Praised by Broadway World as a “compelling actor” with a “rich and powerful bass voice,” James Harrington returned to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program ... more
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June Mail Bag

Welcome to the OpusAtlas Mail Bag! Each month I’ll answer questions from OA readers, and try my best to demystify some aspects of the opera/classical singing world. Everything is fair game, so let me know what’s on your mind!

This summer, the OA blog is focusing on Young Artist Programs (YAPs), since those applications happen at the end of summer – so the next couple of mail bags will focus heavily on those, then move on to other salient topics for professional and emerging professional singers.

Here we go – Mail Bag #1. These are your questions:

  1. (1) What is a Young Artist Program? (2) When should you start applying? (3) Are there certain programs you should apply to right away, and some you should wait till later in your training?
  2. I combined a couple of your questions into one, because they all fit nicely with this summer’s theme of YAP applications, and I’m going to have a couple of posts up this month to refer you to, but I’ll try to get these answered as succinctly as possible.

    (1) Young Artist Programs (or YAPs) are programs for training and developing young opera singers. Typically paid, and typically attached to an opera company, these programs may combine many different experiences – coachings, lessons, covers, outreach performances (concerts and staged shows in schools), chorus work, movement/dance/yoga training, language classes, and more – into a part- or full-time job singing. For more information, you should check out my YAP Overview post (earlier this week) and my YAP List post (next week) – these will give you some of the finer details, as well as which programs exist in the United States, and some of their characteristics.

    (2) The decision to begin applying to YAPs is best left to the singer and her teacher, in conjunction with a good bit of background research – see my Research post (July) for more info – on your peers who are already out singing. There is no one time, but as you’ll see in my answer to another question later on, there is a rough timeline that you can follow in trying to figure out the timing.

    (3) The short answer: Absolutely. The longer answer? Different YAPs provide different levels of training and experience, and they also expect different levels of training and experience from their young artists. Unless you are undoubtedly a Wunderkind, it is best to target programs where the current or former young artists have experience roughly equivalent to your own. You can typically find that information on the YAP/company website. Des Moines Metro Opera, for example, is a great program that is a very common first or second YAP for a lot of very good singers. Merola and Santa Fe, on the other hand, place an emphasis on singers with more of a track record, and who are more “ready to launch,” so to speak.

    It is also important to know that some programs have a stated (e.g. Merola) limit to the number of times they will hear you, while others have an unstated policy of not hearing certain singers again if that singer was unprepared or perhaps just not very good the first time they auditioned. It’s always best to match your experience up to their typical Young Artist before deciding to submit an application. –JH

  3. What does the average timeline look like for an opera singer (education, YAPs, more education, then jobs? What?), and what are the benefits of approaching the career via an alternate route?
  4. “Average” is a funny word, and many singers will tell you that there is no “average” timeline, but I think it’s clear that there is – it’s just not the only timeline. In the United States, though you will find dozens of different stories among your colleagues if you hang around long enough, there does seem to be a common thread through many careers that may help you see the future a little.

    *Undergrad degree (in literally whatever you want)
    ---> “Pay-to-Sings” and other summer training programs
    *Graduate degree
    ---> Paid summer YAPs
    *(Artist Diploma or Performance Certificate) – optional… typically for those who either (1) did grad school early,
    or (2) made a career switch late, and don’t care to have an academic credential, as such.
    *Paid Year-Round YAPs
    *Main Stage gigs/European Fest work

    Now, that’s a typical progression. And it’s worth noting that winning a prestigious competition or signing with a manager may happen at any point in there, and may move you out of YAPs and into Main Stage work. But you asked about “average.”

    The “timeline” aspect is trickier, as people go to grad school and get accepted to YAPs at different points, some very young, some older. But this timeline, in conjunction with reliable advice from professionals who know your abilities, can help you choose opportunities that are most appropriate for you at a given point in your career. The top paid summer and year-round YAPs are almost always going to expect you to either have a graduate degree or be in the process of earning one. And Pay-to-Sing programs should largely be in your rearview by the time you leave grad school, in most cases.

    If the next step isn’t happening — if, for example, you find yourself finished with grad school, and with no prospects for paid YAPs in the coming year, it is important to ask a trusted advisor what may be missing. If that advisor can’t tell you, look for another opinion from another trusted advisor. Maybe you went to grad school right after undergrad, and the voice isn’t done “cooking” yet at 24 or 25 years old. Maybe that means you should look at an Artist Diploma, or maybe it means a year of regular lessons and coachings to bring you up to the standard of the other singers around you.

    At any rate, it is important to always be trying to improve your own artistry and seek out opportunities which will help grow you and promote you to appropriate levels as you do so. Don’t get bogged down in what other singers in your voice type or of your age are doing, except to the extent that it helps you focus your own approach. –JH

  5. What is a professional audition like?
  6. You caught me on a day when I just had one, so the memory is particularly vivid. But truly, every audition I have ever done has been roughly the same format:

    • You and the pianist on one end of the room; one or more people on the other end of the room, behind a table.
    • You sing an aria of your choice.
    • The panel asks for anywhere between zero and two more pieces off your rep sheet, sometimes in full, sometimes excerpts. (Know your arias from all traditional/possible starting points!)
    • You may or may not exchange a few words, whether pleasantries or clarifications of information on your résumé or application.
    • You may or may not ever hear from those people again.

    Variations on this format mainly have to do with the size of the room, and whether or not you can tell how many people are in the room listening. Most of the time in your career, you’ll be singing in a smallish studio with artificial lighting and acoustics ranging from completely dead to “the inside of a large, tiled bathroom.” Once in a while, you’ll sing in the actual theatre that the company calls home. In those cases, the lights will likely be out, and you’ll be able to get the real experience of singing in that theatre.

    I’ll also say that knowing this can present you with a tremendous challenge, even as it gives you an advantage. The fact is, the familiarity and routine of these things can lead to complacency in even the best singers, and complacency makes for really terrible art. You cannot let the routine of it take your edge away, if your edge is what makes you great. Know thyself, and do whatever it takes to put you in the right mindset to be your best self in there. –JH

That’s it for this month! This whole summer is dedicated to Young Artist Programs, so please send your questions to me, and I’ll try to get you in the July or August column! And if I don’t feel I’m qualified to answer your question, I’ll find someone who can.

Praised by Broadway World as a “compelling actor” with a “rich and powerful bass voice,” James Harrington returned to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program ... more