Pay to Learn Summer Programs

Opera companies want experience—but you can’t get experience until you get hired! It’s a Catch-22 that all but the most talented singers have struggled with for generations.

What’s the solution? Typically, “Pay to Sing” programs—or as some programs like to say, “Pay to Learn” programs. Admittedly, when you marshal these credits on a résumé they don’t equal stints with a professional opera company, but they certainly help! Many singers report to us that professional companies hire them after they have done a high-quality pay-to-sing.

One factor in favor of pay-to-sings that provide you with an opportunity to sing an opera role: You can try out the role without being judged, weighed and measured by newspaper critics or powerful people in the business. It’s a good career strategy to stay hidden while you are learning your craft. Learn your roles, and then bring them out to shine once you have performed them several times. (Read Jennifer Larmore’s interview in the CS archives to see how she employed this strategy, singing in small houses in Germany prior to singing for important agents anywhere.)

Pay-to-sings offer much more than opera roles, however. They offer programs for art songs, sacred music, scene study, and musical theatre—and programs for high schoolers, mature singers, and everyone in-between.

Every year, Classical Singer does a survey of the summer programs to see how they are faring. For the most part, singers are happy with their experience: They feel they received value for the money spent. The exceptions continue to be the Rome Festival Opera [article page 38], SSMA [Siena Summer Session for Music and the Arts], and Bel Canto Italia. [See the January 2002 issue.]

This article features excerpts from the reviews on summer programs that singers submitted to CS. Teachers and potential students should read the full reviews on summer programs on the CS Web site at (Click on “summer programs.”)

If we fail to mention a program here, either it is a new program, we received comments too late, have received no recent comments, or we feature a full article on the program in this issue. Programs with more evaluations sent in or more complete comments received longer treatment here. Full names have been left off except where singers signed their names.

American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS): [See article on page 28.]

Amalfi Coast Music Festival had a woman who exclaimed, “There were a variety of ages and singing levels, and this is what made the program so interesting for all. It was very well organized. Having attended two other European summer programs in years past, I can say that by far, this was the best well-run program!”

Assisi Music Festival: [See article on page 42.]

Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute: “There were acting classes once a week,” wrote one singer, “and they were split up into different levels so that you could be with students who all had the same level of acting experience and exposure.”

It was good to hear that the members of this group have remained friends: “We even have an alumni Yahoo group set up where we can keep in touch with one another, share audition info, recital and performance info, and just chat.”

Bay View Music Festival: The singers at this festival reported some frustrations this year. Apparently, one stage director was negative, and some singers were disappointed because the musical got orchestral accompaniment while the opera had to make do with a piano. One singer felt he could have spent his money and time better at home, learning a role. Another singer, however, thought it was time well spent for singers who wanted to learn a role.

Bel Canto Northwest had a successful summer, despite having around 60 singers. (Next year there will be fewer!) The singer who wrote to us was able to learn a role and do a song recital of four to five songs. She was very happy as she wrote to the administrators, “Thank you so much for a fabulous opportunity and great feedback. This was definitely the summer in which I grew the most musically. I felt very comfortable at the audition… The director, Dr. Mark Beudert, really took time to talk to you, and tried to understand your background and…your goal and expectation of your singing career.”

Centro Studi Lirico’s plan to give scholarships to some singers without making the news public backfired somewhat. Singers on scholarship spilled the beans, causing at least one person in the group to vent some bad feelings.

Singer Laura Astrid wrote that she had never been involved in a program that had such a high quality of singing. The Italian coaching was her favorite activity. She felt that the concerts could have been planned before the session began, and that the program should make sure all the singers have the opportunity to do the same amount of singing. Also, she wished the daily schedules were planned in advance.

CSL did scenes. Many of the scenes were from La traviata and Laura felt they could have done the whole thing.

Singers from the regular CS forum did their take on CSL as well, and their comments were transplanted into the summer programs forum. They said that the language program is terrific, but they suggest you go with a good knowledge of Italian—and that women should be careful of a local 50-year-old predator named Maurizio!

College Light Opera Company: It was nice to read that this group doesn’t charge an application fee and is free except for personal expenses and travel. (This type of company is right on the border between a pay-to-sing company and a pro company: You don’t pay, but you don’t get paid.) The singer who wrote to us said they did nine shows in 10 weeks. He felt his time would have been better spent if rehearsal time had been increased to 32 hours a week. The singer mentioned Coach Elizabeth Hastings and Stage Director John Lucas as favorites. Food was “geared for college age kids.” Housing (on the Cape Cod beach!) was sometimes difficult, but with nice roommates, and it could be negotiated.

“Thank you for providing this unique experience for so many young singers,” the singer concluded. “The experience is unparalleled.”

Crittenden Opera Workshop (Washington, D.C.): “Richard [Crittenden] is a very exacting and demanding teacher/director. This is good, but be prepared to feel overwhelmed and be ‘whipped into shape,’” wrote “Tappy.” “Just keep your mind open and don’t take any zingers personally.”

Despite the “zingers,” Tappy listed Crittenden as most helpful to him in stage work and acting. BethMarie agreed: “Richard was extremely positive and encouraging, which helped,” she wrote.

Tappy cited Thomas Hetrick for musical style, diction and ensemble, and Elizabeth Vrenios for acting techniques. He felt that the “evening track” option was too intense and that there weren’t enough coaches for the singers.

Other singers felt differently. BethMarie—who took the class in Boston—wrote: “I feel I learned more on effective stage movement than I did in my undergrad or masters.” She wanted to tell other singers that they should bring their own costumes. [Many singers in other programs made this point. We will add it to our questionnaire next year.]

Another singer said it was hard to assimilate everything all at once, and would have liked to have time to work on skills separately from performance.

“Lynne” said a high school division at the workshops was well done.

“Win” wrote: “Thanks for the inexpensive tuition for this vital information!”

Rebecca Morris wrote: “Now that I am working in the professional world, I can really see how much the technique that I learned from Richard and all of the other directors helps me so much to be a better performer. I don’t have to wait for stage directors to tell me exactly what to do; I always know where I should be standing and how to move through the phrases to really make the scene look good.”

The Daniel Ferro Program offers recitals and master classes and is one of the programs welcoming a wide variety of ages. Participants ended up spending from $600-$800 beyond tuition on dinners and weekend dining not included in tuition costs, but as one participant said: “I feel I received more than my money’s worth. It was a fabulous experience!”

The quality of the singers varied, he wrote, including, “professional performers who have been mastering their technique for decades, as well as advanced high school and undergraduate students who are still doing foundational work. The mixture of these levels added a unique dimension to the program.”

One singer wrote that “master classes were my favorite activity, because Mr. Ferro and the vocal coaches made it very interesting.”

Another wrote: “I highly recommend the Daniel Ferro Program to singers of all ages, whether in college and just starting out in the business or on the threshold of a professional career. This program offers a disciplined yet secure environment in the heart of gorgeous Tuscany in which to hone the quality of one’s repertoire with a superb, world-renowned staff and have the chance to breathe in the Italian language and culture with an experience no one is soon to forget!”

Elysium – Between Two Continents earned some wonderful comments as well. [Make sure you go to the forum and read the whole account!]

“Everything was provided during the 12-day academy, so luckily I didn’t end up spending much extra money at all,” wrote one participant. “I still dream about Bernried [the German monastery where the program is held]. It was like being on a wonderful retreat.

“The personal attention that we all received was incredible. While I had at least one coaching, if not two coachings, every day purely on music, a great deal of time was spent on acting, language, meditation, and staging. Personally, it was very refreshing to concentrate on something other than vocal technique. I felt myself come alive and begin to really give in to the great drama that has been dying to get out.

“I feel that I grew as a performer and left the program firmly believing that every time I go on stage I must deliver the text, go outside of myself, and fully give myself to the character.

“All of the music was mailed to us at least six weeks before the program began, so there was adequate time to prepare.”

<b.East [Ost]-West Academie Internationale: Contralto Susan Allen wrote that the staff was helpful, but the most helpful person at the Academie was Rolando Russo, the Italian coach and accompanist.

“This is for highly disciplined singers only. One singer had a contract with [Conductor Daniel] Barenboim. Two mature singers [were] coming back [into singing after an absence].There was a wonderful young singer with Tel Aviv Opera Company and a tenor from south of Russia.”

Susan wrote of the directors and teachers: “Their love for music was passed down to me and I feel honored. I felt respected as an artist. There was never a power trip.”

“[I wish I had] made decisions about the music that I wanted to do sooner and stuck with it,” she continued. “You have to know your music inside and out.

“They’re waiting for you. These people are so gigantic in their love for music that you could never learn enough. Also, I [wish I] would have done this 20 years ago.”

Heifetz International Music Institute: The one singer from this new program who responded felt he got his money’s worth doing concerts and master classes. He reports an excellent camaraderie among singers (ranging in age between 17 and 30) and performances done in a church with a crew. Vera Dachenko Stern provided excellent Russian training, he continued, adding that song repertoire and chamber music were his reasons for attending. On his wish list: More men and a more advanced level of singers—but he would like to thank the program directors!

Institute of Vocal Performance and Pedagogy—Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Richard Miller): The singer who wrote in was thrilled to pay $700 for 10 days, including housing and meals. The format was master classes, and participants did repertoire they were already working on. This program is for all ages.

International Institute of Vocal Arts (Italy): “Keep it up” was the advice one singer gave to the program directors. When it comes to improving the program, however, the singer had a complaint similar to several singers from other programs. The program needs: “A person who was hired only to be the scheduler and deal with administration problems. It was impossible for the singers and pianists to take care of this. Also, some of our time was definitely wasted because of the timing of the scenes. More organization for that would be helpful as well”

Every post mentioned Mignon Dunn as one of the singers’ favorite reasons for going to IIVA. This is a program accepting of older singers.

International Lyric Academy of Rome: This program, which does complete operas and recitals in an outdoor courtyard, had some problems this year. Two or three singers left early for various reasons.

One singer wrote a letter about one of the problems. She says she was promised confidentiality, only to have the attorney who became involved show her letter to the person in question.

Another singer writes of being “harassed” for money—but he had not yet paid his program fees, so it’s hard to know what was going on there. (He left early.)

After that, it was good to read what the other singers wrote: “The first year I went I had the opportunity to sing three roles. This proved to be an invaluable choice, as I was booked for one of them immediately upon my return. Since then, I have been booked three times over. Also, it gave me the confidence boost I needed to feel fearless about singing.”

That’s what a summer program is supposed to do!

One singer at ILAR complained about something we hear every year, from many programs: Singers arriving without their music memorized, “which made it difficult to work on a professional level.”

This program includes older singers.

International Opera Workshop (Symphonic Workshop): This program, held in Bulgaria offers complete roles and an aria concert. One singer liked the inexpensive food, but felt disappointed that more time wasn’t spent refining the roles, German diction, etc. She felt the stage direction was partly weak, but was happy to have two roles added to her résumé.

Everyone liked the location on the Black Sea beaches! Camaraderie among singers was reported to be good—the directors chose nice singers to attend and so the singers had a good time. One singer left early, but another singer reported that he was, “not up to the task and was not prepared. And they gave him until the last possible moment to decide.”

When asked if she would try another program, a singer wrote, “Other programs are too elementary. As an emerging professional, what I need is the chance to try out roles in a fully staged setting. This is the only workshop that provides this at such a professional level.” [Editor’s note: Advanced singers can find other programs featuring excellent networking, learning and performance opportunities.]

Another singer notes, “This program is not designed for singers; it is a conductor course. As such, they are the ones who get special teachers, etc. …We are basically there so they can learn to conduct opera (which has its definite downsides—especially if you are stuck working with a very weak conducting student). I was just expecting a director and a musical director.”

Another singer wrote that, “the orchestra was solid but not outstanding.” [Editor’s note: Actually, that can be high praise for a summer program orchestra!]

<b.International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv:
A singer who participated in the IVAI program reports that her favorite class was acting/body work lessons with John Norris, both in group and privately. She says that the costumes from The New Israeli Opera “helped a lot” and that “I’ve participated in complete operas and scenes as a part of an ensemble.”

Another singer, who attended on scholarship to sing “a great role,” reports: “In general, it is truly a wonderful program and very intensive. The only reservation is that if you are involved in a full-opera production you cannot partake of the other lessons/coachings as much as one would like.”

Coaches can also attend IVAI and improve their coaching skills with Joan Dornemann and others. The coach who wrote said she went to, “learn from the best people in the business.” She thanked the directors for, “helping me find the confidence to pursue my career.”

“Joan Dornemann had brought practically the entire staff of the Metropolitan Opera with her,” she continued. The coach summed up her reasons for going: “To learn as much as I could possibly learn from some of the greatest artists, directors, coaches, and teachers in the world.”

[Editor’s note: The Tel Aviv program (complete operas/scenes) is also held in Montreal (concert), Puerto Rico (scenes/recitals with orchestra), and France—some with full opera, others with scenes and recitals.]

Middlebury College—German program for singers: This program is mainly a language program but we include it here because languages are something singers have to acquire and the program also includes music. As one singer wrote, “We had two recitals where we all sang about two pieces…”

“I’ve never felt truly comfortable speaking another language until this program. Now I feel like I’ve finally got something under my belt, and when I returned to my university, I took a placement exam and actually tested out of a whole year of German!” the singer continued.

“The point of the program was about learning German and applying the language to music.”

“You must sign a Language Pledge that states you will only speak German 24/7 for two months. It sounds intense (and in the beginning it was like being 4 years old again) but we had German class every day for three hours. Everything was done in German, from lessons to outside activities. I learned more outside of class just by talking to the more advanced students at lunch and dinner than I would have just taking a normal German class in a university setting.”

Neil Semer Vocal Institute: The singers all agreed that their money was well spent and that the program was well organized.

“They keep their program purposely small,” wrote “Mary.” “I think 15 students per two-week session, max, so that everyone gets a very personalized experience.” The program is open to teachers and singers of all ages and experience levels, she added.

“Since Neil’s teachings contain not only new technical ideas but also the finding of oneself, it is an experience one should not miss,” wrote Barbara Dietgard. “I was surprised how many singers’ problems were not in the actual singing but in standing in his or her own way (including myself).”

Clarissa Dunn wrote, “The course is more focused on individual progress than ensemble work or scenes. However, there is nothing to stop people from being creative and work on putting things together for the frequent concerts.”

Elisa Doughty wrote, “Master class with Neil every day and private lessons with Roberta Cunningham. Coachings with pianists four times per week. Several performance opportunities throughout the week. There is time to get through a good amount of repertoire with Neil and then to work it again with the others. Thrilling to hear the progress that everyone makes in such a short period of time. Facilities are lovely and food is good. Great opportunity for trying out your German in the town.” [See the article on page 48.]

New York Opera Studio Summer Intensive at Vassar: This is a new program run by the Met’s Nico Castel and his wife, Carol.

It got rave reviews from those who turned in evaluations. [Make sure you read the full evaluations on the summer programs site] The program culminates in a scenes performance.

The first evaluation has a note to the program directors: “I LOVE YOU GUYS!!!!”

Others were equally flattering:

• “[We had] the world’s best diction coach, Nico Castel.”

• “Incredible chemistry among the group, made many good friends.”

• “The best of the best: Nico Castel. A session for every scene, as a group, then a private session for anyone who requested it, on whatever solo rep you wanted.”

• “Carol Castel is a fine stage director. She has an innate sense for what each scene needed vocally, artistically and dramatically. Each participant was made to feel comfortable on stage and shown by Carol how to use the talent already within themselves to bring out the best possible performance.”

Lirica a Orvieto is a program of study culminating in opera scenes and recitals, “…in a jewel box Italian theatre.”

One tenor writes about being called by his teacher to come to the program because the scheduled tenor had backed out. To attend, he had to raise $2,700 quickly—and he did it by giving benefit recitals. He then spent an extra $2,000, including airfare, but he says he got his money’s worth: “Very much so!”

“[Susan Ormont] took me to another level vocally. Then there is Maestro Greg Buchalter, who was a perfect coach and never let me settle for just being OK. They both have changed my life, and my career has really been boosted since this program.”

One part of the program didn’t work so well, wrote one singer: “I don’t think the director of the Chamber Music Festival wanted the singers involved at all with her program, or at least she gave that impression.”

The realities of living in ancient Italy hit one singer: “It was an authentic monastery, with nice architecture but extremely hot—no A/C or even a breeze—extremely small rooms, twin beds, and bad bug problem, even with wearing bug spray.”

One singer learned a good lesson at her audition for this program. “I think my audition aria did not show my potential as they came to understand it during the program, so I was a bit underused and could have had more singing to do. However, this was a case where I sang what I thought they wanted to hear, and we all know that’s often a mistake. Always sing what you do best!”

Opera Festival di Roma: It was nice to read one singer who wrote about being taken care of when he became ill at this program. Program Director Louise Panou insisted he take days off and even brought food to his room. In some programs, singers are left to fend for themselves when ill—even in a foreign country.

Singers perform two complete operas at this program and three solo recitals, plus an aria concert.

Housing was a hit. “The hotel was amazing. Lots of practice spaces in the convention center. There was also a garden to escape to, which was very beautiful. The rooms were equipped with all the necessities. It wasn’t the most comfortable place, but it had a TV, and beds, and places to put your clothes. The only thing that bothered me was that the floors in my building were all marble, and it was very loud all day and night, so you had to get used to the sound of heels and suitcases on the floors. I got over that very quickly though and had a great time.”

Another singer wrote, “I wish my allergies didn’t get as bad there with all the smoke in Rome.”

OperaWorks: A two-week program culminating in a complete, three-act, improvised opera.

One singer wrote of the program, “The audition was unique in that the director asked us to try some different things just to gauge our on-stage flexibility and willingness to try something new. It is probably the only audition I will ever get to do in jeans and sock feet. When booking the auditions, we were told to wear whatever we felt comfortable in—so I did. It was a good thing too: After I sang my two arias, Ann [Baltz] worked with me for a few minutes and had me moving and sounding like I never had before while singing. (At one point, I was bent like a pretzel on the floor!)

“The reasons for going?” wrote another, “Ann Baltz, Ann Baltz, and Ann Baltz. (I can’t say enough about her and her methods!)”

Yet another singer wrote, “There was an excellent student-faculty ratio. There were 15 participants and nine faculty members, so singers got a lot of attention. The results were phenomenal. I saw such dramatic improvements in the performance level of participants.”

Peter Harrower Summer Opera Workshop: “The workshop focuses on performing scenes. I would say the best features of the workshop are the coaching sessions. Each attendee gets a half-hour private coaching on literature of their choice with each of the coaches. The coaches in 2004 included Reed Woodhouse, Christy Lee, and Peter Marshall. They are all excellent.”

“I learned a great deal from this workshop and would recommend it. The overall cost (tuition and housing) is reasonable. It is a supportive atmosphere, and provides a lot of information and valuable experience to those beginning a career in opera.”

Pine Mountain Music Festival: [Editor’s note: Pine Mountain doesn’t charge a fee, so it is on the border of “pay to sings,” but since it doesn’t pay singers, it is still categorized here.]

One singer wrote he attended because the program “offered the chance to perform a principal role.”
“This is an excellent opportunity to give young singers an opportunity to perform,” he continued.

The singer would like to have had acting workshops and master classes—but since artists aren’t paying for this program, it isn’t likely.

Shaker Mountain Opera: Singers do a complete opera here. The weather in summertime Berkshire, wrote one singer, is “hot and moist,” but again, felt the money was well spent. On the wish list: “Better housing, better administrative coordination and info before program begins, shuttle service between housing and rehearsal facilities.”

Rehearsal facilities were six miles away, so cars or bikes were a necessity. One singer reported having to rent a car. The daily routine was: “breakfast, morning rehearsal, lunch, afternoon-to-eve rehearsal, dinner, back to my apartment. FUN!” The schedule was: “Three three-hour blocks of rehearsal and/or performance with one-two hour breaks in between each.”

When asked if she would do the program again, a singer wrote, “Sure! It’s great experience to try new roles for the first time or essay new repertoire, this is valuable for an emerging artist or a young professional.”

Songfest: “I do feel I [got my money’s worth] because all the people who were there to give master classes had wonderful things to offer, and because there was such an eclectic bunch of people. The wisdom and knowledge shared was as multi-faceted as the bunch. …Martin Katz and Graham Johnson, two wonderful collaborative pianists, had two very different approaches, and very different things to say, and both were extremely helpful. Craig Smith from Emanuel Music was there to work on Schubert and Bach; [so was] John Harbison. I still work with Graham Johnson, and I just attended a workshop with John Harbison and Dawn Upshaw at the Weill Institute in New York. It’s also inspired me to want to sing lots of new music.”

Another singer wrote, “Every singer improved, and the quality of the teaching was really first-class. The quality of the other singers was also very high and overall the experience was very positive. I did, however, find it to be a bit too large (too many singers), although it looks like next year they will split the program in two—a great improvement.

Lastly, “The program is not for the faint of heart, however, as the atmosphere can be very competitive and critical. But with the right attitude (if you’re a perfect singer, why come to the program?), it can be very useful.” [See article on page 34.]

Spoleto Vocal Arts Symposium: “I had no idea how horrible my diction was until I arrived in Spoleto,” wrote one singer, “and our coaches would not let anything slip by.” This singer also wrote, “Performance opportunities were every week, and I believe we had five total.”

Another singer responded to the questions with, “I had the extreme privilege of attending the Spoleto Vocal Arts Symposium this past summer and thought the experience to be absolutely the most beneficial thing I could ever have done at this point for my singing career. The faculty was of the highest caliber and the setting in which the program takes place only aids in the immersion of the participants into the culture from which some of the best music ever written emerged. Besides being very knowledgeable people, the staff is incredibly personable and do everything they can to make the participants feel at ease while working and performing.”

“The performance opportunities granted by this program are amazing. From singing sacred music in a traditional old-style Catholic church to singing opera arias in opera houses, some of which date back to the time of Mozart, the singers always are performing for a good-sized and wonderful audience. Not only would and do I recommend this program to anyone, I am planning on returning to Spoleto again this summer.”

“The vocal symposium offers wonderful performance opportunities. The voice teachers I met there were truly wonderful, very professional and warm.”

Rome Festival Opera: [Not recommended. See article p. 38. Also, see the summer programs forum.]

Schlern International Music Festival (Schlern, Italy): This program performed scenes from The Magic Flute in German and also several recitals for solos and ensembles. One of the singers said that the program is new and currently is attracting more instrumentalists than singers so you get a lot of attention.

A singer wrote, “[My favorite activity was] rehearsals with the eight cellists on Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, as well as coachings with Vagram Saradjam, ‘cello instructor and music director of the program. I am comfortable working with a handful of instrumentalists at a time, but eight cellists and their Russian instructor were terrifying for me… In the end, I came away with a renewed respect for instrumentalists with whom we singers collaborate, and an improved attitude towards working with musicians from all backgrounds—and I can’t wait to find eight more cellists and collaborate again!”

Another singer chimed in with, “They did a great job of getting new locations for us to perform and always having a full audience. However some of the churches we sang at were not suitable for the performers, i.e., too small!!! I also felt that the outdoor venues were inappropriate in the chilly weather, for the instruments, the players, and the singers!”

Summer Music West: This program is for teens. The singer who wrote in wanted to attend for exposure to the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire. On her wish list is for the program to: “Advertise more to attract musicians and performers of a higher caliber.” She thinks the program directors are “incredible.”

They did scenes from several operettas.

A mother also wrote in about the program being excellent for her 11-year-old daughter.

V.O.I.C.Experience: A participant wrote, “I calculated the number of coachings and voice lessons that I received on a daily basis and the cost of the nice housing included and realized that it was worth more than three times the cost of tuition.”

When CS asked if there were good outside activities, he replied, “It was at Disney World in Florida, so there were numerous things to do.”

One singer wishes for… “more performance opportunities and maybe even an opera,” but all the same, he felt he’d gotten his money’s worth. “This program was a wonderful opportunity to work with excellent artist, such as Sherrill Milnes. Plus, the coaches and voice teachers were great…giving out great ideas and techniques for singing. I loved working with Louis Menendez again, and met new coaches, such as [Jorge] Parodi and [Howard] Watkins, who were both amazing as well.

[Editor’s note: Singers mentioned Louis Menendez favorably in more than one program.]

CJ Williamson

CJ Williamson founded Classical Singer magazine. She served as Editor-in-Chief until her death in July, 2005. Read more about her incredible life and contributions to the singing community here.