Like it or not, we are all entrepreneurs. No two musical paths are alike, and we all need to forge our own. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, singers can create a career that is entirely based on their strengths and interests. This is both liberating and terrifying. On one hand, you can set your own rules. On the other, you can’t follow a template. But through trial and error, we figure out where we find success and pursue more. After we discover what we do well, we can throw ourselves into it without looking back.
If only it were that simple. Even once you’ve committed to a venture, you may feel uncertain about it at first. You might have been the belle of your graduate program, only to have your knees wobble all through your first New York City audition season. Your innovative staged recital might have generated lots of encouragement from your friends, but you will suddenly feel self-conscious asking an experienced artist to partner with you on the next project. The first time you make a real mistake or offend someone, it can be devastating.
Whether you are starting your own artistic project or you are in the business of building your solo career, you face a learning curve when you begin. Speaking from my own experience creating and producing original staged productions, here’s what you might expect.
It’s not easy to pick up the phone and ask someone to be part of an artistic project. You are asking them to commit to something and even you don’t know how it will turn out. And what if they say no? What if you hold auditions and no one shows up? As much as you can, embrace every part of your endeavor as a learning experience. Try your best, and if it doesn’t go as expected, you’ll know how to do better the next time. As for approaching other artists, put your fears to rest. Even high-flying performers will at least thank you for thinking of them.
If the artistic opportunity is worthwhile and you present yourself as an organized and confident leader, good people will join your production even if you can’t pay the highest fees in town. You will be surprised. Time and again I find myself anxious about reaching out to musicians I admire, and time and again my fears are proved baseless. You’re creating an opportunity to make art. What artist wouldn’t think that’s a good idea?
Once you get your personnel on board, don’t be surprised if you still have some sleepless nights. Countless things can go wrong or fall through at the last minute. You will feel like you are flying by the seat of your pants. In this way, producing a show can feel a lot like performing in one. But that’s the good news: you’ve done this before. You’ve got this.
As you start to plan a new production, you will discover very quickly what you can and cannot offer people. That is, you might not be able to pay people as much as you’d like. But think about what you can offer them and see if there is a way to compromise. If you expect to draw some press attention, a review might be just as valuable as cash. Maybe they could help choose the program, or maybe it will simply be a rewarding artistic experience.
Be more invested in the artistic success of your work than in your own self-promotion. That is to say, for example, put on a production of Rigoletto because you have really great people to work with or an innovative way to do it—not because you have to get Gilda on your résumé. By removing your own gains from the project, you take away the emotional investment that gets wrapped up with your own performances. By all means, perform in your own productions. But your colleagues will find the experience more rewarding if it is clear that the goal is high artistic quality, not any one person’s gain. This attitude begins with you.
Go out of your way to thank people. This is crucial when it comes to building the relationships that will lead to fundraising. If someone ever praises your performance, drops you a nice e-mail, or shows the least bit of enthusiasm for anything you do, say thank you. Don’t just hit Reply with a breezy note and an offer to add them to your mailing list. Ask to thank them in person. Find out more about their interests, their knowledge of the music community you share, and their perspectives on the good and bad about the business.
This is the first step toward cultivating a connection that could prove meaningful to your enterprise. At worst, you will spend a pleasant visit. At best, your new fan could become your biggest fan, donor, advisor, or ambassador. If someone takes the time to attend your performance and praise you, that person is likely a committed music lover who wants to see good people succeed. Help them fulfill that goal by giving them the opportunity to get to know you and invest in your success.
Don’t Set Unrealistic Expectations
If you’ve never raised money before, if you’ve never put on a production before, and if you don’t have a team of people to help you, then keep it small. Do one opera instead of three. Maybe your first show is La voix humaine(with only one performer) and not Aida. You might think you need to go big or go home in order to attract attention, but don’t go so big that you set yourself up for failure. As an independent agent, you can hold yourself to your own standards and work only to your capacity level.
But . . .
Once you decide on a project, believe in what you do with every ounce of your being. Somebody’s got to believe in it—and if it’s not you, then who? As much as it is beneficial to be humble, honest, and realistic, once you’ve committed to making an idea a reality, be bold, assertive, and proactive. If you are producing a show, people will look to you for leadership. This is not the place for foot scuffling. Make decisions and move on.
For the best artistic quality, invite collaborators who are better than you and who can raise the artistic bar of the whole endeavor. Do this even if you have to look well beyond your circle of friends and acquaintances.
As singers, we don’t get that much practice in calling the shots. In masterclasses, we humble ourselves before great artists; in voice lessons, we work diligently to fix our flaws; and as performers in opera productions, we are of secondary importance to the lights, sets, costumes and direction. Consider your self-produced project to be your chance to flex some underused muscles. Enjoy every minute of it.
. . . And
Be kind to yourself. It’s one thing to worry about your own performances, and another to be responsible for the performance experience of an entire group of people. If you have gathered together a cast of great performers whom you barely know and who are at your skill level or higher, you might start to feel insecure about the whole process. It’s like you are hosting a party for a group of really cool potential friends, but you don’t know if everyone is having a good time.
Trust that no one twisted their arm to get them to participate and that they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t believe in the work as well. And if you’ve been honest about what the production would be like and you try to create the best conditions for everyone to do their best work, you can rest assured that they are happy enough to be on board.
Make Other People Superheroes
If you are bringing people together for a performance, let them take ownership of their own work. That is, for my own productions, no one wants to work with Amanda Keil because they want to do what Amanda Keil tells them to do. They do it because the music is good and because they feel empowered to make their own unique artistic contribution. It probably helps that I try my best to be nice to people, to be up front about what I can and can’t offer them, and to help them get the job done. But mostly, my job is to get out of their way so they can do what they do best.
The Payoff . . .
It is immensely rewarding to bring artists together for a meaningful creative project. If you find a compelling piece of music to work on, you are humble and up front about the process from the beginning, and you give people the room to be artists, then accomplished musicians will want to work with you. And you will have the satisfaction of working with wonderful artists, elevating your own abilities in the process, and creating art.
. . . Or Not
That all said, it doesn’t always work out that way. You will make a great pitch to a performer and never hear back. You will make a decision that rubs someone the wrong way. You will find yourself agonizing over a budget, hauling costumes, or otherwise doing work you don’t enjoy. Consider these to be occupational hazards. If someone can’t or won’t work with you, there will always be someone else. And if you hear pushback from a collaborator, then take the time to hear them out and consider a compromise. As for unpleasant work, I’m afraid that comes with any job. Even if you become an opera superstar, there will be parts of it that you won’t like.
You might also run into trouble if you ask performers to collaborate for low fees on your second or third production. They might do it once as a favor but will expect at least some increase the next time. To help prepare for this, plan for your next production before your first is finished, reaching out to donors and keeping grant deadlines in mind.
What’s This All for Again?
When you create a performance opportunity, you are creating art where there was none before. You are also giving artists a chance to practice their craft. As an added bonus, you elevate your own musicianship by performing with the colleagues you’re drawn to in a production that you’ve chosen.
Sure, there will be times when it seems like an awful lot of work. But after all, because of you there is more music in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that.