I often am asked how I land my opera engagements. I know it may seem like I’m rolling and dealing while I travel the world, but I have the help of an indispensable figure in my life: my agent.
A lot of thought goes into choosing the right agent for a career in opera. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of help when making this pivotal decision. I want to give an insider’s perspective on this important topic when the singing stops and the deal-making starts.
What is an Agent?
An agent does many things.
First, they arrange auditions for their clients (the singers) and introduce them to new opera houses and connections. They are a professional liaison between the singer and the company.
Once their client is hired, an agent negotiates your fee on your behalf. If you don’t have an agent, a company could make a small offer and unless you have the guts to say you’re worth more, you’ll be stuck with whatever amount they choose. This helps less at the beginning of your career, but years later this really pays off since a singer’s fee tends to grow in small increments the more they perform. You should be making slightly more than the gig before almost every time you sing. In this regard, an agent makes sure you don’t get less than you are worth financially so that you can focus solely on your art and your performance.
The best agents act as a manager and help you present yourself in the best way possible such as attire, behavior, social media, and professional interactions both in person and online, etc. Some agents help singers vocally, too, and suggest repertoire throughout their vocal development. All of an agent’s responsibilities forward your goals and professional agenda and represent your best interests.
When are You Ready to Hire an Agent?
You are never ready for an agent; at some point, an agent is ready for you.
During my younger years, I was told that a good time to get an agent is when you have more work that you can handle. This is not entirely true but it is definitely truer than the rationale you should get an agent because you’re a good singer. It is never just because of your singing talent. If you are in fact good, you will have the work to show for it. At that point, an agent will hear you sing. If they like what they hear, they will then go through the process of courting you to try and sign you on.
How Can You Find an Agent?
Again with the “zen of Lucas:” You don’t find an agent, an agent finds you.
As they go around to competitions, auditions, recitals, etc., a good agent will approach you and start up a conversation. You will begin to see them around because you are good enough to be in those places that they visit. If you’re singing at an entry level summer program for young artists, you probably won’t see any agents. But if you’re a little further along, they’ll be at Santa Fe, Merola, Wolf Trap, etc. These are all places where agents go to recruit singers. After you meet an agent, stay in touch with them. Ask them questions about your career and if they are receptive and helpful, that is them putting time and effort into developing you, you know they are interested.
The best agents develop a rapport with you and that takes time. They want to figure out the relationship for themselves, too. It’s not all about the singer.
Help! I got multiple offers!
Oh, it’s a beautiful problem when you have multiple offers from agents and don’t know who to sign with.
First, take a moment and be happy. Then, look at the agency’s roster of singers and performers. Do you respect the roster’s talent? If so, that means that the agent has a good ear and chooses you based on your talent, as well. You may also see a trend in their clients and ask yourself if you see yourself fitting into that group. You have to feel good about yourself and feel supported by someone who is putting forth the effort.
How Frequently Do You Communicate with Your Agent?
This comes up a lot in singers’ conversations but honestly, it’s just not that important. The frequency that your agent speaks to you over the phone or the personal attention they give you is a false representation of how hard they are working for you.
Singers don’t always see what’s going on behind the scenes. They may feel neglected or less of a priority to the agent if they don’t have frequent conversations. However, they don’t see the agent communicating with companies and putting their name out there in the opera world for potential gigs.
There are a lot of potential factors of a singer not getting hired. The companies may not need your voice type that season or they have a specific project they want to fit you in for in the future. Agents are always juggling. They have a lot of balls in the air which the singers never see. The agents aren’t going to call you every time a company says no because there simply isn’t enough time. It comes down to trust: you must trust that your agent is working for you, on your behalf, and in your best interests.
Signing contracts is not a sign of the agent working hard. It can be a little scary but no singer is going to sign three contracts a week because that stuff takes time. Developing a relationship takes time, too, so have the patience to cultivate a solid rapport with your agent. Only after, I’d say, six months of not singing a contract, should you question yourself and your agent, but before that, cut your agent some slack.
If six months has gone by without any new contracts, have a respectful conversation with your agent, but give them the benefit of the doubt. Ask questions; don’t accuse. Maybe it will lead you to learning more about their working process and create an understanding between the two of you.
Some of the most valuable information an agent can relay to you is feedback on your performance and conduct at an opera company. This is hard because sometimes it will be you’re out of tune, your high notes suck, you smell, you show up late to rehearsal, you’re on the chubby side, etc. This is never meant in a malicious way – it’s healthy and honest criticism to forward your brand and overall package. This is where trust between you and your agent really plays out.
There may be a reason why you’re not getting rehired and it’s not always because of your singing. Wouldn’t you like to know what that is? Thank your agent for that. Being a good singer, actor, and linguist is only step 1. Step 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is all tiny things that make up who you are. Like showing up on time and being nice.
American vs European Agent Representation
If your agent does well in the American scene, but you want more coverage in Europe, having a separate European agent can benefit you. A European agent is closer to the action and he/she could get deals done more easily because of the time zone. Many American agents represent singers well in Europe so the choice is up to you and your agent.
The potential problem with having multiple agents is when the same opera house hears from multiple agencies about you. If this happens, the opera house won’t know with whom to communicate about you. That would be confusing for them and most of the time, companies want to hire someone who is a good singer and easy to work with. If you’re difficult in that way, your job may be at stake because someone who is easier to deal with than you – even if they’re not as talented – could be on the table for that same gig. Good communication and coordination between multiple agents is key!
What About the Agent’s Assistant?
These are the unsung heroes of opera. The agent blasts the blunt force of your brand out into the opera world and whatever chips or flecks come off of that blast, the assistant is there to mold it into something beautiful. They are to be respected and revered. They bust their asses on the little but very important things, such as visas, contracts, airfare, accommodations, rental cars, wording emails, etc. I don’t use my agent’s assistant for travel stuff because I like to do it myself. Once in a while, I get the crazy idea to do an impromptu recital in Romania or a local masterclass, and he/she sets it up and makes it legit. Shout out to Aaron Grant! You’re the best.
So Who’s My Agent?
I signed with Jeff Vanderveen back in 2009. He is a perfect balance of kind, cool, intelligent, and international. Best of all, he’s a honey badger. He goes after things and he works hard.
He and I are unusual because we were friends before we began working together so the trust factor was already in place. Our kinship has worked well over the years because when he has to lay it on me straight, I trust his judgment. We respect and care for each other enough to keep our relationship going because I genuinely like him and I know he has my best interests at heart.
What Next? Any Last Thoughts?
Don’t be impatient with the state of your career. Every singer wants to perform at bigger and better houses. Once you reach that goal, you just end up wanting more. No matter what point you reach, there’s always going to be more to achieve. There is no final destination in this career. This feeling of “what next” is born from a drive to succeed in a cut-throat work environment. It doesn’t just magically disappear after a success.
Every time I write a check to my agency, I am happy because I know a lot of people worked hard for me. Be grateful towards them and treat them as a partner. Our business is a people’s business. We, artists, base much of our work on these core relationships, so don’t be a jerk if you want to work.