My Last Words on NYIOP
For a while, now, I’ve been determined not to write another post about NYIOP because I felt I had already given it disproportionate attention on this blog. But, given the new wave of opposition to NYIOP, including a public condemnation from AGMA-SC, because of the new 100-250USD virtual auditions, I feel a responsibility to say something, as someone who has "covered" NYIOP extensively and as neutrally as possible.
My history with NYIOP in three paragraphs is this:
About a year ago, a conductor I was close to at the time advised me to get the “season pass” for NYIOP. That was around the time I started this blog. I decided to report in detail on every one of my experiences with NYIOP (sensing that was the most I would get from it) and to share verbatim all the feedback I got from the people who heard me. I managed to do three NYIOPs (in Vienna, Pforzheim and London) before the pandemic hit (you can read those accounts here, here, and here.) My posts were brought to the attention of the founder of NYIOP, David Blackburn. The fact that a relatively neutral account of my “audition” for NYIOP was worth Mr. Blackburn’s attention is a rather hilarious testament to how many people write about NYIOP mainly in order to slam it. Even more hilariously, despite everything, this little venture somehow keeps chugging along even now, it turns out, during a pandemic. People love to complain about NYIOP - yet, for every one of the complainers there is another who us willing to pay to participate in one (sometimes I think these two groups might overlap).
The second most-read blog post I ever published was my extensive interview with David Blackburn, who offered that I interview him back in January. I’m not sure why he offered that interview – it ended up being so candid, that I don’t see how it could have served NYIOP as a business, but maybe I’m just used to reading between lines more than others. However, I’m happy about the interview if only because I do think it contains some interesting information for singers. The pandemic hit right after I recorded our two-hour conversation, rendering the resulting transcription doubly useless, it seemed to me, but I made sure it came out because I had already put a lot of work into it and because, like I said, I felt it had value on its own merits.
During the pandemic, Mr. Blackburn started hosting Zoom sessions for people from across the industry to talk about “the state of the opera." The one I ended up attending regularly became a weekly respite for a handful of a semi-regular agents, theater employees, singers, and voice teachers (the early conversations were advertised publicly but since then have settled into a fairly regular group of people who seem to all know Mr. Blackburn personally.) I have attended almost all of these meetings and enjoyed hearing people’s stories from various positions within the world of opera. It has become a kind of (albeit mostly theoretical) think-tank, with a few notable moments of great insight and many moments of mutual (albeit merely gestural) support between people who would have never otherwise put their heads together in this way, and some of whom may have otherwise probably never conversed. I mention that I have participated in these discussions regularly to make clear that I cannot see Mr. Blackburn, or the people around him, as faceless villains. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with charging 100-250USD for a virtual auditions during a pandemic – but it means I see how the people behind that decision came to that decision and, rather than being angry, am saddened by the circumstances which led to it.
When, in a recent reply on Facebook, I praised the fact that Dr. Friedlander, in one of her recent posts, finally connected NYIOP to a larger systemic problem within the opera education industry, which is to say, finally presented it as a symptom of a greater problem, like a fever, not the cause of illness, like a virus, someone replied that “it is not just a symptom” but “a big festering sac of puss all on its own demerits.” My first thought was that a “sack of puss” no matter how “big” and “festering” is still, by its very nature, a symptom of an underlying condition - in fact, it is the body’s way of coping with said condition – but I knew that argument was beside the point.
What this attitude points to, though, is a culture of scapegoating.
Ask yourself this: How many people go through NYIOP every year? And what percentage do you think that is of the people who graduate with degrees in voice and from various unpaid opera studios, every year? How many unemployed singers are still hoping out there (before the pandemic and after)? When you look at it that why, NYIOP starts to look like a minor deal. Moreover, how many people pay for meaningless competitions, bad voice lessons, and exploitive pay-to-sings every year? And how much do they pay? If you have a voice lesson a week, that quickly adds up to much more than a NYIOP. And pay-to-sings? I did the really cheap ones and it still ended up costing a thousand Euros a pop. Sure, you can point out that the value of voice lessons and training programs is educational (well, so is NYIOP, see below). However, given the abysmal state of vocal pedagogy and the unrealistic conditions most pay-to-sings offer by way of “experience” much of the money spent on them is gambled away just the same as it is gambled on a NYIOP. The only difference is that it might be more enjoyable, because you’re working on something that you love, rather than (depending on your audition mindset) exposing yourself to the degradation of paying to audition (honestly, the pay-to-sings I have done have been much more degrading than all the three NYIOPs I have done combined - but maybe that's just my personal bad luck). As for competitions – some might cost slightly less than a NYIOP, but most of them are truly a waste of stress and energy, given the extra random repertoire you sometimes have to learn (I say this as someone who loves unusual repertoire – but I want to choose it myself), not to mention the fact that competitions in the field of art are fundamentally unfair.
But because there are so many competitions, so many voice teachers, and so many pay-to-sings, they don’t present a satisfying, concentrated target. But NYIOP? There’s only one NYIOP. That's a nice, uncomplicated thing to condemn.
During my interview with Mr. Blackburn I asked him why there are no other NYIOPs out there. The idea of having a bunch of singers pay to sing for people who would never otherwise hear them – somehow, despite the very "hungry crowd" of singer, no one else has managed to keep that business model going for very long except NYIOP. I don’t say that in admiration - more bewilderment, really. Mr. Blackburn’s answer was that it is probably because running “a NYIOP” takes a very specific skillset – a knowledge of what singers want and need (he started out as a singer) and lots of connections within the industry (he had dabbled in all sorts of singing-business-related jobs, including being an agent for IMG artists– so, his skillset, really, is best described as knower-of-people-in-opera.) What he didn’t say is that to keep "a NYIOP" going takes the sustained effort of someone who really has no other way to exist in a way that is both financially viable and makes sense to them as a lifestyle. Why else would anyone sustain such an uncertain business venture which, no matter how "real" the opportunity, is built in such a way that most people are going to be disappointed by it? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that Mr. Blackburn is one of those people that would probably not be happy in the merely corporate world – yet also didn’t, according to himself, cut it as an artist. He exists in that weird space between. In that sense, I see him as one of the many victims of the opera education industry. Granted, most people who get an expensive degree in vocal performance and then, in one way or another, "don't make the cut," do not have the opportunity to do what David Blackburn did, to make it into the circles he made it into. Mr. Blackburn had that privilege and he used it. I cannot tell if the fact that he found a way to monetize knowing-people-in-opera was ultimately a net good or a net bad for him – either way, it doesn’t change the fact that he is one of the many people who dedicated a chunk of their youth to opera with little return and now continues to live a financially unstable existence, I would venture to say, because of that decision made early in his life. And because that is how I have come to see Mr. Blackburn, it is very hard for me to see NYIOP as merely an evil scam.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize NYIOP – I have done so in things large and small on this blog. I have always been honest in that way. So, my aim here isn’t to defend NYIOP as such – but to comment on the greater culture of scapegoating and finger-pointing that has become a fun way not to deal with the issues.
There is one thing NYIOP is not doing which so much of the rest of the “opportunities” industry is: It does not produce more singers, which to me makes it much more benign than most voice teachers or opera training program out there. And its “false promise”? It’s no more false than the promise of the majority of voice lessons, pay-to-sings, and competitions. There aren’t enough jobs in this industry. There is only room for a few. No amount of education will fix that insurmountable fact for most singers. And, yes, a capitalist system is built on “winners and losers.” In fact, it kind of depends on most people being losers. The world is the shape of one big Amazon.com Inc. I, personally, don’t agree with that system. In fact, I hate it. But NYIOP didn’t invent it nor, I insist, is it one of those sleazy “winners” we should be punching up at – teachers and training programs aren’t either, but they don’t seem to be getting the same flack.
Let’s stop scapegoating. NYIOP is simply a more satisfying target than the huge complex of systemic problems plaguing the entire industry – NYIOP simply has the misfortune of being singular enough to pinpoint and not removed enough to be totally oblivious to our comments. Targeting NYIOP is therefore satisfying, like scratching an itch – though, like scratching an itch, it's usually quite useless because as long as singers "just want to be heard," and have a hard time achieving even that minimum of "being heard," a NYIOP-like venture will have the opportunity to exist, unless someone makes it illegal to charge for "job interviews" - though, I imagine someone would find a way to get around that, too. I would also like to repeat that, on this blog, I have honestly reviewed my experiences with several pay-to-sings and training programs – NYIOP doesn’t actually come out as the worst such “opportunity." But, more to the point, punching at NYIOP leaves us unfocused on the bigger problems: The great university network which hungrily consumes batch after batch of young souls every year, leaving them with questionable educations. The fact that even as that is a problem, many never get the gift of any involvement in the arts at all. Both are part of a yet bigger problem: The position of the arts, both economic and cultural. The fact that a combination of materialism, longer work hours, technology (which has allowed a few to control a great portion of entertainment across the world,) the artificial divide between “high” and “low” art which has made it easy to study certain “respected” art forms which are, at the same time, harder to monetize. That’s just to name a few. These are much harder issues to focus on, let alone fix. And, of course, they are still only a subset of the yet bigger problem which is global inequality, a problem which is not “unprecedented” but which has existed ever since the advent of what we call civilization.
So, alright. Let me step down from these lofty things. What have I, as a singer, gotten out of NYIOP?
One thing Mr. Blackburn insisted on in my interview with him which I really cannot agree with is the idea that “feedback [from NYIOP panel members] is useless.” His argument is that the people who hear NYIOP auditions aren’t used to giving feedback to young singers and therefore say things that are somehow either offensive or not very useful. He's shooting himself in the foot by saying that, given that most people aren't going to get more than some scant feedback out of a NYIOP, anyway (it's inconsistencies like this which make it hard for me to think of Mr. Blackburn as a scam artist - scam artists always say that which is most advantageous to them, which Mr. Blackburn doesn't.)
When it comes to the feedback being offensive – I’m puzzled. I personally have never felt offense at anything I have been told after a NYIOP audition (except when I was told I should visit someone in a hard-to-get-to-city for a “chat” – but that was offense at the implication that I had infinite time and recourses to travel somewhere just to talk to someone, not the feedback). But Mr. Blackburn’s insistence that the feedback is offensive makes me think – should I find it offensive? I grew up in the Czech Republic with a culturally non-conforming American father for whose existence I was bullied by children and teachers alike and, being a dreamy kid with aptitudes firmly anchored in the subjects which aren't valued by the Czech education system, I was constantly told I was stupid. So, nothing anyone could tell me about my voice today could “offend” me. Am I different in that way? Would most singers be offended by the feedback I have received? The thing is, if singers are so fragile that the kind of feedback I got (you can read all of it in my three accounts of NYIOP linked above) would somehow be damaging to them – maybe they aren’t cut out for being performers.
As to the feedback being useless: Well, sometimes it is very general and, of course, you’re not going to find out anything about how to “fix” any issues from it. That said, by the time you do a NYIOP, you should be an absolute expert in interpreting people’s vague thoughts about your voice and making them into real technical solutions – or not, depending on the validity of said vague thoughts. That’s part of what being a mature vocalist is about. But, more importantly, all the feedback put together is greater than the sum of its parts. Getting one piece of feedback isn’t going to do much for you. But, say, five pieces of feedback? That’s, I think, about the average I got for every “audition.” Once you have five pieces of feedback, you can intuit a kind of faint picture of where you are in relation to the international-level professional world.
I should point out that that faint avatar of you in the context of the professional world is not something most voice teachers are going to be able to paint for you. Most of them don’t find it constructive, for one thing, which is understandable, I suppose. What's more, many of them are out-of-touch – even if they themselves once fit into the professional world. Moreover, from my experience, once a voice teacher knows you, they mostly compare you to yourself before their intervention, not to the professional standards of your field. Of course, it’s healthy to acknowledge your progress, but if that’s the only kind of feedback you are exposed to, then it’s easy to lose sight of where you really are in the grand scheme of things. So, how are you supposed to know where you stand? How are you supposed to make informed decisions about your future?
What's more: If you aren’t prepared to be told that you’re sh**, not take it to heart, but at the same time (potentially!) extract useful information from it which you subsequently use for self-improvement – then you’re not ready to do anything difficult or worthwhile.
And you should be ready to do difficult things which are worthwhile from the moment you embark on pursuing any ambition – that mindset should be there regardless of how skilled you are. This isn’t to say that I would recommend NYIOP to young singer who are clearly not ready for professional work. But you should be ready from the very beginning to be told you aren't up to standard and see it as a challenge rather than some kind of insult. You should protect your sense of self-worth from it. But that doesn’t mean avoiding it. And, unfortunately, too much of the American education system avoids blunt criticism, because their students are also customers – and so they load that unpleasant task off onto the “real world” and, yes, its strange bedfellow, NYIOP.
I would be lying if I said that I have much desire to do another NYIOP - despite the fact that I used less than half of my "season pass." But can I say it was useless to me? No. I connected with agents who would have otherwise never heard me - some have asked I stay in touch with them. All that seems like an alternate reality, now, given the pandemic but, still. I would have never had those "connections" otherwise, no matter how tenuous they may have always been. I heard things about my voice which cast a realistic light about my "place" in an industry and which did inspire me to crack down on things in my technique much more systematically than I would have otherwise. And, yes, it has made it easier for me to realize that I may not want to take the traditional path. I gained all those things as a singer who is not one of the couple percent of people who actually get those contract from a NYIOP.
As for the virtual auditions: I would point out that the Zoom auditions, which are quite useless from what I hear, cost only 100USD. The livestream auditions are the ones which cost closed to how much the live ones cost, at 250USD (the live ones are usually around 350USD). The two formats are very different. I saw some footage from a livestream audition - and it was very high quality. You could pay about that much or more - 250USD - to get a video like that done in a studio (of course, you would have more than one take). That said, one of the perks of NYIOP is that people who, in the past, would only ever have heard you (if at all) through video/audio recordings were forced to hear you live. With Zoom and livestream auditions, that major perk is no longer there (and with Zoom you risk really looking unprofessional for all sorts of reasons you may, despite your best efforts, not foresee). But if you see the price tag in the light of Mr. Blackburn's months of no income and free labour over Zoom it becomes less unreasonable - and becomes outrageous as a general situation rather than the "unconscionable" act of a single organization.
I wish that I could rage against so many people - but, disappointingly, I always end up having to concede that they are themselves, often, victims and that they are mostly just doing their best. I have to do the same with Mr. Blackburn and NYIOP. If I knew how to scapegoat better than I do, I might be a happier person. But it would be the easy way out - and anyone who has chosen to go down whatever this path we singers are on might be, should not be one to choose the easy way out.