Friday, November 22, 2013

For Saint Cecilia's Day: The Secret Lives of Singers

The fact is, the business has changed a lot in the past few years. Singers with A-house credits take roles at regional companies to fill in their schedule gaps; instead of hiring established professionals for smaller roles, companies will often use students or locals who may be less experienced in order to save money; seasons and runs are both shorter; very few companies doublecast anymore. Many of my colleagues who sing leading roles and have many major credits have expressed nervousness over the fact that opera companies aren't hiring as far in advance as they have been used to. It's scary when you have a family to support and bills coming due, and your engagement calendar looms empty six months down the road.

"The past few years" is really since September 11, 2001.

I'm too busy to post. I have lots of things I want to write about here, but no time. I have to have the first draft of my research-intensive scholarly book in to the publisher on a short deadline, and I have lots more research to do, and very little time in which to do it. Also, I've been hired to teach a class in the music department of the local community college in the spring semester, and I have to prepare, because it's a subject in music that I've never taught before. 

Still, I feel moved to share this for the one or two people who might remotely be interested, because it made me nod my head vigorously up and down. I've been condemned in the combox here in the past by apparent would-be music critics, who suggested that I was failure as an artist because I haven't performed on the world's leading stages (although I think these readers, who don't know me and have never heard me sing, actually may have objected to me on other counts, and allowed their objections to shape their opinions of everything I do). Because I've spent most of my adult life as a working (i.e. paid) professional classical musician, have earned a doctorate in music, and still go out on semi-important gigs once or twice a year, I feel as if it's semi-important to set the record straight about my sort-of profession.

For the record, I had a friend, also a singer, who is friends with soprano Lauren Flanigan and used to bread-gig with her, and told me that Lauren in fact went to her temp job the day after she subbed in at the Met in the telecast performance opposite Pavarotti in Verdi's I Lombardi. Like so many singers, she was in debt.

Happy Feast Day!


Otepoti said...

Argh. This must be why "art" is in "martyrdom." I'm sure many people have noticed this.

Great about the teaching! Your posts about teaching have been some of your best.


Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, the paragraph you've excerpted reminds me so much of what my French trainees tell me about business in France. It is too expensive to hire more full-time workers--not just in the sense of paying their wages, but of having difficulty firing them should anything not work out--so companies just make do with part-time workers on six-month contracts and doggedly deal with the costs of such a high turnover.

And there is so much more economic uncertainty in general. I know that Millennials get a lot of flack for jumping from job to job and not having a steadier or more loyal work ethic, but I think that even those who are seeking a position that will let them work their way up in the same company and eventually retire with that gold watch know that this supposedly more solid path could still crumble under their feet.

Of course, it's not quite the same thing as the music business. I can't imagine what worrying about the next financial quarter would be like if it were compounded with worrying about keeping up a certain image as a "pure" artist at the same time.

Enbrethiliel said...


Okay, I'm back. That is, back from Cindy Sadler's blog and from the other blogs and articles she has linked to. And only back to thank you for pointing me in the direction of music writers! Writing about music may be like dancing about baseball, but I feel as if I've just discovered a secret room in a library, full of new delights!

Anonymous said...

I would live to hear you sing!!

Good luck on your writing and teaching journeys!

Pentimento said...

Thanks or your kind words, all. And Enbrethiliel, I used to teach a class called Writing About Music! It was required for undergraduate music majors in the large public university system where I got my doctorate. So I don't think it's at all like dancing about baseball. :)

Anne-Marie said...

Pentimento, your date for the then/now dividing line mystifies me. What is the connection between the events of September 11th, 2001 and the decline in hiring of opera singers?

I have a daughter on the fringes of the professional theater world and that also seems fraught with uncertainty. I have seen actors relocate for two months for the sake of a small part that pays, it seems to me, hardly enough to cover the rent. But I haven't been around them long enough to know whether the situation is different than in the past.

Pentimento said...

There was a certain phenomenon after 9/11, when American opera houses started scrapping more adventurous repertoire and replacing it with Carmen, La Bohème, etc. People were afraid and wanted comforting, familiar fare. So singers lost jobs right away in the aftermath -- the singers who were scheduled to sing in premieres of new works, etc. And then, mostly after 2007-2008, a handful of good American opera companies shut down, and people lost jobs for which they'd been booked years in advance. And then A-house singers began taking B- and C-house jobs, etc. And you're right, theater is just as bad, and probably much worse.

Anonymous said...

Yes, theatre is terrible these days. This was the worst fall in many years for actors. Fewer and fewer jobs, for equity and non-eq alike. Packed auditions for "stipend" roles, I thank God every day that I get to do this for love, not rent.

NY actress

Pentimento said...

Thank you for sharing your perspective, NY actress.

Anne-Marie said...

Ah, I see now. Thanks for the explanation!
I'm reminded of the father in _Harriet the Spy_, who's always muttering "starvingartist" and "starvingwriter."