She gathers her rouge-colored lips forward in an effort to sustain the heavy soprano voice that emanates from deep inside her throat. Tonight she sings the part of Violetta, a courtesan in Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, but her audience at the Duane Park Cafe in lower Manhattan may recognize her from other opera arias. In the past, she has sung the parts of many strong-willed women, including a sexpot bohemian and a princess. On stage she performs the songs for each character with certainty and confidence. But when she is off stage she has trouble figuring out who she is.
Alyssa Bowlby is 30 years old. After graduating with a master's in music from the Peabody Institute nearly seven years ago, and relying on a handful of secondary jobs to earn a living in New York, she now defines herself as an opera singer, tutor, web designer and burgeoning life coach. Alyssa, like many young artists and creative professionals, has learned firsthand that success in college doesn't always guarantee a prosperous career.
Many graduates this year will have to come to terms with a similar reality. As more students obtain degrees in fashion design, photography, writing and other artistic concentrations, the likelihood of finding long-term employment in those fields becomes more complicated. And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national unemployment rate at 9.3 percent in June 2011, there is a 15.2 percent unemployment rate for workers aging from 20 to 24, and 10.5 percent for 25- to 29-year-olds. These figures may be even higher because they don't take into account young workers who are limited by the recession to part-time jobs, and others who dropped out of the work force to go back to school for another degree. And when fields like music continue to shift or shrink, the abyss between college and the work force becomes even greater.
Difficult choices between art and stability
As a student, Alyssa got a perfect score on the verbal section of the SATs, was valedictorian of her high school and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Haverford. But as a professional, she has been unable to find enough work as an opera singer to sustain herself. In 2010, she was only hired for two contracts with Opera in the Heights, a regional opera house in Houston, Texas, which paid her approximately $4,000. While she has filed for an extension on her taxes this year, she calculates that she has spent nearly $21,000 in 2010 to promote and train for her career as an opera singer. She relies on part-time jobs as a certified tutor for the Board of Education, and high-end SAT/ACT clients, to pay for her living and opera singing expenses in New York.
Every year, the bulk of Alyssa's opera expenses are spent on headshots, auditions, recordings, teachers, coaches and agents. She needs to practice and prepare for auditions at least 30 hours each week, and then work another 35 hours to pay her bills. She trains exhaustively to hit every soprano note, sometimes overexerting her vocal cords to the point of pain. And it is during these moments that she becomes most frustrated, comparing herself to friends and colleagues, and wondering whether she has made the right decision for her career.
Some young artists have made different decisions. One of Alyssa's closest friends and colleagues is the lyric soprano Sun Young Chang, 32, from South Korea. While they both share the same passion for singing, their circumstances and academic formation have pushed them on separate paths. Studying western music in Seoul, it was necessary for Sun Young to immigrate to countries like Germany, Italy or the United States to experience firsthand the culture, study and performance of opera singing. She moved to New York in the summer of 2001 to pursue a master's in music at Mannes College, at The New School.
After completing the degree, Sun Young felt that she needed something more tangible, and enrolled in a professional degree program to further develop her performance and compositional skills. This degree not only enabled her to perform at different venues, but intern as a music teacher. And that experience has motivated her to complement her singing career with teaching.
But unlike Alyssa, Sun Young now dedicates herself more to teaching than rehearsing for her weekly performances, and admits that she would have to commit a lot more time and money to become a professional soprano.
As Sun Young prepares to get married in September, it seems highly unlikely that she will sacrifice her quality of life and financial stability. Currently, she lives debt free, earning enough money to pay for housing costs, insurance and utilities. This is not the case for many recent graduates.
Artistic aspirations, real-world challenges
Rebecca Gordon, 33, said that unexpected expenses motivated her to choose a full-time career in human resources over opera singing. In 2007, doctors found fluid in her heart and an elevated sedimentation rate—which measures inflammation in the body and could reveal the progress of cancers like lymphoma—but were unable to give her a conclusive diagnosis. Rebecca had to undergo two months of testing, averaging between three and four medical appointments per week. By the time it was determined that her health was stable, she had accrued $40,000 in medical expenses. Luckily, she worked as a full-time recruiter for a software company, while still auditioning as a soprano for different opera venues. The company provided her with a comprehensive health plan that covered all of her medical expenses. This experience made her realize that she could not afford such a plan through her singing alone, and it compelled her to seek more long-term employment with stable health benefits.
Artists and performers like Alyssa, who sustain themselves with part-time independent work, often have problems gaining access to affordable health insurance. According to a 2009 survey by America's Health Insurance Plans, insurance premiums in the individual market cost an annual average of $6,630 per person and $13,296 per family.
Many creative workers also lack unemployment benefits, and have no protection from unpaid wages. This insecurity has forced them to drain their savings and rack up more credit card debt. According to the Freelancers Union, companies affected by the economy frequently pay independent workers 90 days late, with 42 percent of New York's freelance contractors losing an average of $8,000 in 2009, and getting paid late an average of $12,000 that same year.
The new normal
In spite of these bleak numbers, freelance workers have emerged as the backbone of the new economy, accounting for 30 percent of the national workforce. And creative workers accustomed to living off transient and mobile work may have an advantage at stringing together a number of gigs, projects and short-term jobs to make a living.
While other fields in business and science may still thrive on a manufacturing era mentality where long-term jobs with benefits are the standard, artists, singers and other creative professionals have long relied on multiple jobs to sustain their artwork. "Only a very small percentage of creative workers spend the vast majority of time in their creative professions," said Sara Horowitz, the executive director of the Freelancers Union. "They work as teachers, accountants and other occupations to support themselves. And that is very much in line with freelance workers."
The creative worker's ability to multitask and follow different job interests, which was once mischaracterized as a symptom of flightiness in a job market that all but universally provided full-time work, is now a desirable quality in a freelance economy that has become the norm for a larger part of the work force. "They [creative workers] bring as a zeitgeist the idea that you can truly focus on what you love, but they are also realistic about how they are going to pay for it and survive," said Horowitz.
Although survival is not always at the core of university curricula, particularly when focusing on the humanities, the art school approach to developing talents while remaining willfully disconnected from the outside world—traditionally seen as a shortcoming of academic elitism—could actually help students develop their art to a level where they can sustain and nurture it in a freelance economy.
Tanya Paperny, 25, a graduate student at the Columbia University School of the Arts, described how the isolationism of her nonfiction writing program was both its failure and success. "The major weakness of the program is that it doesn't let you drift into the real world, but its strength is also that [by remaining isolated] it lets you grow into your voice and become unhindered," she said. "I think your writing will be best when you are true to your impulses." And learning how to channel those impulses into creative or productive outlets could help students like Tanya combine a few part-time jobs with freelance writing and editing to make a living. But since she hasn't figured out yet what her monthly payments will be for $100,000 in student loans, she is not sure if she will be able to make it in New York.
From rehearsal to showtime
Other MFA students like Tanya's classmate Philip Eil, 26, wanted to come away with something tangible before graduating from the program. So he created a syllabus for a writing workshop that was approved as an elective for the Rhode Island School of Design, and he finished a book proposal, which he intends to pitch to literary agents this summer. "I wanted a bit of security and direction," he said, "and the teaching syllabus and the book proposal were my own insurance policy against the most nebulous question: 'What do you do with an MFA?'"
Philip, unlike Tanya, also didn't want to spread himself thin with multiple jobs to make a living. So part of the motivation for taking the part-time teaching job at RISD is that he will also be returning to his parents' home in Rhode Island. "By living with my parents I don't have to take another job like waiting on tables or working at a bookstore, and can focus only on teaching and writing," he said.
Like Phil, Alyssa also feels the urge to narrow her focus down to one career. She will be auditioning for the West Coast Association of opera houses with the hope of obtaining more work as a soprano. But even if she gets hired, employment will not be immediate, since the audition will most likely be for the 2013 season.
In the meantime, she will have to try out for other opera houses, and rely on more non-singing jobs to sustain herself between performances. But at age 30, she knows that her time is running out. So she is preparing to make another leap, and audition as a full-time soprano for opera houses in Germany. "If you don't put everything on the back burner, you're never going to make it," she said with bold and exalted eyes—just like one of her characters on stage, a strong woman who still has a lot to prove.