Young Artist Programs are prescribed by many colleges and conservatories as part of the necessary path to career success. Over the past decade, the number of applications to these programs has skyrocketed. This is largely due to online advertising of their auditions.
The recession of 2008 also greatly contributed to the explosion of Young Artist Programs. Opera companies were forced to cut costs, thereby relying more heavily on YAPs. A popular Young Artist Program (that prefers not to be named) informed me that their numbers went up by approximately 200–250 applicants. This year they received 920 applications. Because YAPs have gotten so competitive (most accept fewer than 10 percent of the singers they audition live), more and more singers are paying for singing opportunities and experience instead of being paid.
As a career coach and voice teacher, I typically divide YAPs into three categories when discussing them with clients and students:
Pay-To-Sing Programs (examples: Seagle Music Colony, Aspen Opera Center, Brevard Music Center, AIMS Graz, and dozens of European programs)
No-Fee/No-Pay Programs (examples: Tanglewood, Ravinia Festival, and Britten-Pears)
Paid YAPS (examples: Santa Fe Opera, Opera Saratoga, Chautauqua Opera Company, Glimmerglass Festival, and Central City Opera)
The biggest question for the singer when determining what to apply for must be “What am I hoping to gain from this experience?” If you need additional training to hone your skills, you’ll want to ensure you are applying to programs that provide coachings, lessons, masterclasses, stage experience, and maybe even acting/language/movement classes. Many Young Artist Programs rely on young singers to do chorus and covers, and there will be very little actual training. If you are already an established singer, have sung multiple principal roles, and have had lots of training, you will want a YAP that truly treats you like a professional and gives you performance opportunities that will further your career. Each singer’s list of which programs they’ll apply to will be different depending on what their needs and wants are!
As a rule, it does not make any sense to go to a pay-to-sing after you’ve already done a paid YAP or a no-fee/no-pay program. One exception might be if the paid YAP offered you little to no role experience and the pay-to-sing offers a principal role with orchestra. If you find yourself in this situation, doing it once is fine for experience’s sake, but that’s it!
Singers tend to be worried that not doing a summer program will create gaps in their résumé. Seeing continual regression in the type of program you are attending, however, or seeing a long list of pay-to-sings is worse from a résumé impression standpoint.
An average was taken of the current weekly singer pay at over a dozen paid YAPs, both AGMA and non-AGMA. For programs with different tiers within them (apprentice artist versus studio artist, or the like), each total was put in separately. The average weekly pay for the young artists based on this data is approximately $275. The lowest end of the pay spectrum is about $150 per week, and the highest is about $550 per week. Assuming a YAP involves at least 30 hours a week of work, average hourly pay is well below minimum wage.
Most of these programs offer free housing, and some include food and/or travel stipends, which helps. Unfortunately, many singers must continue to pay the rent or mortgage for their places back home while attending the program, so not everyone saves money on housing. Additionally, singers often must cover their own flights to the program (or gas for driving). On the bright side, the companies that are AGMA affiliated do pay an additional fee to young artists that have mainstage roles.
Many singers rely on credit cards or savings to attend summer programs (even paid ones!). Considering that many of these folks are already in significant debt from school, the credit card debt makes their financial situation worse. Add to this the fact that most YAPs have an application fee (typically $30-$70), plus the cost of travel to and from auditions, and probably missed work. It is easy to see how quickly the costs (and debt) add up. This should absolutely be one of many aspects you consider when determining if you want to do a YAP.
Will the money you spend on a pay-to-sing truly be worthwhile? Can you afford to live all summer with no income at a no-fee/no-pay program? Is the pay offered in your paid YAP contract going to be enough to keep your financial situation healthy?
Many Young Artists Are Full-Fledged Professional Singers
For many companies, young artists in YAPs have taken the place of mainstage singers in a significant number of roles in their season. Former opera singer Dan Kempson wrote an article in January 2018 for artplusmarketing.com entitled “When People Are the Product: Why Reliance on Young Artist Programs May Lead to Financial Ruin for Opera.” In it Kempson states: “YAPs were created initially as training programs, but increasingly have been relied upon as cheap labor. . . . Many of these companies are hiring singers in their late 20s and 30s to sing leading roles, for nearly no pay.”
This creates a vicious cycle wherein it is hard for young artists to find work outside of YAPs and they end up quitting singing once their YAP days are over. “Young Artist Programs need to shrink in size,” Kempson argues. “Fewer singers with better pay will lead to the financial health of artists and the future financial health of the art form. Singers singing leading roles deserve leading pay, especially when they are artists but not young. Fewer available positions will create a bottleneck of talent at the post-graduate level, but I think it is better to cull the herd earlier than allow for the mass die-off that happens post-YAP.”
So, How Many YAPs Are Too Many YAPs?
I believe it is reasonable to attend one pay-to-sing (provided you are getting necessary and useful training), one no-fee/no-pay program, and two or three paid summer YAPs at the most. If you have a significant amount of debt, you should consider doing fewer programs. You can find a summer job to save money and seek your own singing opportunities.
It is crucial for singers today to be entrepreneurial, learn to find their own work, and break out of the young artist circuit. Otherwise they may come to rely on YAPs for work and have a hard time breaking the cycle. Besides, if the typical young artist has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in voice, how much more training do they truly need?