Bass Kevin Langan has made a living purely on his worldwide singing engagements for 39 years. His career has taken him to all of the major opera companies and almost every regional opera house in North America, as well as to many companies in Europe. He has over 80 roles in his repertoire and has done almost 1,400 career performances. Langan has also appeared on five opera DVDs and a number of Grammy-nominated recordings. A skilled pedagogue who can teach voice on all levels, Langan is on the faculty of the Westminster Choir College of Rider University Florence Voice Seminar held in Florence, Italy, where he teaches for three weeks in the late spring.
In addition to singing, Langan is also lecturing on the business part of the career, taking knowledge gleaned from those nearly four decades on the stage and sharing it with the next generation at Young Artist and summer programs. He was eager to discuss his career and share his business advice in this Classical Singer exclusive.
Where did you study and who was your most important teacher?
I have both a bachelor’s and master’s degree with high distinction in vocal performance from Indiana University, where I studied with the late renowned pedagogue Margaret Harshaw. Besides the five years I worked with her while pursuing my music degrees at Indiana, she remained my vocal mentor for another 17 years while I sang professionally. I was also a protégé of the late EMI record producer Walter Legge and his wife, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who opened my eyes to the interpretive side of music.
The combination of those three individuals gave me a complete education in the art of singing. Coaches are essential to the process as well, and most of my repertoire was coached with one of the best of my generation, Martha Gerhart, formerly of the New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Southern Methodist University.
How have you managed to maintain your singing career for such a long time?
In order to achieve the vocal longevity to maintain a professional career for almost 40 years, I stress that singers must study technique rigorously for a period of time, preferably even after the school years have ended. They need to obtain and, more importantly, comprehend the knowledge of vocal technique as they begin to pass through the aging process of the human body. Once into their 30s, the ability to sing purely on youth fades. It is at this point that reliance on technique becomes absolutely essential. Without it, many singers vanish from the professional scene as vocal issues creep in that require technical knowledge to overcome.
I have seen many supremely talented singers race to the top of the profession in their 20s only to vanish from the business over their next decade as lack of a technique stripped them of all their natural abilities. Sometimes, vocal abuse or singing in the wrong Fach contributes to that premature demise. If you still have a teacher to resort to at that point, all the better. I studied with Harshaw until I was in my mid 40s.
Actually, singers don’t stop studying voice and technique until the day they retire professionally. My teacher’s aim was to enable me to be able to fix problems without her assistance as they cropped up over a lifetime of singing. Twenty-two years of study with Harshaw allowed me to achieve that goal and has led me to continue to sing technically well into my 60s. So, if a vocal coach mentions something they hear now that needs fixing, I can usually do that myself. That was Harshaw’s goal with all her students. To give them the tools and knowledge to be able to fix their problems on their own.
The García method Harshaw learned from her teacher, Anna Schoen-René, who had worked directly with Pauline Viardot-García, is infallible and works for all voices, male and female. Hundreds of well known singers who pursued careers in the 19th and 20th centuries worked with teachers who had made contact with Viardot-García or her brother Manuel García Jr. and then returned to their respective countries in Europe or America to pass on this technique to others. You would be amazed at how many of your favorite artists from the last 200 years sang using the García method, which they learned from García disciples. This vocal “family tree” has fanned out incredibly over those two centuries!
How necessary is it to have a doctor of musical arts degree?
Most professional singers do not possess DMAs. As a rule we were not able to spend the time in college needed to attain that degree. Instead, we were out there performing. DMAs are not needed to pursue a solo singing career. They are necessary, however, for singers who do not sing professionally and choose to go into teaching straight out of their own college years. It certainly raises your pay scale! You will find many state universities require candidates for teaching voice to possess a DMA. That implies they are less likely to have former professional singers who had lengthy careers on their faculty.
Most private music schools do not care if a singer who had a significantly long career possesses a DMA. On the contrary, they consider the lifetime experience of a singer who has spent decades on the stage far more valuable than a DMA degree. That was foremost in my mind when I searched out a teacher near the beginning of my collegiate musical life and found Harshaw.
What are some of the first aspects to be considered when opening a singing business?
You are the sole employee of your business. You are responsible for maintaining a good appearance, good health, and appropriate attire for auditions, rehearsals, and social events. Also, you must provide photos and bios for your management or companies at your expense. On the first day of a contract, it is your responsibility to arrive ready to rehearse, with the role learned and memorized. That means you are responsible for learning the role prior to the beginning of the contract at your expense with a vocal coach.
You, or your agent, are responsible for making sure travel arrangements are finalized with the opera or symphony company. The opera company usually pays this expense and sometimes the symphony pays it, but not always. As to housing arrangements, the companies will often assist you with options. However, housing is sometimes at your expense. At other times, primarily with regional operas, the company will pick up the cost. Your manager will often assist you with making these arrangements in conjunction with the company.
Are young singers better off living in some cities than others?
The New York City area is the ideal location in which to live while trying to break into the business. Auditions are frequently held there in the fall season, and most of the major management companies are located there. But, again, depending on your financial situation, you can live elsewhere if you are willing to make frequent trips to New York.
How do you go about getting a manager?
This is difficult when starting out. The best way is to hook up with an apprentice program after you have completed your graduate studies. Either a summer program or an annual one associated with a major company will suffice. Managers looking for potential new talent come to these programs to hear auditions.
What should your manager do for you?
Your manager should assist you in arranging auditions for companies when they are in town hearing singers. Your manager will negotiate fees and time periods with regard to offers that come in from companies on your behalf. Management will then draw up the contract for such offers and forward it to you to sign.
Your manager should not charge for simply having you on their roster or finding you auditions. If they charge a retainer fee, try to find a manager who does not. You should have to pay commissions only on completed contracted jobs plus any expenses your management incurs for publicity purposes.
What else should you look for in a manager?
When choosing a manager, look at their roster of singers, particularly in your vocal category. See who else sings your repertoire. That’s who you will be competing with for work within your own management. This can often work to your advantage. If, for example, a particular singer on the roster is unavailable to a company, your manager may recommend you as a possible replacement. Often work can come your way in this fashion. This is known as riding the coattails of your colleagues.
Management will look at you as a potential earnings vehicle. The amount of money you make for them will often determine your “status” within the roster. If you are working steadily, you may find you get considerably more attention from them. If you are just starting out, you may be treated more or less well, depending on how much work you and your auditions are generating. This is a highly sensitive area for both you and your management. How well you feel they are treating you or paying attention to your needs often depends on the amount of money or work you generate.
Just remember this is the business part of your career, and the most difficult to manage mentally. Don’t take things personally. If an audition does not result in a job offer, don’t dwell too much on why you weren’t chosen, especially if you feel you did your best at the audition. Move on. On the other hand, if you are not feeling your best, don’t do the audition. You do not want people to hear you when you are not at your best.
Once management has agreed to represent you, your job is to present yourself in the best possible way for auditions, or jobs. Your success at your jobs will have the snowball-effect of leading to more work. Either of you should be willing to end the relationship if either you or they are not living up to minimum expectations.
How much should a singer pay a manager or agent?
The commission is usually 10 percent of the gross amount on an opera contract, or 15 to 20 percent of the gross amount on a symphony contract.
Who is responsible for filing the taxes involved?
You are responsible for filing your own taxes, making quarterly payments if amounts owed in that period exceed $400 and nothing was withheld at the source. Then you file annually as well. You are considered a self-employed independent contractor at the companies you work for. If you are in a Young Artist Program and are a salaried employee of a particular company, taxes are often withheld at the source.
Get a good, experienced tax preparer who has knowledge with the rules surrounding independent contractors to assist you here. You usually have a great deal of tax-deductible expenses at your jobs.
How are union dues paid?
You join AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists). Many of the major and regional opera houses are union houses. You’ll pay an initiation fee on your first job. Henceforth, you will pay two percent of your gross fee as working dues on every job you do in an AGMA opera house. Usually the opera company deducts this fee from your checks. All members also have annual membership dues, owed at the end of each year, which are currently $78 and will rise to $100 in 2018. If you work for a non-AGMA company, no working dues are required to be paid. You do not pay any union dues for symphony gigs.
Certain participating opera companies will also pay an amount into an AGMA health fund in your name. This is a separate amount from your total compensation fee. You may use this money to pay any health costs you incur, including health insurance premiums as well as dental costs. Money in this health fund must be used within a certain time period for above expenses or it may be forfeited.
What happens if a singer becomes ill while under contract?
If you become ill and cancel any performances, and you are being paid on a per-performance basis as an independent contractor, you will forfeit that performance fee regardless of how much time you have invested in the production. So, cancelled performances reduce your actual total fees for the gig.
If you manage to complete one act of an opera performance you are scheduled for, you must be paid for the entire performance. If you are on a weekly salaried contract with a company, common in the Young Artist Programs, usually no money is lost due to a single cancellation for illness.
What is covered in most contracts?
Most contracts in the United States are issued by AGMA on behalf of the company you are working for, unless it is a non-AGMA house. Usually, the contract will state that you will be paid in one of two ways. On a per-performance basis, you will likely receive no rehearsal pay, but some of your fee will be classified as per-diem. That money is usually available to you at the first rehearsal so that you can use it as tax-deductible expense money while you are working. The rest of the taxable fee will be divided up per performance, and you will be paid either at the beginning of each performance, after the first act, or at the end of the performance, depending on the policy of each company. If you are on a weekly basis, you will usually receive a check once a week on a set day. In Europe, a rehearsal fee—usually one performance fee—is often negotiated in addition to the actual performance fees.
The contract will also state what travel arrangements are being provided, as well as any housing or car rental reimbursements that may be included. The contract will state what role you are responsible for in the particular opera, as well as the language in which it will be sung. The starting date and the period of engagement will also be spelled out as well as any financial penalties to be incurred should you not arrive on time, not know your role from memory, or not be available at the first rehearsal. The rest of the contract will contain the standard negotiated AGMA jargon that is required to be included.
How is your pay computed?
Your manager will negotiate fees for particular roles with the company involved. You will note that opera companies operate on greatly different budgets, depending on their size. Therefore, fees for a particular role can vary greatly. Singing the same role at Santa Fe as one would at, say, Lyric of Chicago or the Met, will generate a very different fee. This is where an experienced manager comes in handy. He or she is likely to be familiar with what a particular company can afford to pay.
Your so-called status in the world of singers will also come into play when it comes to the fee. Your experience and the amount of demand for your services can greatly affect your fee. Some established artists can get a wide variance in pay for doing the same role at different companies.
What should you consider when deciding whether or not to accept a role?
How many expenses will you incur on the job? How expensive will your housing be, if you have to pay for it in this particular locale? Do you need a car to get to rehearsals or to obtain groceries on this job? Are they paying for it or are you? Remember, 10 percent of your fee will go to your management. Taxes will eat up another chunk, especially if you are overseas.
A rule of thumb is if you can clear about half of your fee after expenses, taxes, and commission on a domestic job, you are doing pretty well. Usually if you can clear 35 to 40 percent on an international job, you are doing very well. That is not always easy, especially when you are starting out. You are trying to make money at this profession, so keeping expenses manageable is of primary concern.
Artistically speaking, beware of taking on too many new roles in succession. This is not always easy at the beginning of a career, but new roles require a lengthy period to learn, coach, and work into your voice. Some talented young singers find themselves in great demand over a relatively short period of time. Strain and fatigue from singing new roles learned too quickly can result in vocal injury or the development of bad singing habits. This can lead to a shortened career if done habitually.
Can you give us a few words of encouragement for the talented singers who will carry on this proud tradition?
The cold reality is that less than 5 percent of all aspiring opera singers make solo careers in the opera world. You are extremely fortunate if you manage to establish yourself as a working solo singer in this business. If you work on a fairly regular basis and earn enough money to pay your bills and then some, please remember what it takes to maintain that status over a period of more than 10 years. It requires an extremely disciplined work ethic where you spend countless hours in the practice room honing your craft for your entire singing lifetime.
You always need to show up for a gig prepared, with your role learned and worked into your voice and muscles. You also need to have an attitude that exudes a willingness to collaborate with your colleagues as well as the conductor and director. No one likes working with singers who behave like divas and divos and pretend that the show revolves around them. It’s a lonely life if you develop that kind of attitude, believe me.
You will find that when collaboration works on all levels, the likelihood the show will be successful goes up enormously. Then everyone looks forward to the rehearsals as well as performances and supports each other along the way. Opera is a teamwork art form and cannot be at its best without everyone pulling their weight equally.
Keep your voice in tip-top shape vocally by adhering to a healthy and sensible lifestyle both when you are off the road working on new repertoire and especially when you are on the road doing a gig. Embrace a good technical approach to your singing by spending what feels like endless, but enjoyable, hours in the practice room. That will allow you to pursue this art form for many, many years.
As you mature, you will find that your approach to roles you have done many times will vary and your life experiences will give you a different outlook on how to interpret your repertoire. This, along with competent conductors and directors, will give you new insight into them as well.
Good singers evolve and grow spiritually through their career as they find new ways to approach standard repertoire, inside the Fach for which their God-given voice is suited. New works that you find attractive add their own exciting challenges. Some singers do legitimately change Fach in their careers as age, the placement of their voices, and passaggio breaks change. But tread carefully. If the change is made because a vocal technique is failing you, you are messing with a recipe that could result in ending a career prematurely. I have seen it happen numerous times.
As artists, we are here to bare our souls as well as our talents for the greater good of the work, its interpretation, and the composer we serve. We are entertainers, and our goal is to open the minds and hearts of the audience to what they see and hear. We are not there to just impress people with our sound and the size of our instruments. Check your ego at the stage door every night and become a performer, an interpreter, an artist, and a member of a greater whole and you will find more satisfaction in that than you will ever get from selfishly impressing people with your vocal apparatus.
Do all this and you will find the experience of being an opera singer rewarding for as long as your health allows you to sing. It all boils down to discipline in everything you do in the art form.
I hope you can find it as rewarding as I have for the last 39 years. I still wake up every morning and immediately plan my day around practicing for my next gig! Then, I decide what to do with the rest of my day.
If you feel like that every day, you are a singer.