The State of Our Business Today : Young Artist Programs

Many people see the pursuit of a singing career as a risky, speculative business. Yet that fails to stop many hopeful and talented singers from chasing their dreams. Besides practicing, studying, and performing, savvy singers stay current with trends in the classical world. They research companies and other businesses in hopes of gaining helpful information to make their marketing efforts more efficient and timely.

In these precarious economic times, it is even more important to make the best use of our limited resources by being thoroughly prepared, not just with our arias and materials but also with knowledge of the business of classical music.

Arts organizations have recently been hit hard by the current economic climate, according to the Washington Post among many others. In the May 3 Post edition, Paul Farhi and Jacqueline Trescott report, in their article “Stage of Emergency,” that donations and ticket sales are down and smart companies must make hard choices to stay afloat.

“I have never seen a situation like this in my 25 years in the business,” Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center and a veteran arts administrator, told the Post.

Across-the-board cuts, limited gala fundraising, and reduced administration are but some of the ways companies have reigned in expenses. The trick in cutting expenses, several organizations say, is to do so without diminishing the quality of the performances and the productions.

Young Artist Programs

Designed as a stepping stone between school and a career, YAPs are often a singer’s first foray into the professional world of opera. Initially begun by famous A-level houses such as the Metropolitan Opera (Lindemann Young Artist Development Program) and the San Francisco Opera (Merola Opera Program), YAPs can now be found at opera companies of every level all over the country.

Classical Singer interviewed several YAP directors from across the country. They all spoke frankly about the realities of keeping their programs alive and vital during times of reduced revenue.

Merola Opera Program

Named for Gaetano Merola, San Francisco Opera’s first general director, the Merola Opera Program is an exclusive 11-week summer training program featuring classes and public performances of operas. The artists receive a comprehensive education at this early point in their careers. The very first Young Artist Program in the United States, Merola boasts over 1,000 alumni and counts Ruth Ann Swenson, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt, Thomas Hampson, and Patrick Summers among its most distinguished alumni.

Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Program, shared her thoughts about her program and the economy.

How many singers are involved in your YAP program, and what does your program entail?

Our program consists of 23 singers, five pianists, and one stage director for an 11-week summer program.

Have you made any changes to your program in size, scope, or pay due to the economy?

Next year, there could be some adjustments to help us contain costs. We will produce only one opera (down from two operas in 2009), but we will be double casting it, so that all singers will have the same amount of performances. Also, we may need to reduce the number of Merolini [Young Artists] and the number of weeks for economic reasons, but we have worked very hard under difficult conditions to let that be about the only things that change because of the economy. We hope not to “gut” the program in any significant way.

What advice do you have for singers looking to audition for YAPs in light of the current climate?

Be sure that you are applying at the correct “level” for your experience and talent. All these auditions cost you money, so be sure you are spending it wisely.

Opera Colorado Young Artists

Opera Colorado, based in Denver, was founded in 1983 with the commitment to present the highest-quality live performances of opera in their original languages. The Opera Colorado Young Artists bring opera directly to schools and other community venues throughout Colorado and surrounding states. The singers receive training and coaching from OC staff and guest artists and may even have the opportunity to perform in a mainstage production.

Cherity Koepke is the manager of education and community programs for Opera Colorado. She generously shared her insight.

How many singers are involved in your YAP program, and what does your program entail?

Five singers: one soprano, one mezzo, one tenor, one baritone, and one bass-baritone.

Singers are with us for a seven-month residency where they participate in both community and mainstage work. They take programs out into the local community and area schools and also perform in mainstage operas. Our program focuses on on-going experience as well as hands-on training.

Have you made any changes to your program in size, scope, or pay due to the economy?

We actually planned an extension to our program from a five-month residency to a seven-month residency program before the economy began its decline. It has not changed our plans, but we have tried to be more frugal with our budget and make wise choices in terms of the sets and costumes for the educational programs.

What advice do you have for singers looking to audition for YAPs in light of the current climate?

Keep positive and make sure that you have up-to-date information ready at the drop of a hat (résumé, headshot, bio, etc.). When looking into a specific program, make sure that you look at the specifics of what each program is looking for. Look at the requirements and the company’s upcoming season and the roles they are casting (if any). We spend a large amount of time each year hearing singers who just aren’t the right voice type that we are looking for, but they didn’t list any information on their application to indicate that. Never miss a due date and never send in materials late.

Also, in the down times when you are not working, make sure you are still out singing, taking classes, lessons, etc. Gaps in activity on an application or résumé are red flags. If paying an audition fee is an issue, ask the company if there is a payment plan or if there are any waivers available. There may not be, but it’s worth asking.

Florentine Opera Studio

The sixth-oldest opera company in the United States, Florentine Opera is a regional opera company that serves the Milwaukee area. The Florentine Opera Studio provides season-long, comprehensive artist-in-residence
employment for talented singers beginning their professional careers, while serving the mainstage, education, and outreach goals of the Florentine Opera Company.

General Manager, William Florescu, shared his thoughts and experience.

How many singers are involved in your YAP program, and what does your program entail?

We use four singers: soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone/bass in our season, which runs October to May. This provides our singers many opportunities and performances, which include outreach, children’s opera, chorus and supporting mainstage roles, and solo opportunities with the symphony. They also receive masterclasses and coachings.

Have you made any changes to your program in size, scope, or pay due to the economy?

We did a small pay decrease, in line with a reduction of all staff and artist salaries. All other aspects remain unchanged.

What advice do you have for singers looking to audition for YAPs in light of the current climate?

Be even more proactive, and use whatever connections you have developed to help make it happen.

Is there anything else you wish to add?

I have developed a blog, The Opera Audition (theoperaaudition.blogspot.com), that deals with many of these audition issues.

Lake George Opera at Saratoga

Lake George Opera at Saratoga is a professional opera company located in Saratoga Springs, New York. The company presents an annual summer festival of three operas. The company is known for its support of American composers.

General Director Curtis Tucker expressed the creative spirit that finds solutions to challenges.

How many singers are involved in your YAP program, and what does your program entail?

Our program has two levels. Our longstanding Apprentice Artist program typically has eight singers. Our newer Studio Artist program (begun in 2005) typically has four singers. The Apprentice program is a performance-based program for singers transitioning from academia to the professional field. The Studio program is a training-based program for undergraduate and early graduate school singers.

Apprentices are featured in a young artist performance, sing supporting roles and chorus in mainstage productions, give outreach and promotional concerts, and participate in masterclasses. Studio artists do the same to a lesser degree and also have diction and repertoire classes, leading to recital performances.

Have you made any changes to your program in size, scope, or pay due to the economy?

There have been a few changes, but not necessarily all for the worse. In 2009, we canceled a third full production, in which many apprentices would have had key roles, but replaced it with a workshop of a new opera, entirely featuring young artists. The new project did not include orchestra, but did provide opportunities to learn a new role and be featured on our mainstage.

Budget concerns have also caused me to consider casting apprentices in certain mainstage roles that might otherwise have been given to principal artists. The size, scope, and pay of the programs have not been reduced.

What advice do you have for singers looking to audition for YAPs in light of the current climate?

My advice is the same as in any other year. Research programs and apply for the ones that appropriately fit your development. If you’re not sure which programs are appropriate, seek advice from trusted sources.

Is there anything else you wish to add?

Lake George Opera at Saratoga, like many other companies, faces budget challenges during the current economic climate. But our Apprentice Artist program remains a core and high-priority program for our company, and I expect it to remain strong, vibrant, and worthwhile.
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Challenging times can often force us to make choices we would rather not. But sometimes the changes help us grow and fine tune our skills or product for the better. The companies interviewed all demonstrated their strong commitment to their Young Artist Programs, and they each illustrated creative problem-solving skills. Singers can rest assured that YAPs will continue to thrive and offer outstanding educational opportunities.

Valerie White Williams

Valerie White Williams is a Seattle-based singer, voice teacher, lecturer, and writer. A featured presenter at the 2005 Classical Singer Convention in New York City, Williams taught classes on “Promoting Your Teaching Studio” and has since then lectured on vocal health and internet marketing for musicians. Visit Williams online at www.valeriewilliams.net to learn more about her singing career and www.vocalsplendor.com for information about her voice studio.