New Survey of Young Artists Suggests “Streamlined” Online Auditions a Missed Opportunity for Equity
On October 31, 2020, the Soloist Coalition Young Artists (SCYA), an advocacy group representing young artists in opera, launched a 10-question survey to solicit emerging artists’ feedback on the Fall 2020 emerging artist opera auditions. The survey focused on the new process designed by an “Audition Consortium” of opera houses to “streamline” virtual auditions during the COVID-19 pandemic (Houston Grand Opera, 2020), asking questions about the clarity of the application and audition process and its perceived success in addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The survey suggested that, while the consortium deserves marks for a bold move in trying times, and emerging artists are interested in continuing digital auditions in future seasons, there is also significant room for improvement. Emerging artists felt a lack of clarity in the later rounds of auditions as well as a lack of transparency from participating companies, and, at least, some emerging artists consider it a missed opportunity for companies to address diversity, equity, and inclusion.
(Full text of the survey is available here.)
The SCYA disseminated the Google Forms survey to its email list of 243 involved young artists and organizational and member social media accounts, including the official SCYA Instagram account, which received 555 engagements, nearly half (44%) from non-followers. The survey was shared from Instagram 83 times, indicating moderate reach outside of the initial engagement sample.
A total of 58 emerging artists completed the survey by November 10, 2020. Before we continue, we should note that this is not a random probability sample, with the potential for selection bias- for example, only the most engaged members, those available during that window, and those with active social media accounts might respond. Accordingly, we should consider results directional: a snapshot of how emerging artists felt about auditions in a particular time and space, but not the full story.
Overwhelmingly, the sample consisted of emerging artists that included 37 non-AGMA members and 20 unionized (AGMA) members. Considering the majority of opportunities available to emerging singers are non-union, the balance suggests a relatively representative sample of the broader young artist community as a whole.
Declining Clarity on Audition Procedures
The first key finding from the survey is that the perception of clarity decreased as the audition process progressed. Out of 55 respondents who gave a yes or no response to whether they found first-round instructions clear, 43 responded positively. Only 31 out of 57 felt clear about how second-round auditions would go, and just 23 out of 57 felt clear about how companies would send callback notifications.
Some respondents voiced a lack of consistent communication from all Audition Consortium members:
“There were conflicting messages on my YAPTracker page, and... many steps that could all take place at once. So I feel sort of informed” (SS, 11/6/2020).
Many of the responses highlighted failures of consistency between participating companies:
“It was weird that some companies participated in this consortium but did not follow the same rep requirements? Seems to...defeat the purpose” (EM, 11/6/2020).
Young artists were confused by a “streamlined” process that still listed significantly different prescreening requirements. According to one respondent, companies should “either commit to all parts or don’t” (SD, 11/2/2020).
Perceived Lack of Transparency from Participating Companies
Singers cited a common criticism: the lack of transparency from companies about their seasons and casting (17 total comments compared to 13 statements about technology inequity).
Respondents appeared frustrated to hear “through the grapevine” that some companies were rehiring artists from their canceled 2020 season without inform applicants what roles would be available. Young artists polled want companies to “advertise the exact openings and opportunities” (MG, 11/2/2020) that are available, so they don’t spend time and money applying to programs with no opportunities for their voice type.
There was also some concern about transparency due to the format of the digital audition:
“At least when we’re singing in the room, I know they’re hearing me. For this, I don’t know if they ACTUALLY listened to my stuff or just looked at my resume” (RA, 11/6/2020).
As tenor and writer Zach Finkelstein recently explored on Middleclass Artist, it appears at least some companies viewed only partial videos or did not listen to them at all (2020). Artists demand “transparency about who is participating, a commitment to watching our content” (MA, 11/6/2020).
Lost Potential to Address Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Many of our respondents recognized that this digital audition process had the potential to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion by reducing the high costs of audition season:
"Not having to spend thousands of dollars on audition applications and getting to auditions themselves was a positive for someone who loves this art form but cannot afford to take off weeks of work to do the traditional audition circuit." (Anonymous, 10/31/2020)
Roughly half (29 out of 57) of respondents said they wanted to see this digital audition structure kept for future audition seasons. A further nine respondents suggested that it should be kept as an option for artists.
A strong majority felt the creation of a "Young Artist Consortium" proved a "satisfactory response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
That said, artists split on whether this coalition successfully promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion. Out of 45 respondents who gave a qualitative response, 23 responded negatively, and a further eight said that they did not know.
Many pointed out that economic inequity still reigns in this format because of the technology required to make a high quality recording:
“The people who could pay to rent a church and get a primo coach to make their custom track had an advantage. Got $200 to drop on The Good Mic? Still a money game” (Anonymous, 10/31/2020).
Some respondents pointed out that to truly level the playing field, companies could “provid[e] resources that could help singers access venues that are safe to record in or a way to allow singers not to have to record in their homes” (Anonymous, 11/1/2020). While perhaps unfeasible for individual companies, a coalition of companies may be able to pool their resources to provide such a feature in the interest of promoting fairness. Other respondents suggested that disclosing the technology used in the audition, so judges could consider it, or “requir[ing] the use of piano tracks to level [the] playing field for those with no access to resources” (AL, 11/6/2020) would promote equity.
Application fees proved another point of inequity in this application cycle. Although all participating companies did reduce or eliminate application fees, some still did require them, which many of our respondents found unacceptable. One respondent felt that there should be “absolutely no application fees. In a time where economic distress was so widespread, continuing to behave as if application fees are ok was tone-deaf, cruel and unnecessary” (Anonymous, 10/31/2020). This sentiment was echoed by many of our respondents who felt that the perpetuation of application fees during a pandemic seemed to add insult to injury when it was unclear what those fees were paying for “when the audition panel is... not providing a pianist to make tracks” (Anonymous, 10/31/2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic necessarily changed how the opera world approached auditions this season, a difficulty not lost on surveyed singers. Out of 65 qualitative responses received, 11 stated explicitly positive things about the process, acknowledging that “this is the best that this industry could do on short notice” (Anonymous, 11/1/2020).
The key takeaways from this survey should not be that this virtual Audition Consortium failed in any way. But companies should carefully consider the clarity of the process they choose, its consistency with other applications, and, most importantly, equity among the singers who apply.
Our respondents have pointed out several of these steps:
More clarity about how all application and audition steps proceed
Consistency among consortium companies in their requirements;
Clarity about who will watch recordings and when;
And improved equity in the recording process, from rented spaces to microphones to application fees.
Emerging artists have provided a roadmap here to a truly “streamlined” process if companies will listen.
Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Sacks is a young artist currently residing in Philadelphia, PA. When not singing, she can be found working as a freelance biostatistician for organizations like the Institute for Patient and Family-Centered Care, Oregon Health and Science University, and Stanford University. She believes that data can tell a story almost as well as Wagner can, but with far less bluster.