Business Acumen vs. Business Skills

Hello OperGermany Readers,

I’m Heather Phillips, opera singer and OperGermany’s associate editor. Today, I’d like to share why it is so important to develop business acumen before, during (and, yes) after you pursue a solo performing career in Germany and beyond.

I have found that business acumen is often times conflated with business skills. Let me explain. In any field that one goes into, we all understand you have to study, learn and be able to employ a certain set of skills at a high level in order to be successful. Operatic skills including vocal technique, audition presentation, foreign language diction, musicianship and honing repertoire are the primary areas of training that the conservatories and young artist programs focus on. Those are important fundamentals and you can’t have an opera career without them. However, one of the biggest holes that exist in the operatic training system, is that students are not taught how to apply those skills with discernment, pragmatism, professionalism, entrepreneurship & in strong consideration of the supply and demand of the opera business. This is what business acumen is all about. Let’s define it. Webster’s dictionary says that our English word ACUMEN retains the spelling and figurative meaning of its direct Latin ancestor, a term that literally means “sharp point.” Latin acumen traces to the verb acuere, which means “to sharpen” and is related to acus, the Latin word for “needle.” In other words, you gotta be sharp and perceptive enough to grasp a situation quickly and clever enough to apply your abilities and skills! For example, you have to be able to know how to negotiate with your agents as to what your expectations are of them (and vice versa) and of any opera house to whom you hope to be engaged by regarding repertoire, performance fees, housing accommodations, rehearsal hours, leaves of absence etc. It’s not a good idea to leave all the business side of things to your agents.

Another hole in the operatic training systems is that students are not informed of the many types of careers that are possible for singers. The only clear path that is visible to the young conservatory student seeking a solo career is this: get into a highly ranked school, then the top young artist programs, win the top competitions and sign with the most powerful agent or agency. Don’t get me wrong, that path is a great one if you are one of the small percentage to find success in every step of that path. However that path and those singers are often referred to as the top 1% for a reason, as the large majority of singers who study music will either quit when coming to realize that their path isn’t as straight and narrow as they had hoped….or they will take the path of having to keep sharping their skills, continue to audition and negotiate terms of employment on their own. This is when business acumen really is KEY. And one thing I might add about the top 1% of performers in the top A houses (I know a good amount of them): eventually they also come to understand that their agents can only do so much for them. If you’ve been in this business long enough (no matter at what level) you’ll come to understand that the best advocate you will ever have in this business, is yourself.

Now, I don’t want to diminish the role of the agent. Having one (and a legitimate one) is important. Our founder Larry Bakst never worked with individual artist agencies, and he primarily worked in Germany and throughout Europe from his own business acumen as well as through his own contacts at the ZAV (a state run employment agency for artists). However, today the role of the agent has increased significantly in Germany. They are the linchpin between the singer and the opera house and are the first ones outside of the opera house to know about casting opportunities. They are also there to help you achieve the best working circumstances and protect you as well. However I can’t stress enough how well it will serve you to be able to apply your own business acumen throughout your career. It not only will help you out if your agent is unavailable or derelict, but you will have ownership in your career. Also, you’re not going to be able to sing your whole entire adult life and may need to pursue another chapter of the arts or another career before becoming fully retired. Business acumen will serve your ability to negotiate this final chapter of your working life.

Some say business acumen is something one really gains best through actual business experience. And to a large degree, that is true. But never underestimate the power of curiosity and asking questions to the ones currently doing it! If you are in a young artist program or still a student and singing in a professional part-time chorus…ASK THE GUEST SOLOISTS QUESTIONS. Collect AS MUCH INFORMATION AS POSSIBLE from the singers in the field actually doing the job. A big reason I took on this job of becoming associate editor of OperGermany was in hopes to share what I’ve learned on the path to starting a European career in Germany, so that others might be able to gain this knowledge earlier in their career path. I’ve seen too many talented and gifted artists leave the career because they didn’t have the skills to find their way forward. I don’t want this to happen to you.

So I’ll leave you with this. Here are a short list of tips I’ve learned over the years (from my own experience and many of my colleagues’ experience as well) that I share with you in hopes that you understand how important it is to take ownership of your own business and singing career.

Top Ten Tips: Acquiring Business Acumen In The Opera Industry

        • Be pragmatic and study the business as much as you can so you can operate from a place of knowledge & strength.

        • It’s a hard business, make sure you are honest with yourself as to whether you can handle it. Know what you do well and highlight that. Also know what you don’t do well and work daily towards improvement. Take our 8 question survey under the Start Here page on our website to know if you’re ready to make the dive into Germany.

        • Even though Germany is the largest producer of opera in the world, the supply of singers still outweighs the demands. Therefore, know the market you are placing yourself in. For example: what are the most performed operas? How does your repertoire fit into that list…etc

        • Skills are what you do well. Acumen is how well you apply them. Make sure both are sharp!

        • You’ll never know what the future holds and the opera business is extremely unpredictable. Be versatile in your skill sets and continue to build upon them. Having another source of income or skill can be very useful.

        • Don’t be afraid to call and talk to your agent. If they aren’t getting you work for an extended period of time, they aren’t working for you.

        • Don’t accept a contract that you know isn’t right for you. Remain flexible and be willing to challenge yourself, but if the repertoire is not right and could do harm to you (vocally or career wise)…it’s really important to know when to say “Nein, Danke”.

        • If you are a pain to work with (in rehearsals or with the administration, it will get around the business and will affect your chances at being employed. People talk. Be professional.

        • Study your languages daily and work towards “workplace fluency”. You don’t have to be perfect, but being able to speak well in an interview, to a conductor or colleague in German can strengthen your standing in the business. Make an effort to write or speak to German agents in German.

        • After all is said and done in regards to acquiring business acumen, none of that matters if you aren’t an interesting artist and have something unique to offer this art form. Be courageous to break free of the mold of the young artist training programs and show your individual artistry.

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