Although the apprenticeship programs were developed to keep talent from fleeing the country, they have also helped create an increasingly closed circle in the opera world. In effect, entries on a résumé can come to be as important as that elusive, unteachable quantity: artistic excellence. And some critics believe the programs have produced a rather bland crop of performers.
"You almost find no big operatic personalities coming out of young-artist programs," says Neil Funkhouser, a manager in New York. "They're all sort of the same," he adds. "They sing well, they sing with a sort of expressivity, but it's not really expressive singing connected to the text or to the character."
Young opera singers have an uncertain life. Even the most successful have little hope of steady year-round employment. "Each contract is six weeks and five performances," says Laura Canning, the new head of the Houston Grand Opera's opera studio, one of the four top programs in the country. Even for an established artist, it takes a lot of contracts to earn a living, and piecing together a steady income is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. After leaving school, Oeste had a year before starting in Washington during which she took part in a competition in Germany and did three short apprentice programs at Opera Santa Barbara, the Chicago Opera Theater and Opera Tampa. But that wasn't enough to keep her afloat: In between, she did temp work to pay her bills.
And although singers in the past assumed full careers in their early 20s -- Rosa Ponselle made her Met debut at 21 with Verdi's Leonora; Astrid Varnay at 23 with Sieglinde and, a few days later, Brunnhilde -- the conventional wisdom today is that not every young artist is ready to take on the grueling challenge of traveling from city to city, singing big roles full-time.
"There's this whole singer purgatory," says Emily Albrink, 28, another soprano in the Domingo-Cafritz program. "This whole time where you're waiting for your voice to get better and develop and get bigger and you're trying to figure out what you're supposed to be singing. So it's nice to fill up that time instead of waiting tables and not having enough money to pay coaches and teachers. I mean, this -- " she gestures to indicate the sessions the WNO provides -- "would cost a fortune."