An Open Letter to Opera Companies During Audition Season (and Beyond)

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Ok, I’m just going to come out and say some things. Not because they are on my mind, but because they are on singers’ minds everywhere. And while this open letter is for some opera companies and speaks predominantly of the audition process, I am sure these things are not singular to the opera industry.

Dear Opera Companies to Which Some of the Following May Apply:

First, I want to say thank you for your desire to make the world a better place by bringing performances to your communities. It’s also great that you have created an organization/space through which artists can share their talents with those communities.

Secondly, I want to say thank you to all of the reputable companies who are respectful of the process through which artists must go to be hired and who are detailed, organized, and kind through that process. While we know you can’t hire everyone and you still must send notices of disappointment to many each year, we so appreciate you.

Unfortunately, many companies do not fall into the above category, and it is only fair that some issues be brought to light, particularly since it appears more and more that they are not isolated incidences. And because I have walked many a hall filled with performing artists and I know stories recounted can tend to become overly dramatic sometimes, I should say that I have either experienced these things myself, or I have witnessed them, or I have seen firsthand evidence. I have also been on “both sides of the table,” so to speak, having performed for 20 years and having helped run an opera company and a music department.

Artists are plentiful. They are in excess, and yes, companies, you have the blessing and curse of having to go through all their materials and listening to hundreds of them. They can be amazing and not so amazing. They can be easy going, and they can be neurotic and high maintenance. Regardless, they are people, each and every one of them. Beautiful, unique people. Many artistic admins have wished to emphasize the fact that they are people too, and I hope that’s a courtesy that can be extended in the opposite direction. With that in mind, I humbly beg you to consider the following:

Auditioning is expensive, for everyone. Companies must rent space, hire pianists, take time out their work schedules, and potentially also travel and pay for accommodations. Singers have to pay for materials like headshots and recordings, and often have to travel to get to auditions and pay for accommodations as well. Many also have to pay fees, and at an average of $45/application, the cost of just applying for auditions adds up fast. And I get it, there are many companies that simply could not exist if they didn’t offset some of the admin/audition costs with application fees (although if you’re a company that has a fat P&L statement and you’re banking cash, shame on you, really). But saying your rep is TBA until after applications are due is unacceptable, unless you are a company like Wolf Trap who picks their singers first and then picks rep specifically for those singers (which is really quite cool and is clearly explained on their site). If that’s not what you’re doing, however, expecting a singer to apply to audition for an opera that may or may not have any roles for them is silly and shows no respect for the fact that you’re asking them to pay for something that may be useless to both of you. I feel the same way about companies who send emails about buying tickets for their shows and the cast list is TBA – you’re asking me to buy a ticket, and I don’t even know who I’m seeing. Maybe some people don’t care, but I’d kind of like to know, especially since I know you know because the show is in a month. Please, update your websites.

During the auditions themselves, it would be really awesome if you could hire pianists who know the repertoire and sightread well. It’s such a shame when singers put so much time and money into the process, only to have a train wreck of an audition because the pianist didn’t know standard rep. Singers, if you put something insane and out of the ordinary in front of a pianist, that’s your fault and good luck to you (and pianist I’m sorry). Company, if you put a pianist in the room who doesn’t know Così fan tutte, that’s your fault, and it’s doubly insulting if you asked for an audition fee to cover the cost of the pianist. Please just don’t.

It would also be wonderful to show some kindness and appreciation for the singer being there, even if you are not having a great day and even if you don’t like the singer. Sometimes singers have paid $500+ to come sing for you. Surely you can imagine what it would feel like to pay over $500 to interview with someone, and how nice it would be if they were kind to you even if they didn’t particularly care for you. It would go a long way to assuage the bitterness that has become associated with auditioning.

When it comes to the decision and notification process, please learn how to use and update your databases. Sending rejection letters to singers who didn’t even apply for your program is rude. It really gives the impression that you see these artists as numbers and not people, and you’re embarrassing yourselves.

Really look at who you are sending emails to – some singers have gotten acceptance letters for other singers. That’s not very nice.

And then there’s just the tacky – sending a rejection email with all of the singers open copied so they can all see who each other were and commiserate together! Really, you have no business sharing that information. Plus, I’d be curious to know if there were some legal ramifications to that. That’s no different than if I gave my email address to a retail company and they sent my email address to other customers. And if we’re going to insist that singers use correct spelling and grammar in their cover letters and resumes, maybe you should too.

Past the audition process, there are also some things to consider.

When it comes to the fee you are offering singers, it may seem like you can offer whatever you want, because of supply and demand. And while that’s true to a certain degree, you should probably know that asking singers to perform for less than minimum wage is technically illegal in many states. You can call them independent contractors all you want; in reality, that’s determined by the Labor Board in many states, not by the company. And if a singer decides that s/he is not being treated fairly or realizes after looking at the rehearsal/production schedule that s/he is making $4.32/hour, which happens a lot, a call to the Labor Board can cause a lot of problems for you. If you read what constitutes an independent contractor vs. what constitutes one being labeled an employee, the odds are not in the favor of the company. Things such as telling the artist when they must work, telling them what they will wear, telling them they must come to your designated location for work – those all fall under the guise of an employee, not an independent contractor. And it doesn’t matter what you made someone sign or if you even gave them a contract, the Labor Board decides based on a case by case basis. This has already happened with the acting industry, and the fines for having people work for less than minimum wage are not pretty. On top of that, to pay everyone else: the orchestra, the director, the crew, the staff – and NOT the singers – is bad behavior. If not one person is getting paid, I can see the argument for an all-volunteer group. When you pick and choose who is getting paid, that’s no good, and no doubt a State Labor Board would frown upon it.

When it comes to rehearsals themselves, I understand: time is money. It really helps when singers are expertly prepared and ready to go. And let’s look at that: coaching a role, particularly a large role, can be a hefty investment. And that’s fine, as that investment is something that can be used in the future if the role is performed again. But you can’t really be surprised if singers haven’t spent a ton of time and money investing in preparation for a gig that doesn’t pay well, much less doesn’t pay at all, and it’s unimaginable to think that staff members would treat singers poorly in such conditions. Passive-aggressive behavior, belittling the singer in front of others, nastiness, yelling…really, it’s unacceptable. If the singer is unprepared and can’t get it together, fire them.

Now, this is not to give singers a free pass to shrug off preparation just because a gig pays less. There are many reasons why that wouldn’t be good advice, and I don’t advocate that in the least. But maybe don’t roll your eyes at high-level singers because they might still be pulling some things together. At least have the courtesy to speak with someone during a break or after rehearsal if you are concerned about their preparation. Surely you realize that a cast-against-company morale is not in anyone’s interest, and anything you can do to build and empower your cast members will only lead to a higher quality outcome.

I’m writing about these things because these things are happening, and yet companies won’t hear about them because I can imagine singers feel powerless to confront companies about bad behavior, lest they be put on some sort of blacklist. I know I was in that situation once – a director insisted that the singers kneel on a hard floor during rehearsal with no knee pads, and if we tried to sit because it was painful, we were yelled at. A couple of rehearsals later knee pads appeared, but it only took a few hours of that to cause some prolonged knee problems for me and some others. Think we said anything? I know I didn’t. Back then, I was afraid that I would put my career in jeopardy if I held the company liable or challenged them in any way.

No one should ever feel this way, like they can’t speak up for their own well-being at work for fear that they might lost their job or not be hired again. Singers, you only have one larynx and one body, and you have to protect it. And companies, please: just don’t put singers in positions where they feel they must sacrifice their own wellbeing, or dignity, or ability to afford to live for the sake of getting experience. We have insisted that singers become idyllic, respectful, well put-together beings. It’s only fair, then, that the same is asked of you. Encourage mutual respect and open communication and empower those you select to represent your company. Challenge them to be better by being better yourselves. After all, if you don’t care, why should singers care about you? This is how the bitter cycle begins, the whole us-against-them thing, and it shouldn’t be that way. Supposedly everyone has the same goal – to create and share art in order to better ourselves and our communities.

If that is the case, and indeed I hope it is, please – for the sake of the art form’s future, start acting like it.

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