At what point do you stop being a young artist? Who tells you it is time? Who tells you you're ready? Well, I am writing today to tell you the answer: no one except for yourself. There is no ritualistic ceremony with candlelight and libations that gives you permission to take charge of your opera career and your personal artistry. That is unless you want to plan a ceremony- in which case, please invite me.
We all enter into an opera career with similar reasons: we love the music, we love to create, and we live to impact an audience. While young artist programs (YAPs) are currently the popular option for career building, they are not the only way. Many have achieved success without a single YAP on their resume. According to the National Association of Schools of Music, there are currently over 9,000 students majoring in Vocal Performance in the United States. Compare that number to 300, which is the combined number of singers accepted into the most prestigious summer YAPs and music festivals. For the sake of argument, let's say we lose 1,000 of these vocal performance majors to different career paths- that leaves 8,000 singers. Then, add back the countless post-graduate level and professional singers still vying for these coveted YAP positions. A rough estimate concludes, an average of 3% of singers auditioning for young artist programs will be accepted. This statistic alone proves that the YAP route is but one narrow path toward the attainment of one's personal definition of operatic success. Yes, YAPs can provide experience and connections, but once in a YAP, you are still responsible for thriving and taking advantage of the situation. It is important to remember, if you are among the other 97%, the combination of study, hard work, and business sense, can come about to the same end. So long as you work hard to learn the nature of your instrument, develop a solid technique, are confident in your artistry, and savvy as the manager of your own enterprise, you will inevitably find success- with or without a YAP.
As previously mentioned, everyone needs the fundamental tools to build a successful career in operatic performance. Indeed, there are times in your career when young artist programs can provide help in these areas. However, once in the YAP realm, it is your responsibility as an intelligent artist to know when you have gathered all the fundamental tools for your trade. It is at this juncture when you must be judicious with the advice you welcome into your life. Recognize the areas where you are in need of improvement and recognize the areas in which you are secure, and do not let anyone tear down that security. Do not, I say this with tongue-in-cheek, become a young artist who suffers from a case of YAP Stockholm syndrome. If you glorify the artistic opinon of someone else, and become dependent on the opinon of others as opposed to developing your own, you are quite literally stunting your growth. Do not shy away from the moment your artistic opinion may differ from someone else's- celebrate it! When that time comes, defend your stance with an open mind and hope they will do the same. If they do not, wish them well, and move on to greener pastures. The best performances you give in your career will come from a moment of assuredness. They will come from a moment when you are confident that you are the best person to perform this art for your audience. When you have done the work, these remarkable moments are within your grasp...if you realize your worth.
Speaking as a person who has attended six young artist programs, I admit, it took me far too long to reach this point of assuredness. I would attend engagements as a principal artist in between young artist programs and find my confidence in my artistry would flourish due to the recognition of myself as a principal artist. It is amazing the effect a label can have. After such success, I would then proceed to a young artist position and, once agan, question my instincts. It is no fault but my own that I allowed myself to regress within the proverbial womb of the YAP. But I am thankful for those moments of doubt, for I am certain now that my artistry is unique, powerful, and purposeful.
In a difficult career that can leave us feeling last place in a very noisy rat race, I want to leave you with some encouragement. I want to tell you that you were drawn to this artform for a reason. You have something to say and you are worthy, regardless of how others define your current level of success. With hard work and perserverance, success will find you in some form or another. I also want to give you permission to not seek permission. Take charge of your artistry today and you will experience a surge in personal growth and discover a deep-rooted sense of confidence and worth. This confidence will allow you to share your artistry and your opinion freely. You will become a performer that teaches through openness and empathy. Most importantly, believe in your artistry after taking charge of it. Do not be complacent. Hold the opera world to the hot coals instead of letting it hold you. I truly believe this personal process will contribute to the bigger picture of opera- building an opera business that is diverse, interesting, and worthy of a grand future.