It took a global pandemic, the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the possibility of the end of opera as we know it for the Metropolitan Opera to schedule the staging of its first opera by a black composer, Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard, for its 2021-2022 season. It took the current historical moment for the nation’s most eminent opera house to hire its first Chief Diversity Officer. None of this is surprising if you know the opera world. A venue that staged Otello in 2019 with the titular character sung by a white singer (mercifully not in blackface) gets dragged into addressing structural racism only kicking and screaming.
Inequality in the high arts runs deep. The lack of diversity in the industry cannot be addressed by high-level, top-down representation alone.
Nicholas Connolly, baritone and voice teacher, told Observer, “Unless you have one of a handful of full-time chorus positions available in the country, you don’t have job security. You have season to season, however many gigs you can string together. A lot of singers develop a correlating career, teaching, real estate or food service or what have you. There’s not a ton of people that make their living full time just singing.”
Like most artists, the vast majority of opera singers require a side gig to support their artistic careers. This is accepted throughout the arts. What is different about classical music, and opera in particular, is just how much training is required, and how much rehearsal time is needed, to perform at a professional level.
Added to that time commitment is the expense of becoming an opera singer. To the high cost of college and graduate programs (often $30K a year or more) can be added voice coaching and Young Artist Programs. Singers are expected to already have performed a part they are auditioning for, and sometimes the only way to gain that experience is to fork over between two and eight thousand dollars for pay-to-sing programs, like Aspen Music Festival, for a summer’s worth of training and performance. These programs are also competitive and can also charge performers even to audition. Performers likewise must train for these auditions, often with a voice coach whom they must also pay.
This constant coaching is a necessity of the industry, given its strict traditional parameters. Unlike an actor in a play or film, many opera singers are, in some respects, expected to perform a role precisely as it has been performed for decades, down to the last syllabic inflection. Because of the expense of the production, sets and costumes are sometimes reused. Singers can even be expected to not just sound like the traditional character but also to look like them, and even to fit into their same costume.
“If you’re singing La Bohème, if you’re singing a Musetta, if you’re singing a Mimì, you are defined by the recordings that have preceded you,” mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Butcher told Observer. “You are expected to sound like every recording you’ve ever heard of ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì.’ If you in any way stray from what the recordings sound like people are shocked.”
Opera audiences and patrons skew disproportionately older, whiter, and wealthier. The donor pool typically wants to see the old favorites performed as they have always been performed. Especially in the United States, where government funding for the arts is so scanty, new works, or even new interpretations of old works, are much harder to fund.
For singers, between coaching, travel, and training, the expenses rack up, even for those who have made it, who are soloing on stage at top venues. Many soloists, even at elite venues, are still working gig to gig, moving from city to city.
Their precarity is structured into their contracts through their union, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). Monica Dewey, a soprano who was scheduled to make her Metropolitan Opera debut in the canceled 2020-2021 season, told Observer,
“When I got my first AGMA contract, I was really excited because I thought all these wonderful things were going to come with it. Then I found out, no, I still don’t have healthcare…Singers are traveling the world drinking tea and taking zinc to stay healthy because they can’t afford to see a doctor.”
These practical concerns, especially as singers grow older and their lives more complicated, have a devastating effect on the diversity of the industry. The cohort that can make this kind of life work, even with side gigs, is minuscule and demographically homogeneous.
For certain, a commitment to diverse representation is a good start for the Met. However, diversity will only go so far with a patronage funding model that privileges the tastes of only a few donors. Opera will instead require government support, especially for smaller theaters in which many young performers from diverse backgrounds can get paid a living wage to learn roles for the first time. Central European nations, and Germany in particular—where small, regional theaters are often subsidized by the government—have proven how well a more horizontally structured financing model can work. Given the shrinking funding base and overall uncertain future of the high arts post-pandemic, an expansive, bottom-up, government-supported approach to funding opera and ensuring its diversity has the added benefit of also enabling its survival.