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For love or money: the life of a singer can be glamorous and rewarding, but what does it cost to succeed in the business of building a career?

Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a career in which you play on the stage of a great opera house, give the performance of your life, receive thunderous applause, meet adoring fans backstage, attend a fabulous reception, then go back to your swanky hotel in your limo, all the while basking in the afterglow of a job well done?


For a very lucky talented few, the scenario is perhaps not too far-fetched. But even with these, behind all the glitz and glamour is a hard-working, self-employed entrepreneur, someone who has succeeded against all odds on an arduous journey trading on some rare abilities. Every singer must have the requisites for success--a beautiful voice, solid technique, exemplary musicality, dramatic acuity, communicative power, attractive stage presence (given the increasingly image-conscious nature of the profession) and, above all, a burning desire to sing.

The arduous journey is also a long one. Typically, it starts with a love of singing at an early age, followed by voice lessons through high school, then three or four years as a voice major at a university. The aspiring singer has likely caught the "performance bug" in student performances and developed a taste for the limelight. For some, a highly coveted spot with a young artist program beckons on graduation. Competitions will start to loom large as a way to get noticed, and a professional stage debut is a given. It's not out of the question for a big career to begin with a competition win or after being plucked from the ensemble for a major role, if all the stars align, the rest, as they say, is history.

But talent, hard work and even luck are only parts of the equation. Another important element is the dollars-and-cents commitment that goes into building and then sustaining a career in music. Singers may have a passion for working in opera, but that doesn't make what they do any less a business and a livelihood. To get a feel for the business of singing, then and now, I talked to a number of opera professionals, from artists through teachers, managers and publicists to employers. The picture that emerges shows that even for the most successful, the journey is circuitous and expensive, involving years of training and the associated costs, and with stretches that provide little or no income to pay the bills. Many start out ringing up big debts from student loans, and one quickly learns how valuable and vital family support has been to many. When I asked Carrol Anne Curry, herself a singer, but now Managing Director and Director, Opera Division, for Dean Artists Management, what her first advice would be for aspiring singers, her response was only half-joking: "Marry someone rich!"

Even with the poor odds of making it big, there's no shortage of young Canadians wanting to give it a try. There are currently, for example, 157 voice majors at the University of Toronto alone, and, says Darryl Edwards, head of the voice program the number has been steadily increasing over the years. The numbers nationally are, of course, much larger. An Opera Canada program offering subscriptions to voice majors coast-to-coast counts more than 700 eligible students at 1.1 post-secondary institutions.

It's interesting to think about the world of professional performers to put these student numbers into perspective. Official statistics are scarce, but one would be hard pressed to come up with more than a couple of hundred Canadian singers at any point in time making a full-time living in the profession. And if one narrows the field to Canadian soloists with international careers, the number would likely be as small as a few dozen.


Part of the problem, of course, is that an ever-increasing number of talented singers are chasing a limited (and fluctuating) number of professional engagements. Even with the increase in opera performances and summer training programs in Canada compared to 30 years ago, activity here is a pale shadow of what's available in Europe. The most recent statistics, from the 2011/12 season, reveal that the top 10 countries are all European except for the U.S. Germany takes top honors with 7,811 performances, accounting for one third of all opera performances globally. Canada, in 16th place, had a relatively meager 236 performances.


Little wonder that many young artists have to find a way of bearing the cost of going abroad to pursue their art. With limited opportunities at home, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka took that plunge: "Thanks to the Canada Council, I got a big grant of$14,000 when I graduated in 1988, money on which I lived for a. year. I went to London, took lessons and auditioned."

Her efforts won her a Festvertrag--essentially a position as a house singer--with Vienna's Volksoper, which jump-started her career. Similarly, Kimberly Barber, now Associate Professor of Voice at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., spent 11 seasons in Europe, including a five-season Fest contract at Oper Frankfurt that was key to building her career.

Today, many Canadians still head to Europe--or to the U.S.--believing that, quite apart from the greater volume of opportunities, there's no substitute for going to places where opera is still part of the popular culture. "The key is to work with the best people, the greatest teachers and coaches," says Curry. who cut her teeth as a singer in the UK. "It opens your mind to a finesse, a patina of expertise that you can't get any other way. And that often means travel, where you get to hear the greatest in the world." Pieczonka, whose career until recently was entirely European-based, agrees: "I am a fan of Europe. I recall getting on a plane, I couldn't speak the language and I was lonely, but I managed to survive. If I sense that there's any interest [in Europe] from students, I encourage them to go and live in a different culture."


Among those who by choice or necessity stay in Canada, the lucky ones start out as members of the several young artists program offered by Canadian companies, the biggest being Opera de Montreal's Atelier Lyrique and the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio. In, these programs, singers enjoy financial stability with a monthly cheque, and also receive coaching and professional-development sessions, gain mainstage experience singing small roles and covering leads and enjoy invaluable opportunities to watch and work alongside established professionals. These programs are key to helping young artists hone their skills, but the opportunities they provide are so rich that they risk lulling the young artists into a false sense of security When the singers' tenure is over--typically, after a two-year stay--some become panicky when they realize that now they have to fend for themselves. "I tell singers that if they want to establish themselves, it's going to be a stony road in the first few years," says COC General Director Alexander Neef, who believes that Canadians generally receive better musical training than their European counterparts. "In the Ensemble, a lot of things are done for them, and I'm mindful that life after the Ensemble won't be the same. In their second year, they start looking for management and we have financial planners come in to talk to them.

"It's difficult for young singers to sing and handle the business side of things. If a decent manager is interested in taking them on, I encourage them. I always tell them to consider taking a job to pay the rent. The objective remains being a singer, so just make sure you have time for singing. They have to develop net-works--conductors, directors. You need to keep in touch, and nobody can do that for you. In the end, it's about making the right decisions."


For those not fortunate enough to win a place in a young artist program, life after school can be harder--or, depending on your point of view, build character. Young singers often put themselves through school with odd jobs, hopefully singing at weddings and funerals rather than flipping hamburgers. "l did retail clothing, babysitting, office temp work," Pieczonka recalls. "I had a church job and did weddings and oratorios. The last two years of opera school, I sang in the COG chorus--that was great money, several thousand dollars, and it was exciting, I learned a lot being around chorus master Donald Palumbo [now at the Metropolitan Opera]." It should also be remembered that learning is a life-long affair for singers, and the best teachers and coaches are expensive. With inflation, a voice lesson that cost $50-$100 an hour back in the '80s might now easily cost $200 or more in the case of a "star teacher." Mezzo Barber relates a story current back in the '90s holding that the eminent Christa Ludwig commanded a fee of DM400 an hour (about $350). And then there are the costs of learning materials and showing what you have learned in audition tours. Scores have never been cheap, and with the rising awareness of copyright laws, the use of photocopies is considered bad form if not illegal. You have to factor in the costs for travel and lodging for any activity away from home, and that of course includes weeks-long rehearsal periods when you achieve the ultimate goal of performance contracts. Renting a quiet sublet in major opera centers like New York or London is costly.

In this highly competitive business, management is a must, even for young singers. Kathy Domoney has a roster of young artists in her four-year-old Domoney Artists Management, and, a singer herself until quite recently, knows what they are going through to get established. Given that her agency is relatively new, Domoney feels she has to work that extra bit to put her singers on the map, Curry at Dean Artists cares similarly about her charges--"Of course I care, they are my children"--travelling to important performances or lying awake in bed worrying about a singer's opening night halfway around the globe.

Management commissions are pretty standard-10% for opera engagements, 15% for recordings or commercials and 20% for concerts. Canadian managers don't charge a monthly retainer, unlike some big agencies in New York or Europe. There is, however, likely an annual fee of several hundred dollars to produce publicity material for websites, resume updates and related materials.

Publicity is important, and no more so than at the outset of a career. Opera is international and at a certain point you're competing against singers from around the world. Even if you're just looking for a career at home, the market is intensely competitive. The ongoing decline in classical music and arts coverage in the mainstream media arguably makes the situation worse. It's evident in print and broadcast media--as witness the drastically reduced classical programming on CBC Radio 2. (Opera and classical music on TV is now largely a matter of history.) It's harder to get reviewed in major outlets now and feature articles are more difficult to set up. "Everybody wants a hook," says Moira Johnson, whose Ottawa-based Moira Johnson Consulting provides PR and marketing service to classical artists. "The fact that they are brilliant singers doesn't matter."

Financial turbulence and fraught business economies in Europe and North America in recent years have certainly had an impact on. performing companies and on the business of being a singer. Two years ago, Pieczonka's German agency increased the management fee from 1.0% to 12.5% due to "rising costs." The European Union has also recently imposed an extra levy of 19% on foreign artists, a sort of VAT that cuts into the bottom line of Canadians singing there. As, a top-Hight singer, Pieczonka is paid well: "I can't complain, but my fees are not going up the way they once did. Opera companies used to increase fees [for returning artists] almost 1000 Euros annually, but now it is 500 Euros or no increase at all. People are accepting frozen or even lower fees."


Since the financial crisis of 2008, private and public funding cuts have forced many opera companies to scale back (and even forced some out of business). Johnson relates the story of one arts festival that almost folded after board members and donors lost money in the Bernie Madoff investment scandal. Such reverses mean fewer contracts, and artists are the Ultimate losers. Curry notes that heragency lost 25 contracts when a Canadian company went into restructuring, but nowadays cancellations or delays are global. Barber cleared her calendar to perform in Mark Adamo's Little Women with Utah Opera in 2011, but remembers it taking a very long time for the contract to come: "I was put on hold for something like eight months, while in the past, companies would sign singers two or three years in advance." Late last fall, Pieczonka was booked to sing the Empress in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten in Spain, but it was cancelled "because of the dire finance ... I'll probably get a quarter of my fees, but its really more about the time put aside in the diary and having worked your life around it."

Given that singers need to focus their energies on their art, business and financial management can become a problem, especially since their professional lives tend to be episodic and income sporadic as a result. One month, a singer can be flush with cash, having just finished a performing contract, but then face a dry spell of several months. The smart ones quickly learn the discipline of putting earnings aside to tide themselves over dry periods. "Budgeting," says baritone Brett Polegato, "is key."

He's a meticulous and organized singer who keeps good records and he has learned to plan ahead. Consider his expenses for the year 2000, a watershed year that saw his La Scala debut and an important Debussy Pelleas in Strasbourg. According to his accounts, auditions and engagements cost him more than $80,000 that year. This included: $20,000 for professional development (coaching, scores and recordings); $20,000 in management fees; $20,000 for publicity; $17,000 for out-of-town expenses. (including accommodation); $11,500 for travel; $2,750 for wardrobe-related expenses; and $4,750 for telecom services. "Yes, my New York publicist was very expensive," Polegato says, reviewing the list. "That's why I left after three years. He wasn't even the most expensive by a long shot.

"Typically I bring home 50% of my contracted fees, after 30% goes to taxes, 12.5%-15% to my agent and the remaining 5%-7.5% to pay for my accommodation and spending on the road. Then I have to pay my ongoing day-to-day expenses out of the remaining 50%. It's tempting when I get a lump-sum payment to go out and celebrate, but I have to remind myself that this money has to carry me for several months. For every job do, I take 30% right off the top and set it aside for taxes. Since I've started doing this, I've received a pleasant surprise every May."

Given the arduous road to success, it's little wonder that many decide finally that the uncertain life of a performing artist is not for them. The profession seems to take a particularly heavy toll on the women. "They have found out what the true cost is," says Curry "which comes at the expense of your personal life.

"A singer can't have what we'd call a normal, mundane life. The singing life has to become your life. One has to want it badly, at the expense of everything else. This profession is a long distance run, not a sprint. Those who sprint will eventually have to slow down. Some can do it, others can't. If you start with something that you think would be your passion, but it's not, it's not a failure to say this is not the life you want. There are many ways to live this life."

Talent, training, money, luck are important. But no amount of money can buy a career, and the best publicist in the world cannot manufacture a talent that lasts. At the end of the day, it's the love of the art form that keeps the flame burning.
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Author:So, Joseph
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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