It ain’t over ’til the singer gets a job

Emily Mathis

In the Butler School of Music, students pursuing a voice performance degree sometimes wonder whether they are ready for life after graduation and independence from their parents’ checkbooks.

There are efforts to help these students face a dwindling job market; reducing the amount of time required to achieve a choral music education degree is one such effort. Presently, the degree requires students to achieve both teacher certification and to complete four summer sessions in addition to the normal eight school-year semesters. There is also a travel grant, available to fine arts students through an application process, which allows for professional career development.

But in the incredibly competitive field of opera ­— what many musicologists consider to be a dying art ­­­­— the greatest career preparation lies in the applied practice of singing solo in an operatic production. Not only does such an opportunity bolster a resume, it gives a young singer a sense of the stamina required to sing a full-length opera.

Numerous age-appropriate, full-length operas for undergraduate students exist. Many opera programs at other universities and conservatories across the nation produce fully staged operas every year and cast their undergraduate students in them. In 2008, a $55 million endowment was given to the school by Sarah and Ernest Butler, and was earmarked for facility and production development, student scholarship and faculty advancement. That the Butler Opera Center waited until fall 2011 to produce its first undergraduate-only opera is troubling.

“It does seem impossible for an [undergraduate] to get a singing role in any of the major Butler Opera Center productions,” a current student in the opera program said, who asked not to be identified to avoid jeopardizing relations with the Butler Opera Center. “It seems that they are not considered for any singing roles in major productions.”

Typically, voice students audition at the beginning of the academic school year for the undergraduate opera ensemble class. The class ensures that these students will be a part of the chorus in a main stage Butler Opera Center production, but most of the roles for these larger productions are assigned to graduate students long before undergraduate voice auditions even begin.

According to Dr. Robert DeSimone, director of the Butler Opera Center, approximately eight undergraduate students have been given solo roles in full opera productions in the past two years. This includes the 2011 first full operatic production for undergraduates, which featured eight solo roles.

For many in the opera program, the efforts being made to more adequately prepare its students for the job market are simply too little, too late. “I do believe that I received a very strong education in the academic study in voice performance, but less so in the applied study of voice performance,” said a former student of the undergraduate opera program. “It is incredibly difficult to find a job now, with my lack of experience.”

Professor Darlene Wiley, head of the Division of Vocal Arts, believes that graduate study in the field of voice performance is absolutely necessary in order to pursue a successful career in opera. But for many students this is simply not an immediately feasible option after piling on debt from their undergraduate studies. Many choose to either temporarily enter the job market, to save money for their graduate studies and pay off undergraduate debt, or pursue a permanent career path offstage.

It would be useless to pretend that a degree in voice performance can compete with one in mechanical engineering — there is not, and will never be, the demand for singers that exists for engineers. But this doesn’t mean that students should be graduating without the practical skills that are necessary to compete in a smaller job market.

Aspiring opera singers need to graduate with necessary skills to get a job. There is currently a generous endowment in place for music students to do just that — and for voice performance students in the Butler Opera Center, adequate preparation means roles.

Mathis is an English and musicology major from Denton.