Confucius said, “Choose a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.” For the majority of singers, this is precisely why we do what we do, and we could not fathom doing anything else. But this choice often comes at a significant cost, both personally and financially. Many struggling singers bounce the occasional check; skip a doctor appointment because they do not have adequate health insurance; eat another meal of top ramen; or forgo date night in order to pay back student loans, afford YAP application fees, or continue with voice lessons.
Choosing the life of an artist is never easy. In fact, I once had a voice teacher tell me, with much disdain, that I was not willing to suffer for my art because I liked to wear nice clothes and I lived in a decent apartment in a safe neighborhood. At the time I was holding down several jobs while finishing my education so that I could pay for school, launch my career and, yes, buy the occasional pair of expensive shoes (I call that retail therapy).
To explore what singers sacrifice to pursue a career, I talked to singers from all stages of their careers—undergraduate voice majors to tenured singing professors to internationally acclaimed singers. I first asked them, “What difficulties have you experienced as a performer?” The number one, resounding response was “Financial!” As one singer stated, “Financially this life is difficult, no matter how you slice it, unless you have a wealthy family, a giving partner, or a patron. As much as I would love to pursue an advanced degree, anxiety over my finances and future prohibits me from doing so.”
“Being a professional singer is much easier if you have a benefactor or are otherwise financially flexible,” confirms emerging artist Nathan Van Arsdale, bass. “Unfortunately, that is not my case and, like many others, I am living with student loan debt. The cost of lessons, materials, coachings, auditions, and accompanists is expensive, almost to the point where you have to dedicate all of your money to just those things. I have been overdrawn in my checking account more times than I can count, have had to post-date checks, and have had to speak with landlords and creditors. Investing in yourself is expensive.”
Michael Orlinsky, Chicago-based baritone, further elaborates upon the financial dilemma post-graduate singers face when trying to launch their careers. “It is difficult because most organizations that accept singers at the student level are asking for tuition, while other companies pay very little,” Orlinsky says. “Having been on both ends of small companies, I know that it’s hard to raise adequate funds to pay singers. Our economical system doesn’t reward something like art, which lacks quantitative results. If the arts were supported more graciously, then we may be able to survive.”
Bass Reid Bruton—who performs with LA Opera and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and has sung on the soundtracks of over 50 major motion pictures—had the complete opposite experience from Fraser. “Midway through college, my parents decided they could no longer ‘support’ my pursuit of a singing career,” he says. “I had been at Oberlin for two years studying with Richard Miller and had just moved to New York to study with Beverly Johnson at Juilliard (Renée Fleming had lessons right after mine).
“I was now officially on my own,” Bruton continues. “I started working full-time as a temp secretary all over the city—and I moved into the worst neighborhood in Manhattan. The building I lived in was actually a warehouse, and one floor had illegally been turned into living spaces. I had one room, which I shared with my best friend. We had no windows and no heat, except for a tiny, electric space heater, and we had to share a bathroom and make-shift kitchen with three other apartments. We had one piece of furniture—a small sleeper sofa we’d found on the street. But I made sure I had enough money for not one, but two, voice lessons a week, and I took one class per semester at Juilliard. I lived this way for almost two years before moving to L.A.”
Despite these difficult beginnings, Bruton has carved out a niche for himself in the local L.A. scene and says these early experiences made him respect limited resources and relish his studies even more.
But what about when financial sacrifices threaten your safety? “I practically live in my car, which I drive all over town in order to teach and get to gigs,” says award-winning soprano Natalie Cummings. “I have been told by mechanics that my car is not reliable enough for out-of-town travel and that I should stay off the highway. One of the windows won’t roll all the way up; one of the doors won’t lock without great effort. It has squeaky breaks, an oil leak, and many other issues that range from annoying to possibly life threatening. Why would I put my life in danger? Because the money to fix it or purchase a new car goes entirely to applications, travel, and student loans.”
Family relationships can also suffer in the process of establishing a career. “In 2012 . . . I was living at home with my parents, helping my dad take care of my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease,” says soprano Allison Jones. “That period was a very troubling time for me. Wandering from career to career, I searched for other occupations. Music surely wasn’t going to be it for me, because I wanted to be financially secure. But I became saddened every time I would see friends performing. I knew in my heart that I wanted to continue singing—but with my mother sick, I felt like I needed to be home.
“It wasn’t until I talked with my former roommate, who thought I was nuts for not going back to school, that I had a change of heart,” Jones continues. “I decided to attend University of Kentucky and obtain my DMA. This was an incredible leap. I was an only child, and my dad was the sole caretaker of my mom. Being nine hours away from my parents and trying to pursue a singing career was crazy, even to some of my family and friends.
“At a certain age, you’re expected to have a stable job and a steady future,” Jones concludes. “Here I am, at 28 years old, and I still don’t have my life together. By this age I should be helping my parents out and giving back to them, but I forced myself not to listen. I had to see about my own well-being. Yes, I would have been noble in staying home and helping my family. But that would have been the end of my dreams. I said a prayer to God to help take care of my family, and I took off.”
Orlinsky also knows about familial sacrifice. “Last summer I lost my brother,” he says. “I got the call right before I was supposed to sing an outreach program. I could have easily dropped the performance, but I also had the option of focusing for long enough to get through it. The show went on, and I broke down afterword. I learned that life will occur, and I must be ready to push on in my endeavors. Subsequently, it’s important to make time for ourselves when needed.”
Personal relationships can also be neglected or even nonexistent. “I have not had a real, serious relationship since I was 17,” says one emerging artist who has performed throughout Europe and the U.S. “That’s 10 years ago! I’ve devoted myself to my craft and my art. I wouldn’t change a thing, but this life does make dating complex. A singer’s lifestyle is different than the average person in terms of sleep and diet requirements, practice and rehearsal schedules, and working multiple jobs. Having a personal life is crucial, yet my personal life does not receive nearly enough attention.”
Despite the financial hardships and personal obstacles, singers still enthusiastically persevere. “I know I struggle as a young singer,” Diller says. “I have two degrees, don’t make much money, and feel as though I’m living in a state of constant rejection. After so many rejections, it becomes hard to remember why I’m even doing this. But it’s always that one ‘yes’ that makes it all worth it.”
Read Michelle’s entire article in the March issue of Classical Singer magazine.