If They Don’t Invite You to Dine, Then Cook Your Own Dinner

 United StatesUnited States If  They Don’t Invite You to Dine, Then Cook Your Own Dinner

Philip Kennicott is the art and architecture critic of The Washington Post, but his global vision encompasses all of the performing arts as well, with a special interest, it seems, in opera, the subject of most of his recent and frequent postings on his website. He can be controversial and extremely opinionated—as well a good critic should be— and often raises hackles. Most recently Kennicott published a piece in The New Republic that circulated widely. I remember some of my colleagues balking at it and vowing to give Kennicott a piece of their minds.

Then, more recently still, Kennicott posted “Life After the Assembly Line” in Opera News (August 2013). In the article he speaks of the dubious fate of the average conservatory graduate with a degree in voice performance. He also pulls no punches as he takes apart the flawed supply-and-demand system of music schools in our country—one in which admissions quotas must be met at any cost, so that the school can maintain its certification and its reputation.

The piece is not a litany of bad news but a blunt reality check, as was his other article in The New Republic. Fortunately, the author ends on an upbeat note when he closes by saying: “The hard path that all young singers face leads to failure only in the minds of people who define success in a very limited way.”

Earlier in the piece he reminds us that many conservatory-trained singers end up teaching or holding jobs in arts administration or in careers other than music. Just this morning I happened to catch a little-known fact about Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve, who attended classes at Juilliard as a clarinet major and played jazz side by side with Stan Getz.

Writer Greg Sandow recently commented on the changing tide of classical music. A pessimistic optimist, Sandow looks reality squarely in the eye and speaks the undiluted truth about the greying down of the classical music audience and the alarming indifference to the music from some younger listeners. Not long ago, another friend from a different but related field posted on her Facebook page thoughts on the tough road that lies ahead for her, as a free-lance actress in a part of the country where five important mid-sized theatres have closed their doors over the past five years.

Like Dr. Pangloss in Candide, I still believe in this being the best of all possible worlds, and in the need for us all to make our garden grow. Even though I chant that mantra again and again it often rings false and hollow in my own ears, because I talk all the time with actors and playwrights, directors, conductors, instrumentalists, and singers. Quite often they tell me how they feel one-to-one, or make a candid Facebook post, shared with all of their friends. Many of the tales are inspiring. Some are troubling. All help form an impression that not all is well here at home. But the good news is that artists are taking matters in their own hands and turning into grassroots entrepreneurs.

What I write here lacks the statistical information; I do not have attendance figures, statistics and percentages. Those are readily available from Americans for the Arts and from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In their place I offer stories from the trenches, subjective and colored by memory. If you make it through this read, you will surely conclude that I offer no silver bullets. I will readily agree with that, because there’s no magic cure for the malady that affects the arts in our country and the malaise that plagues its participants—those who make the art and those who consume it. Artists are engaged in making changes happen and that is good news.

In the summer of 2013 I traveled in Germany and Central Europe, visiting several smaller cities. At any opportunity I would ask the locals where their theater was, and inevitably the answer would come quickly and with detailed directions in flawless English. I would then walk the few blocks to the municipal theater. It was summer and off-season, but even then I could look at the large posters announcing upcoming theater, ballet, opera and concert performances.

In one small town I spied the announcement of a mini-festival that featured plays by Spanish and Latin American authors (in German, of course) on the stage of the municipal theatre. And there would always be in every town a theater for children staffed by professional adult actors.

Germany has over 80 opera theaters with full, year-round seasons. The large cities—Berlin, Hamburg, Munich—each have two, three or even four opera theaters, several drama theatres, concert halls and alternative performance venues. Most have several important museums.

Each theatre in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is home to a permanent company of performers, a technical and design staff, and an administrative staff. Dozens of jobs are held by performing artists, musicians and craftsmen in each of these workplaces, offering financial security, social services, health care, pensions, even child care. I remember how a colleague that sang opera professionally in Austria and Germany for over twenty-five years, described her life at that time, as a first-class Kunstler (artist) singing Verdi, Mozart and Strauss for a living, while residing in a town that she could call home.

In the United States, when an aspiring actor, musical theatre “triple-threat” or opera singer graduates from college, after rigorous training, the options are often few.  The young soprano who just sung the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute may now have to travel, at her own cost, to another city to audition for a Young Artists Program at another opera company. At the audition she will be up against a large number of equally-qualified sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors, baritones and basses, all of them vying for the same few spots in the upcoming season.

I almost forgot to mention that those who audition have to pay a fee to the opera company for which they are trying out. If they come from out of town, they have to pay for their travel, lodging and meals while in the city in which the audition takes place. Other expenses incurred prior to the audition could include voice lessons and coaching sessions that it takes to prepare a young singer for the three-to-five arias most auditions and voice competitions require. And if you are a rare voice—a countertenor, true bass, real contralto or big-voiced tenor—you have a slightly better chance than the light soprano or lyric baritone who sang just before you.

The gifted dancing-singing-acting kid who just sang the lead in Oklahoma and stole the show now waits tables in a New York restaurant while he waits for the next audition, perhaps for a replacement in the chorus of a current Broadway musical. That is the lay of the land for most musical theatre performers, whether good, bad or indifferent.

Instrumentalists don’t have it any easier. I remember the story about a young bassist who, after the usual two-to-three year stint with the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami Beach, went off on an audition tour around the country. One spot opened up in the string section in the symphony orchestra in Buffalo or Rochester (I forget which) and over a hundred aspirants showed up. It is a good thing that the League of American Orchestras and the musicians union reached an accord some years ago, which requires that auditioning instrumentalists play behind a screen that keeps their identity, gender, age and race anonymous. Auditions should be about playing well, not about physical appearance. By the way, when I checked in again, the young bassist did get the job; the other ninety-nine were still looking.

A colleague of mine is a superbly talented African American actress—I have seen her work and produced a play in which she had an important role—yet she does not have as much work as she should have. I have no idea how she makes a living, but can hazard a guess that she pieces together a modest income from doing much more off-stage than she does at the few remaining theatres in South Florida that employ members of Actors’ Equity Association. She probably does voice-overs in the few TV commercials that employ union actors, and perhaps teaches acting in some private school. I suspect race is occasionally a factor, since it seems that affirmative action has yet to reach the casting policies of theatres nationwide.

A good friend of mine is a noted South Florida stage actor who also does commercials, voice overs and teaches. His training is superb, and I am proud to have directed him as Iago in Otello and Edgar in King Lear. He did roles that defy the prejudices against “ethnic” actors doing roles outside of their range, notably Tom in The Glass Menagerie and the male lead in Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen. Three other actors raised eyebrows by consistently being cast against type in my productions. One of the three was superb as King Lear, who was father to a Jewish-Cuban-Venezuelan Cordelia, a Finnish Goneril, and a Jamaican-Irish Regan. And a reminder: Joseph Papp had been doing this for years at the New York Public Theatre.

Marian Anderson broke the color barrier in January of 1955 and, in so doing, threw open the doors to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Reri Grist, George Shirley, Martina Arroyo, Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle and countless other African Americans. In musical theatre there’s been some steps taken in the right direction, but there’s still much more to be done. Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell have been instrumental in getting the Broadway community to accept non-traditional casting as a fact of life.

Opportunities for performers are fewer and fewer and they do not come on a silver platter. When they seem to be scarce and one starts agonizing and wondering why in the world one got into music or theatre to begin with, the time is ripe to think as an entrepreneur. For each behemoth arts organization that goes belly-up in these hard times, a lean and mean and smaller one springs to life. These grassroots enterprises are born in the oddest of places. Where I live there are three small opera groups that have come into being in the last year or two. Their survival is not guaranteed, but their function is beyond question: they supply more opportunities for singers and instrumentalists to make the transition from conservatory graduates to early-career professionals. Far from being a trend, it is the future of performing arts in our country, one in which large institutions with their traditional structure and top-heavy administrations and recalcitrant boards are fast becoming a thing of the past.

With no invitations forthcoming to sit and dine at the big table, these start-ups are simply going ahead and cooking their own dinners. And we are all invited.

Rafael de Acha