How to Attract That Special Someone: 8 Ways for Small Opera Companies to Attract Quality Singers

Hi Readers! This blog regularly features career tips and perspective on the business for working singers, but wait- what about advice for the people on the other side of the table? Aren’t there best practices and suggestions for the organizers and producers who make the opportunities happen? The short answer is YES, so: et voilà! I’m thrilled to present this insightful guest post by my talented colleague Ethan Bremner as he gives valuable boots-on-the-ground perspective on how opera companies can have great professional relationships with singers. So thank you, Ethan, and Happy Reading, Everyone! – Angela

How to Attract That Special Someone: 8 Ways for Small Opera Companies to Attract Quality Singers

The BSR blog is chock full of wonderful advice for singers of all types and how they can optimize their market value to opera companies. But I’m compelled to ask: what about the other way around? What are some common behaviors I’ve seen from small opera companies that, due to financial constraints, can’t attract singers via money alone? What company behaviors commonly cause quality, sought-after, and busy singers to look elsewhere when figuring out whom to audition for? Moreover, what are some behaviors I see from small opera companies that garner a negative reputation for them which spreads through word of mouth in the singer community? We’re all in this together, so I’ve compiled the following list of best practices for small companies based on my experiences that I believe will keep singers coming back to work with you time and time again.

  1. Money. Let’s start with the most basic way of attracting singers. Most singers have had a harsh enough dose of reality to know that this industry is brutally difficult to make ends meet, and most of us are realistic enough to know that the average amateur opera company is not going to be able to offer competitive professional rates for singers. However, a little amount of money can go a long way. After devoting 6+ years in school and tens/hundreds of thousands of dollars on our education, it’s incredibly demoralizing to be told “you will get lots of exposure for this” or “you’ll get the privilege of working with us”. A small honorarium is exponentially more invigorating than nothing at all. Bear in mind that for many of us this isn’t a dollars and cents issue, but rather a morale issue: suddenly those years and dollars of school don’t feel quite so demoralizing. If the gig is entirely pro-bono, then consider being upfront about the fact that you can’t to afford to pay what the work is truly worth and expressing gratitude for singers volunteering their time for whatever it is you’re trying to create, whether it’s making sure opera is being performed in the community or making opportunities for people to sing, etc. Knowing what their donation of time and effort is supporting goes a long way to put the singers at ease about the nature of the arrangement.
  2. Be upfront about how much the singer is being paid and pay them on time. This goes along with the previous paragraph but is so important that it needs to be its own bullet point. Delineating the pay in the audition notice would be fantastic, but certainly once the role is being offered, it should be in the first email to the potential singer: “Hello X, we would like to offer you the role of Y in our production of Z. Compensation for this will be $.“ I cannot tell you how many singers I’ve heard complain about having to email companies back about compensation specifics. It’s one of the most common complaints I hear.  Another common complaint is a delay between the final performance and the payment being remitted. Promised payment should be given to the performer at or before the last performance.
  3. Be upfront about time requirements. I know, it’s extremely difficult to put together a comprehensive rehearsal schedule working around potential conflicts and such. But I’m always surprised at how few companies are able to put out even a barebones rehearsal schedule before the audition process. If you’re planning on having daytime rehearsals during the standard work week, you absolutely need to state that in the audition notice. Most of the singers you’re likely to cast cannot survive on singing alone and have day jobs, and they’ll need to know what they’re signing up for before they audition. Once the gig is offered, then it’s all the more important to be clear. If you’re upfront about asking for conflicts and setting out a rehearsal schedule based on those conflicts, then singers are less likely to surprise you with conflicts later on. I’ve been handed contracts with entire months listed with TBD dates, and it’s difficult to negotiate with other performance organizations and book other non-singing related time requirements.
  4. Be upfront about work requirements. Along with the previous point, this is a common issue that serves to benefit the company. It’s vitally important that the singer know exactly what he or she is signing onto. If you’re going to want the singer to sing a few choruses along with their role, cover another role, double as production staff, or perform an unpaid promotional concert, make it clear at the onset. Again, ideally make it part of the audition notice, but if not, at least make it part of the contract and/or initial offering email. Also if you’re a concert group but want the singer to perform from memory, this is something that should be discussed right off the bat.
  5. Contract. I’ve said the word a few times already, but the previous three points can be summarized in this simple act: write up a contract. Maybe some small companies think that because they don’t pay singers that contracts can be skipped? Yes, it isn’t particularly likely that lawyers are going to get involved in the average unpaid gig, but that isn’t the point. An opera company that sends a contract simply presents as more professional, even if the work is pro-bono. Contracts allow both parties to have something to point to when discussing expectations. A contract allows the singer to identify their boundaries and allows the company to itemize their expectations. It removes all guesswork and prevents unspoken assumptions from becoming stressful interactions between the company and the singer. Of course, unexpected issues may arise that force the company to ask the singer to act outside their contracted obligations (i.e. extra/extended rehearsals, role coverage), and good performers will do their best to honor these requests in order to prioritize the integrity of the performance. But these kinds of extra-contractual requests should be the exception, not the rule, and should be avoided wherever possible, and companies should never expect that singers will agree to them. Assuming singers are happy to pull out all the stops whenever you ask is taking advantage, which is a sure-fire way to damage professional relationships.
  6. Be clear what you are looking for in an audition. When we’re talking about amateur opera companies, the concept of precasting is inevitable. Directors often have a vision surrounding a specific singer they already know, and they’re looking to cast around that singer. This makes it all the more vital that the audition notice reflect that precasting. If you’re looking to cast a production of Carmen but you already have an idea of the Carmen you want, take the time to reflect that in the audition notice or prepare to hear way more “Habaneras” and “Seguidillas” than you ever wanted to. As annoying as that may be for you as an auditioner, it’s nothing compared to the frustration and blacklisting your company may receive from singers who feel their time was wasted in a fruitless audition for a company that was never going to cast them in the first place. If you’re casting for male roles only, say so. If you’re just casting a wide net for choristers, say so. Singers should be able to be strategic in their auditioning, and they should know when an audition is potentially a longshot. Also be welcoming and positive in the audition process to everyone who took the time to come in through your door, whether or not you hire them: making singers comfortable in an environment of graciousness and kindness when they’re presenting their work goes a long way to make your company beloved in the singer community. Remember, these people are also your potential donors and your potential audience, not just your job applicants.
  7. Manage time in the rehearsal. Speaking of wasting people’s time, as an amateur company you’re not bound to hourly payment, but it is important to value your singers’ time as you would value your own. Ask that the director be aware of who is in the room and who has been called. If the director is done with a person or group of persons, be sure to let them go. In that same vein, try to take care to schedule rehearsals in a way that keeps the number of calls as low as possible. It’s a drain on a singer’s resources to be called to numerous 15 minute calls on multiple days when one hour-long call would have sufficed. If costume fittings are to be done on site, try to keep them in line with rehearsal calls rather than having singers make a special trip. These extra steps make a singer feel that their time is valued.
  8. Provide the relevant materials. Some opera companies work with specific editions or translations of the scores, so it’s vital that those special editions be provided for the singer. If that’s not possible, then a clear explanation of what edition/translation is going to be used and whether the singer must purchase that edition should be included in the audition notice or the offer letter. If you’re providing copies of a special edition of the score, then make sure it’s completely legible before distributing, because then significant practice time will be saved for singers trying to decipher smudges and significantly less rehearsal time will be taken up by singers debating notes and words.

I’ve worked with a wide variety of small companies, and I’ve seen every single one of these points come up at one time or another. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with companies who have successfully nailed every one of these points, and those are the companies who see a lot of “repeat business” from great performers going back to work with them time and again. If your opera company is noticing a lack of returning performers, quality performers, or performers from a particular demographic that you’re interested in working with, then this may be an indication that your company reputation may have suffered from one or more of these issues. I hope these suggestions are helpful to identify the best practices that create a positive relationship with singers, because we’re all in it together in this great community of music in New England.

140322_Bremner_19Since his arrival in Boston, Ethan Bremner has become one of the city’s most sought-after young tenors. He made his local debut with Boston Opera Collaborative in 2006 as Achilles in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide, and then sang with the company as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème. He also had an auspicious debut as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir D’amore, Don Jose in Carmen and Lt. Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly with Longwood Opera. He performed the premier performance of Odyssey Opera in Boston as Baroncelli in Wagner’s Rienzi. Other recent performances have included Sir Robert Shallow in Sir John in Love with Odyssey Opera and Vasek in Boston Midsummer Opera’s Production of The Bartered Bride. Mr. Bremner was a Finalist in the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (New England Region) and earned his Master of Music in 2006 from the University of Wisconsin. www.ecbremner.com

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