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

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Are we a doomed generation of singers?

The other day I had 3 conversations with different people (an agent, an older colleague and one of my vocal peers) and in each of these chats I heard 'there just isn't enough work to go round'. It looks like it's pretty much official - times are hard.

As far as I can see there are two main reasons for this. Cuts to arts spending have meant that smaller opera companies aren't getting enough funding to pay performers properly, hence the rising number of profit-share projects, while larger companies have over the past few years capped their fees. This means that there now isn't a great deal of difference money-wise between working at the big six opera companies and at smaller outfits (Summer festivals or touring companies). In some ways it's a good thing - the country's top singers can be heard singing for smaller companies, thus evening out the standard of singing/performing across the board. However, with quite a few medium-sized and small/touring outfits dealing with their own funding cuts, there is less opera being put on, and young singers looking to make their mark and get seen on stage are competing in auditions with established pros, YAP alumni, singers who already have good reputations in the business.

You can't blame companies for going for a known quality, someone whom they've seen deliver the goods. There aren't many risk-taking casting people out there, although that's a misnomer, because if someone in casting knows their stuff, there shouldn't be much risk involved. The average standard of singing amongst conservatoire graduates is quite high and remarkably even, and often the only thing that sets the 'A-list' singers above them in a company's eyes is the reputation I mentioned, plus maybe a competition or YAP on their CV. My bold theory is that you could find any number of singers up to the task of matching anyone who gets cast in the UK these days. That's how many good singers there are out there, and yet remarkably few are breaking through, because there are fewer jobs, and everyone is competing for those that are left, rather than there being an entry-level tier and an established-pro tier of employment opportunities.

As the number of available jobs has been declining, the intake into music colleges has been rising at a pretty staggering pace. Now, you may think that's a pretty daft state of affairs, and you'd be right, but there are reasons for this. Colleges need students to make money, and when they started offering more places, there were still relatively plenty of opportunities out there, although a keen observer would have already felt that 'winter was coming'. For a while it sort of worked. Now though, we are seeing hordes* of hungry young singers flooding the market, filling the Summer festival choruses and raising their standard to a level that used to be reserved exclusively for the likes of Glyndebourne or full-time opera choruses. Depending on the amount of rehearsal, these being scratch ensembles, the musical side of things doesn't always equal the aforementioned big players, though it certainly can on occasion, but the raw noise that the chorus masters around the country get to play with is astonishingly good. Young, technically solid singers, hungry for work, eager to please. However, most of these singers have set themselves a time-limit on how long they will be content to sing in choruses, and all the time they are looking for that small role or big break, auditioning, trying to get a foot in the door... and competing for these opportunities against guys they've already read about in 'Opera', or people 5-10 years their senior who walk into the audition knowing everyone on the panel. No wonder quite a few of my peers are taking breaks or quitting outright. How long can you bash your head against a wall for? Or try to get a foot in the door to a pretty crowded room...

Too many singers, not enough jobs. Tough times. Is there any hope on the horizon? Well, Germany recently increased its arts expenditure by 5%, the first EU country to do so since the financial crash. Will the UK follow this example? Maybe in the name of making Britain Great again, post-referendum? Well, one can hope, but to be honest it's not looking good. There seems to be very little political pride in high culture at the moment, and the arts aren't even on the list of issues being addressed by the government or the opposition at the moment. No one seems to care.

So in light of all this doom and gloom (see what I did there?), what keeps me going? Why am I standing facing this wall with a manic 'have at you' glint in my eyes? Well, for one thing I'm not in it for the money. None of us are. We're driven by a need to sing, to challenge ourselves, to push our voices to the limits of what they can do and then exceed those limits. Opera singing should be an olympic event! We singers have that same drive that pushes athletes to keep assaulting that personal best. But that's the ego of what we do, it's why I sing for my own benefit. But there's another benefit, the people we sing to.

I'll leave you with this story: I was recently in the mountains around Zawoja in Poland, doing a bit of hiking and spending the night in a house that belongs to an old hippy, where everyone is welcome and it's a place to share music, a love of nature and ideas. Myself and a guy I'd just met were at the stereo, each trying to convince the other that their taste in music had virtue. He was explaining electro-trance to me, I was responding with folk rock and heavy metal. It was almost midnight. Suddenly the door opens, and a guy walks in from the cold night, and asks what we're doing. We say we're discussing music, to which he says 'excellent, I've brought an opera'. Well, the guy I was having my deep meaningful analysis of the intricacies of EDM and distorted guitar tone had never seen an opera. Neither had my friend who was there with us. But the new visitor insisted, especially once he found out what I do for a living. We ended up watching a DVD of 'La traviata' from Salzburg with Netrebko and Villazon, in Italian (of course) with German subtitles, so it was my job to explain every scene in Polish. A narrated screening of Verdi. We got to the end around 3am and I turned to Mr Electro-psychodellic-trance and asked 'did you like it'. He responded with 'I'm sorry, I can't speak... too much emotion', tears in his eyes. That's why we do opera, no matter how tough the times.

* What is the collective noun for singers? 

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