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Opportunity Versus Debt: Gender Disparity in Opera Part 2

DANA VARGA2 Comments

"Supply and Demand: Gender Disparity in Opera Part 1" explored the issue of poor gender parity that exists in professional opera today, and some possible solutions. In this second part of the article, we will specifically discuss the issue of gender parity in college/conservatory vocal programs as well as pay-to-sing summer training programs.

Keeping in mind that three out of every four singers that graduate today with a BM or MM in vocal performance are female, it stands to reason that there should be an expectation for good gender parity in school operas. This is a complex issue that starts with admissions. Voice and opera programs, especially at the better-known institutions, are simply too big. Add to this the fact that more and more vocal performance degree programs are being offered in small colleges across the country, and now just about anyone can find somewhere to get a degree in singing. Why are programs accepting so many voice students? Unsurprisingly this boils down to money, and unfortunately many schools take advantage of people willing to pay full tuition or close to it. This is a practice that should be curbed, especially because of this painful-but-true fact: the students with the biggest scholarships are usually the students with the best performing opportunities in school. Female singers as a whole take on significantly more school debt than their male colleagues. As I mentioned in the previous article, college voice programs end up in bidding wars with each other for the best male singers, so male singers are accustomed to winning far more significant scholarships and opportunities than females.

After graduation, men are far more likely to find quality singing opportunities and paid work, whereas women (who have more debt) have a much harder time finding opportunities; especially ones that pay. This terrible cycle too often ends with very talented women giving up their career aspirations out of both frustration and financial necessity. As a voice teacher and career coach, I hear regularly from female singers with incomprehensible amounts of debt, many of whom did not get to sing even one full role in their BM or MM program(s). At the Masters level, if the voice and opera faculty at a school does not feel that someone can handle even a small role on stage, ethically speaking I believe it is wrong to accept that student into the performance degree. Graduate voice programs should be far more selective and difficult to be admitted to; after all, this prepares applicants for the type of competition they will encounter in the field. It is true that some singers bloom and grow massively during their studies, going from an average singer with seemingly little potential to a singer of note with huge potential. However, the amount of money being spent on degree programs by so many women is a huge gamble no matter which way you spin it.

Ashley Gryta, soprano, recently finished graduate school at a well-regarded conservatory. She says, “My current debt from both undergraduate and graduate education combined is $180,000. At this point, I have put my federal loans in forbearance in hopes of making a dent in the private loans. I didn’t have many solo opportunities in school; I sang in a children’s opera, did an opera scene, and was a concert soloist a few times with the choirs. I had several colleagues tell me that they didn’t know what my voice sounded like until my recital.” Ashley went on to detail how her debt affects her life: “the debt is something I think about at least a few times a week. ‘I’d love to do X but I have XX amount to pay this month, so I can’t.  I’d love to live in a nicer place, but I can’t afford it. Sometimes, just the thought of the actual number that I owe makes me feel like I’m suffocating.  It is the equivalent of a really nice house in my hometown.” Many singers become so consumed by debt that they end up having to give up singing entirely (or close to). Amanda Villegas, a 35-year-old soprano, told me "I was always told that my instrument is very special and that I have a lot of potential. Unfortunately, the cost of the career coupled with the overwhelming burden of student loans (I owe $150,000) made it necessary for me to make the difficult decision to change careers in order to have a financially viable future. I am now a public school teacher in NYC. I love my new path and I still sing when a I can, but if my student loan debt wasn’t so crippling I may still be pursuing a full time career in singing."

Let’s take a look at a pretty common scenario:

A soprano is accepted into the graduate vocal performance program of a well-known conservatory with a modest scholarship.  The cost of two years of her education, after fees, is $64,000. She takes one federal loan of $45,000 and two private loans totaling $19,000. The federal loan is locked in at a 4.5% interest rate, and the private loans are locked in at 3.8%. It takes this soprano twelve years to pay off the private loan and twenty-five years to pay off the federal loan (please note that the yearly tuition, interest rates and payoff time frames are all optimistic).

Did you know that the total amount this soprano is paying after interest is approximately $100,000? For two years of graduate school. Let the number sink in. It is likely that her monthly loan payments will be equal to or greater than rent payments for the next decade or two. Chances are slim that this woman is going to be able to pay for all of her expenses solely from paid singing work. Will she be able to manage pursuing a singing career as well as a correlating career? Probably, but it won’t be easy.  Handling a dual career (which is necessary for almost all working singers; see my article “Getting real: the correlating career”) is much easier when the singer is not burdened with unfathomable amounts of debt.

I must note that conservatories are certainly not the only institutions leaving young singers with crippling debt. Jesslyn Thomas Eccheveria, a 30-year-old soprano, told me: "I attended state schools for both degrees on significant scholarship, and still ended up with over $80,000 in debt. Without my husband’s financial support I would probably be living with my parents or with many roommates and working multiple restaurant jobs. I grew up being told that I had to go to college and that taking out student loans is no big deal, everyone does it. I was assured I could pay it all back with the job I would get upon graduating. Ha! No one prepared me for the fact that it doesn't work this way in our field.”

Taking on debt for undergraduate studies is arguably slightly less problematic than for graduate studies, as a Bachelor’s degree in music can serve as a strong base for any number of careers, many of which are non-music related. One can use this time to “find themselves” and figure out what it is they truly want to do, and choose graduate studies accordingly (should graduate studies prove necessary for the chosen career path). It is up to the student and their family to determine how much debt is too much debt for an undergraduate education, based on their personal financial situation. When undergraduate faculty members listen to auditions, it is nearly impossible for them to know what will become of an 18-year-old’s voice and future career. There is certainly a lot of guesswork there, so all the faculty can go on in the audition is potential. If a singer is very talented and shows promise, then the undergraduate program should accept them. Therefore, two essential solutions for adequately preparing and supporting students in undergraduate programs are a) limiting program size and b) offering ample performance opportunities to those students accepted.

Marie N. Herrington, a sophomore vocal performance major at a prestigious conservatory, says: "I have what is considered a great scholarship, but am still paying $30,000 a year for my undergraduate education. I could not secure a church choir gig (the only openings are for men), so I play as an organist instead to make money. There are exactly 60 sopranos at my school, and only a small handful of them are getting roles (whereas nearly every male has at least one role). So in this program, designed to give people training opportunities and prepare them for the real world, so many women are not getting anything at all. That isn't good, considering what they pay to go here."

The solution to the “debt versus opportunity” issue starts with you, the singer. It is crucial that young singers arm themselves with better counseling and education about the field and its realities, in order to make well-informed decisions about their schooling. Here are a few ideas on how to do this:

·      When visiting potential schools, shadow a current student and ask lots of questions about the program. Find out what classes you will be taking, what ensembles exist, and what solo performance opportunities there are for female singers. Ask about the “politics” of the department and what the climate is like. Talk to as many current students as you can, so that you can learn about many people’s varied experiences.

·      Create a “wish list” of what you are looking for in a school. With the help of family, guidance counselors and other trusted mentors, set a cap of how much you are willing to spend for this ideal education (and stick to it).

·      Ask for the data on scholarships for voice majors; how many are awarded, how much they are. I encourage young women to find out how many scholarships are awarded specifically to females.

·      Seek student loan counseling, and learn as much as you can about debt. Be certain that you understand how accrued interest works, how to calculate a monthly payment, and how much you would need to make to keep up with your payments comfortably after graduation.

·      Seek outside private funding and scholarships. Keep a spreadsheet of requirements and deadlines and stay on top of these applications.

·      In collaboration with your voice teacher and other trusted mentors, ensure that your audition prescreen video is very well prepared and shows you at your absolute best. Keep polishing the repertoire in preparation for live auditions and pay attention to the details (technique, diction, phrasing, presentation, etc.)

·      If you are absolutely sure you want to go to graduate school, consider taking one to two years after undergrad to work as much as possible and save money towards grad school tuition. This will help prevent future debt from piling up and accruing interest. 

·      When in school, don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel (a respectful, polite one). Audition for as many opportunities as possible, and if you feel you are being overlooked, meet with the faculty and discuss this with them. Create your own opportunities through student groups, collaborations with instrumentalists and composers on chamber music and new works, workshops organized through the local student NATS chapter, etc.

·      While in school, start exploring what your niche(s) within classical music may be; early music, oratorio, contemporary music, crossover singing, etc.

·      Take theory, sight singing and overall musicality very seriously. Many of the best paying gigs in the professional singing world have nothing to do with opera, and require excellent musicians with great reading skills.

·      If you are really unhappy with what you are getting (or not), leave the school or transfer. Don’t let the debt accumulate knowing that you are not getting what you need!

·      If you are not granted auditions for the voice programs that interest you, or are admitted to programs but not awarded good scholarships, consider that this may not be your path. There are many ways to have singing in your life that do not involve pursuing it as your primary career. It is also possible to become a professional (or semi-professional) singer without a degree in voice!

While empowering students is the number one priority, a close second is the implementation of solutions to improve gender parity in schools. For this to be possible, administrators and faculty in academia need to make better choices to adequately serve their students. They must keep in mind that the vast majority of students are female when determining appropriate performance opportunities for everyone. In undergraduate programs, singing opportunities come in many forms; frequent recitals, opera scenes programs, choral solos and oratorio works to name a few. There is much debate as to whether undergraduates should expect to sing full, main stage operatic roles. Realistically this depends on the singer, and should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Those that do not sing operatic roles should still emerge from their studies fulfilled by many other performance opportunities. The best way to learn is to do.

When it comes to both opera scenes and fully produced operas in colleges and conservatories, gender parity is key. It is my belief that all college vocal programs (both undergraduate and graduate) should regularly program operas that feature either an equal number of male and female roles or, more ideally, more female roles than male. When roles are double cast and covered, this ensures that as many women as possible are given an opportunity. Assuming that a school does not want to produce Suor Angelica, Dialogues of the Carmelites and Little Women on repeat for eternity, new solutions are definitely needed. Many new operas of the 20 and 21st century (which may or may not offer good gender parity in casting) are extremely difficult musically and vocally. Graduate programs with advanced singers may be able to present works such as Jonathan Dove’s Flight, John Adams’ Nixon in China, Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden. All of the aforementioned operas have good gender parity. 

Unfortunately there are not many good choices of contemporary operas for younger, less advanced singers. Examples of a few that deserve more consideration by academic opera programs include Dan Shore’s The Beautiful Bridegroom (for six women), Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe, Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince (though gender parity here is not ideal), Douglas Moore’s Gallantry and Seymour Barab’s Game of Chance. It is my hope that new music composers and librettists will put more accessible, manageable operas for young singers into the world that have excellent gender parity. The more that schools and arts organizations commission new works with a specific request for a majority of female roles, the more gender parity we will see throughout the opera field. Additionally, composition programs can and should encourage young composers interested in writing operas to write with gender parity. This will likely require collaboration and communication with voice and opera departments.  If new operas can gain more of a foothold in academia, then more and more of them will become known and find their place in the professional opera world. This will benefit everyone; the schools, the students, composers and librettists and the professional opera world at large.

Unfortunately, new opera has not yet made good strides in creating works with better gender parity. Christie Gibson, the General Director of OperaHub based in Boston, is compiling data on new works from Opera America as well as composer and producer websites. So far, she has found 280 operas premiering between 2010-2017, of which 195 are full-length works for which she was able to find a role distribution list. The overall gender distribution is 1.4 men’s roles for each woman’s role. There is no year that is at parity or skewed towards women’s roles. The preliminary data for 2017 is particularly distressing because it is up to 1.78. Christie’s preliminary findings also indicate that female composers and librettists are not more likely than men to create works with better gender parity, which is, frankly, shocking.

Summer training programs, especially “pay-to-sings” should be diligent about programming operatic repertoire that favors women for the same reasons outlined above. Again, women who are paying out of pocket for performance experience should in return be granted the opportunity to learn and sing a role, not just participate in concerts and perform in scenes programs (while every male in the program has roles to sing). A few examples of programs that historically do rather well with gender parity and role opportunities are the Aspen Music Festival, the Brevard Music Center and the Seagle Music Colony. That said, the quality of the experience at these excellent pay-to-sing programs depends heavily on how much a singer is paying versus how much they are getting to perform there. Unfortunately, some programs become predatory (whether intentionally or not) when they charge an exorbitant amount of money for relatively few useful singing experiences. If a program does not produce opera but is pricy, then it must offer some other major incentive to singers such as intensive language immersion and/or weekly lessons, coachings, master classes and acting classes. That said, even these programs are not giving students what they truly need and want; performance experience.

Changes will not be made until students speak up.  I cannot stress this enough: the student is the consumer! Students must advocate for themselves to ensure that they get the most amount of scholarship possible and, just as importantly, make it clear that they expect to have significant and worthwhile opportunities while in school or at a training program. If it is clear that a program will not guarantee you an affordable education with plenty of opportunities, don’t take the leap. When you are dealing with the amount of debt that the majority of female singers are, it is really important that you get what you need. Student as consumer does not mean that a student should march into a voice lesson and say to the teacher “you work for me”. Nor does it give the student the right to treat faculty members with disrespect, blow off assignments they don’t like, or voice unreasonable demands. Rather, students should feel comfortable having conversations with administration and faculty about their expectations and needs throughout their education. Once you do the math on per-credit cost, you should feel more than validated in voicing concerns and advocating for yourself.

There are always gray areas and exceptions. There may be singers on major scholarships or even full rides that do not have many performance opportunities while in school, and singers paying a fortune and getting every penny’s worth. There’s no telling exactly what type of experience a singer will have, but it is important to realize that you have more control over your “school fate” than you may think. The fact remains that most voice students are female, and that there are not nearly enough opportunities to go around. While I am hopeful that institutions will take steps to alleviate gender disparity in voice and opera programs, more immediate action can be taken by incoming female voice students by addressing the inequality and strongly advocating for change.

There is a myth being perpetuated that singers without a solid institution behind them will struggle more to succeed. Of course the schools want you to believe that you need a graduate degree in voice to become a professional singer. The fact is that a highly self-motivated singer can accomplish a great deal without a graduate degree (and sometimes even without an undergraduate degree in voice). When you are out in the world auditioning, the panel hearing you rarely cares about the school listed on your resume. They are far more interested in how well you sing, how polished your musicality and diction are, and how compelling you are in your expression and storytelling. While you will need a graduate degree if you want to teach voice at the college level (and I could write a whole separate article on how competitive college voice jobs are for women), there are few other career paths that necessitate this degree. The great singers of generations past didn’t go to graduate school. They took multiple lessons per week (some took lessons daily!) and honed their skills under the watchful eyes of their mentors. Going to graduate school is a choice, not a requirement.

If you want to try your luck at launching a singing career without a graduate school education, start by living in an area in or close to a major city (not necessarily in the USA)! Find an excellent teacher and a vocal coach to meet with as often as possible (ideally, voice lessons should be weekly). You may also need to further your skills in music theory, sight singing, diction and acting. This can be done with a one-on-one tutor or via continuing education classes offered at nearby schools or other community organizations. I assure you that while paying a teacher, coach and tutor(s) weekly may seem crazy, it will cost a lot less than graduate school (think $800-$1000 a month versus $2,500-$3,500 a month). Besides, you’ll be working, so you’ll be in a much better financial position as you will have an income and will be accumulating no debt! Seek operatic role experience with small local companies and audition for church jobs and professional ensembles. Sing for conductors and ask for feedback. Learning “on the job” is often just as valuable as additional schooling, and it may be a better choice for you considering the financial relief.

Those with significant school debt don’t always regret taking it on; time in school is often very fulfilling and can even be magical. I do not wish to discourage singers from pursuing the degrees that interest them, but rather hope to arm and empower young people considering degree programs. It is true that a college degree in any field does not guarantee a job in that field. However, degree programs preparing students for a field with as little opportunity and as low a median income as ours should be smaller and more selective. Do your research prior to applying to schools and question whether or not the degree will truly serve you. Ensure that you are as prepared as possible for auditions to improve your chances at scholarship. Once enrolled, advocate for yourself, have open and honest conversations, be a great colleague and strive to be a committed, hardworking student.

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