I think the title of this post could have been 'Life outside college - an intermediate guide', but in the end I went for a quote from the conversation which inspired this post (it's also not really a guide). When I first left college I was amazed at how little recent graduates knew about 'the opera profession'. Now I've been out a couple of years, I've worked with quite a few people who know a lot more, but also with singers who've been out of education for years, and yet still can't seem to figure out how to actually progress in their careers. Every contract, every catch-up with my peers inevitably features the questions 'What are you up to next? How did you get that? What would you do in my place? How do people get better work?'. The older, wiser singers offer little insight, even if they give you their life stories, because they'll always say '... but it was different in my day'. Even today, in the conversation we had in the green room that prompted me to write, the words 'it's all changed a lot from when I was starting out' were uttered. They were followed by: 'in 2007'. How much can change in 8 years?
I'm not going to get into that. However the speaker was a singer I've watched for a few years now, from afar and now from almost up close (we're not actually in the same show), and he talks a lot of sense (funnily enough that's also how he described our mutual singing teacher). Today, even though no one actually asked it, he answered the question of what it takes to get ahead in singing. His answer made sense, and it gave me hope and filled me with dread at the same time. He said 'you need someone to invest in you'.
Let's assume you've left college and are reasonably adept at singing. Good voice, eager, intelligent enough to follow basic stage directions (basically know your right from your left), consistent enough at auditions to get offered work. You'll probably end up in a chorus at one point or another. You may be surprised at the fact that you're surrounded by really excellent singers. You may even think the standard of the young chorus is every bit as high as that of the principals, sometimes maybe even higher. You'll wonder why these people aren't doing roles somewhere. Congratulations, you've reached level 1 as a professional singer. You're making money, maybe even enough to make rent and afford a London cinema once a year. You're doing chorus, small roles, the odd cover, all for established companies; but you're still freelance and getting some roles under your belt with small companies. What you want is for those people who offer you the covers and bit parts to actually start considering you for bigger roles, proper supporting characters at least. Or maybe still do covers, but for the big houses.
That would be level 2. You'd be a proper soloist. You may end up earning less than those on level 1 (something I've found to be true with a few companies - the money is better if you're doing more productions within a season, so a chorister can be earning more over a season than even a lead role), but you've stepped up the prestige ladder. You're surrounded by good singers, many of whom have been around a long time. A long time... Drifting between levels 2 and 3 (principals in big houses), subject to capped fees, shorter and shorter production periods, shrinking subsistence allowances, rising prices, etc. If you can get 4 good contracts in a year you're actually doing well enough to put money aside. Life is good.
There is also level 4, those deemed stars. They actually put bums on seats. Their name on a poster makes a production viable before it even starts rehearsing. They aren't subject to capped fees (even if a house say they've capped show fees for everyone, there are hilarious ways of getting around it). But there aren't many of them out there, and becoming one is subject to even stranger rules (if any) than the regular grinding route.
How do you get from one level to another? You see people stuck on one tier for years... They have what it takes to do better, they tick all the boxes, they are often a lot better than the guys actually getting the higher-level career.
In the end you have to accept it's not about how good you are. There are so many good singers out there, it's mind-boggling. You do have to be good, but what propels you on that career path is coming across someone who sees something in you that makes them want to invest in you. Be it the casting director who recommends you for an opera studio or YAP, a conductor who invites you to do some high-profile concerts, a director who request you be put on a short-list of candidates for a role, or an agent who believes in you enough to literally do everything they can to ram you down opera companies' throats until they give you an actual shot at a role. You need an advocate, because you can't be your own. No one likes a self-advocating singer ('Oh yeah, I could so do that role' is not a line that will ingratiate you with anyone). But if someone already established says 'actually, there's this young(ish) guy/girl who could do this really well', that may be worth a lot more than a good audition.
OK, I know what's coming. How do I find that person? You don't. You keep doing what you're doing, and if you're lucky - they'll find you. If you're not... either give up or keep doing what you're doing. You never know who will take enough of an interest in you to give you that boost up. It may be your next boss, but it could also be way down the line when one of your peers ditches singing to become an agent or go into casting, or a student conductor you really got on with makes it big and happens to have fond memories of a college show you did. The horrible thing is that as freelancers we feel our career is in our hands. It really isn't, so learn to enjoy where you are now, work hard, be nice to people, be yourself (unless that makes the previous point difficult ;) ), believe you're worth investing in, and cross those fingers.