A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

What are we paying for, and is it what we need?

In any venue the Green Room is always a hub for interesting conversations. During the interval of our last performance of Maometto secondo one such discussion really stuck in my mind and I’ve been wrestling with the subject for a while now. We were talking about college, conservatoires, in the UK and abroad, now and back when our principals (one of whom now teaches at one of the UK’s leading music colleges) were students. 

The conservatoire route is still the standard way into the singing profession, but there are some troubling tendencies plainly visible on the music college scene: 
- fees are constantly rising
- year groups are getting larger (especially at post-graduate level, and I know that’s strange considering the ever-growing costs of study)
- the amount of individual tuition is being cut across the board

I came to the UK having studied in Poland, where I had 3 singing lessons a week (with an accompanist), along with 4-6 hours of language coaching (and learning the languages, not just phonetics) in small groups, had 30-36 hours/week of classes (drama, dance, music skills, etc) when we weren’t in production, and did not pay a grosz for it (education in Poland is still nominally free).

Why did I come here then? Well, the standard of teaching in Britain is a lot higher. You may get less time with your singing teacher and coach, but get a lot more done. The arts scene is also a lot more vibrant, which means that you are more stimulated to work hard. If you can afford it, I’d still say this is the best place to study music I’ve come across.

However, with fees going up and groups getting bigger, there is more and more money being pumped into the system by us, the students. Part of this is of course offsetting the cuts to funding that conservatoires have suffered, but from an end-user standpoint are we getting our money’s worth?

One of our Maometto principals said: ‘They’re spending too much on opera productions’. Wow! Brave words. The operas put on at colleges are the most visible effect of their work, they are the living posters of a course. Full period costumes, lavish (by my Polish standards) sets, full orchestras and technical teams, frequently A-list directors and conductors. They are fantastic and great fun to be in as well as to watch. But do they teach us enough to justify the cost? Could the same learning outcomes not be achieved in a minimalist black box studio setting where the performers can’t hide behind production values and have to convey everything with their singing and stagecraft? The money saved could go into increasing the teaching provision...

Every singer who’s been to music college knows that when there’s an opera on, college life stops. You can barely fit your 1:1 lessons in around the production schedule, forget about languages, movement, etc. Even if you could go, you’re too tired to fully benefit. Don’t get me wrong, productions teach you a lot:
- stamina
- pacing yourself through a rehearsal period
- exploring an opera in depth
- the physicality of wearing different period costumes
- working with an orchestra
- working with a technical crew
- working with theatre lights
- learning professional etiquette
However apart from the first 2, most of these can be picked up reasonably quickly ‘on the job’, as long as you are confident in your own skills in terms of singing and acting. A black-box production gives you almost as much of an education in all these aspects as a full production, for what must surely be a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately it doesn’t work as well in a prospectus photo-spread...

I don’t intend to ramble on about this for much longer, and I hope I'm not coming across as ungrateful. I’ve enjoyed college life immensely, especially the opera productions. I’ve learnt from both the big ones and the shoe-string-budget ones that come up in college or with small companies outside. I still think the conservatoire route gives one the best environment in which to grow as an artist, especially in a culturally vibrant country like the UK. This post is just meant to infect you with some of the doubts I’ve been struggling with since that Green Room discussion. And I’ll leave you with one final observation:

The most prestigious operatic finishing schools most college graduates aspire to, with dozens of singers competing for each coveted place, have built their reputations based on offering staggering amounts of individual coaching, not on presenting high-budget shows. The National Opera Studio is a prime example, but a similar philosophy lies behind the Jette Parker YAP at the Royal Opera House, or even Dennis O’Neill’s Academy of Voice (whatever name it operates under). The students at all of these do perform, they perform a lot! But they perform in stripped down settings that put the focus on them and what they’ve learnt through endless hours of coaching, not on production values. 


  1. The main difference between an institution like the Opera Studio and one like RWCMD is that, at the former, the performers are the only ones paying to be taught. At conservatoires like Royal Welsh, every piece of costume, every prop and every inch of lavish set is designed, made or sourced by a student paying equally ridiculous tuition fees to learn their craft. I can see where you are coming from, but I think the reality is that the many aspiring opera stage managers, technicians and designers paying to study at RWCMD would struggle to prepare themselves adequately for the realities of industry working on a black box production!

  2. A fair point, and one which I had considered (believe it or not). What I am dubious about is whether or not every contributor (in terms of fees) is getting a proportionate return in learning outcomes. I'm not saying opera course fees (or actors fees) are subsidising SM studies in this respect. I'm more worried that vocal postgrad's fees (this is a group of students who get precious little in terms if their course) are subsidising operas they don't get to be in!

    This may or may not be true. What is true is that we have no idea where our money goes. And remember, lavish operas are also put on at colleges with no SM or design courses. In terms of what you're talking about the RWCMD is probably one of the most entitled institutions to put on larger scale shows.