The $50 Week : Do You Have to Be Rich to Be a Great Singer?

The $50 Week : Do You Have to Be Rich to Be a Great Singer?

Recently, the Internet opera community found a new fulcrum of debate in an article written for the Billfold (an offset of hip culture website the Awl). Identified only as “C.L.,” the author leads with the conjecture that “Saying you want to be an opera singer is like saying you want to be an astronaut, in terms of actual job prospects. There is one full-time repertory opera company in the United States—the Met in NYC. The other top U.S. companies—Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco, Chicago Lyric—all do between four to six shows a year, total. And the same soprano is going to headline most of them, since they don’t overlap.”

Like many other readers, I’ve mulled over the piece and its inherent arguments, and followed the discussions thereof in the comments section, on Facebook, and other peoples’ blogs. Ultimately, what remains stuck in my craw is the overarching idea that one needs to come from a wealthy background in order to subsidize a singing career (and that the same does not apply to being a Broadway performer, a career that author C.L. is now pursuing). What the article ultimately reinforces is an outdated stereotype that opera is an elite art form, for those who wish to either consume or perform it.

And, frankly, I’m ready for this stereotype to shrivel up and die. While opera companies around the world continue to offer all manner of discounted seats (some indeed in the hinterlands but, nevertheless, available for enjoyment) and means of enjoying performances outside of the opera house (such as the Met: Live in HD), it seems that many of those who still hold onto an outmoded mindset are the art form’s practitioners rather than administrators.

It’s Not What You Have but What You Do with It

As soprano, voice teacher, and Classical Singer contributor Claudia Friedlander points out on her blog, “A Liberated Voice” (, many of today’s leading singers came from modest, if not humble backgrounds—she cites a trifecta of Renée Fleming (the daughter of music teachers who went to a state school), Jonas Kaufmann (his father worked in insurance and his mother taught kindergarten), and Angela Meade (who started her studies at a community college).

Pavarotti grew up in a cramped two-room apartment with his parents, a baker and a cigar factory worker, who later moved their family of four into a single room at the onset of World War II. Maria Callas grew up in apartments in Washington Heights and Astoria in a family situation that was strained at best. Beverly Sills was the daughter of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn and played piano in nightclubs to help support her family after her father died.

Yes, each of these singers has become regarded as preternaturally talented, but none came out of the womb with a Met contract. They started with talent but made themselves into stars by working hard, working well, and working smart. Much has changed since Pav, La Divina, and Bubbles were young adults, but finding success through perseverance, responsibility, and talent remains an all-purpose currency.

Play to Win

One of the Billfold article’s main complaints about the life of a classical singer is the notion of pay-to-play (incidentally, C.L., this isn’t exclusive to the world of opera). It’s true that a number of competitions and Young Artist Programs ask for application fees, but consider these fees to be like college application fees. Are you going to apply to every school within a certain radius or offering a specific major? Or are you going to study your options closely and whittle your list down to a manageable number that conforms to a preset budget for application fees?

The same principle should be in the back of your head when entering competitions or applying to YAPs. Are you entering or applying because the contest offers a significant cash prize? Have alumni of that particular YAP achieved a position in the singing world that you yourself wish to reach? Does the summer program you’re eyeing come with a teacher you’ve hoped to connect with or does it offer the chance to perform a work that you’re keen to add to your repertoire? It may seem like doing something is better than doing nothing—but when it comes to the activities in a career that require the extra investment, make sure you’re investing wisely.

And don’t let yourself get caught up in what-ifs. Sure, perhaps if you paid $150 to enter a contest with no monetary prize but performance exposure, you may perform to an audience that includes Peter Gelb’s second cousin. But perhaps if you’d applied to that private, liberal arts college that offered a subpar vocal program, you’d have fallen in love with a fellow student whose net worth exceeded that of Mark Zuckerberg’s and could currently be reading this issue of Classical Singer from a private island in the South Pacific. Those iotas of chance exist—but if you miss it on one go-around, with enough persistence you’ll pick up that luck the next time.
Ground Control to Major Tom

OK, let’s get back to the astronaut analogy for a minute. Yes, the Met does occupy a unique position in this country for offering new productions, major revivals, and returning classics in numbers that settle comfortably in the double-digits each year. But Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera aren’t far behind—and while other companies in California, Washington (both state and D.C.), Texas, Minnesota, and Boston offer a more modest number of shows each year, they’re still on offer. And I have yet to encounter a single singer—soprano or otherwise—who has performed at every one of these companies in a single season just because the majority of them are doing works with similar Fachs.

Even when houses have so-called “favorites” (yes, Renée Fleming is a standard at the Met and, yes, Anna Netrebko has opened the same company’s last two seasons and will do the same this fall), they still recognize that opera is a business and diversification is key. That’s why so many commit to fostering new talent while securing top-name stars to add a draw to their season.

And perhaps you’ll make a living in classical music without appearing at the Big Five houses, a career path that is equally viable and valid, especially if you don’t want to live in New York or another major metropolis. I imagine most of you reading this didn’t get into the business in order to have a lifestyle on par with those of Fleming’s or Netrebko’s.
The Great White Hope

C.L.’s article, to date, has generated over 50 responses on, many of which come from working singers defending their work against the criticism thereof by the author. As bass James Harrington (who, full disclosure, I know in real life and have interviewed in the past for this very column) pointed out, the article is not “an expository piece about a world [of which the author has] unique knowledge”—rather, it comes off like “a hatchet job” with a number of factual inaccuracies (in addition to the inaccuracies about the length and scope of opera company seasons in the States, many of the fees indicated are inflated).

But perhaps the most egregious issue is the comparison of a Broadway chorus member to a young artist between leading-role auditions in the opera world. There is just as much struggle to land a $90K-a-year job as a chorister in The Phantom of the Opera as there is to secure any other work. However, as Harrington also points out, C.L. doesn’t account for salaried chorus positions in opera. Like Equity actors, these positions are also backed by a union and offer livable salaries—if you can land the job.

Again, this comes back to the idea of setting realistic priorities and goals. C.L. argues that opera isn’t a business but, in fact, it is. And it is one of the important tasks of all singers to consider themselves a small business and to examine their careers as a business plan—one with strategy, realistic goals, and accountability.

“Consult with someone in the industry who can give you an honest assessment of where you are now and what it will take to get you to where you want to be, someone with nothing to gain by filling your head with pipe dreams (i.e., someone who won’t take any of your hard-earned money beyond their consultation fee),” writes Friedlander. “If possible, look for a veteran artist manager who offers consultations of this nature. They have the advantage of knowing what kinds of singers and voices are currently being hired for what kinds of roles all over the world. They can tell you how you compare, what you need, and where you’ll be most likely to succeed.”
Know When to Hold ’Em—and When to Fold ’Em

No, this isn’t about quitting the industry. Rather, this is about knowing when to spend money and when to hold back. Previous installments of this column have proven that coaches, rehearsal or audition accompanists, and teachers aren’t exclusive to the domain of independently wealthy singers. Many of these professionals know exactly what it’s like to be in need of an audition but not having enough cash to afford both the box of macaroni and cheese and the milk. Knowing your other skills—be they cleaning a kitchen, writing up a grant proposal, or designing a website—and being able to use them to barter for services is as much a tradition in this industry as it is to say, “Toi! Toi! Toi!” before a performance. As long as you don’t abuse the privilege of getting a freebie every now and then, and you know to pay it forward once you can afford to do a favor here and there for a young singer, take heart in knowing you’re in a community that is—on the whole—very giving, compassionate, and generous.

However, part of being successful is also knowing when to spend large amounts of money, and spending that money wisely. Friedlander’s blog offers a highly detailed breakdown that comes from her years in the industry and is worth a separate read in and of itself: avoid managers that demand a monthly retainer fee, look for firms with an “emerging artists” division, do a cost-benefit analysis of competitions and know that not every leading singer has taken that route to get where they are today, and don’t bargain shop when it comes to materials that “convey the value of your artistry.”

Yes, it does cost money to make money, and it costs money to be a great opera singer. But money isn’t everything. Think of it this way: one of the most famously wealthy people to enter the world of singing was Florence Foster Jenkins.

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.