Opera star: Young Artist Programs are ripping off young artists

Opera star: Young Artist Programs are ripping off young artists


norman lebrecht

November 25, 2014

The international bass-baritone Alan Held would like to share his concerns about the mercenary exploitation of aspiring singers by respected opera companies and universities. We agree: these rip-offs must stop.

alan held1

This about the money being charged to young singers in order to audition for Young Artist Programs and universities in order to further their educations.

I have known that fees were charged by some entities. I just didn’t know how out of hand it has become. Into my possession has come a list of what some of these companies are charging the young singers. It is outrageous especially as the singers are required to send in the money to many programs AND ARE NOT EVEN GUARANTEED AN AUDITION (up to $75).

I know of singers who are sending in their very hard to come buy cash and are then not receiving auditions. First of all, the companies are truly missing out on some fine young singers. Second, to take their money and then not even give them an audition? Ridiculous.

These are not fly by the night opera companies–these are some of our most noted regional opera companies. In addition, many of the “pay to sing” programs, whose goal should be to help encourage young talent in summer programs, are charging great amounts as well.

I haven’t even talked about the fees the competitions are charging (anywhere from $40 to $200) in order to enter the contest. What really gets me, however, is the amount that certain universities are charging students seeking to further their educations (post baccalaureate).

One university charges a $150 application fee (another $75 if the application is late), and then a $100 pre-screening fee (if you want someone to actually listen to the recordings you have to submit) and then $150 if you are given an audition—the total can be $400-$475 just for a singer to get the chance to step through the door to audition. Other schools are also charging large amounts.

Now, I’m FULLY AWARE that facilities cost money (if the audition is not held on “home turf”), and pianists need to be paid (if the student doesn’t bring their own). These fees, however, stay the same whether the singer brings their own pianist or not. It is outrageous. The students are being gouged and money is being made on the wrong backs. Many students are struggling to make ends meet as it is. If they apply to multiple companies/schools, etc., they are finding themselves in even deeper financial difficulty. Some singers have sponsors–most don’t. The worst part is that some very fine talent is having to skip out on audition opportunities because of these costs.

This is NOT the way things were when my career began. I’m WELL AWARE that times have changed. BUT, to have the young and upcoming singers footing the bill is not right.

UPDATE: Click here for a fresh twist on the sordid theme.



  • Sadie Rucker says:

    Not all Young Artist Programs are the same. Disclosure: I work for the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s young artist program. The Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance program, which is tuition free and now offers stipends, hears everyone who applies for the program. Most are heard in person. If a person cannot come to NYC for an audition at the appointed times, we try to accommodate them with other dates. If that is not possible, we accept video/audio auditions. We listen to everyone and do not cast until everyone is heard. Those who audition are auditioning for particular roles and will study, perform or cover those roles. We do however require a $35 fee which covers the audition space, accompanist( their time is paid even if the singer’s personal accompanist is used) and the processing of application requirements. We are very aware of the financial difficulties of young singers and try to make the application as small as possible. I do think some of the fees, whether Young Artist Programs or University programs are too high but young singers also must be smart about what they spend and what they will receive in return. If they are accepted into a good program, they will have opportunities to perform and make connections-the same with the competitions.
    I just worry no matter what the fee, that we are missing out on some very exciting voices who deserve to be heard because of the not only the application fees for University, Competitions and Young Artist Programs but because of the high tuition costs of some of these schools but that’s another discussion.

    • anon says:

      Compared with some schemes, the fee charged by Rucker’s company is not remarkable. However, it must be remembered that the cost to the auditionee comprises not only application fees, but also the cost of travel and subsistence (even though it were not compulsory to audition in person, most still would want to be heard live), not to mention the considerable investment of time and effort in preparing an application that fits the rubric (which varies by scheme), writing personal statements, and obtaining references.

      On the question of pianists, would it not make more sense to ask auditionees to specify in advance whether they require an accompanist or will be bringing their own? This would lower costs, since the company accompanist’s time could then be scheduled far more efficiently.

    • Scott Foreman Orr says:

      I know of one company that charges $25 to audition, if you show up to the audition they are reimbursed, or the money is returned! Many don’t show up so they don’t get reimbursed and that money goes to cover the cost of the accompanist and audition venue! I myself charge to to audition to cover the cost of the accompanist only because I’ve found a place that is free to use and open to the public Tuesday-Saturday! Wish there were more Angels out there to help promising singers!

  • Kat Guthrie says:

    I applied to the Martina Arroyo program one year and one year only, because my application fee was cashed without ever having any contact again from the program — not even to deny me an audition. When I sought to let the company know this had happened, my email was ignored. This was about five years ago so I’m not sure if things have changed, but please be aware that these kinds of mistakes can happen and it can very easily become a predatory environment.

    Furthermore, when you say singers should be smart about choosing which places to apply — Tanglewood is one of the institutions that charges $75 to apply, and Curtis is one of the universities that charges a large application + pre-screening + audition + late fee. Are we being smart about choosing not to apply to two of the best programs in the country? By missing out on the excellent connections they provide, are we making intelligent choices about our careers?

    If opera companies receive too many applications for them to process, it is easy enough to change the deadline to “Deadline is either October 15th or the first 500 applications, whichever comes first”. Processing applications is part of doing business, and an artistic institution should build the cost of doing business into their financial model without taking money from potential employees or trainees. Fort Worth is an excellent example of this. They hold auditions every other year now but charge no audition fee; they have decided that this trade-off is worth the cost of being financially solvent.

  • Anon says:

    Whilst I broadly agree with the sentiment of this article, it is difficult to blame the institutions when they are often being asked to do more with less money. The author says that facilities cost money when they are not on “home turf” but home turf costs money too – who pays the rent, the cost of heating and lighting, keeping the pianos in good working order, or staffs the reception? And who pays for the admin of organising auditions, which can be a bit of a mammoth task. And who pays the panel? I’m not necessarily suggesting that the impoverished auditionee should pay for all of those things, but that money needs to come from somewhere and, when it doesn’t come from the government or ticket sales, it may end up coming, in part, from auditionees. There is something useful about being able to deter time wasters too – although you don’t the audition to be a form of means test either.

  • Anon says:

    Unfortunately the problem with young artist work extends beyond just application fees. Once you’re selected for auditions, you have to travel to the audition locations (New York, LA, Chicago, etc) and find accommodation and depending on the company your own pianist. By the time you’re done with an audition trip you’ve spent well over $1000 and you’re not even guaranteed work.

    What’s almost criminal about it is that the audition season has now turned in to a free-for-all of dates and locations. In the past a young singer could find a week or more in NYC, rent a place or find someone’s couch to sleep on, and basically all the auditions they want to do. Now, thanks to companies like Santa Fe, St. Louis, Wolftrap, Merola, etc, trying to grab up everyone they want earlier and earlier, auditions are now scattered about the fall. Singers are now forced to take multiple trips to get in even a few auditions. 3 days in Cincinnati in the middle of October, 1 night in Chicago a week later, then a flight to San Francisco the next day. 3 weeks later you’re out to Philly and then back to Cinci. Maybe you’ll have a few auditions in NYC too. Then after all that you can still be unemployed.

    If you finally manage to get a job it’s not like the checks you’re bring home will support you without considerable stretching or finding a second job. $300 a week and you work 6-10 hour days. “Oh you’d like to get paid for your actual singing on stage? Nope. Isn’t it great you’re so passionate about opera and you don’t mind working for basically nothing?”

    The young artist system is a difficult one and I understand that these provide a much needed relief for opera companies struggling to stay afloat. The thing is just because the word “young” is in the title doesn’t mean I’m not an adult in my late twenties struggling to pay my very real bills from this very expensive profession. Im still an person, where’s my marches for better wages? Hiding quietly behind the expressions of thousands of young singers who are too afraid to criticize a business that will just a soon drop them for someone else.

    • Anon says:

      Amen to the poster above me. Where indeed are the marches for better wages? Violence would probably get the point across, but unfortunately that could get out of hand in terms of scale and I’d guess most artists lack the spirit for it.

      I’d bet sweat-shop workers make only slightly less than young-artists in a program. Even the free housing you get (sometimes) does little to assuage the pressure of very real bills that have got to be paid, accumulated through the course of this hunt–and god forbid you take on another job while working for these charlatans. Then you’d know what Joan of Arc felt like at the end of her run.

      At least in young artist programs, the pyramid scheme involves doing what you love/’are good enough at to bother with’ while only selling your dignity with every breath you take.

  • Valerie Yova says:

    My guess is that this dilemma is related, in part, to the economy and the slow deterioration of funding for the arts in this country. …And the sad and scary direction that things are heading with regard to college education. It is sad, indeed, that companies need to pass on the burden to the young (struggling) artists. Seems like they are shooting themselves in the foot because we all know that the most talented are not necessarily the most wealthy or well connected. Even 35 years ago the Met National Council revamped the Met auditions because they believed that they were not finding and advancing the most uniquely and innately talented singers, that it had become a contest about polish and sophistication rather than about finding the “golden voices” of a generation and nurturing them. Universities are a different animal, I’m afraid. For financial reasons, they have always been forced to accept a certain percentage of students who they know will never have performing careers. I can only assume that this is getting worse as the cost of education becomes more prohibitive. I don’t know what the solution will be, but hopefully the young artist programs will begin to think more creatively about how they scout out the most gifted, promising, balanced, motivated apprentices, rather than singers who look hot, sound mediocre, could afford to audition, and who they will “use up,” and toss into obscurity in a couple of years.

  • Claudia Friedlander says:

    Too many organizations are passing on their audition expenses to the singers. I do not suggest that it is inappropriate to charge a reasonable fee. But in my opinion, application fees of $40 and higher create an impossible burden for young artists, especially when they are not guaranteed a live hearing.

    When an organization charges a high application fee and then auditions only a small percentage of their applicants, they are in effect pooling everyone’s application fees so that the singers who are not granted an audition end up subsidizing the opportunity for those who are. They receive no value for their investment besides the time that was taken to review their materials and turn them down.

    My position is that if you are going to charge a high application fee, you should make sure that all applicants receive some value for that fee even if they are not granted an audition. Give them some constructive feedback, tell them why you’re not hearing them, and let them know what they would need to achieve in order to merit a hearing next time.

    I recently participated in the Carnegie Hall Weill Music Institute’s evaluation of the applications for Joyce DiDonato’s master classes, to be held this coming February. We received 243 applications and she could choose only 4 singers; however, all 243 applicants received detailed feedback letters from me commenting on their strengths and areas that would benefit from some improvement. The application fee was $10 and all evaluation was done online based on the submission of two videos and the usual supporting materials.

    Not every institution has the funding to keep their application fees this low or can conduct their evaluations online. But while I was paid for the time I spent generating this feedback, the per-applicant cost for my compensation was quite modest. Perhaps not all of our applicants will find my advice useful – but all of them received some value for their time, effort, and application fee.

    I call upon all Young Artist Programs who charge a high application fee to follow suit. If you are going to defer your audition costs with contributions from the singers themselves, give them something of value in return when you cannot schedule them for an audition.

  • Kathy says:

    My question to the administrators is this: singers already pay for their own travel, housing and preparation for an audition. Why, please, should the burden of paying yours also fall on them?

  • Glendower Jones says:

    If you charge any fee at all, you should at least grant the singer an audition. This abuse of young artists needs to stop and it needs to stop, now!

  • Qwerty says:

    I broadly agree with the article, especially with the point that artists ought to at least be granted an audition if they are paying a hefty application fee.

    With regard to the accompanists though, should a pianist really be expected to be on call throughout the day, but just sit staring at the wall, unpaid, when a candidate arrives with their own pianist? Official accompanists aren’t usually rolling in money themselves, and some of them will have paid for childcare in order to be able to undertake their work. Many will have also have incurred significant travel costs in order to get to work, particularly in places like London and New York, where modestly paid artists are unlikely to live close to opera houses/conservatoires.

  • Rafael de Acha says:

    Thank you, Allan Held, for going out on a limb on this issue. I could not agree more. I know of many young singers who have encountered this sort of treatment, both in the Opera field and in Musical Theatre. A well-known musical theatre company in St, Louis, asks for talent to come in for an audition, then lets them cool their heels for several hours, then lets the go home without having had the audition they traveled for miles to attend. This, not once, but many times with many singers.An opera company in NY State lodges their young singers in sub-standard facilities, many of them with mold growing inside the walls. Others are guilty too. I am amazed that AGMA has not looked into these violations, neither for that matter has Equity, nor has it imposed some tough regulations on these summer ventures. In my experience running a professional theater in S. Florida, I ALWAYS had to have an AEA rep, usually a local one to closely monitor auditions.

  • Elizabeth Lombardini Smith says:

    I have lived in Italy for the last 25 years and have run both the Operalaboratorio project in Palermo as well as Officina Sinfonica Siciliana (the symphony orchestra project which included singers) in the past. We charged an application fee but listened to everyone who showed up. Our selected apprentices all received scholarships however (some smaller, some larger).

  • macpark says:

    This applies n the UK too. I have just paid out over £400 for my daughter to do a round of auditions for conservatoires as an undergraduate. At one, she progressed through 2 rounds, an interview & a scholarship hearing making the fee reasonable as she was there for 3 1/2 hours. I have heard of one girl who auditioned at one of the London colleges which charges almost £100. They stopped her after a minute and said she wasn’t the sort of voice they were looking for. Seems that the very least they could do is hear an entire song. Either that or sort the wheat from the chaff before taking the cash.

  • Dana Q says:

    This year I applied and paid application fees for 5 programs across the US and Canada that did not give me auditions, more than one of which didn’t even take a screening tape. Sometimes, you’re just paying someone to look at your resume.

    So far, there’s not really an alternative for singers except to only apply to companies that have no app fee, which is just not practical.

  • Judy says:

    A movement needs to be made. I am SURE there are many donors out there who would very happily donate the equivalent amount of money for up to so many applications to be free; if submitted by a certain date etc…It is a good case to approach donors about. This will offset the hard costs to the institutions who are using this money for those purposes. I think this is a PERFECT way to use donor money and you can even attach their name to the cause.

    • Claudia Friedlander says:

      This could potentially be something that patrons who want to support young artists would want to contribute to.

      The bottom line is that training programs and opera companies should be mindful of (and transparent about) which of their operating costs are being provided by aspiring singers via their application fees. They need to be respectful of these singers’ needs when requiring a fee from them, and ethical in their allocation of the funds they thus collect. It’s not supposed to be a donation to the company/organization.

      • anon says:

        And yet many organisations that charge an audition fee require the use of infrastructure designed for donation — it is just unprofessional that an application fee can be paid *only* through violin-destroying Paypal as a donation, a method designed, no doubt to protect them from being held accountable for the audition service they provide (as well as reduce transaction fees, but that is still no excuse — why can they not accept a cheque sent with the audition material?).

  • Wanda Brister says:

    The whole YAP thing is supposed to be designed FOR the young artist. Every time I ask my students returning from these programs what they made, I either get silence or hear of some ridiculously low fee. They all end up being “pay to sing” once the student has paid rent, and covered their usual monthly expenses. Forget the expense of actually getting TO the auditions. This is always a zoo. Students who are enrolled in college are required to go to these auditions during the week of final exams because the opera company representative apparently enjoy coming to auditions to do their Christmas shopping. With the high quality of DVD recordings and ease of downloading, singers could be screened for FREE and come to one location for the actual auditions. Or, if the company observes a huge number of people from the same region, they could ACCOMMODATE those singers by going to more than one location that is within DRIVING DISTANCE and does not cost the student air fare, cab fare, hotel, and restaurant costs. YAPs have taken away paid jobs for young professionals as well as those singers who are beginning to age out. Is this not a flagrant misuse of all young artists, having them sing for no money?

  • Joe says:

    I am currently living in Denver and I have to say the one thing even more irksome than application fees is traveling to alternative audition locations (Houston, Chicago, Cincinnati) only to walk in a room and find myself auditioning for the accompanist and a video camera! Last year I attended a SongFest in Chicago, Illinois. Although Denver may be a huge Southwest/ United Hub, traveling to cities in the Midwest/ East Coast still costs (on average) about $300-$400 per trip (of course that is before food, accommodations, etc.). For this one audition alone I easily spent $750 only to arrive and find that not a single representative from the organization (besides the accompanist) was there. Times may be tough for arts organizations, but I’m sorry…that is unacceptable. I have had similar experiences with Ohio Light Opera (in Kansas City) and Tanglewood (in Chicago).

  • Gerry says:

    Welcome to the USA. Yale charges an $80 application fee for the privilege of paying over $200,000 in tuition. (Please don’t mention that YSM is free. I’m talking about the undergrad, which accepts less than 20% of its applicants.)

  • Anon says:

    I applied for a pay to sing, spend $40 on the app fee, got in, and later the program was cancelled. I asked for a refund and was not given one. Horrendous. That was 8 years ago and to this day I don’t support this company.

  • Nancy H says:

    Please note that higher Ed institutions charge application fees for many programs, not just music. This is different from a few years ago when an application fee was reasonable. I paid three fees this year for masters programs in SLP, in addition to a CSDCAS fee.

  • Frustrated says:

    I attended the Lisa Gasteen school in Brisbane, Australia. It is supposed to be an intensive three week singing summer program for advanced young artists but with fees upwards of $4,000, accommodation over $1,500 for three weeks and then the cost of food and transportation, a struggling Australian Opera Singer can face over $6,000 for a three week school in which you’re not even guaranteed the opportunity to sing in the final concert. Also, the more favoured singers were given many more hours of coaching than the less favoured despite paying the same amount. It seems that there is a lot of advantage being taken of singers who desperately want to learn.

  • Jeff says:

    Hey young artist get ready…
    Next up, agents who charge retainer fees AND bill expenses AND take 10-30% commissions