I get why this prospect can be so fascinating. Imagine, not having to spend all those years pursuing a college degree and BOOM landing auditions and singing on main stages around the world.
One must have a talent for singing — perhaps, according to some, a gift. What more is there to gain as a college student when you either have the talent to sing or you don’t?
Saving that gross amount of money on college tuition is tempting too! So, how vital is a degree to a career in opera? Let’s dig in.
The Short Answer
No. You don’t need a degree. Never once during my career or in an audition has anyone asked me to present a copy of a transcript or a completed diploma. That paper means nothing to those who hire me.
The Long Answer
There are many invaluable things you can learn from higher education when it comes to opera. Sure, you learn the most while on the job but school is where you learn the intricacies of languages, get your first chance to work with a director, perhaps learn your first role, listen to repertoire, expose yourself to musical styles, and practice the art of performing.
Voice lessons and working closely with a highly qualified instructor and coach are crucial to your development as a singer — the school structure provides all this and more.
Your music history, music theory, and general education courses may not improve your singing but they do help you become a better musician and well-rounded person — this is vital for a career in the interpretive arts. Kicking ass in those classes or getting straight A’s isn’t the point — it’s the pieces of information you acquire along the way that help you complete your “singer” puzzle.
Other than the actual courses, a school gives you the chance to get your feet wet before heading into the big, bad world. And most importantly, it provides you with an incubation period.
Nest That Voice Egg
Your voice takes years to develop. I’m in my 40’s and my voice is STILL changing!
The beginning of your vocal journey is a long incubation process so it’s key to be patient and not rush it. Schools provide a safe structure for that incubation process to give your voice time to develop.
When you’re in school, it doesn’t matter how you sound yet. Getting impatient for your voice to fill out is natural but don’t let it get in your way. Strive to become a better singer day in and day out — know that you’re in it for the long haul and you’re making small but consistent strides towards your vocal goals.
Think about it from an opera company’s perspective when they’re hiring. Let’s say you skip out on a master’s and head straight to a YAP after your undergraduate degree. Even if you get accepted, you’ll get out of the program at around 24 years old and very few companies will take you seriously yet. It’s likely your voice won’t be mature enough at 24 to compete with singers in their late 20’s and early 30’s.
You want to get out of a young artist program no earlier than 26 years old, so again, there’s no rush. There are exceptions to this, but it’s rare.
It’s a gamble for a company to cast a 27-year-old in a significant role. They take a chance every time they hire a singer and if you’re too young, it’s an even bigger risk. Also, being young signifies to a company that you’re inexperienced. They want things to go smoothly during the rehearsal and performance process, and singers with a longer resume and solid reputation have proven they’re capable of handling the work.
More Than an Education
In addition to voice lessons, stage experience, coursework, etc., a voice student gains something so important while in school: networking opportunities. For example:
- You can get referrals from voice teachers, coaches, directors and use them as connections when applying for jobs. This career is so much about who you know! Companies are likely to hire someone they know of before hiring someone they don’t. Your instructors could give you a strong recommendation for a job that helps you get your foot in the door.
- Casting agents might give you a stamp of approval when they see your university, coaches, directors, conductors, or teachers listed on your resume.
- Schools invite many guest artists (conductors, directors, coaches, etc.) from the outside world and they too could hire you for an opportunity or refer you for one. If they give a masterclass and you get the chance to perform for them, listing that experience on your resume looks really appealing.
To a Certain Degree …
Let’s go back to that piece of paper. The paper itself doesn’t directly correlate to your upward mobility and development in the opera world. If you get a better opportunity than the one you currently find yourself in, take it.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be flexible while pursuing this career — when the opportunity train comes along, you’ve got to be willing and ready to take that ride.
If you’re in college studying to be an opera singer and you never want to take the leap and leave your cocoon, start considering an alternative career.
Anyways. Other than your standard Bachelor’s and Master’s of Music, you could also pursue an artist diploma or certificate. Its purpose is to continue the incubation process — you’ll continue learning and studying with an institution as a safety net. You don’t have to enter the big, bad world yet or wait tables in NYC while taking voice lessons. You have the space to sing every day, learn roles, and continue the education process.
A DMA continues the incubation period and gives you additional credentials if you want to teach at a university someday. It’s a huge commitment in terms of time and money. Perhaps consider this if you’re offered an entirely free ride, but don’t do it if you hate it. If a DMA isn’t the right fit for you, try taking voice lessons instead, in NYC for example if that’s an option to you.
Now it’s storytime.
I don’t have a degree. But I spent 8 years in school at 3 different universities. I kept getting opportunities right before I completed a degree and I jumped on the opportunity train without hesitation. However, if I hadn’t been offered any opportunities, I would have finished at least one of my degrees.
I’m not suggesting you do what I do, I’m just here to share my perspective and tell you that having a singing career without a degree is possible.
When opportunity comes, you have to be prepared for it. Upward mobility, remember? If you’re stagnating, that’s not the road you want to be on. Always look to take that next step on the ladder. There is no elevator to the top of an opera career. Ultimate success is built on the foundation of many small successes.
Has the lack of a degree ever held me back? Yes. Without a degree, I have less validity in academia if I ever want to teach (specifically at public universities where bureaucracy dictates which professors are hired). A conservatory or private school might make an exception and look at my experience and career and hire me based on that.
Also, many people over the years ask me where I attended school. Naming an institution somehow helps them get a better idea of where I’ve come from.
When All’s Said and Done
The things I gained from my academic experience are invaluable. The paper itself doesn’t matter. Seek out learning and networking opportunities and be ready for any opportunities that come your way.
Have any questions? Feel free to write to me.