Opera houses, of course, aren't purely altruistic: There has to be something in it for them, particularly as purse strings tighten. (The Domingo-Cafritz program has an annual budget of about $500,000, about half that of the programs in Chicago or San Francisco.) A frequent criticism of smaller programs is that companies exploit singers by using them as cheap labor in small roles and in the chorus. This charge isn't true at the bigger houses, since they have to pay union wages, but certainly the young-artist programs are increasingly fulfilling an ensemble function at houses such as San Francisco and Chicago.
"It really does have a lot to do with what we need on the stage," says Chicago's Rolandi. "That's the only way now that the expense can be justified. As much as everybody wants to help young singers, it does come down to money in the long run."
Young artists are also useful in the increasingly essential roles of education and outreach. Most of the smaller programs involve community performances, sending young artists into schools and nursing homes. And even in Washington, Michelle Krisel, head of the Domingo-Cafritz program, says, "I see them as being a great tool for audience development."
The question is whether, with all of the music and information and activity the young artists are asked to absorb and deliver, they are consistently being held to standards of excellence. Opera careers seem increasingly to be portrayed as endurance tests, and the young-artist programs are set up accordingly; San Francisco's prestigious summer Merola Program is referred to, says Sheri Greenawald, the soprano who oversees the opera house's training arm, as "boot camp." In helping singers survive this difficult life, there can be an emphasis on support rather than the kind of withering criticism that can make music training so unpleasant. But there is such a thing as too much support.
"We're so tough on them," Krisel says. "If I'm not brutal with them, they'll be crushed when [critics] are." But when Domingo, in a break from his own rehearsal at the Met in New York, waxes eloquent about the strengths of individual program participants, what you really hear is an emphasis on generosity and support. This generosity sometimes overrides even the standard audition process: Jesus Hernandez, a tenor in his first year with the program, got Domingo's attention by going backstage after a concert in his Army uniform -- he was in active service at the time -- and telling him of his secret dream to become a singer. Hernandez has a lovely stage presence, but, understandably, a lot of catching up to do in the vocal department.