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

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Life outside college - a beginner's guide

Spending a bit of time in Cardiff has been nice. I nominally still live here, but I find myself in London for increasingly long spells. I've been catching up with various people and invariably get asked what life out of college is like and if I've conquered the world yet. Not only that, those who can see the end of their conservatoire journey on the horizon listen very intently to my tales of moderate success and undending attempts, making mental notes on ideas they might want to pursue. I thought I might as well try and make it easier for everyone. You may also want to read my notes from Sarah Playfair's talk on professional conduct when contacting opera companies.

As a disclaimer, I'd like to point out that what follows is a hefty part of my own research and experience, but is by no means a complete list of opportunities out there. This is also very much a UK-specific post. I will attempt one on German YAPs soon. Unfortunately the deadlines for many opportunities have passed, but feel free to revisit this over the Summer to make sure you get in there in time.

So you're about to leave college and don't even know where to begin? Here are a few ideas, depending on what you want to achieve, along with my thoughts on them. I'll do my best to update whenever something new catches my eye, so if you find this list useful, you may want to bookmark and revisit every now and then...

1. Summer Festivals

These are always a good starting point. Opportunities are plentiful, the commitment is relatively short, the money relatively good. If you get in on the ground floor you're looking at chorus work, maybe covering, or if you're lucky some small roles as well. The best thing about them is they are used to having students or recent graduates working for them and they will take care of you. It's a painless way into the profession, and you get to watch some fantastic principals very closely during rehearsals and fairly long runs of shows. Some of the festivals run young artist schemes that are a great way to get some repertoire under your belt and be heard by agents, critics and other companies. There are plenty of festivals to choose from, so here is a list of the main ones to get you started, google can handle the rest. In terms of deadlines, it's a good idea to get your CV to them in the Summer, when the respective companies' current programmes are up and running (that's when they can start thinking about auditions). Auditions are normally in the Autumn (Sep-Nov).

Glyndebourne - let's face it, it's the most prestigious, well-paid, offering the highest standards of opera making. With money tight and fees being capped all over the place, the other festivals are catching up and often employ comparable casts and standards, but usually for shorter seasons with no touring company. The problem with Glyndebourne is that with people auditioning from around the world, the auditions can be a bit of a cattle-market, and they have been known to send out the dreaded 'we never want to hear you again' email. If you apply for an audition, make sure you're ready.

Garsington Opera - I am happy to call this my Summer home this year. They do their utmost to cast their covers and tiny roles from the chorus, and covers get a showcase to which agents and representatives of other opera companies are invited. Every other year they put on a production featuring their Young Artists (usually former covers). The company has a family feel to it and Wormsley is a beautiful place to rehearse and perform in.

Grange Park Opera

Opera Holland Park

Longborough Festival Opera

Buxton Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera - the nice thing about this one is that it is actually in the Autumn, so can be combined with a Summer contract for a nice 6-month spell of work... if you get in of course.

Tete a Tete - a testing ground for new works, it's not something you can audition for really, unless it's for their main shows (worth writing to them), but rather you may end up there if you know a composer whose work is being put on. Worth a visit if you are interested in where opera is going, and networking opportunities are good.

Grimeborn - again, not one that auditions for its season, but rather acts as a venue for independent productions. Worth googling every now and again in case someone is holding auditions, as it is a good place to perform to get a foothold in London.

2. Further training and YAPs.

If you feel you need an extra bit of input and structure, here is what you could consider. Regardless, never stop having singing lessons!

Opera courses - most colleges run these, usually for people who have completed a post-grad course in singing. They get you performing roles on stage with orchestra, seen by press, opera companies and agents. Apart from that you get the normal college fare of lessons, coachings, languages, movement, drama, etc. London opera courses are supported by full scholarships, so you don't pay fees, but are hard to get onto, and have a slight tendency to take people from within the college itself (upgrading postgrads, or taing on their own graduates). Outside London you'll be looking at high fees (with some scholarships available), but much lower living costs, and a slightly less rat-racey atmosphere (however you will also get less exposure to the London scene, see point 6). Applications start Sep/Oct, with auditions Nov-Jan.

British Youth Opera - offer workshops and mainstage opera productions with orchestra. BYO is a great avenue into the London scene, a great place to meet people, and the workshops are always inspiring.  Applications open in Autumn, auditions are usually Jan/Feb.

National Opera Studio - offer a tailor made course for every singer they take. The NOS is supported and closely monitored by the Big 6 (see point 4), so you get great exposure while on the course. It is very hard to get in, with hundreds of singers applying (and it's an expensive application) for a dozen places, but even getting to the final round is a fantastic achievement and means you get heard by the casting departments of the main British opera houses. Apply before Dec, auditions Feb-April.

Opera Works - is ENO's professional development programme. Not to be confused with the Harewood Artists, it is not a YAP. This is a part time course that offers fantastic training in acting for singers, musical input from ENO music staff, consultations with their casting department and various other classes and opportunities. One word of advice - when considering this course, don't think of it as a way to 'get in with ENO'. It doesn't work like that, it's a training programme that you should be on for your own development as a performer, not as a short-cut. Apply by Jan, audition Feb/Mar.

Jette Parker - the best British YAP you can apply for. Competition is fierce (over 400 applicants for 5-6 places) but the rewards are great, you join the staff of the Royal Opera House, receive in-house training and perform small roles on the main stage, as well as bigger ones and scene productions in the studio theatre. Apply in the Autumn, audition in Nov/Dec.

Samling - a week locked away in a remote hotel with some of the best teachers and artists out there.

Britten-Pears - a bizarre application/audition process, and you need to sift through the programme to find things worth applying for, but a very prestigious scheme

Co-Opera Co - a bit like BYO in that they provide training opportunities (workshops, audition classes, etc), but also have paid touring productions. The structure and what's on offer in this company changes quite fluidly, so visit the website to see if there's anything for you.

3. Small-medium opera companies

These vary so much I feel I can't really go into that much detail. The money varies a lot, but chances are you will find yourself pursuing some or all of these, because outside Summer it's between the big houses and this lower tier of companies that the opportunities lie. There are many more out there, the best way to hear about them is through audition notification services (see 5), or by looking at biographies of young up-and-coming singers. Some may not pay well, but offer benefits like doing long runs in London and attracting important visitors or press. If you need help deciding whether to take poorly paid work, I wrote about this problem here. Also, make sure you explore every opera company before blindly sending out CVs, get a feel for what they do and think if that's what you need  to go for (see 8).

ETOOpera Project,  Mid Wales OperaDiva OperaOperaUpClose, Opera de BaugeBampton Classical Opera, Clonter Opera,  Winterbourne Opera, Chelsea Opera Group, Opera LokiSurrey OperaHampstead Garden Opera, Kentish Opera, Midsummer Opera, Riverside Opera, Charles Court Opera, Pavilion Opera, Guildford Opera, Opera in Space, Opera Lyrica, Pop-up Opera, Silent Opera, Opera della Luna

Contemporary/new works: Music Theatre Wales, Size Zero Opera

4. The Big Six and general auditions

The Big Six are: Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera North, Scottish Opera and Glyndebourne (which I've covered). They are where all singers want to be working. The first four have full-time choruses, which are the most stable form of employment a singer can find in this country.

General auditions are held regularly, but waiting lists are long (around 6 months), and don't expect feedback or offers straight away. They are there so that the opera company can put you on file, and from there they may invite you back to hear you for something specific. This can take several months. If you don't hear back, you can normally try for another general audition after 2 years to give them an idea of how your voice is developing. As you can see, it's a long game, so maybe wait until you feel ready to impress. Either way before you go, get acquainted with what operas they do, how they are cast, what the venue is like, just to make sure you show them something they may find useful in you. While general auditions are the standard way in for most agent-less singers, it's always good to be seen by the companies in performance, so if you're in their neck of the woods, ask the company you're performing with if they've invited casting departments from other houses.

A note on chorus auditions. These come up quite infrequently, are very popular, but it's worth noting - the panel for these can be different than for general auditions. If you are thinking of having a go at a chorus audition with the hope of being considered as a soloist, you may be wasting your time (and the panel's), because the big wigs from the casting department won't be there until the final round. Rule of thumb - don't go for it if you don't want a chorus job at all. That being said, extra chorus lists (called in for the bigger shows) are a good thing to be on file for, as it is 'a way in' and normally good money for work at a high level of music making. And as Richard Monk commented on Opera Talk, with budgets getting squeezed, many companies cast small roles and covers from within their full-time chorus, so a few years of such work can be a great start on the road to becoming a soloist, an opportunity to pay off student debt, work with the finest musicians on a grand stage, and get some roles under your belt.

5. Agents and audition notification services

I'm not going to waste space by pasting a list of agencies. Google 'artists management' or your favourite singers to see who represents them. Auditioning for agents is hard, they normally invite people they've seen on stage (another group of people to make sure are invited to your performances).  If you are being courted by an agent, ask around about them. Various agencies have varying levels of intimate contact with opera companies, so different agents will be getting tips on different opportunities. You can start a career without them though, it just means a lot more work on your part organising yourself and making sure you're applying for as much as possible. At least then you get to keep all the money you earn.

Speaking of which, before you sign anything, carefully establish the ground rules:
- What is the agent's commission? (these vary from 10%-20%, with 15% being a standard starting place)
- Is it an exclusive contract? If it is and you get offers of work directly (through recommendation or your own networking), then the agent will still want a cut, despite not actually helping secure the gig.

Remember, agents are supposed to work for you, not you for them. In the end it should be a personal relationship with regular contact and you should be confident that they have a plan for you that you're happy with.

To help organise yourself when you don't have an agent, there are audition notification services out there. You pay them a regular monthly fee to get daily or weekly information about upcoming auditions. It saves you having to spend an hour a day googling all possible combinations of the words 'opera, audition, role, baritone, looking for, chance of a lifetime'. The most popular ones are: YAP Tracker, The Opera Stage, Audition Oracle

6. A note about London

If you went to college in Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, or anywhere outside London, I have some harsh news for you. They are great places to live in, but if you want to work, you will probably need to break into the London scene. The capital is where the work is, it's where the auditions are, it's where you can (with some self-sacifice and perseverence) forge a life where you are performing all year round (even if it is in the back room of a pub). I'm not saying that taking one small opera company job after another is the way to forge a career, in fact it's a frustrating life to live, but it's a place to start, and as you will find out - good work breeds more work. It's better to be seen performing than in an audition (unless you're good at the latter but unengaging in the former, or get stuck in bad shows), and in London you can make sure you perform regularly in a way that is simply not possible elsewhere. You will then find yourself being told in auditions 'I saw you in so and so, I enjoyed it', which makes for a nicer audition.

Breaking into London can take time and luck. It's easier if you study there, but if not, be on the lookout for people putting on shows at Grimeborn or Tete a Tete, have a go at getting into BYO, go for the Summer festivals (they rehearse in London and you will meet important people), make friends whenever you are in the capital.

7. Watch your peers

As a young singer the best way to get inspiration on what to do next with your life is to look at those who have been there before, preferably recently. Go to performances near you, buy programmes, read biogs, browse singers' websites, note companies they worked for and try approaching them. Keep up to date with your colleagues, talk about what's out there, recommend them for things if you get the chance, karma will hopefully reward you.

8. Decide what you need!

Being out of college means you are finally your own boss and can do what's best for you. You won't be prey to college politics and casting that shoehorns people into inappropriate roles just so that a particular opera can be put on. Decide what you want and need. It may be that you need stage experience, or to learn roles, in which case apply for all the small companies you can find. If you don't want to be constantly learning repertoire and performing in small venues, take the time to get more singing lessons and focus on your vocal craft and audition rep. There are no hard and fast rules about whether or not a dozen roles performed in pubs and cattle markets look better on a CV than extra chorus on a big stage, so try not to get hung up on filling out that particular piece of paper. Focus on your singing and performance abilities, do whatever you need to keep these improving. Your life belongs to you now, not college, so focus on yourself (in a good way!), get better, stay healthy, and be patient.

Oh... and you may need to get a day job...


  1. Definitely get a day job and as competition is so fierce and jobs given are NOT always 'talent related' unfortunately, it is also worth going to Europe and auditioning, getting a contract and coming back. Companies here are quite stupid when it comes to considering CVs and a european contract makes you more 'interesting'. If you stay in the UK and fight for jobs then unless you are lucky, you will swim in the smaller pools or end up in chorus. Get known for something abroad or do courses to help network, the industry is not 'fair' and does not give jobs based on the best audition. Networking plays a big part and a lot of the people looking at your CVs are part-timers with no real idea what to look for and who have been told to look for credits with well known companies or for those with agents. Regarding agents, unfortunately they are parasites who want you to be fairly successful before they jump on the bandwagon and will rarely 'manage' your career at all. Quite often they are failed singers looking to earn a quick buck, but they are handy to open doors. If you get on a course then push to get as many along as possible.

  2. Very very true what you say Kevstar. I have experienced this myself out of Britain on the European mainland - I add a shot note about competitions - the majority of them are done by parasites who either want to award their own students (a lot who participate study or know people in the jury), want to do some good money or have an all paid vacation - for almost all the competitions I attended I was not sure if these three factors where in practice - either they were deaf, stupid and ignorant or else had big interests - probably many a time it is a combination of the three - in almost all the best are eliminated immediately so the competition left is between the mediocre 'students' or 'nominated' and the mediocre rest. It is quite a dirty business in reality.