The Struggle of the American Opera Singer

When confronted with someone who is unfamiliar with opera, I often hear “so it’s like musical theater?” And that’s not a surprising response from the average American. After all, musical theater is a great American tradition. It was born here and is uniquely our own and therefore at least somewhat familiar even to those who don’t know much about it. Opera, however, is a niche in this country. There still exist groups of fans who love it passionately and can recite every lyric from La Boheme, but I’d dare to say that most Americans don’t really know opera. They’ve heard of it, they can recognize a few tunes, but they don’t frequent the local companies and most likely have never seen a full production. 

Oddly enough, though, there are quite a few young aspiring American opera singers. More than a few actually. There are so many in this country that it’s quite competitive. So if so many people don’t really know opera, how is it that there is an entire industry devoted to these “young artists?” Let’s examine, shall we:

The history of opera in America is brief compared to that of its birthplace in Europe. The early settlers in the colonies came here escaping religious persecution and their religious beliefs generally did not accept opera, seeing it as scandalous and superfluous. Therefore, it took a while for the genre to make its way over the ocean. Theater did eventually arrive, though, with vaudeville troupes and by the 1800s opera was an acceptable form of entertainment. But what about the singers? European singers would make their way over and soon American opera singers would have their own careers. Now we can look closer at the actual profession of “opera singer,” but first we have to talk about the development of higher education. 

Our country is very proud of its academic system. People from all over the world move here to take advantage of our numerous colleges and universities. All to say they have a degree from the great U.S. of A. If you could hear me, you might note the sarcasm in my tone. It’s not that I don’t think higher education is important. It’s an incredible opportunity to develop skills and gain expertise in a subject. However, somewhere along the way, maybe in the late 90s, college became an expectation of students. The question after high school graduation was not “are you going to college,” but “where are you going to college?” And, boy, did the academic system explode. Their prices that is. Going to college was/is the equivalent of buying a small to mid-size home in terms of value. Except instead of having a roof over your head, you’re tens of thousands of dollars in debt with only the hopes of securing a decent enough job that might help you pay off all those loans. 

So how does this all relate to opera singers? Well, since college was the obvious step for every other industry, why not the music industry? Suddenly it’s not just the conservatories that offer advanced music training, but every university, small liberal arts college, you name it. Most have their own form of arts or music degree. Now fast forward to the expectation of the American opera singer. Step 1: Get accepted to a four year college program and graduate with a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Music. Step 2: Get accepted to a 2-year graduate program and graduate with a Master of Music. Step 3: Get accepted to a 3-year doctoral program… Wait. Scratch that. Only do that if you want to teach singing at a university – you might not get hired or taken seriously in the performance industry otherwise. Ok actual Step 3: Apply to a Young Artist program ( Side note: a young artist program or a YAP is a 1-2 year program with an opera company, big or small, where singers serve as an intern, performing small roles in main stage operas, singing for educational programs, and singing for donors) Step 4: Repeat step 3 as many times as possible before moving onto Step 5 which is getting hired to perform larger roles at a mid-size to large company. 

I’ve forgotten to mention the cost of all of this. Not only will the average singer have a boatload of debt after 6 years in college, but they also have to pay for every young artist program. That’s right, you have to pay to APPLY. Imagine going to apply to be a barista at Starbucks and they said “That will be $30 to interview and MAYBE you’ll get the job”. That’s what singers in this country are doing. And they’re applying to 10-15 of these programs per year. And $30 is only at best an average cost. Some of these application cost $50-$100. If they get an audition (yeah, it’s not a guarantee and you don’t get your money back) they have to provide their own way. Planes, trains, hotels, meals. Trying to be a professional opera singer in this country is as difficult as trying to become a professional hockey player. It’s a lot of time, training, and money. All of this for an art form that is losing audiences by the day. These singers are spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to pursue a career in a dying field. 

Excuse me? Maybe some of you know all of this already and maybe some of you are cursing me for blasphemy the sacred art. Okay it’s true, this is not the case for every American opera singer. Maybe those people have rich uncles? And we do love our prodigies here in the states (cue Jackie Evancho). Anyway, something has to give. If so many young people still want to be opera singers, there must be some merit in it. Is the system broken? I think so and I think it’s time to change it. 

At Steel City Opera we’ll never charge application fees and our goal will always be to support our performers so that we can bring this incredible art form to our communities. We’re here to help turn the dreams of the American opera singer into realities.  

Until then… just keep singing.