Oh, the Hats We Wear
Updated: Nov 7, 2020
Thinking about being an opera singer?
You might be thinking, "Well, I'll get a degree in Music, do some auditions, and BAM! I'll be a successful opera singer!"
Before we go any further, this is
NOT a post hating on opera, a career in opera, or opera singers. I can honestly say that I am happy with my choice, and I can pay all my bills being a musician... that's pretty awesome! I love my career path, but if I knew everything I know now back when I started college, I might have followed another path. Probably not, though. The performance itch is pretty hard to ignore.
Building a career singing opera is playing the long game for most of us. You start at eighteen (although if you're not a baritone, you probably started with voice lessons, maybe another instrument and choir around ten), knowing you'll have to spend the next four years taking classes in music theory, music history, sight reading, and ear training, as well as voice lessons.
That is just the tip of the iceberg, honey.
At some point, when you decide to take it seriously and ask questions (or, if you have an awesome voice teacher like I did), you will be introduced to your long long long list of To-Do's before graduation. Okay, now your panicked. Now IPA (the international phonetic alphabet) is something you must be fluent in, and translating all the languages you're singing in is necessary - oh, you thought just googling a translation would work? Think again! It's gotta be word-for-word, baby, and they will test you in front of your peers. Sound scary? It is scary! But it's very effective. Not only are you building an arsenal against performance anxiety, you are reinforcing that you know what you're singing about in the moment, not just during study time. You also get (mostly) important feedback from peers and faculty members who have worked on the rep before.
Most summers will be spent at YAPs (young artist programs) - theses programs range from two week workshops to two month paid jobs with free housing. But most of them cost several thousand to attend and have a rigorous application and audition process about six to nine months before they start.
What you learn during these professional development programs is that the career is competitive. Like, really competitive. You will be rejected. More than you will ever feel is fair. And the key to success is two-fold:
1. Take your time finding your team. Your Ride or Die, your people. When you feel unmotivated, defeated, and hopeless (and you WILL) you go to your people for love, encouragement and support. You get what you give, though, so my advice is dish it. Dish it to the people who are not your people either. Love, encouragement and kindness pave a strong foundation for an amazing production. But you will be hurt by people, for one reason or another, and that is when you go to your team for support.
2. You are your biggest advocate. Taking care of yourself is pivotal for the best performance you can give. Health wise, physically, and emotionally, you have to believe you're worth it. If you don't, take a break. Step aside, sit one out. Recovery is more important than half-assing your artwork and tainting your brand. At some point in your career (and maybe even most of your career) you will be your own agent, PR, marketing, and website designer. It's a lot of work, so if you can do something else to make money, do it.
Which brings us back to the hats.
There are very few people who can go straight from their bachelor's or even master's into a career performing regularly. So you have to find out how much you can perform to keep the show bug at bay, and see if you can find other avenues of the opera world that you love.
This is how I have a career in opera. Yes, I am an opera singer, but I can put on a mean lecture recital, teach voice lessons, assistant direct shows, run programs as an administrator, and sometimes do two of those roles at once (I urge everyone caution before doing that, though... You might not sleep for a bit).
Not everyone is required to or even wants to do this to get by, and that’s okay. However, when you are following a passion in a competitive field, a very real topic of discussion is sometimes bypassed or even ignored by the less experienced colleague. Your talent, skills, work ethic, stage presence, and abilities will most likely NOT reflect the amount of roles you get. You can be an amazing artist and still not be cast. It happens all the time.
So explore! Ask your stage director questions about their job, or your administrator about the ins and outs of running a summer program. If you don't get into the YAP you wanted this summer, pad your income with paid conducting or administrative internship at that YAP. Look into fundraising! Don't be afraid to find all the hats you can wear in the opera world while you're preparing for your next gig - and try them on! You might like them!