Recently I spoke with Alison Pybus, President & CEO of Dean Artists Management (and former Vice President of the Vocal Division at IMG Artists).
In this conversation we cover the following topics:
• The difference between a manager and an agent
• 3 ways to to get an audition with a manager
• What qualities Alison looks for in a singer
• 2 myths and misconceptions about the classical singing industry
• Alison’s advice to singers who want to pursue a career in opera
My Conversation with Alison Pybus
Peter: I’m really excited to be talking today with Alison Pybus. Welcome Alison!
Alison: Hi and thank you so much for speaking with me.
Peter: Thank you. I’m curious to know about your background. You were a singer and then you decided to go into being a manager of singers, is that correct?
Alison: Yes, I started out as a singer. I attended the University of Toronto and got a Bachelors in Voice Performance and a Masters in Operatic Performance. I went through the next several years auditioning and performing a little bit and learned during that time what the professional world of singing really entails in terms of discipline, travel, the competitiveness.
So I experienced it first hand and after a great deal of deliberation decided to stop singing and do something else. It was actually a friend of mine who suggested I manage artists and singers. So that’s how it started and I just thought I’d give it a try and found that I absolutely loved it.
The Difference Between a Manager and an Agent
Peter: Can you briefly describe the difference between a manager and an agent?
Alison: Yes. A manager is someone that acts as an agent but also grows a much deeper relationship with their artist and presenters. For example, not every young singer needs management if the are just trying to get jobs and get hired and get people to know who they are.
But if you’re fairly advanced and find yourself in a situation where you have many choices, many offers internationally, a manager would help you weigh these options and have a strategy to make game plan. They would also balance your personal life with your professional life. For example, if you wanted to have a family they could help decide what engagements would be cancelled, how would we deal with them and how would you deal with traveling with a child.
So a manager is really a partner.
An agent generally is someone who procures engagements for you, negotiates the contract and makes sure that it is serviced properly in terms of work visas, travel, hotels. In fact, a lot of managers work with other agents in specialized markets such as Spain or Italy because it’s very difficult to break into and they’re not terribly inclusive.
So we’ve found, in the past, that it’s better to have a local agent with their eye on the ball at which point they then go through the manager of the artist they are booking. They generally have no exposure to that artist they just know what they heard. But again it’s the manager who would take the offer to the artist and then respond to the agent. Does that make sense?
How to Get An Audition with a Manager
Peter: Yes, it does. How does a young singer actually get an audition with a manager like yourself?
Alison: There are three really good ways to try and get yourself in front of a manager. One would be to be involved in a young artist program in the United States because most managers hear the artists in good young artist programs because the companies have already weeded out a certain number of people you don’t need to hear and have engaged and hired the best talent they can. That’s always interesting to a manager.
The second way is to have a coach or voice teacher or a conductor, director or even another artist recommend someone that you should hear and meet. I will always hear and meet somebody who has been recommended by someone I trust, always. It’s very tough otherwise.
And the third way is to get creative in how you can get yourself in front of people – sing at weddings, funerals, cold-calling choral groups. Again, today more than ever, singers have to be creative and really self motivated at the beginning to try and keep finding opportunities for them to perform. It’s important to talk to people.
You have to take risks and get creative. I think a really positive thing is that young singers would be surprised at how generous working established singers are. There are artists who are in cities that don’t know anybody and so any young artist with an opera company could say, I’d really like to work with Dawn Upshaw and I hear she’s here for a week. Would you mind passing a message onto her? I think you’d be surprised at how many artists say sure we’ll give them an hour because they remember what it was like to try and get started.
Alison: I think what I’m trying to say is, and I can get really blunt at times, is figure it out. I can be very tough sometimes. It’s a very challenging business and so if you’re really going to pursue it you’re going to have to think outside the box and literally figure it out because no one else will do it for you.
The other thing is there are so many summer programs where the really established professionals, teachers, coaches, etc. are there to teach because summer is somewhat a down time as you would know in terms of the season. Again, you get yourself in front of somebody like Thomas Hampsen and ask them questions or they may say, “wow you have real talent and this is what you need to do, A, B, C, D and E.” So summer programs are really helpful too.
Peter: That’s great. So let’s say a singer does land an audition with you, what qualities will you be looking for?
Alison: The first thing we look for is an absolute joy and passion and I don’t mean that you like to sing, but there is something very infectious and very moving right from the get go when someone opens their mouth and you know it’s their passion.
The second thing is I look at the ‘package’ unfortunately and so their appearance, their weight, their age to some degree. I have to look through the eyes of a presenter or director or conductor. It’s not what I think but what the presenter is going to think. I might think it’s all fabulous and they might just say, I don’t know what you’re talking about – it’s so subjective.
So you certainly put yourself in a better place if you look fantastic, you’re attractive, you’ve got a nice outfit on because unfortunately today more than ever I’m sad to say that appearance is a huge part of getting hired, to the point where a lot of the managers and singers are pretty disheartened because it’s taken too large a place in this industry.
Are you singing the right repertoire? That gives insight into whether you have a clue about the business, what your voice is and where your are going.
How good are your languages in terms of singing? Not spoken but sung. Do you have some sort of special way that you use the language?
And are you musical?
It’s a bit like dating…you meet someone and you sort of like them or you don’t. You don’t generally sit and scratch your head and wonder and you usually know.
Myths and Misconceptions
Peter: Can you touch on some of the misconceptions or myths out there that you see that are being taught to singers?
Alison: Yes, a lot of it is repertoire driven. I see too many singers coming in and say, I’m singing Tosca’s aria because I’m going to sing Tosca one day. That’s not the point of the audition; the point of the audition is to sing something you would be hired for in the next year or two and not 10 years from now.
And a lot of the time the repertoire is too big, too soon, too young or the repertoire is way too big. I’ll say to singers, Look I’m sure you can sing Tosca and “Vissi d’Arte” and that’s great but the reason you won’t get hired for this in the next 2 to 3 years is (a) you have hardly any experience so why would somebody give you the lead or role?; (b) it’s not about the aria, it’s about stamina, it’s about experience, it’s how you sing this role if you’re sick.
How do you sing this role if you hate the conductor? How do you sing this role if the director is an idiot? How do you sing the role if your boyfriend breaks up with you the night before?
It’s all about coping, experience and therefore putting yourself in the best possible situation to set yourself up for success. I mean there will always be challenges but you can try and reduce the number of them in any one engagement when possible.
Also I find the other misconception is that teachers think that an artist needs to show many different languages and many different styles and eras–baroque, classical and contemporary. That’s not true either because if you’re really not a very good contemporary artist in terms of maybe you don’t like learning new music or maybe it’s difficult for you, then you don’t have to sing it. Sing what is good for you. You don’t have to sing coloratura if you’re terrible at coloratura to check of a box. I would say artists don’t show what you don’t have.
So if you don’t have it, don’t sing it. Sing what you do well. If you don’t like Handel and Bach don’t sing just because someone told you that you have to have a Handel or Bach on your list. I hear it over and over that my teacher said I needed a Mozart. No you don’t. This way is very antiquated.
Peter: That’s really interesting.
Alison: Yes, it can be very frustrating. Whenever I’ve given master classes I always have teachers come up to me and say ‘oh my god that was so important to hear because I didn’t know this or know that and so that’s good. But how could they, they’re in a studio all day.
Peter: That’s right.
Alison: It’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing because I wish somebody had told me about the business when I was in college because maybe I would have done things differently, maybe I would have or wouldn’t, but at least I would have been better educated.
Should Young Opera Singers Move to Europe?
Peter: An opera singer friend of mine from Peabody recently moved to Berlin and is trying to make a go of it over there. Is that something you recommend to young singers that want to have a career in this field, to move to Europe?
Alison: I’m quite a big fan of that because it’s the heart of where it all started. It certainly isn’t Cleveland. I think just the experience of hearing different languages more frequently it educates you. For example, I lived in Vienna and you start to understand the inflections of how people speak because you’re hearing it all the time. When you’re immersed in any language or culture there are many different things you take into your heart and into your mind.
I think there are some really good coaches in Europe. There are really good voice teachers in North America. I don’t know if there are as many in Europe interestingly enough. Americans are certainly regarded as good singers in general. If you compare yourself to the Russians, they have a whole different philosophy, different stamina, and different techniques.
So I think if you have the money and it’s a decision in your life where you don’t have 3 kids or a husband working at IBM, that’s great. But again it’s up to the individual person.
Career Advice for Young Singers
Peter: What advice would you offer to young singers that want to have a career in this profession?
Alison: First, definitely go with your instincts. If there’s any way they can make a decent recording that really helps because you can send it around to various people. Offer arias and oratorio. But it has to be good quality and they probably have to spend some money. So that’s another way to get yourself heard.
And to not make excuses. It’s really easy to make excuses why you couldn’t show up at the audition or you had a sore throat. I’ve had singers where I sent them on at least 10 auditions and they cancelled them for every reason in the book. It got me to a point where I said ‘I can’t because clearly you don’t want this.’
So really be sure of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and how you’re going to do it. And go for it. You have to go for it, you can’t halfway do this…it’s too hard.
Peter: Oh yeah absolutely. There is no half-assing it. You’ve got to be all in and you end up sacrificing–there’s a lot in life you have to give up in terms of free time, in terms of having hobbies – it can be all-consuming.
Alison: It is and especially with singers. I remember sitting in this hotel room in Bremen and thinking I am so sick of being concerned with air conditioning or germs or dryness. It is just so hard because your body is your instrument.
Alison: Again if you love it then that’s what you do. But if there is anything else you can do, do it. It’s true.
Peter: Well thank you so much for your time today Alison.
Alison: Thank you!