Your Education***
Here are ways you can proactively research prospective schools and then make the most of your education once admitted.

-When visiting potential schools, shadow a current student and ask lots of questions about the program. Find out what classes you will be taking, what ensembles exist, and what solo performance opportunities there are for female singers. Ask about the “politics” of the department and what the climate is like. Talk to as many current students as you can, so that you can learn about many people’s varied experiences.
-Create a “wish list” of what you are looking for in a school. With the help of family, guidance counselors, and other trusted mentors, set a cap of how much you are willing to spend for this ideal education (and stick to it).
-Ask for the data on scholarships for voice majors—how many are awarded and how much they are. Young women should find out how many scholarships are awarded specifically to females.
-Seek student loan counseling and learn as much as you can about debt. Be certain that you understand how accrued interest works, how to calculate a monthly payment, and how much you would need to make to keep up with your payments comfortably after graduation.
-Seek outside private funding and scholarships. Keep a spreadsheet of requirements and deadlines and stay on top of these applications.
-In collaboration with your voice teacher and other trusted mentors, ensure that your audition prescreen video is very well prepared and shows you at your absolute best. Keep polishing the repertoire in preparation for live auditions and pay attention to the details (technique, diction, phrasing, presentation, etc.). This kind of preparation will increase your chances for getting scholarships.
-If you are absolutely sure you want to go to graduate school, consider taking one to two years after undergrad to work as much as possible and save money toward grad school tuition. This will help prevent future debt from piling up and accruing interest.
-When in school, don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel (albeit a respectful, polite one). Audition for as many opportunities as possible—and if you feel you are being overlooked, meet with the faculty and discuss this with them. Create your own opportunities through student groups, collaborations with instrumentalists and composers on chamber music and new works, workshops organized through the local student NATS chapter, etc.
-While in school, start exploring what your niche within classical music may be—early music, oratorio, contemporary music, crossover singing, etc.
-Take theory, sight singing, and overall musicality very seriously. Many of the best paying gigs in the professional singing world have nothing to do with opera and require excellent musicians with great reading skills.
-If you are really unhappy with what you are getting (or not getting), leave the school or transfer. Don’t let the debt accumulate knowing that you are not getting what you need!
-If you are not granted auditions for the voice programs that interest you or are admitted to programs but not awarded good scholarships, consider that this may not be your path. There are many ways to have singing in your life that do not involve pursuing it as your primary career. It is also possible to become a professional (or semi-professional) singer without a degree in voice!

Dana Lynne Varga

Dr. Dana Lynne Varga is a sought-after soprano, voice teacher and career coach, as well as the Founder and Artistic Director of MassOpera. She was the 2016 first place winner of the CS Competition; Emerging Professional division. Dana is currently on the Voice and Opera faculty of the Longy School of Music at Bard College in Cambridge, MA. She regularly presents vocal master classes as well as classes on business and entrepreneurship for singers all over the east coast. Please visit www.danavarga.com and www.theempoweredmusician.com.