Inspirazione! An OPERA Ameirca Workshop Debriefing : Make Sure Your Publicity Materials Speak For You

My artistic spirit always feels a bit of a twinge when I hear the phrase “the business of singing.” Isn’t it a little bit like “real polyester,” “sanitary dump,” or “jumbo shrimp?” Fortunately, the OPERA America weekend in San Francisco this past January avoided the phrase and called its conference “Building a Career: Strategies for Success—a business workshop for opera singers.”

It is impossible to cover all the topics of the conference in this space, so I’ll concentrate on current practices for materials (résumés, photos, bios, recordings, etc.). I will cover some of the other topics the workshop discussed—such as acting for singers, collaboration on new works, and the singer-manager relationship—at greater length in future articles.

The most important rule of thumb with materials is to make sure they accurately reflect your skill level and that you send them to the right people at the right time. You can waste time, money, and emotional energy seeking jobs for which you’re not qualified. General conferences like this OPERA America workshop can never take the place of truthful, personal feedback from carefully chosen people, or from your own inner wisdom about your development. Assuming your vocal and artistic bases are covered, here is some of what seemed to meet with general agreement among the panel.

The different perspectives of company directors, managers, and singers were well represented on the panels and I came away from the event with a more detailed and more realistic picture of how these relationships work. As Bill Palant from IMG Artists said on the first day: “This is a business of relationships.”

As you review the information that follows—much of it will be review—keep in mind that these are guidelines to help those relationships function well, not rulings from Mount Olympus on what you must do.

In my view, that can be the danger of attending conferences like these. You can get swallowed up in “shoulds,” in looking for the illusive “what they want,” and lose your center. It’s really quite simple. Just as you appreciate it when coworkers do their jobs efficiently, company directors, managers, agents, and publicity people appreciate singers who have good materials and take it upon themselves to keep those materials up to date. If you present yourself skillfully and truthfully you will be, as one singer on the panel put it, “working in partnership” with others to promote your career.

Résumés: Include role, piece, composer, organization, and year (not month). Include
roles studied even if you have many roles performed. Include competitions won, education, and other significant training. Include special skills and other things that make you stand out, such as being fluent in a language, the instruments or sports you play, and degrees in subjects other than music. (Most of these guidelines are for companies and publicists. The discussion included a rather stark statement that managers “don’t care about education.”)

Include only the names of people you have worked with and who would know and recommend you. (That means no masterclasses, or one-time meetings.) Put galas with orchestra under “concert work.” If you’ve covered a role, put “cover.” If you’ve gone on as a cover, you’ve done the role, so omit “cover.”

Be truthful and specific about where you’ve done something. A school outreach show is not the main stage, so don’t try to put one over on anybody. “The truth will out!”

Be succinct—no prose, please—and please, no recommendations from your voice teacher or anyone else on your payroll. (The people who see your materials want to absorb as much as they can as quickly as possible, so reading your résumé during your audition should not give offense; it’s a necessity for them.)

Cover letters: Be clear what you’re auditioning for—main stage, outreach, Young Artist Program, or chorus. Never begin a letter with: “To whom it may concern.” Take the time to find out the name of the person you’re addressing, and for heaven’s sake, make sure you spell their name correctly. And get the gender right, for all those “Robins” and “Pats” out there. Mention any connection you have to the company, or anything you know about them and what they’re doing.

On the subject of thank you notes and follow-up postcards, if you have some relationship with the person or have worked with them, by all means, keep them posted on what you’re doing. One company director said candidly that unsolicited materials from unknown singers ended up in the trash. Another said, “Don’t waste your money; just send me a jpeg of your résumé.”

Photos: Photos are usually digital these days, so make sure your e-mailable photo is up to snuff. Color is more usual than black and white for most publicity uses. The fashion in headshots is toward the more theatrical (à la actor) headshots. Stay away from “glam” shots, and above all, make sure the photo looks like you. (A pet peeve in the discussion: the “floating head”—a black background and a black turtleneck. Likewise, avoid too much white if you are fair with fair hair.)

Sending CDs: Some said save your money. Another said he’d listen but that it had to grab him within 15 seconds. Just as you want your headshot to look like you, your CD needs to sound like you. Being able to hear your voice is more important than whether you sing with orchestra or piano, live, or in the studio.

Working with companies and publicists: Publicist Elizabeth Connell Nielsen stressed the importance of making sure that singers send up-to-date materials ahead of time to the company they’re working with. And if you can, include some interesting angles or sidelines in your bio to help the publicity department. Everyone agreed that it is the singer’s job to make sure that photos and bios are up-to-date, both with the companies and with his or her manager, and that sending outdated materials is a common mistake.

It’s a good idea to check with the publicist the first day you arrive for a job, if not before, to make sure they’ve got what they need, and to put a date on your bio along with the line “please destroy all previous material.”

I have more than once contacted a company to give them my bio, only to be told: “That’s OK. We already got it off your website.” So make sure your website is up to date. And if you like to tweak your bio differently for different jobs, it’s your responsibility to make sure they’ve got the right stuff.

In general, the opera company pros implored us not to be the sort of singer who blames everyone but themselves. If something goes wrong, they suggested, look in the mirror before looking elsewhere.

Diana Hossack, former managing director of OPERA America, put it beautifully as we closed the session on materials: “Know what message you’re sending and be proud of who you are.”

At the end of the second day, a singer’s panel provided plenty of encouragement to get out there, do our best, treat everything (including competition) as an opportunity, and learn from every experience. A very frank discussion of how difficult it is to succeed cited the usual grim statistics on singer employment. (Compare the number of union members to the number of singers emerging from conservatory, if you want a fairly vivid picture.) Even if you train, study, network, and write the perfect résumé, the numbers don’t lie.

The broad consensus seemed to be that being a singer and having a career are by no means the same thing. Tenor John Duykers encouraged singers to sing for their whole lives. Others chimed in, mentioning a variety of other interesting careers in the field, from administration, to singing in the chorus, to being a board member.

At some point, the conversation moved from how tough it is to get into the business to how tough it is once you have a career. An earlier comment about a lonely life on the road engendered echoes from others. A combination of fatigue and camaraderie had accumulated over the two days, and the singers on the panel began to open up. We heard about news of a divorce arriving the night before an important premiere, word of a father’s stroke coming long distance and not being able to return home, a lonely holiday abroad watching the same five-minute loop of CNN news because it was the only thing on TV in English. And then, having sacrificed so much for your art, being in a lousy production with people you can’t stand and the constant questions of “is this sacrifice worth it?”

Seeking out comprehensive, reliable information and good advice can help you make career choices and set goals that are in alignment with reality and give you what one friend of mine calls some “empowered realism.” It may help you feel inspired to work harder and approach your quest for a singing career with more gusto, or it may help you gain the clarity you need to examine your goals and do some reprioritizing.

I spoke with one very talented, and by most standards very successful young tenor who was seriously considering a career as an agent because he thought it might make a better life for him and his family.

Events like this OPERA America workshop can inspire new insights and wisdom, so making time and space to process your feelings with compassion is essential to making the most of the experience. Professional conventions are fabulous ways to take a dip in the world of the professional classical singer and see how you like the water—but it’s important to wade or swim without drowning. You’re being asked to absorb not only facts and practices, but also the emotional and psychological realities of a very challenging career landscape.

I took a break and skipped a session during the weekend because I knew I just couldn’t absorb any more. I needed time to remember Lisa the person, not Lisa the singer. I’ve seen singers who leave a convention feeling not inspired but overwhelmed, because they didn’t take care of themselves.

If you’re planning to attend the Classical Singer Convention, make sure to pace yourself. Take a break, a quiet moment or two; go to lunch, have fun! I’ll be leading an early morning session on “Meditation for Singers,” which will offer some tips for staying centered throughout the day, so don’t forget to set your alarm clocks and come join me.

Even if you’re not coming to the Convention, you may already be feeling overwhelmed. In that case, you can always take what I call an “outreach break” or an “audition fast,” when you just let go of looking for work for a while. Focus on art or life, and let things come to you for a period of time.

As I said at the beginning, having good materials facilitates the functioning of relationships within your career—and the most important relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at