Still, big breaks aren't the rule. Many young singers need some sort of apprenticeship to get their careers started. Traditionally, they've found them in Europe, particularly Germany, where many cities have an opera house. American novices could develop their voices and professional chops at small companies, earn a living, and then return home better able to compete in the tighter American market.
When Briton Peter Hemmings, founding director of Los Angeles Opera, arrived in this country, he used the European system as a rough guideline for forming the basics of a company. The singers for the main roles would be experienced guest artists, but the Resident Artist Program would be an inexpensive way to fill lesser roles and provide something of a local alternative to a European sojourn. Singers would audition, perhaps five a year would be offered contracts for one or more seasons, and they would learn by doing.
But professional apprenticeships aren't right for all emerging singers. There are many who require more intensive conservatory-style polishing. As far back as the 1950s, San Francisco Opera recognized a need for a finishing-school approach. Now its Merola Opera Program is the oldest of four U.S. company-based pre-professional training programs. The Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Lyric Opera of Chicago's Center for American Artists and the Houston Grand Opera Studio are similar programs. They range from 11 weeks to several years and accommodate anywhere from half a dozen to two dozen trainees each year. Among their graduates are Denyce Graves, Elizabeth Futral, Suzanne Mentzer and Carol Vaness.
Domingo's decision to add L.A. Opera to the list of companies with training programs couldn't come at a better time. Opera has grown tremendously in the U.S. in the past two decades. There are many more important companies than there used to be and, therefore, more of a need for polished talent. At the same time, those German entry-level apprenticeships are harder to come by. The fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, is one reason.
"There were suddenly a lot of Eastern Europeans who came to Europe who could work for far less than Westerners, because of currency exchange," says baritone Atkins, who once considered Europe but took a contract with Los Angeles Opera instead. "Also, suddenly in Germany where huge amounts of tax money were going to the arts, that money was rerouted to revitalizing the East."
Back in 1988, Atkins, then in his second year as a resident artist, was cast in a small role in an L.A. Opera production of "The Tales of Hoffman," starring Domingo. Filing out of the theater after the dress rehearsal, Atkins and his fellow cast members knew they were obliged to complete one more task before calling it a night. They had to go back upstairs to the rehearsal room to stage a mock work session so a television crew could shoot some footage for a story.
Atkins had had little experience in dealing with promotion and the press at that point, but he was about to get a singular lesson in what it means to be a professional artist, in the public eye.
"The cameras start rolling, and Michael Kaye, the guy who'd done the new musical edition, and Placido are sitting at the piano," recalls Atkins. "Placido was playing and singing, and then he stopped and said, 'Oh, Michael, should this be a B flat or a B natural?' And Michael said, 'Oh, that's a B natural.'
"Well, Placido knew the score inside and out. He knew exactly what that note was. We'd just sung a dress rehearsal! But he was very gracious and deflected the spotlight from himself in such a deft way that no one would recognize it. The television people got what they needed in 10 seconds. And if I hadn't been to rehearsals with him before that, I never would have known."
Such is the kind of education that you can't impart in a classroom. Nor in most company training programs. Which is why Domingo's plans for L.A. Opera include not only the young artists program, but an expanded resident artists program as well.
"The general aim for the next season is that instead of five resident artists, we want to bring the number up to 10," explains Edgar Baitzel, Los Angeles Opera's artistic administrator. Where the funds will come from to fuel the expansion has yet to be determined. Currently, the resident artists program is financed by a grant from the Skirball Foundation, with additional funding from Opera Buffs Inc., a private support group.
Both Atkins and his co-star in "Figaro," bass baritone Bernstein, thrived in the Resident Artists Program. Atkins, now 42, was a resident artist from 1987 to 1994. He came here following graduate study at Oklahoma City University, and time with Santa Fe Opera and the traveling Texas Opera Theater. Bernstein, now 34, came into the program straight from USC and was a resident artist from 1989 to 1994.