Not too long ago I was invited to sit in on the Young Artist Program auditions of a company for whom I used to work. It was an interesting time, and there was plenty of conversation about the people auditioning. Having once upon a time been the audition coordinator for this same company, I was no stranger to the audition process and the dynamic. But one thing stuck in my mind, and significantly, seems to come up in conversation quite a bit these days; the question of age.
Allow me to set the scene-
During these auditions, a gentleman of about 30 years sang, quite well, and it was made known to him almost immediately that a spot in the program was as good as secure. As I mentioned, this man sang well. It was also not the first Young Artist program listed on his résumé. He’d been a YAP before, in major programs. All the same, he was in.
A short time later, a younger woman of around 24 came in. She was finished with her Masters, had an additional specialty in Scandinavian languages(!), and was as lovely in appearance, demeanor and presentation as she was in her vocalism. Her singing was not as mature or secure as the man we’d seen previously, but it was at least as good or better than most of the other auditionees we had heard. This young woman was told that she was interesting and engaging, but that there simply wasn't a place for her yet, but to keep in touch, as they would watch for her in the future.
Now..... to my mind, this was backwards. This man was hovering around 30, singing well, and as far as I could tell, had no need of a YA program. This man needed a manager, a job, a career. The young woman, on the other hand, was inhabiting that dreaded hinterland between school and a career. The things she needs- more singing opportunities, coaching, time and opportunity to address remaining technical hangups, etc.- are precisely the sort of things that a YA program is supposed to offer to those singers done with school but needing further development, and yet here was an example of a YA program looking for a finished product for their program.
Now I don't mean to say that it isn't the job of the YA programs to look for the most talented singers they can find. But this is to address the question of age in the business. They are called “Young” Artist programs, after all. And very often, the schools aren't helping either. I have heard a great many young singers told that they "are still young", they have "plenty of time". Schools have let or encouraged singers to roll over into Doctoral programs with deficiencies in skill, and no practical career experience. By the time they finish, they are progressed in age, and no closer to a singing career. (In recent years I have seen some institutions try to stem this tide, which I think is great, and hope to see more of.)
So let's have a reality check- Joan Sutherland made her Covent Garden debut at 26, Irish tenor John McCormack was a lead at Covent Garden at 22. Spanish mezzo Conchita Supervia made her La Scala debut as Octavian at age 16, the same age as Beverly Sills debuted. Beniamino Gigli debuted at 24, the same age Bryn Terfel won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Teresa Berganza made significant debuts from the age of 19, as did Victor Maurel, the first Falstaff and Iago. As for larger voices (often described as needing time to develop), Birgit Nilsson made her Royal Stockholm debut in the lead at 28, while Kirsten Flagstad was regularly singing at notable places, as well as beginning to record commercially around 20 years of age. Most of these singers were already singing regularly in the years leading up to these major debuts, and for the larger voices, it was usually in the lighter rep which was their bread and butter until they felt prepared for the heavier material. Further, none of this is unusual. It was actually incredibly common that singers from the previous century (and earlier), up through the mid-20th century or so, would make important debuts in their teens or early 20s. One of the first Barbarinas in Le nozze di Figaro was only 12!
There are of course the various arguments regarding the benefit/detriment of singing at too early an age/certain repertoire, etc. as well as the realities of lives that have different dynamics from those of a century ago. The prevalence of leisure activity for the young, part-time jobs, more years spent in schooling, etc. are all valid factors. But there is one significant point in all of this. This constant pushing back of the age for various levels of engagement in a career is only a trend, not a rule. There is such a thing as wise and unwise in this business, as regards age. But it is not set in stone.
Sadly, far too often I have heard spurious maxims fall from the mouths of aspiring singers, echoing sentiments told to them by mentors mostly to protect their feelings. These sentiments gradually turn into excuses, and then into bitterness. The reality is that professional singing is a hard business that most people who study don't end up actually doing for a living. And that is fine. But there is an unsettling trend right now that is allowing for this illusion of increasingly-delayed, but still pending(?) success to continue well into the years when almost any person in any career should actually be working regularly, or finding a different career path.
My advice? Firstly, just get out there and sing. Concertize, do recitals, audition for things. Don't wait to be discovered or for a magic time of vocal mastery to arise. Sing every Messiah people are doing. Don't wait for a career to happen to you. Start one.
Secondly, find a few role models. People who are doing what you suspect you would like to do. Not your teacher, per se, but people active in the field. Gauge your progress by their careers. Multiple models offer sufficient variation, and yet may give something resembling a norm. This, at least, puts you in touch with a reality against which you can compare your progress, rather than a revolving loop of suspicious assertions, ie. "It's all so political", "It's all about who you know", "Well, my voice type really matures much later", "Well, yeah, they are successful, but that singer isn't the norm”, etc.
Well, remember, most people don't make a living singing. So, every person you consider even somewhat successful is most decidedly not "the norm".