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After 35 years on the stage, circumstances made that I have been helping in the agency Agence Massis Opéra for the last three and a half years. I will always think from the singer’s side first, but stepping into the other shoes has been eye-opening. I still conclude, though, that dealing with agencies is one of the most delicate tasks of being a singer:
First, you have to find one, then you have to figure out how to deal with her/him/them, and then, maybe, you have to find another one. In order not to make it feel like a lottery, there are some things you can do:
Possibilities to find an agent:
Sometimes the conservatories/Hochschulen invite agents and organize auditions. It’s a luxury – be grateful and well-prepared. If „only“ five people are coming: it saves you five travels, hotels, and the anxiety of passing auditions in halls unknown to you with pianists you have never seen.
If you are a member of a well-functioning opera studio, sometimes the studio will set up auditions for agents. You might not realize how lucky you are when they do this: it’s an absolute luxury – be grateful and well-prepared.
You might have won a competition or made it into the second round or the finals – very possible that an agent hands her/his card to you and expresses interest. Inform yourself about the agency and keep in contact!
The „normal“ way
If you are just an ordinary singer struggling to get a foot into the door of an agency, then:
You organize a Video-recording session in a fairly good hall / big room, with a good pianist, a decent microphone clipped to your telephone (or a better device), and record three arias of different styles, languages, and tempi (!). The result should be:
- Pleasant to look at (good light, audition clothes, hair and makeup not too overdone, just elegant)
- With perfect intonation (singing sharp is not better than singing flat;)
- With perfect rhythm and diction
- Expressive and in style
- And, of course, from memory
- a short biography with a recent headshot (done by a professional if possible) and a full-body photo
- A repertoire-list. You want to list the roles you can sing NOW, not those you wish to sing in 5 years and not those from when you were 16;).
- A list of repertoire performed on stage. When you are a beginner, this section can probably easily fit under the repertoire list. Please do not list every single song/Lied/Mélodie you have learned or performed; not interesting!
Then you send all this in a personal email to several agents separately. Always remember that the PERSON who receives the email also likes to be treated well and politely.
You might want to add why you chose to write to this particular agency if there is a reason for it. If not, just send it as an application.
2-3 weeks later, ask if the person has received the mail and if you should send more information, then again after a month. If then there is still no answer, they probably
- are not interested,
- have no capacities in your „Fach“ or
- yet haven’t found time to sit down and listen….
You might want to write again and ask them to confirm their non-interest so that you can move on.
I need a „big agency“, don’t I?
A „big“ agency:
A big agency has high costs and needs artists with high fees to make the business function. If you are not in this category yet, they might not be very interested, but you can always try, especially if you have a voice that is very high, very low or very loud.
A “small” agency:
In a smaller agency or with a freshly started agent, you might meet somebody interested in „collecting“ good new singers and investing some time (and money) to rise with her/his singers.
From the agent’s point of view:
It is not easy to get yet another singer into the business. As a beginner, your fees will not be very high, and your agent has to do a lot of conviction work to make people invite you for an audition. When she/he comes to hear a performance, the money which goes into travel and hotel expenses will probably be higher than the percentage of your fee. BUT if you are an exciting „product,“ time and money and energy are well-invested.
The perfect agent – From the singer’s point of view:
The right agent for you is:
- Someone who respects you and likes discussing things with you
- Someone who has excellent „soft skills“ and is respected in the business
- Somebody who believes in you and is crazy enough about you to go through all the hassle it takes to build up an artistic identity and a career.
- Somebody who, like yourself, will always keep in mind that it is a professional business relationship and not a marriage, even if you like each other a lot.
The perfect singer – From the agent’s point of view:
The right singer for an agent is:
- Someone who answers her/his telephone and emails or gets back to the agent immediately
- Someone who communicates honestly
- Someone who respects the agent’s work and likes discussing things with her/him
- Someone who has excellent „soft skills.“
- Somebody who trusts the agent’s capacities to help construct a career, build up your identity, and find work for you.
Establishing a healthy relationship with your agent
The relationship between a singer and her/his agent/s is a very special one. Depending on the country in which your agency is based, there might be no written contract. But in any case, the most important “contract” is mutual trust and investment.
When you establish the relationship with your agent:
Sit down and talk and get to know each other – when it does not „click“ personally, it will be difficult from the start and probably stay that way.
Why talking is essential:
Your agent has to know what you envision for yourself. Only then can she/he help to establish a schedule with roles that will show your best and allow development without over-extending your limits. She/he should consider your lifestyle and your personal situation like children in school, flight-panic etc. It is a partnership where both business partners have to invest. If you hear about a role possibility for example, call your agent, so she/he can deal with it. Maybe she/he had already heard about it, but nobody can know about all the jobs available at the moment.
Having found an agent, unfortunately, does not mean sitting back, relaxing and waiting for the warm rain of engagements falling from heaven. Having an agent should, of course, make your life as a singer easier, but it is a give-and-take relationship and should be beneficial for both of you.
Cooperation between agencies
Try to determine if your future agent/general manager will cooperate with other agencies and under which conditions. Some do, some don’t – you have to know where you stand.
Engagements without the agency
Establish the“ gigs“ that you might be negotiating without the agency, like small concerts, chamber music, individual recitals, and concerts which you do more for friendship than for money. But do inform your agency about the dates.
Let’s move through the different agent-artist-situations:
Your agent found a possibility to set up an audition for you. Know that finding opportunities to audition is difficult nowadays, so consider the chance to audition as a gift. Nowadays, auditioning can possibly be part of a singer’s life for ten years, and when you change „Fach“, you might have to start all over again. Take auditions as what they are: part of our job and not as a punishment.
Show your „soft skills“:
- Be happy about the possibility of presenting yourself
- Get there in time
- Be prepared and have clean sheet music (with pages in the right order!) ready for the accompanist.
- Call your agent after you have finished and tell her/him how the audition went from your point of view.
Maybe after your audition, the theatre offers you a contract and tells you that they would prefer to treat it directly, i.e., without the agency.
That looks like it could save you some money, right? Think twice:
Would you like to continue working with the agent? Then let her/him negotiate and pay the percentage! The agent usually manages to negotiate a higher fee than you would, so in the end, you will rather win than lose. If the theatre refuses to deal with an agent – talk to your agent and find a way to handle the situation.
An agency offers to work for you as your general manager. Don’t panic; it’s not the end of all other relationships! What does this mean?
The GM is your primary contact for work and manages your calendar. When you have a new production in one house coming up and performances running in another opera house, the GM will try to negotiate free time in one production so you can already start the next one. The same situation applies if there is an interesting concert coming up during the rehearsal period of another piece: The GM will try to free you unless, of course, the concert is right before a premiere…
Very important: give your agency ALL the information. If you let her/him negotiate free time to sing in another theatre as a guest without telling her/him that you have already demanded three free days for a friend’s wedding, it will make her/him look stupid, not good.
Two agencies, aaaaahhhhh
What if I have a GM and another agency offers you a job?
If your GM cooperates with their colleagues, this should not be a problem. The everyday use is that the agency that finds the job will get the percentage you agreed on, and the GM will get a fee for the complicated negotiations around your schedule. These negotiations can be very difficult, especially in Germany, when the performances lie far apart, and there is a lot of travelling involved. In the end, it will cost you more, but it will be well-invested money to save your nerves!
The management will not cooperate with other agencies and requires exclusiveness from the artist. Only sign this contract when you are sure that the agency is good, reputable, and represents other interesting artists. If a first-class agency, big or small, offers you an exclusive agreement, SIGN IT!
If you prefer not to have a general manager, you can have various agencies for different countries, like one for Germany, one for France, one for the US, etc. Just don’t forget that you have to sort out clashes in the calendar by yourself then…
Of course, it is possible to work without an agency. Keep your eyes and ears open, look for jobs on yaptracker or auditionoracle, and send in your application directly to the theatre/s.
Changing the agency
If you or the agency are not satisfied with how things are progressing, she/he or you might want to end the relationship. It happens; it may be tricky but not catastrophic. As I wrote in the beginning: it’s a business relationship, not a marriage!
Everybody in the business knows that this can happen, so calm down and start searching for somebody who could help you in your particular situation – maybe look for an agency that specializes in the repertoire you are singing. Sort out with your still-agent how to go about engagements which might still have been established or initiated with her/his management.
When you reach out to a new agency, avoid talking bad about your old agent – agents are also colleagues, and the pandemic has brought them closer together – gossiping will go against you.
Don’t trust agencies who promise you a big career on the spot – they are like voice teachers who promise you a high C during your first lesson with them. Prefer somebody who is a bit cautious and with a good reputation. Ask around!
Give it time
When you have found an agent you trust and have the impression she/he does serious work for you, give it some time. Miracles don’t happen on the spot. A big or small career depends at least as much on the singer as on the agent. It is the „working well together“ which achieves something. No agent can be better than the artist she or he represents.
There are many ways to establish an agent-artist relationship; this blog post certainly does not cover all of them.
Good luck with your agent, and see you soon!
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