A number of singers I know - fine fact, excellent singers - think of themselves as having failed in opera, or indeed in professional singing as a whole, because they're not working full-time in the field.

This has been really bothering me, and I wanted to say a few words about it.

There's been a lot of press in the past few years about the flagging economy in the United States, the 1%, and the squeezed middle class.

Many economists and commentators have pointed out that the money is pooling at that top 1% and at the bottom in state-supported programs, while members of the middle class are, much like in the Great Depression, poised to fall into poverty with only a few missteps. Medical bills, lay-offs, or a series of financial errors can pitch people permanently over a financial cliff.

However, interestingly enough, because of the values of the country we live in (hey there, Puritan forefathers!), people in the middle class who have this experience automatically think there's something wrong with them: they didn't work hard enough, they weren't clever enough, or they made mistakes they should be punished for. Everyone else tends to blame them, too. In short, they're failures who should be shamed.,1

The middle class doesn't tend to think (as we might, say, when looking back on the economic policies of the 1920s that sunk the US into grim financial ruin by the '30s) that their failure is an almost inevitable result of a flawed system. I mean, when we read stories about failing farms in the Dust Bowl, do we tsk and say they should have worked harder? Nope, because we understand with 20/20 hindsight and textbook discussions of the global financial situation of the era that those farms were f%^&ing doomed no matter how early the farmer got up in the morning.

Back to opera. Opera, it seems to me, is a microcosm of the US economy. Money is becoming concentrated in an elite class of 1 %-ers, the middle class is being squeezed out and poverty level companies are increasing. Top companies are pulling in all the cash, middle-level companies (where people learn and grow) are disappearing and/or being forced to price their audiences out of seats, singers are working in poverty-stricken boutique companies just to be able to perform at all, and singers think if they're not in that successful 1%, they are failures.  Um. The Middle Class perspective right there in a nutshell, amirite?

Check this out: here are are the opera companies Wikipedia knows about in the U.S.

At first glance, it looks like a lot, but some of these are now gone. Many of them are poverty-level companies that don't pay (most in Massachusetts don't). Some states don't have any at all. Some of the companies don't put on a full season. I know that a number of these companies - solid "middle class" companies that haven't been able to rise to the 1% - are in trouble and about to slide into "poverty" or close entirely.

The upshot of this is that, as singers, we are doing ourselves a terrible disservice if we assume personal blame for what is ultimately a grand economic failure.

It's worth repeating that: We as singers are doing ourselves a terrible disservice if we assume personal blame for what is ultimately a grand economic failure.

The problem isn't us singers, and it certainly isn't opera: it's the economic model being used to present it. Broadway doesn't exist on donations. The movies don't exist on donations.  Do you see what I'm saying? Art is increasingly devalued in a society that values capitalism above all else: if it doesn't make money, what does it matter? Skim this fairly heinous article (which kind of underlines my point there about devaluation) and then go to the comments, where you'll find some really thoughtful commentary on this issue from professional opera singers.

In the Great Depression, the fact that people weren't working wasn't because no one wanted to work, or people didn't value work anymore. We could say the same thing about opera. There are hundreds of people in the Boston area alone arriving every year to study this art form. New operas are being written, boutique companies are springing up all over, and the audiences are there. In fact, the idea that opera is dying or that people don't like it becomes immediately wrong when you do Opera on Tap performances in bars. I can't tell you how many people have said to me "I LOVED IT! And I don't know anything about opera. I didn't know opera was this fun." If you haven't seen Kim Lamoureux or Lindsay Conrad work a crowd for cheers during their high notes, then you haven't lived. (Recommendation: go to an Opera on Tap performance where people are drinking and Kim Lamoureux or Lindsay Conrad or any of the fabulous OOT sopranos are singing something with high notes. EPIC. Also it will restore your faith in humanity.)

Singers are passing out of the young artist stage and launching into a business where there is little paying work to be had, or, if there is, you have to be either at that elite 1% level or willing to freelance around the US at the financially squeezed middle class companies, at the expense of family obligations and regular healthcare, for what is likely not a living wage. Just look at the New England area: the population here is as wealthy and sophisticated as anywhere in the country with pretty immediate access to three or four different states, but there's almost no paid work for opera singers around here, and certainly not at a living wage.

My point is don't blame yourself for what is a global failure of an economic system. The problems in the industry are bigger than you. Everyone, and I mean everyone, needs to have a day job. I mean, really: everyone. Even though we were taught In conservatory that the words "day job" were indicative of some kind of crazy sell-out, the economic realities of singing professionally in this day and age = day job.

So to be a success in this business, all you need to do is keep singing, keep training, keep being a better, finer singer everyday, and keep pitching in to find new economic models for the opera industry. There are a few amazing companies springing up that are doing everything differently, and we need more of them. We need a new middle class of companies where local opera singers become world-class, where audiences have access to affordable seats, and everyone can afford to participate in this art form we all love so much.

 Image removed.  Angela Jajko, mezzo-soprano, is the Editor of the BSR Blog. She has been praised in such publications as the Boston Globe and the Herald for her “peaches and cream” voice and dramatic delivery. Recent performances have included The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, selections from Carmen in The Greater Worcester Opera Gala in Mechanics Hall, Tessa in The Gondoliers with The Sudbury Savoyards, Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with New England Light Opera, Carmen with Greater Worcester Opera, Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan with New England Light Opera, the roles of Buttercup, Phoebe, Katisha, and The Fairy Queen in concert with the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and as a featured soloist in concerts with Opera on Tap, Masstheatrica, FIRSTMusic, Ocean Park Festival Chorus, Parish Center for the Arts and New Hampshire Opera Theatre. Her performances have included the roles of Carmen, Theodorine, Augusta, Marcellina, Hermia, Savitri, Pirate Jenny, and La Zia Principessa. She has also performed with PORTopera, Granite State Opera, Longwood Opera, BASOTI, Harvard University, and the International Lyric Academy in Viterbo, Italy.  She holds degrees in Vocal Performance from The New England Conservatory of Music and the University of California at Los Angeles and is currently the Associate Executive Director of NELO, an artist coordinator for Opera on Tap Boston, a Board Member of the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society and a Board Member of L’Académie, a critically acclaimed orchestra specializing in performances of French Baroque music in health institutions. She has served as Costumer for a number of productions with companies including Guerilla Opera, Company One, NELO, BASOTI and Longwood Opera. She has also served as a Director for NELO’s Rising Stars program and in other productions as Assistant Director, Stage Manager, and Props Master. She has extensive experience in administration, office management, and event management in a variety of industries. Visit her at