Sometimes, the Stars Don't Align: An Interview With David Blackburn on NYIOP and the Opera Industry
David Blackburn asked me to interview him for this blog because I wrote several posts describing my experience auditioning with NYIOP, an audition service for opera singers, which he owns and directs. This is not just an interview about NYIOP, however. Mr. Blackburn was an agent for IMG, a consultant for several opera houses, and helped found several young artist programs. He knows many people within the international sphere of opera and has been able to observe the way the business of opera has evolved over the past couple decades. He has heard the auditions of more singers from a greater variety of places and at a greater variety of levels than - and this is just my guess - 97.5% of the industry professionals out there. This doesn't make him the perfect source of information - but it does make him a good one.
We conducted this interview over phone on February 26th, 2020, and I transcribed it in full, only editing it for clarity. This has resulted in the interview being very long. That is why I have tried to pull out important quotes throughout the interview so you can better navigate it without having to read every word. The first half of the interview is about NYIOP while the second focuses more on the industry as a whole.
The interview took a long time to bring out, because my efforts to get clarification on certain things were slowed by the chaos resulting from the pandemic. That said, this led to some “luck from bad luck” (as we say in Czech) because, on May 11th, I was able to talk to Mr. Blackburn again and, in addition to some clarifications, transcribe his projections about the post-pandemic industry.
Please note that views expressed by Mr. Blackburn or not necessarily my own.
So, I did an informal survey of what singers wanted to know and most of their questions were about NYIOP, especially trying to kind of “debunk” it, though I think your general insight about the industry would almost be more valuable and interesting…
I think so too. But I did want to address a couple things from your last post [edit: Mr. Blackburn is referring to this post] about NYIOP, if I may.
First, I know it frustrated you, the whole thing with panel members saying “don’t give the singers our contacts.” Please understand I sit neither here nor there, in the sense that my duty is to try to keep both sides, the singers and the panel members, as happy as possible. Unfortunately, this usually means one side or the other is angry with me. If I give the contact information, inevitably somebody from the panel is going to yell at me and I simply can’t afford for them to have negative ideas about NYIOP because then they don’t hire singers. But if I don’t give the contact information then, of course, the singers get mad. On the other hand: One of the people at the London audition basically wrote me saying “can you please give people my specific email address.” This individual is taking over a theater in September and the singers were bombarding the general email address and it was being forwarded, but it would have been easier if it was sent directly. So there’s actually no easy way to deal with all of this because every single person has different ideas.
Another thing from your post: It’s not the case that when you send emails to a general email address of a theater they don’t send it around. In Germany, or German speaking areas, usually, because they’re so up-tight, if you send it to the general address they will find the person and get it to them. They may be mad about it but they do send it.
Finally, the concept of feedback is something completely different in the minds of those of us in the business and those of us who are singers or helping train singers. And that’s another thing I’ve struggled with around NYIOP for years. Even you in one of your posts said that you’re not necessarily embarking on this year of NYIOPing expecting to come home with a satchel full of contracts, that it was the experience and the information and the opportunities and all of this. And the thing is that there’s an entire industry in the world around preparing artists to try to be professional artists, to try to get work. Even I am part of that industry, in a sense. And up to the level where I exist – and this is where it’s awkward for me – all your interactions surrounding singing are with people who tell you how to make yourself better and more marketable. I do that, too – when I do professional consultations, I’d say half are like that and then half of them are professionals that actually want to sit and strategize through the business because they understand it from the inside and just need to know how to navigate certain passageways that they don’t know. And the difference is that the moment you’re on the side of the industry that is casting or that is selling singers, like agencies or theaters, it’s simply a completely different goal. You’re looking through different glasses in every possible way. Singers who go to competitions look at the jury and think “Oh, these important people are there, I’ll do the competition and maybe I’ll get a job or they’ll discover me.” But even the panel of a competition hears differently, sees differently, than a professional panel. I’ve sat through competitions where I knew which singers had professional careers and those singers didn’t necessarily even make it out of the first round. It’s just different.
Okay, so let’s just continue with the questions about NYIOP. As far as I can tell, you actually sit through and listen to every NYIOP audition. Roughly what percentage of singers at a typical NYIOP session are professionally viable for the kinds of opportunities which the panel could offer them?
I do listen to all of the auditions, with only about two exceptions over the years.
Professionally viable? This is a hard thing to say. NYIOP has been, by design, something literally anyone can sing for. And all of the naysayers and downers will say it’s because I want more money. It’s not just that. It’s about the fact that there are so few actual opportunities available for anyone. There’s so much screening and paring away before anyone actually gets to present themselves on a stage and sing for someone these days that it was a big deal to me, and is a big deal to me, to cut through that. But, yeah, when theaters and agents come to NYIOP they know that there’s a possibility that they’re going to hear people that are just unbelievably bad because that is what does exist in the world or we wouldn’t have America’s Got Talent where the first half of the season is about laughing at the bad people. So, there are bad people singing but there also are people out there that need an opportunity to present themselves and would never pass any sort of screening and would basically just feel like they’re hitting a wall everywhere they go. With NYIOP, yeah, you have to pay money because I work hard and because it costs a lot, frankly, but everyone gets a chance to present themselves.
I just have to ask though: If you’re hitting walls everywhere and no one will hear you then does it really make sense to be heard? Do you think there’s anyone who somehow would not make any screening and then be heard at NYIOP and get an opportunity?
Well the thing is – and this is purely my opinion – if someone’s been working for 10 years and doing voice lessons and coaching and all of that. Let’s be realistic: Someone is telling them that they’re getting better or that they have something to offer. That’s why they keep going unless they’re just not realistic about the world. Then they come to the point where they have discovered NYIOP and they’re going to put themselves out there, thinking they will get an opportunity. And when they go up on that stage and I hear them, I might think that it’s really unrealistic, that it’s horrible, and that I would never want to hear them again but then when I look at the ratings sheet from the panel I see that somebody didn’t think that they were terrible, that somebody thought that they were actually good. It has happened. It happens all the time.
But the thing that I would say is that there are two sides to it: There’s my opinion about a singer and then there’s NYIOP. As NYIOP, I provide an opportunity for singers. That’s what I do. Whether the particular psychology of the singer that signs up is to the point where they are able to say: “I’ve been trying for ten years and nobody wants me, maybe I’ll just go find a job, then” - I just have to ask: How on earth is it possible to oversee that? That said, sometimes I do try to intervene. I know of one particular singer that has a lot to offer as an artist, is a very intelligent artist and linguist, yet for three or four years has come in singing repertoire that is entirely too large for them. And after the first two auditions they sang I took it upon myself to say: “Listen, you’re such a unique, interesting artist - why do you always offer this repertoire that’s so unrealistic?” And they said: “Well, that’s the repertoire my coaches and teachers have told me is suitable for me and that’s what I do.” And at that point I have to back away, hold my hands up, and say: “Okay, I have said my piece.” And then, lo and behold, that person gets hired at a not-bad big young artist level to do one of those roles and it continues. I don’t think that anything will ever come of it but I’m one person and there are over 100 theaters in Germany and each of them has different tastes.
So, I put singers in front of people and they sing and some of them get mad if they feel like their money wasn’t well spent. But those are things that I can’t control. Singers have to self-manage their realities and themselves. It’s very difficult to judge someone definitively. Sure, there are people that are just bad. Amongst those people who are bad many of them don’t think they’re bad. Many of them you will listen to and you will think: “Do they not have a recording device?” Everybody’s got an iPhone. They can easily record themselves and put it next to Corelli and hear who is good and who is not. But that’s something that’s far beyond my control to enter into. If I were in a casting position, on the other hand, and my time was severely limited because I had many other responsibilities, then I would be much stronger and much more severe about wanting to screen people. However, that blade, that delta, is exactly where NYIOP lives. Because I provide theaters and agents the opportunity to sit in a room over a couple of days and hear everybody and discover people that other people wouldn’t have a chance to discover because they’re usually not going to be on big agencies yet. You catch them at the beginning. There have been a number of people that have been discovered by this very process.
Do you feel comfortable naming some of them?
Only the ones that have given me permission to put them on the website. Do you know who Dmitry Belosselskiy is? He’s probably the world’s No. 1 bass, right now, up there with René Pape. Or there’s Vasilisa Berzhanskay who is 24 now and is basically the world’s next Cecilia Bartoli. I heard her when she was 22 and put her out there. Michèle Losier is a wonderful mezzo that literally sang a NYIOP screening audition years ago with her car full of her stuff to move back to Canada because she was quitting. We connected her with an agent and she made a Met debut at the end of the year. There’s an Australian singer named Stacey Alleaume, who is singing La Traviata on the big harbor production in Sydney this year, who, when we went to Australia, was in the chorus of the opera house but far and away among the two best singers we heard there. We basically all said to the general music director: “Why is it that the best singer we’ve heard in four days here is in your chorus and says that she can’t even get you to hear her and that she’s going nowhere?” After that, the general music director heard her and some connections were made and she’s basically shot up and has a career now. But she was stuck in the chorus when we heard her. There’s a bass-baritone named Thomas Hall that was also in the chorus of the Chicago Lyric Opera when he came to sing a NYIOP and one of the panel members who was at an audition representing a festival said: “Why is he in the chorus?” and hired him to sing a lead in Lohengrin. So he went from the chorus and now he’s singing things like Wotan and Scarpia all over Germany. So it happens and these are people that had no career, that never would have passed through a screening to be heard, and they were heard. It happens. It may not happen immediately all the time but it happens.
What do you think the singers who are not ready to be hired can gain from doing an NYIOP?
I know this is like the nasty word now but you get exposure in the sense that you get heard. Here’s what actually happens: If you’re like-a-clown bad, we remember you. If you’re extraordinarily great, like Leontyne Price, then everybody goes insane. In the middle, there’s a whole lot of people that show something, that have something to offer, but are not quite right yet. And those people get stuck into the back of people’s minds – either good or bad. Most people are simply average and, I hate to say it, unmemorable. And then what happens is they get forgotten very quickly. But the next time they hear you they may look back at their notes and say: “Oh, I’ve heard her before and she was okay and she’s gotten better etc.” That’s the way that this business works. It used to be a lot worse but over the last couple seasons – three or four seasons – there are far fewer abysmal, horrible, laughable people.
Why do you think?
I don’t know, honestly. That’s a really good question. But it used to be that there were always, in any given three days of auditions, three or four singers that were really, really, really bad in various ways. These days that’s actually not a normal thing. I don’t know why that changed but it changed very clearly since about 2016. Maybe people are getting wiser with saying: “Look, I don’t think I’m good enough so I’m not going to gamble.”
I notice you mention “ratings sheets” as if the panel members fill something out for each singer. Can you tell me about those? Could singers contact you to get a sense of what the panel really thought through the ratings sheets, rather than by writing them directly?
I just ask the panel members to each circle a number between 1 and 5. Some of the people listening to the audition write comments but most don’t and even when they do I can’t always read their handwriting. So the most they can do for a singer is tell them if, in the grand scheme of the days of their audition, they were received well or received poorly as kind of an average. That is all I can do because I tell everyone who listens to the auditions that no one is going to have access to their notes. What I can say is look: I’m looking at the sheets, and the numbers you got fell about average, for this session. Or tended to be higher – so you should really push to follow up because you have a chance. Or, no, it looks like it wasn’t particularly your best day.
So what do you use the ratings sheets for?
In the beginning it helped me because it taught me people’s tastes. I now know the exact tastes of most of the casting directors in the world – because I’ve observed who they like and who they don’t. Also, with people who have sung over multiple years, I watch how they track – if they’re getting better of worse. If they start with management their scores jump. Or they get some gigs and people start liking them more – but they still sound the same. It’s fascinating. I have those going back to the beginning of NYIOP – started doing it 2004.
That must be a really fascinating set of data.
I mean, I have them for a bunch of famous people...
So what you’ve observed is that people’s ratings sometimes go up, even though they’re singing the same, because public opinion somehow shifts?
If I wanted to dive deep into those datasets it might show that. I would assume that it would from my observations. But I haven’t ever gone and proven that. What it mostly does is lets me know the tastes of the theaters. People will ask me for suggestions or opinions on singers and my knowledge of their tastes through the ratings sheet helps me know if they would like that singer or not. Because the singers in question might be somebody I love but if I know this person’s taste is different I might say “It’s not really a singer for you.” It also helps me better organize who hears whom. Like if I know there’s a singer at NYIOP whom someone will particularly like but they aren’t scheduled to be there when that singer auditions, I can move that singer to a better slot.
Do you have some sense of how many feedback requests a typical panel member receives after one of these auditions?
I have no sense of how many feedback requests get sent for any given panel member. I would venture to say that when I send people the email address, where it’s all just kind of spoon-fed to you, then they probably hear from 70-80 percent of the singers that sang. I know some people who simply don’t reply and I know some that very diligently reply to almost everyone. I have no idea to what percentage they reply because that’s something I need to leave up to them. That’s a line that I can’t really cross - to start forcing them to write back. Some people might write me and say: “Look: I got a lot of feedback requests but most of the people that have written me I actually have very bad notes about and I’m going to be honest with them. Are you okay with that?” And I say “Absolutely!” because you can’t lose with honesty, even if it’s bad. But when you demand personal feedback or create a situation where someone pays and sings and they immediately get to be told what people think you’re going to get a whole lot of useless comments because quite frankly nobody wants to be a dick, nobody wants to hurt somebody’s feelings to their face. They’ll say: “Oh, I didn’t really like your audition.” Or “It wasn’t right for me” etc.
But if every single singer asked for feedback would the panel even be able to write back to everyone?
Sure, they would be able to respond but I don’t think they would. One of the things that’s important to remember is that the people listening to these auditions are not interested in helping you grow as an artist. That’s not their job. Their job is to cast operas for their theater or find people for their agency. Therefore providing feedback – constructive feedback – is something that most of them are not accustomed to. That’s why when you get feedback from people sometimes it seems rude whereas if I read it, because I know these people personally, I can tell you what is rude and what’s not. And most of it is not rude. They just don’t know what it means to give feedback that a singer would not take offense at. But their job is to cast operas, find singers, not give feedback. My wife, who is a professional singer, always gets annoyed and laughs about the constant dance around feedback that I have to do. Because she says: “Did you get a contract? That’s the only feedback you need from an audition.” What the hell do you care what they say about your vocalism, your “a” vowel, or what you should be singing? If you know yourself as an artist then you present what you think is best and if they hire you, that’s great. If they don’t – why do you care about their opinion?
Well, sometimes they don’t have something for you in the moment but they might in the future so it’s a way of forming contacts and knowing who is interested so you can follow up with them later.
Yeah, but here’s the thing: If that is the case you won’t know about it. They’re not going to tell you about it. And they’re simply going to call you when they’re interested, when they have something for you. That also has happened. That happened even, like, five years after an audition, one time. Where someone had a Cherubino cancelled and he remembered hearing this singer five years before at NYIOP so he checked up on her and hired her.
What I would say on feedback in a nutshell is that I, personally, think it is useless. All of the people on the panel have your information and if they feel the need to say something to you or reach out to you it’s very easy for them to do so. And I doubt that anyone truly gets a whole lot of useful information when they write. Look at the things that you got back – you said it exactly right: The feedback is exceedingly vanilla, nothing particularly interesting or useful. It’s just the kindness of not giving you silence. But there’s almost no difference between what you got and getting silence as far as being useful to you.
I don’t know about that. I have gotten some ideas from my feedback so far.
What could be interesting is if there is something that is repeated again and again by multiple people. Then it might be something to focus on.
And there often is some consensus. But when you include the list of attendees and their contacts to “follow up” with after every audition, is it not for feedback? Is it for something else? Or do you just include it because singers get mad, otherwise?
People nag me for it. Everyone is obsessed with getting feedback. But the professional service aspect of this is that the feedback is if you get a job. Like I said, the kind of feedback these people give is rarely the kind of information singers are expecting to get from feedback, because people in the professional sphere don’t think like people who help singers train. The feedback is usually “I have no use for you, right now” or “I don’t like your voice” or whatever. But when it comes to giving the contact information: It’s about knowing who was in the room. I would say about 60 percent of the people who sing at NYIOP have some sort of management. So if you provide the list of people who were in the room to your management, they can follow up for you.
Do 60% of the singers doing NYIOP really have agents? That’s more than I expected.
Well, it varies by session. If it’s an audition for beginning houses or Fest jobs, ironically, then it’s usually less than that. When the singers aren’t managed the scope from bad to good is usually wider. When there are better houses or better-known theaters, then we get more managed singers. But I send the contact information out no matter what kind of singers are there because you payed money so at least you deserve to know who was in the room. And I try to be as accurate as possible – if someone’s only there one day, I try to say so on the sheet.
Another big concern among singers seems to be the idea that NYIOP panel members are paid to be there, in addition to having travel and accommodation covered.
No. We pay for travel. For some of them we give a fixed stipend that is supposed to cover flight and housing and usually barely covers that. In most cases, I book and pay the hotel and then I reimburse them a fixed amount for travel. But they never get paid. Nothing. Sometimes I take them out to dinner, but not all the time. Nobody ever gets paid to be there. Because I don’t think that would be cool since they’re there to do their job. If I ask them to do a masterclass we pay them an honorarium because that’s not their casting job. That’s them actually standing up and teaching people about their job.
So what is the panel members’ primary interest in hearing a NYIOP?
Well, they come to NYIOP to hear singers. That’s their job. Some people say: “Oh, they get a holiday in New York.” Well, if 40-45 singers a day is a holiday for you then you gotta get out more. We usually have an hour off for lunch, hour and a half if there’s time, and then we finish at 6:00 or 6:30pm, depending on the schedule, and usually the panel members will try to run to a performance after. But they’re there to hear singers because it’s their job. In general, they always have people to hire, especially theaters that have a bigger repertoire. Usually they’re sending me information about what they need ahead of time. Some of them need more people and some of them need fewer. They need different types of people.
What about the people that are there just to get a general idea?
The mentality, in general, would be different from person to person as to if they’re coming to NYIOP to get a general idea of what is there. But, for example, when we did an audition in Mexico City a couple years ago, I specifically told people: “Look, this is for us to go to that market and hear a lot of people in that market and see what’s there." In Korea it was the same way. Sure, everybody that went there had things that they needed to fill, roles they needed to fill, but the point of going to places like that is to go to that market and get an idea of what is there because casting people don’t generally travel as much as you would think.
How do you go about “recruiting” panel members? Do you generally choose them or do they sometimes contact you with a request to participate?
It happens both ways. People will write me and ask if I have anything coming up and others will write asking: “Do you have space for me?” What I do mostly is I invite some people and once I have a couple then I invite people that would fit with them. For example, for the audition we will have in Berlin I’m inviting more people from North America because they would like to hear what’s in Europe. Germans don’t necessarily want to hear people in Berlin but other Europeans around would.
Do the same panel members generally show up year after year, audition after audition, or is there a lot of coming and going?
It varies. There are certain people that come routinely. At this point there are certain people that come when they have time which means that I may see them every couple years, every three years. There are certain people that I don’t ask every year. When I know that I’m going to be hearing people that would be of interest at that level, then I’ll invite people at that level. There’s not a lot of people that come listen to these audition and then never come again for some reason. There are some that have finances from their theater and they prefer to organize trips themselves. But, sadly, what happens is they will organize a trip themselves and they will hear only very specific singers from very specific agents and then - guess what? - the huddled masses don’t get an opportunity. They go back to exactly what it’s like everywhere else.
You mention that you know ahead of time what kind of panel to invite based on the level of singers. How do you know the level ahead of time?
The first thing I do is I invite the theaters. Then I announce them – because usually people don’t sign up until they know who’s coming. But if I know that it’s going to be a good group of theaters, then I know that I’m going to get more response from agencies sending me singers. It’s all a big roulette game. For example, when we did NYIOP in Russia for the first time, I knew that the singing would be at such a level that it would be worthwhile for the really high-hitters to listen. Or in New York I know that level of talent can be mustered. In the summer when I have the big session I know I can go to the agencies and get a big group of people that are good and can sing on the stage of a theater – Sonya Yoncheva, Stephen Castello, Ailyn Pérez, Angela Meade have all done these summer auditions. If I know I’ll have people like that, I have no hesitation inviting people from the big league. But if we’re talking about, say, Pforzheim, I have no idea who’s going to be there so I don’t invite anyone from the really famous houses because I know it’s too risky for the reputation of the program.
I’ve heard this idea that there are managed singers asked to participate in the auditions to “beef them up.” Connected to that is the idea that there are singers participating in NYIOP who are already managed and who do not pay the fee…
Years ago in New York - we’re talking ten years - when we used to be doing four or five sessions in New York a year, there was this period where managers didn’t want to send their better singers to sing for German theaters because the fees were so much lower and these singers wouldn’t go Fest anyway, for whatever reason. Yet those theaters, I knew, had contracts to offer and money to pay even for guesting. But the result was that we would have very low turnout. So, for about two seasons, whenever we would get to the finish line of the singers and we needed more people, certain singers would sing for discounts and some, very rarely, for free. If I knew that there was a singer that was good for something then I would comp them – I can do that because it’s my party and I’m the one basically taking the money out of my pocket. It was like me basically funding a scholarship. I had an agreement with CAMI Music for about two seasons, through Matthew Epstein, where they had a certain number of people that they could put into any given session for free, however if they got contracts they would have to pay me a certain percentage, per contract. So that was just a basic smart business deal - since CAMI has singers that are more likely to get contracts, they get the option of putting their singers in for free but I would get a cut of the contract. I stopped doing that after a couple seasons because it became too much of a pain to get them to fairly follow up on their end of things. A singer came in one time for an audition and I saw their upcoming work was literally the list of theaters that had been in the first session that they sang yet I hadn’t heard anything about it, let alone received the agreed-on amount of money. So, I don’t do that anymore. People pay the fee. That’s it. Every now and then I will comp someone because they ask or because I want them to sing or because they’ve sung several times and I know it would be good for them and, you know, if they’ve done it a lot, I get it, I understand. But the concept of management simply being able to put people in free doesn’t exist. I’m telling you. People from Askonas Holt pay. People from Hilbert pay. People from CAMI pay. It happens.
You’d think managed singers wouldn’t need it as much...
No, you’d be very surprised. We had five people from Intermusica in London this time. One from IMG. Because the reality is that getting auditions is hard. I was a manager. Getting people to hear auditions these days is harder and harder and harder. For anyone at any level.
Yeah, I can definitely feel that. Do you keep tabs on the outcomes?
Honestly, so many times I’ve wanted to but quite frankly it’s hard. It’s impossible to know. I write people and I say: “Tell me if you’ve made offers.” And I find out about things all the time. I just found out right now about two people who were hired at the Baroque auditions during previous sessions. The first I heard of it was this year when one of the panel members that was there said: “By the way, did I ever tell you that Nicholas Tamagna who sang for the auditions in 2018 – I discovered him, I took him into my management. He had nothing in his schedule. Last year he recorded the CD of Gismondo Re di Pologna, took part in a European-wide tour, sang in Heidelberg, covered a role in Wiener Staatsoper.” The second, José Coco Loza that sang last year got a contract singing with Parnassus, though to be fair he was in the studio in Basel already when he auditioned… Basically this is how I hear about it. People say “Oh, by the way, I didn’t tell you that your work actually paid off.” Singers don’t write me and say “thank you” because there’s this mentality that you paid for it so why should you? Some of them do. I mean I get “thank you” notes from people.
But then another problem is this: I had one singer, a singer whom I knew personally quite well, who got management and contract offers from an NYIOP audition in Moscow. And when I followed up six months later and asked if she would mind writing a blurb for our site she said: “But I never got anything from NYIOP. I’d already been talking to that management and they’re the ones who set up this audition.” And I said: “I’m telling you, I have an email from that management saying that they had heard you, had talked to you, but they weren’t interested in managing you until they heard you in the NYIOP audition and in that audition they talked to the Bregenz festival and that’s when it was solidified. That was all in the room of a NYIOP.” But she had no intention of giving NYIOP credit for that.
I wanted to ask though: A couple years ago, before I did NYIOP, it was appearing on my feed a lot with exact numbers of contracts offered for each session. These are still on the website but the most recent one is 2017.
I need to update them as I hear. The reality of things is that I had a full-time assistant until a couple years ago, who had the time to track those things down. I don’t have an assistant anymore. But I do need to do that and update it. The thing is, anyone on this side of the business, anyone that’s an agent, for example, even an important agent, can tell you that the biggest problem, the biggest difficulty we have, is getting people to just friggin reply to a request. And so I have to be very careful what I ask of the people on the panels because the replies I need are the ones that say that someone is going to come to listen to people. Then, once they are in the audition room, I can find out who they’re interested in and many times I hear about things in the room immediately but basically getting them to answer things by email is quite difficult. I got an answer yesterday afternoon to a text message which I sent to someone’s personal cell phone ten days ago You know what I asked them in the text? “What’s your email address.” That’s what I asked. So it’s not like I was pulling teeth. And that’s how long it took. And this is somebody I've known well for over ten years.
So you’re saying the people on the panel are so busy that gathering any information from them is so difficult that one person simply can’t do it without an assistant.
Yes, it’s very difficult that way.
And why don’t you have an assistant, anymore, then?
Well over a decade ago, it used to be that NYIOP made enough money that I could hire other people. But, the thing is, NYIOP is so unpredictable in what it makes that it prevents me from being able to find people to be involved in it full time. I get people sending me their resume, wanting to work for NYIOP, people that are in the business that say “why don’t I work for you, why don’t we partner up?” and I would love that but the problem is that it’s unpredictable financially. If, for whatever reason, every singer in the world wants to sing for a particular session, it can make good money, not crazy money, not City Bank money, but it can make good money. However, it could just as well barely cover costs.
So, why the shift to Europe?
There are more emerging markets in Europe than there are in the US. In the US there is kind of a concentrated East Coast, West Coast scene – one around New York and the other in LA or San Francesco - which is a much more difficult market to get to, and less interesting, quite frankly, in some ways. Most of those who are serious about this will make their way to New York for audition season. So it makes more sense that I do only two sessions a year in New York – I’ve done Toronto, I’ve don San Francisco and LA and I’ve talked about doing one in Atlanta because there’s a group of singers there who would want to put something together. But the issue is this: It’s not just about providing agents and theaters to listen to a particular market of singers. The singers have to be hirable or the theaters and agents get mad. Nobody wants to fly across the earth to hear people that they can’t hire. I mean I’ve canceled projects because I knew that the singers weren’t going to be at the level that they needed to be and that the theaters and agents would resent me for taking their time if they didn’t hear the singers they needed to hear.
So it’s actually in your interest that at least a certain percentage of singers sing at a high level?
They have to. That’s the thing. It’s a constant balance. I used to screen singers because of that.
You did that at the beginning?
Not at the very beginning but soon after the beginning I did start doing screening auditions.
Oh, that must be the thing people are talking about with “first round and second round...”
It used to be in New York, but only for about two seasons in, perhaps, 2005 or 2006, that we would routinely hold a screening audition where we would sit in a room and anybody could come sing for, I think, 50 or 60 bucks. And that way we would tell them if they should sing or not in the upcoming auditions. But this is the funny thing: After being a casting director and helping build three young artist programs, working as an agent for IMG artists, and now being consultant to two major international theaters – ironically people still don’t think it is worth their money to be heard by me, for me to decide whether it’s useful for them to go forward or not. They don’t think that it’s worth paying for the time that it takes me to organize and be there physically, even if it’s a small amount. This is ironic because I do get asked to recommend singers, sometimes – I was just asked this morning for a Scarpia. “Do you know a Scarpia who would be interesting for a production at this German theater. Whom can I call?”
But going back to emerging markets. What I found recently that’s been most interesting is that there are a number of markets where there are good singers and theaters don’t really know them. Agencies don’t travel around anymore, nor do theaters, to scout people. That really doesn’t happen. They will show up at a competition and listen to the semi-finals and finals of a competition. If you didn’t make it on those, you don’t make it, you’re not heard, you don’t exist. And so I’ve kind of put myself in the position that I will create projects in those places and make it happen. That way, they hear what’s in Poland, what’s in Prague, for example, what’s in Kiev, Ukraine, what’s in Moscow, what’s in Soul, Coria, what’s in Santiago, Chile, what’s in Mexico City. Because people don’t do that anymore.
Why has that changed, you think?
Time and money. And the complexities of casting have changed so much. It’s not just about finding a good singer. You have to find what fits in that concept, in that cast, who the conductor wants, who the director wants, etc. There are many more movable parts. But when you get a sense of what’s in a certain market you can think: “Okay, I like what’s in Mexico City. I want to go there more often. I want to keep in touch with more singers there.” Poland has really emerged as a strong market, now. Big time. And that’s because people started going there. They started making themselves available for them. I’m not sure if I was the first but I might have been the first to have a big, group audition there, in Warsaw, a few years ago. Which was a very big deal with a lot of people taking part. A lot of singers were heard and, kind of, discovered there. And then the Moniuszko Vocal Competition was a very big deal, just now.
So what about Americans. Are they as likely to get jobs in Europe as ever?
Well, yeah, of course. It’s just that they’re not the only ones. It’s not like everybody’s fawning over Americans.
Someone expressed anxiety about visas…
No, no, no if somebody wants you they’re going to pay for a visa. It’s not so difficult to get a visa, quite frankly, for a theater, if they say: “This is who we want to hire.” It’s not that difficult. The difference is that there was this concept years ago that Americans could simply show up, knock on the door, get an audition, and get a job. And that doesn’t really happen anymore because now, literally, the world is possible for theaters. It’s a buyer’s market. For any given role, they’ve got fifty people or a hundred people that they can hire for it. It’s not like they’re narrowing it down to three or four that are possible. They really can wait for what they want, exactly.
So might that be why NYIOP still exists despite the, shall we say, controversy?
It’s endured because it provides a needed opportunity. I mean opportunities are getting fewer and fewer. The other thing is that as much as naysayers complain about the NYIOP model, the reality is that somewhere back in the rational part of their minds they realize that if people from the theaters continue to return – intendanten of the theater, opera directors, casting directors, known people - that means something. At the very beginning people sent the secretary. Well, anyone who knows anything knows that in most theaters, there’s not just one person who casts. There’s a group of people and if one of them says, yeah, this is somebody whom we need to hear, then your foot is in the door which is better than not even knowing where the door is. But I think that people realize that if, for 17 years, NYIOP has been happening all over the world, being hosted in theaters, being attended by people that matter in our business – just rationally think, if it wasn’t real and if people weren’t getting hired, if the people from the theaters didn’t find the people that they heard interesting and useful, I promise you they would not come. Because they have a lot of other things to do. Then, in addition to that, if the singers didn’t get work, if they didn’t intuitively realize that these people really mattered to sing for, then they would have gone away. So it’s obviously serving a need.
So why is NYIOP the only such organization around, then, at least long-term?
Well, I don’t want to sound egotistical but I think it has to do with me in the sense that my position in the market is kind of unique. I was a singer, so I get singers. I have many, many, many friends that are singers. My wife is a singer. But I’ve also been an agent and I’ve been a casting director. I teach and have been affiliated with several of the major young artist programs in the world. And yet I am not one of them, you see? So I do have kind of an objective position. And that has made NYIOP kind of stick around.
The theaters like the fact that they come to a NYIOP audition and nobody is breathing down their necks with “only my singers,” as an agency would. The singers like that I actually do care about making it a good situation for them, at least I would hope. I try to make it the most humane situation possible. I got an email from somebody that went to the Karlsruhe audition who was frustrated that the person that was outside the door didn’t seem to be knowledgeable and wasn’t very welcoming. Honestly, it was an 18-year-old that was given to me by the theater to do that job. And I take that very seriously, when someone says: “I wanted it to be more welcoming and it wasn’t.” And the reality is that I want an audition to be as humane a situation as possible. That’s what I try to do. That’s why, quite frankly, I don’t do auditions in shitty rooms. I seek out good places to sing. You’ve been to several of them and know they are at least acceptable places to sing, not little bitty private practice rooms. And that comes at great cost most of the time but I do it because I feel like it needs to be an opportunity where you feel like you can present yourself well. In London, for example, I could have found a hall that would have been a fraction of the price I paid for the one you sang in. I chose to do the next audition in Berlin rather than Vienna because the space we use in Vienna, while it’s not bad, is not as good as the space I found in Berlin, which, while strange looking, happens to be quite large and have a high ceiling, which means that it’s going to have more of a theater-like acoustic than other places. The space in Berlin, however, is as expensive as the one in London and the one in Vienna is a fifth of that. But I make the decision based on what I think is best for people to get cast and for the theaters to hear them best. I don’t make it based on where I can pinch some more pennies. Because I want it to be a good experience where the singers feel that they’ve presented themselves best and the theaters don’t leave saying: “The room was too small. I can’t really cast anyone.” Theaters are not available during the season but I try to find places that are as close to a theater acoustic as possible. That’s why it’s always a big deal that in June I try to get an actual theater.
In short, there are some organizations that have tried to do something like NYIOP but what they realize is that this perception that somehow I am bathing in gold is incorrect. Because people only look at their own reality, they think “Oh, that’s so much money and so many singers.” But the reality is that I can very easily say that one singer getting one good contract from one audition makes more money on that one contract than NYIOP makes in a year. That is the truth. It’s not a cash cow. Anybody who actually examines NYIOP, instead of just looking at their own world, can easily put numbers down and see that it doesn’t actually make that much money because it costs a lot of money.
So the reason you continue to do it because you believe this is something you can do for the industry?
I like it, yeah. I think there’s no other models like it because people usually have other things they’re trying to get at. Somebody wants to be an agent, for example, so they start to do this because they think it’ll be a good way to present their singers – well, that lasts a very short period of time because people don’t necessarily want to go back if they don’t like your singers and they don’t want to be pressed about your singers all the time. It’s also difficult to duplicate because, now a days, getting the contacts for those decision-makers, or for people that are going to take those positions over, is difficult. By now, I’ve known a lot of people in the industry since they were assistants in the middle of nowhere. I also know who is going places, which is usually decided two or three years before they go there. There was just an announcement yesterday about somebody who will have a very big job. I was counseling them through the contract negotiations in October but it was only announced yesterday. So, basically, the reason why there is nothing else exactly like NYIOP is because people realize it’s a whole lot of work and nobody’s taking home big sacks of money, even though everybody thinks they are.
What is something you feel a lot of singers signing up for NYIOP don’t understand about what it has to offer?
You, the singers, have chosen to be in one of the most subjective type of careers possible. You also have this sense that you are pursuing opera which is one of the “higher art forms” as opposed being a dancer on Broadway or a film actor in Hollywood. The reality is that such a very small percentage of people, historically, have ever been opera singers. I guess the natural reaction is that you want to place blame and somehow vent your frustration if you don’t succeed and it’s very easy to do it at the ones that you’ve paid to provide you a service. But consider this: If you get into a lawsuit, you pay your lawyer whether you win or lose. You’re paying them for their expertise and for bringing their expertise to help you. What is the difference between somebody paying a fee to me to use my expertise to put the right people in the room in front of them so that they get an opportunity? I don’t ask you for a percentage of a contract and I’ve had agents literally tell me: “Why don’t we enter into some kind of agreement where our singers don’t pay a fee but if they get a contract you get a percentage of it.” And I say, well, I don’t want that. I’ve changed my position on that because of my experience – and the way I feel now is that I provide a service and it wouldn’t be clean to do it that way. I provide this opportunity for people to sing and if they get work, they get work. If they don’t, they don’t. But I get paid for the work of making it happen. And I pay the costs for it to happen. And the agents tell me: “But do you realize we actually make more out of what you do that you do, sometimes?” Because it’s not unusual to pick up a 60 000 USD contract in a medium sized theater, not even a major one, and that means the agent is going to take home 6000USD from that. That’s a lot of money. That’s more than I usually make in a session. And that’s one contract. If they pick up five – it’s not unusual for an agency, if they put the right people in a NYIOP audition, to make 20 000 USD off of one NYIOP session.
Here’s the bottom line: Most singers, I would say 90-95% of aspiring opera singers in the world, have literally no opportunity to be heard. That’s the reality. Literally no opportunity. They can sign up for a competition but they have to send a video first. But most singers don’t have an opportunity to actually present themselves. And NYIOP is an opportunity to present yourself professionally. That is all it is. But it is all of that. I don’t understand why anybody interprets it any differently.
Given how many singers you’ve listened to at these auditions over the years: What is something singers seem to misunderstand about auditions in general?
They go in there thinking that they’re going to “be discovered” or “wowed” or that it’s going to play out like in the movies. But they don’t go in there and actually present what they can do right now the best that they can do it, right now. And that’s a big issue. Most people do know instinctively what they do best. But they don’t trust that it can be that easy. What you do easiest is what you do best. That thing that you do that you’re so bored of doing because you’ve done it so long that it happens naturally – that’s what you do best. That’s what you need to present. It really is about showing who you are at this moment. And if people want to buy it, they will, and if they don’t they won’t, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t hear some potential for where it might go or take some interest in what you have to say. They might not, but they might. That’s where you’re out of the realm of being able to control what’s going on. Because that’s what they do. They control that. So I would say that what people overlook constantly is simply being themselves where they are right now. NYIOPs are professional auditions - except for when we have young artist programs there, which we tried a couple times and, ironically, nobody was interested. But they’re professional auditions. They’re about whether you can be cast for something. When you sing something at a NYIOP audition, the panel assumes that you think that that’s what you think you should be hired to sing right now. And if they disagree then they say: “No thank you” and that’s it.
Singers also overlook the fact that casting is very, very complicated. It’s not just about whether they think you could sing the role or whether you sing it well – it is how you look, it is how you act, it is how they think you would interact with other people. And, yes, it is sometimes about what work you have had in the past because some areas need to see certain things in the bio. Sometimes it’s about your nationality. There’s so much more to it than just how you sing and what arias you present. And you can’t predict or control any of it. So it’s best to actually present what you do best in that moment and when the stars line up you’ll get a job. And sometimes they don’t line up. I know of a number of very talented, very worthy, people whose careers never really took off because things just didn’t line up in the right way. And they’re just as good as 20 other people that are working. And it sucks but it’s what happens.
Oh, and a little pet peeve: I hate putting the “roles sought” list up before the auditions because I truly believe that it is useless. Yet, the moment when registration for a sessions usually picks up is the moment I post the roles theaters are looking for as if singers are thinking, “Well, if they’re not looking for what I sing, why would I do it?” Or even worse: They come in and offer things from the repertoire even though they wouldn’t usually sing them. I had someone literally say once, in front of the whole panel, “Well, I was going to start with this, but I’m going to do this other thing that I just learned because I saw you are looking for that.” And I’m thinking: “You might as well just leave, ma’am, because you’re going to fail the audition.” If you’re doing something that you just learned just because you thought we’re going to be casting it instead of doing what you always do, you will fail. That’s one of the things that gets me. The list of roles the theaters are seeking is just to get a general idea of things. Learning something new doesn’t show us who you are.
So why do you even put up the roles list, then?
Because, otherwise, people get mad. So, I have to nag the theaters to give it to me. And of course, in those two weeks it’s up on our website the theaters haven’t stopped looking so they could have very well cast it by the time the audition comes around.
One thing I see over and over again is this idea that there’s a clear delineation between people who are ready for the market, ready to be hired, and those who aren’t…
That delineation is never clear, honestly. You don’t know what people want. Sure, sometimes it’s extremely clear when someone is not ready to be hired because it’s just bad. But I remember one time a baritone came in with this extraordinary color and bite and voice up to a certain note and above that there was just nothing. I mean really. And it was not a particularly high note, like up to a D when you would want this person singing Fs and Gs. But it was extraordinary under that. And he looked great. Of course, I looked through the sheets and most of them said: “Oh, what a pity that there’s no top,” “No,” “No,” “No,” “Not interested,” “Couldn’t work.” Next think I know he’s being invited to audition for a couple roles at one of the world’s biggest opera houses. So I called that casting director and said: “You know I have to ask you because this is interesting to me: Most of your colleagues were not interested in him at all because the voice stops at a certain point – so how is this gonna work?” And she just said very matter-of-factly, “For what I need him, he doesn’t have to sing above those notes. I need him for these particular roles which don’t go very high and where I do need him to sing it’s impressive as hell. And that’s why I want him to come sing here.” Because, you see, for every Rigoletto there’s a Marullo, for every Lucia di Lamermoor there’s an Arturo. So sometimes people get cast where you would have no thoughts that it could possibly happen. You would just say: “Oh, not ready, yet.” Well, maybe they’re ready for what people need at a particular time. And there’s no way to know that or predict it. There’s no objective line.
This is something that frustrates me about voice teachers because they have this absolute certainty about what makes people viable and not viable.
They’re not in the business. I mean there are some that are in the business but you can count those on one hand, worldwide. And coaches, sometimes, don’t understand the business because they are focused on something completely different. The same way that an agent is also focused on something different. Agents don’t cast. Agents sell. And you’re basically pitching a product to them when you sing for an agent or ask an agent’s opinion because they don’t have the time to help a singer that they can’t make a return on. And why should they?
When we talked last you said that people casting for opera are not as interested in finding “the best singers” but finding a specific singer to fill a specific need they have at that specific time. Can you give some examples of what these “specific needs” might be?
Opera is about singing. No doubt. It should, in my opinion, be more about singing. The singing gets put on the back burner far more often than it should these days. But people are casting theater. And so they’re trying to find a balance of the best singers, whatever that means to them, for the roles that they need, the types that they need etc. etc. And that particular mix is like asking someone: “How do you make the best chocolate chip cookie?” Everybody has their particular balance of what they put in and how. If I like crunchy cookies and somebody else likes chewy cookies it doesn’t matter how good my crunchy cookies are, they’re not going to like it. And one would hope that a particular casting director has a handle on what their audience likes and how it works best in their theater and chooses according to that but that might be completely different from the person sitting right next to them at an audition.
I want to go back to strategies, though. Your main advice is that you need to find your niche. I, for one, find that really difficult. In all honestly – a lot of young opera singers don’t have anything very specific to offer at the very beginning, right?
The optimist in me says that everyone has something unique and specific about them, because everybody is unique. But I think it is safe to say that most young singers don’t ever do the work that it takes to recognize and understand what that is because they’re too busy asking everybody else to tell them and then getting mad when it doesn’t fit what they think it should be. There was a wonderful quote by the voice teacher Trish McCaffrey that I saw, something to the effect of: "When you go to a voice teacher you are entrusting them with your intuition." Because they will ask you to do things that you physically have to take on even if you may feel intuitively it is wrong. And you have to trust them to re-guide your intuition about something you’re doing physically. Because the reality is opera singing is not the most organic of things. Certainly the tenor voice is an absolutely fabricated voice. So you surround yourself with people that constantly tell you to do it this way or that way. You think that these are the people that you trust the most and they must be important because they’re famous, and then you start to change what you do based on what they’re telling you to do. Like even what you wrote about the fact that you decided to start with Musetta instead of the Vixen. I told you afterwards that one of the things that’s most unique about you is that you can do Czech repertoire - so why wouldn’t you put that foot forward? And then somebody else says “Why would you sing Musetta? It’s so useless.”
Well, ironically, the reason I didn’t sing the Vixen is because someone at the Pforzheim audition, where I had started with the Vixen, told me that I shouldn’t start with that. So it’s kind of like: Who do you trust? That’s my big thing right now.
That’s the thing. That’s the golden ticket. You have to trust you. Take in all of the information possible but trust you. Let’s take school. At school the teachers gave you the information to study but when it came test time you are the one that took the test, you were the one that got the grade. So if you got a bad grade – was it the teacher’s fault? In most cases it wasn’t. You just didn’t learn. Now, obviously, that’s not an airtight analogy. But the point is you go to teachers and coaches to learn how to better sing, to better utilize the style, to work on the languages, and then you go and you try to be on stage. There are programs that can teach you to be on stage but in reality, at the end of the day, it’s you, you have to be on stage, you have to be the artist. And the artists we remember are the ones that went beyond being taught. Do you see? Their imperfections might be a mile long yet the whole sum of it was something that moved us and got us involved. So whom do you trust? You trust you. Sure, you listen to your coaches. But if you go to an audition and your coaches have told you to sing something and that’s the only reason you sing it, you have basically given all of your power over to coaches and teachers just because you’re paying them. And then because you pay for NYIOP you think you’re owed feedback. But you’re not. Because you have chosen this career. The singer has chosen this career. And if on every step of your formation you are freely giving away any personal opinion or changing what you think might be right because somebody is telling you it should be something else and you just freely give that away and do what they say, then you’re just basically lemming wandering off a cliff.
It’s funny I came to that conclusion on one of my blog posts about voice teachers because I learned that the hard way and I’m just now starting to understand that. But honestly, this idea doesn’t get taught in schools and it’s not even desirable there.
Well of course and it’s even worse the farther East you go. You have to trust people to give you good information and then you have to have your voice inside that tells you if it’s right for you or not right for you. And the more you silence that voice the quieter it gets until it stops answering and then you’re just doing somebody else’s audition, singing somebody else’s aria. Then, when you go on stage, you’re not on stage. Well, here’s the reality: The people that do that, the ones that silence their own voice along the way rarely even make it onstage. Because those who are made to be onstage, those happy few that actually do succeed well in this career, usually are very strong within themselves as to what they do and what they don’t do. And that’s why people say: “Oh, they’re a temperamental artists,” or “They’re choleric,” or “They’re a Diva” or whatever else. No, they just know what’s right for them and what’s wrong for them and they’re going to speak out about that. That doesn’t mean they have to do it rudely and many of them don’t. But rarely will you find someone who succeeded at a high level in this career who doesn’t know very clearly what they do best. And that’s something that many school systems, and many systems of training, don’t encourage people to find.
Well you said that in London: Only in school and in competitions does it make sense to do a little bit of everything.
No, why would you do that? It’s like saying “Hi, I’m here to fix your toilet, I’m a plumber, but I’m also an artist and I sing and I can also fix your cellphone tower out front, and I dance… Would you like me to cook you dinner?” No, I would like you to fix my toilet and leave, that’s what I’m paying you for! Nobody doubts that everybody is multifaceted in this world. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be everything to everyone. You can’t be.
I did hear that agents do prize versatility. Or is that not the case anymore?
They don’t look for versatility, per se. They look for what they can sell, 100% of the time, because that’s their job. So, if you can do a variety of things and they think they could sell you in that variety of things, that only increases the possibility for contracts over a one-trick pony. But I think that sometimes what singers assume is versatility is actually the minimum expected for somebody doing their job. Like for example to be able to sing equally in 5 languages without an accent and without a problem – not to mention sing on the beat and be punctual to rehearsals – those are kind of just expected, like an accountant who can use a calculator. But some singers think “I’m versatile because I can do a variety of styles.” Well, alright, but versatility in that sense is more prized by people who want to start a Fest job, because for that you need to be able to do a variety of different things – operetta, musical theater, and opera of all kinds.
Do you agree that there are certain Fachs that are more competitive?
Sure. I mean there are a lot more women singers than there are men. That’s a fact. Therefore male singers are more in demand because there are fewer of them and if you assume that in any given Fach only 20% of what’s out there is even remotely interesting, though to each person differently, then if there’s 50% as many men singers then you’re dealing with 20% of half as many. So you’re going to prize them more.
That’s not the actual ratio, is it?
No, that’s just an example. I actually have no idea what the ratio is. There are a lot more sopranos than anything else. That being said, a theater might come in not looking for a soprano at all and if someone comes in and moves them and has something special to say, or they like the voice, or it’s interesting in some other way, they will absolutely pay attention and try to find things for that person. If not immediately then in the future. But it does have to be something more than just standing and singing – imagine a model on a runway that just puts the clothes on and walks on, stands, turns around and walks off. That’s why models get paid to do that funny walk. Because they bring attention to the clothes and the attitude.
Also, just so you know, as far as light sopranos: Yes, there are a lot of light sopranos. There’s no doubt. But almost every opera requires one. Differing types of them. And, yes, many times they have a lot of them to choose from. But that doesn’t mean that if someone comes in and has something interesting to offer that they’re going to ignore it. Because they will always need light sopranos. But it matters how you’re offering it. If you’re just wandering in singing Barbarina and Susanna because that’s what you are and you don’t really believe in it then of course they’re not going to hire you but that’s not because you’re a light soprano, it’s because you’re boring.
So, you said something interesting in your interview for that book What the Fach?, that NYIOP is best for “young singers who want Anfänger (beginner) contracts, for established singers who have enough resumé behind them to be marketable as a guest, for singers singing obscure or odd repertoire, and for very individual artists.”
So, I said that a decade ago at a time where most of the NYIOPs were happening in the US and once a year in Europe. That was also when it was very much German-heavy in terms of the theaters. Now, with young artist programs thrown in there - which have gone wild, by the way, everybody has a young artist program, now - that changes things slightly. But I’m basically still standing by that statement.
So can you just explain those last two points which might be more open to interpretation?
Obscure, odd repertoire would mean, for example, a tenor that specializes in Slavic repertoire. Or Wagnerian singers. Or singers that specialize in modern repertoire. Because here’s the thing: If you got a tenor who is singing Rodolfo and Nemorino and Pinkerton but they’re kind of just “okay” then you’ll say “they’re okay.” That’s fine. But if you take that same singer who is just kind of “okay” and you put him into Graham Clark’s repertoire which is all Aaron from Moses and Aaron or have them sing Palestrina from Pfizner’s Palestrina and other weird things like that then he suddenly stops being “okay” and he becomes a specialist in a strange repertoire that’s very good at what he does. Because very few people do it while being very good at it. Ladislav Elgr sings the Prince in Rusalka all over the place. Why would that be? Oh, because he’s Czech and because he’s tall and he’s beautiful. So, that’s an easy cast.
And very individual artists would be people who – are very specific. Some examples are Danielle de Niese or Natalie Dessay. Pretty Yende counts as that as well. They don’t really fit into an easy mold. When I heard Pretty Yende the first time at the Belvedere, the voice was fine, okay, the technique was almost non-existent but the soul was enormous. You couldn’t stop listening to her for one moment because she was so desperate to communicate. Cecilia Bartoli is also a highly individual artist. You know, these people that have stardust on them. And it’s not about their singing because the singing doesn’t have to be perfect, and sometimes it’s not, but what they have is very unique and individual to them. Those people stick out in auditions all the time.
That’s really hard to quantify, though…
It is but you know – Callas. How can you quantify Callas? She made some horrible, ugly sounds. Yet they were amazing. Why is it that Lucia Popp is still spoken about with such reverence 25 years after her death? She was not a perfect singer. She was not the world’s best singer and there were people who did her repertoire perfectly well after her, yet she had something everyone is still talking about.
Just circling back to that recommendation you made in What the Fach? – can you elaborate on what has changed in that decade since you did that interview?
What has changed in the business seems to be the concept of Fach in the sense that what constitutes a lyric soprano as opposed to a soubrette has become more fluid. For example it’s not at all unusual these days to hear someone singing the lead in La Traviata who, 15 years ago, would have been a Barbarina. Who fits into what Fach is now very subjective to the person listening and what they want for their theater, for the size of their theater, and how that person looks. Heather Engebretson is a good example – she sang Donna Anna this summer. So why is she singing Salome, now? Because she looks so young. That’s why. The director said: “Wow, she can sing it.” Is it right for her voice? No, but she can sing it because she’s a smart singer. She got the part, though, because she looks adolescent on stage. That’s what that whole production of La Traviata she did in Wiesbaden was built around, the idea that Violetta was sold into white slavery which only worked because Heather looks underage. So, what counts as which Fach even vocally has changed. I remember a number of years ago Aleksandra Kurzak started as a very high soprano, as in Olympia, Zerbinetta. An extremely high, bright, pointy soprano. And then at one point she pivots and she’s singing Donna Anna which just seemed strange to me because she was singing Zerbinetta the previous season. But to a certain extent what you are is what people hire you to be. If this theater thinks that you’re a Donna Anna and that theater thinks you’re Susanna and the other thinks you’re a Zerlina then you sing what you want to sing. It depends on how you present yourself. It used to be much more rigid.
Another thing that has changed is the Young Artist Program phenomenon has really thrown a wrench into things in the sense that it used to be that people could maintain a career singing small roles and that isn’t the case anymore. These days almost all of the smaller roles are taken by young artists. The irony is that those same small roles, break-out roles, that are being done by young artists – as soon as that group of young artists is done, they’ll be taken over by the next group and those first young artists are going to be out there looking for work.
And there’s also this concept that once somebody has hit over a certain age that they all of a sudden aren’t viable anymore. Everyone’s looking for the next 22-year-old that they can “discover,” not realizing that the demands of this business require experience and knowing your craft. Yet, you’ve got very young people these days making role debuts at the Met. And that’s just crazy to me. But it’s how the business is, now. Every year there’s a new group of competition winners or young artist program attendees who get shoved out there, the agencies pick them up and try to get them started, and in a couple years, maybe one casting cycle, all of a sudden you don’t hear of them anymore. And then they say: “Where are all the big voices?” not realizing that the big voices come because you took them and committed to them over a longer period of time.
Voices grow. And that’s what the Fest system, at its best, helps with. People stay and grow to bigger roles, gradually try them out. But these days everything is so hypersonically pushed forward that the expectation is that if you win something, you have about a year or two years to start a career. Sometime you get people that get booked for one casting cycle which is about a two to four year period, and then after that they disappear. And that’s because they do a job, they get good reviews, even, and then the agent wants to talk about hiring them back and gets a reply to the effect of: “We were happy with the artist, they did a great job, but we’re looking to give opportunities to younger artists as well.” And that’s the end of your career. That’s a serious problem. I think that that’s probably the biggest tumor growing in the opera business. This constant need for new, new, new, young, young, young. Because you have artists that have performed at a high level, have honed their craft, and they’re not being considered for things because theaters want to hire somebody new. And it’s not even about it being cheaper it’s just “we need to help our young artists.”
So – is there really no other way than going through the standard process of winning a competition in your early twenties or doing a young artist program?
Well, ideally you get a job at an opera house and you work in the theater doing roles instead of being in a Young Artist Program. The problem is, it literally seems like every theater is starting a Young Artist Program. Because it’s cheap labor. And everybody thinks that if they’re a young artist at this or that program it’s going to start their careers. But now there are so many young artists that it doesn’t actually make you that much different than everybody else, anymore. But I don’t know where that leads, exactly. Where it may have already led is that the pool of singers being cast in bigger roles around the world is shrinking because there is always "the next big thing" everybody wants for a certain period, even if they’re soon replaced.
When it comes to competitions: It’s funny to me that when I do a regular sessions with theaters people sometimes have a hard time wanting to pay the fee but when I announce there’s a competition portion to it, it’s different. If I announce that I will give 2000 or 3000 dollars to the winners I will have three times as many people signing up. And it’s not because of the money. It’s because there’s this concept that competitions move you forward more. I have no idea why. Some of it has to do with that whole America’s Got Talent culture. There’s this sense that people get discovered that way.
But you did mention that famous competitions can be a way to get discovered if you make it at least to the semi-finals, right? Is it a fair assessment that making it to the end of a competition is one of the few places young singers can get noticed for the first time?
Yeah, that is a fair assessment. But it’s important to note that there are more competitions out there than there are competitions that can materially help your career. Not all competitions are made the same. And then there's a deeper problem: We don’t need to discover people. We need to have people actively working that get hired to work more.
Yeah, to grow gradually…
To grow gradually and to continue. To say “I’ve done these five gigs over the past two years” and then get hired to do more so that they maintain a career. At IMG we used to talk about the 20 to 25 year career. That was our goal. And then we would have discussions about other agencies that seemed to only care about the 5 year career. To find people and push them too hard for just 5 years. And as a newbie at one of these meetings I said: “But maybe the 5 year career is what the industry created.” Because there’s not that many people you can name right now that are involved in the 25 year career. But that’s completely different when you get to Germany where there are people that have a Fest job at one theater for twenty years.
Yes, but that’s also phasing out, at least judging by the Czech Republic…
Well that’s because the better people who are in those Fest jobs get picked up by agents and find out that making 10 000 Euros a night as a freelancer abroad is better than getting 500 Euros a month at a Czech theater. So of course they don’t want to stay in a Fest job. It takes too much time. But then the problem is that the people that do keep the Fest jobs, especially in the East I have to say, tend to be people who have had them forever and are maybe no longer singing particularly well but that’s their income so they don’t want to give it up.
What I’m saying is that the theaters are lowering the number of Fest jobs that they even have.
That has to do with finances. No matter what you pay people you have to pay 20 percent extra for social benefits and you can’t ever get rid of them even if they’re bad. So, when somebody retires, instead of replacing them with someone young they prefer to just write guest contracts for which they don’t have to pay social money and that they don’t have to hire back if they’re bad.
I totally got that but I just wonder why it’s happening now. The Fest system has worked for a while, so what’s changed?
People have gotten greedy. And I’m not just talking about the theaters. Fest jobs famously pay little money. I know one soprano who got a Fest job in Hannover. How long did she stay? Two years. Then she went to another Fest. She was there for barely two years. Then she was going to go to Hamburg. So, that actually isn’t how the Fest system is supposed to work. Because in Hannover they were interested in helping her grow through her repertoire for five to six years. That’s how the Fest system is supposed to work. They’re supposed to help you grow. They’re invested in you and you’re invested in them. It’s like a family. And then when the moment comes and you’ve done everything you can do there, you go off to another, bigger, house. What changed is the ambition of the singers who think: “This theater is going to pay me more than that one." Or "This theater is going to give me more of the roles that I want." So I’m going to leave.” But that defeats the purpose.
Agents are also bad for the Fest system. They come along and say: “Don’t commit to that theater. I can fill your calendar at 6000 Euros a night instead of 400 Euros a month.” And so the Fest system breaks down. If the singers stop having loyalty to theaters, then the theaters stop having loyalty to the singers, because they know they have to fill performances and they’ve been burned a lot. On top of that you’re getting a whole new generation of intendants who weren’t raised with the home theater system, with that sense of: “We have this soprano and nobody has ever heard of her elsewhere but we love to see her every single week, and she’s part of this city, and we know her, and all this.” There are fewer and fewer intendanten who understand that intimate connection to the ensemble and the theater because there are fewer and fewer people in general growing up going to the opera, frankly. It’s just a completely different world.
Whenever I think of all this I just think: The number of vocal programs needs to go down. Because the number of people “educated” as singers is growing even as the number of jobs is shrinking…
Do you know what the tuition at the Manhattan School of Music is right now? $60 000 a year. So, do you think it’s in their interest to turn out fewer students?
Oh, of course I understand why they do it but I think it actually might be the root cause for why there are so many frustrated singers out there – perhaps a more important cause than everything wrong with the professional industry. It starts there.
And it’s because the whole system of opera education is built on people, whether or not they have expertise or not, constantly telling young singers: “You’re good, you’re better, it’s time to get out there. You can do this, now.” And singers leave that environment and come into the NYIOP room with this entitled sense of: “Now I have done the work, paid the money, paid my coaches and prepared myself, so it’s time for me to be hired.” But they don’t get that it doesn’t work that way. Maybe you’re not good enough to be an opera singer. Or maybe there are people better than you. Or maybe they just want other people. Or maybe you just weren’t at the right place at the right time for it to all work out. And that’s infuriating because there is no one to blame for that, no focus of where you were done wrong. Maybe it just didn’t work. That’s possible, too. But you’re right that there’s so many programs churning these people out…
…into a market that needs fewer of us.
Needed few of them from the very beginning...
...but needs even fewer now because the local scenes are shrinking.
Well, the small roles go to young artists that are making no money. There are fewer and fewer theaters that are hiring people. Theaters are closing constantly. Or they’re trying to share productions. With any co-production they immediately try to hire the same cast to reduce rehearsal time. It’s a condensing market. But an exploding market as far as educating the talent needed to sustain it. And that’s difficult.
Postscript, recorded May 11th, 2020:
What is your sense of the post-pandemic future for opera?
I think post-Covid, there are going to be a lot fewer singers and – this is just my opinion – the business might swing one way or the other, and we don’t know which way, yet: Either theaters and agents will run to completely unknown entities, the babies being spit out by schools and Young Artist Programs, or they will run to hiring only more established artists. Because there’s going to be a lot less work out there. I imagine that, worldwide, there will be, maybe, half the performances after this as there were before, decreasing the need for large numbers of singers even further. And this might make age even more of a cutting block for how they eliminate people. That all being said, if they hear somebody that they like, they’re always going to hire them. That is the way it is. But ageism is strong in the industry, rightly or wrongly, and it’s not going to get better after this. It’s going to get worse. I’ve heard people say that the singers that they fear the most for in this crisis, are the singers between, say, 27 and 35 that haven’t really done much. They will be the ones who will have the hardest time getting a hold on whatever way the business reinvents itself. Those who are older and have experience have a certain value. Theaters are thinking about doing shorter rehearsal periods, or almost no rehearsal periods, and for that you need people who have done those roles before.
The thing is no one knows what’s going to happen. And the issue really isn’t as much the fact that things shut down for a while but that we don’t know how long they will stay shut down and how many times they might shut down in the future. That makes it impossible to adequately plan.
Also, there’s been a lot of talk about local casting – I’ve actually heard some American theaters are thinking of having year-long contracts, like Fest jobs.
That could be great.
Well, yeah, in the long term, but right now these theaters that are mostly international are really affected by these travel restrictions. And it’ll be interesting to see if they lean more towards going local or cancelling. The problem is, I’m not so certain the travel restrictions are such a short-term issue. If this pandemic does drag on, you’re going to see spikes over and over again and that’s going to cause mass quarantines over and over at random times.
What about some of the exciting possibilities? There’s a precedent for epidemics and pandemics being good for workers getting better conditions for themselves.
I mean, yeah, the Industrial Revolution, the ending of the feudal system, all that was the direct result of these kinds of situations – but that has to do with supply and demand, because when a substantial percentage of people dies, that changes the value of each worker. But with opera singers – we could argue that opera singers are so saturating the market right now that even if we lost half of what’s out there, we would still have twice as many as we need. And that compounds with 15-20% of the opera houses shutting down because they will go bankrupt.
That said, it would be interesting, like I said, if all of a sudden there’s more local casting – or at least more interest in knowing what’s out there locally. My experience is that most international-level houses look internationally all the time. So that shift to looking more locally could be interesting.