I hope I don’t sound too much like a know-it-all, because I definitely don’t know it all. However, I think I’ve learned a few things so far. I think there are way too many romantic notions and a lack of sheer common sense about what you’re going to do after music schools these days, and no one ever talks to you about these sort of things – – business and life decisions. All of you are trying to get somewhere really fast, but do you even know where? Start at the beginning.
Life Decisions – « I want to be famous! »
Why do you sing?
I hope your answer is not « it’s the only thing I know how to do! » That’s a really lame answer, and it doesn’t have the required passion to truly do anything with a career in music. Nobody wants to listen to just another empty, bad Italian art song. « Pretty » is not enough, either. You must have an overwhelming need to sing or perform or make music, and SAY something with it. If you’ve ever seen Cecilia Bartoli live, you will know that it’s not just her technique that sets audiences afire – it’s her continual communication with the public through every note of music, and the joy she has singing that one feels flowing from her. No one besides Pavarotti gets world-famous from this job. (Even Netrebko and Fleming are only well-known to operaphiles.) And it sure as heck isn’t glamourous. So if fame and glamour are your objectives, find them elsewhere – you’ll just be frustrated in this career!
I sing because I want to make someone feel something bigger than his/her life, to transport someone to somewhere else with my voice, to move someone with what I’ve given them, if possible. So much can (and SHOULD!) be said in every kind of art, and I’d like to say something. Singing gives me a joy and outlet that I can’t even describe. It also allows me the forum to experience new theatre, new people, and new ideas all the time.
Singers that only surround themselves with opera, singing and « careers » are probably some of the most boring and boorish people I have met. Enrich yourself and your art form by getting out to see straight theatre, reading, and trying to develop yourself as a person spiritually and emotionally, in addition to as a singer! Help people out along the way.
There is SO much work involved to « success » (whatever that is) as a professional opera singer, that if you can do anything else in your life and be happy with it – – DO IT INSTEAD!! There is no easy road to great singing. Even great « natural » singers had to figure out some day what it was they were doing so naturally, study music really seriously, work on their acting, etc. etc…
There are some singers I know who knew they wanted to make music, but started out on an instrument before discovering that the instrument that was their calling was already inside them! I don’t see why it could not go the other way, too. If you are making NO headway whatsoever with singing, and feel the need to make music, why not explore other ways to make music? There are so many other ways to make music!! Some people get fixated on « having a singing career, » when actually that’s not what they really want or what will eventually make them happy.
What aspects of a career in opera exactly draw you?
- Is it the *performance* that turns you on?
- Being in front of an audience?
- Is it the sensation of singing?
- Is it the compliments?
- Is it the need to express yourself with music?
- Is it the theatre part of it?
- Is it the pageantry of opera?
- Is it the idea of a whirlwind lifestyle?
- Is it the travel?
- Is it the snob appeal of it?
- Is it being the center of attention?
Do you think singing is your only talent to make you the center of attention?
Most of us start singing because we like to sing. Let that sink in a bit. The other things involved with being an opera singer really may not suit you!! It is not enough just to SING beautifully. « Being an opera singer » is a multi-faceted talent, and you have to have ALL those facets to make it work. If you suck at one of the major things involved or you can’t put up with one major part of the business, don’t imagine that you can make this career.
Most singers I know (you may be the exception) don’t start singing because we want to be an opera singer. We start singing for more banal reasons, like our mom put us in choir, we liked singing because it was the only time we felt like we belonged in a group, or we wanted to get in the high school musical with the false hope that it would make us one of the popular kids. Ok, all those banal reasons were my reasons for starting to sing! And none of them had to do with being an opera star. I didn’t even like to act!! I thought the opera I went to see in 4th grade sung in English was unintelligible and super stupid. I enrolled myself in the Thespians Club in high school because I hoped doing so would help my chances at getting a lead in the high school musical. Fat luck. But people liked it when I sang and I won competitions and this helped my self-esteem. So I studied all the things you needed to do to get ahead in singing to show my choir teacher he’d made a big mistake in not casting me, and one thing led to the next, all my interests (languages, travel) melted together, and here I am an opera singer. I put up with the study and torture (for a shy girl) of years of acting lessons in order to have the opportunity to sing on stage; only later did I learn to enjoy acting.
Other Ways to « Sing »
Maybe if you make no headway in opera, you could better fill your own personal needs in another venue. Ask yourself these questions, and see why you want to do this career, and if there’s any other way to make you happy.
I know singers who are fixated on an operatic career, when they could be the greatest sensation on Broadway if they’d only put their mind to it. Others are great actors, not singers, but won’t allow themselves to realize their potential on the stage if they’re not singing. I know at least three great performers who travel the world’s greatest stages, doing small, highlighted comprimario roles. They realized early on that either their acting talents were great and the competition in their voice category was too huge to surmount, or that they would rather shine in small roles and be highly respected by great conductors and directors alike, than struggle and maybe end up working with mediocrity for the rest of their lives in lead roles. They travel the world doing spotlighted small roles, and are very much needed in the opera world.
Even my agent in New York used to be professional singer, but decided that she would never reach the heights of a top-level career singing, which is what she would want if she sang. Instead, she decided to become involved with management. She now MANAGES the top tier of singers in the business, and uses her insight as a singer to know how to deal with people, as well as knowing about casting and repertoire.
I have recently received some wonderful thoughts from a chorister I got to know while he was in Houston Grand Opera’s Chorus. He is now singing at Chicago Lyric Opera – in the chorus. Singing in the Chorus is an actual career, not a job you do until you « make it big! » It is a shame that voice teachers don’t let their students know that this is a viable and satisfying career. It is not only musically satisfying, it is a great career with many benefits. The majority of AGMA members are professional choristers. Why do you need to be the soloist just because you have studied voice? This is a ridiculous assumption. You may be better suited to sing in a chorus. Its lifestyle and requirements may suit you better. WHY BE A CHORISTER? CHECK OUT MY CHORUS PAGE TO HEAR A CHICAGO LYRIC OPERA CHORISTER’S INPUT.
Goals vs. Your realistic possibilities
I believe you can accomplish just about anything if you work hard enough and well enough at it, and want it enough (SEE MY PAGE ON DELIBERATE PRACTICE!). However, you must first realize your limitations, character and personal needs and be honest with yourself about your possibilities and goals. Do they match up?
Some of the greatest singers of yesteryear (Birgitt Nilson, etc..) were told they were not made out to be singers. Nevertheless, some voices require so much work that I doubt if the singer could get his/her act together in time for even retirement, so why bother? Unless, of course, it’s just a personal goal to sing well… I’d never want to be the one to tell someone he/she should quit; but the many singers who are pouring their energy and money and lives into what is a difficult instrument, with insurmountable technical, interpretive and musical difficulties, hoping to have an operatic career make my heart hurt. Schools and teachers only encourage them unjustly, in their own interests. Horrible feedback from everyone *JUST MIGHT* mean that you should consider doing something else with your life!! :-)
Just because you studied voice in college does not mean you have to have a career as an international opera star!! If you are getting negative or just ho-hum feedback from everyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in you continuing to pay them to study, perhaps your voice is not the caliber to do the kind of career of which you’re dreaming. See where you stand with your peers (competitions, etc…), and judge from there. Just because singing gives YOU a rush doesn’t mean that YOUR SINGING gives US a rush! Your talents and energies may be better spent elsewhere. It takes at least 7500-10,000 hours of DELIBERATE practice to become an expert in your field. Are you patient enough to put in the hours (and find the creative resilience) to work on the PROBLEMATIC parts of your art and iron out the problems, or do you just like to sing through things?
Are you willing to sacrifice to get to sing?
Is it that important to you? And what constitutes « making it » to you?
Fame should NEVER be a goal, because it ain’t gonna happen unless you decide to sing pop music. Even Madonna has busted her behind to get where she is! You’re probably reading this because you want to be a big famous opera star. However…
The majority of professional musicians hold down more than one job: they perform in a few ensembles or groups and supplement that with a studio of students they teach. Only a tiny sliver of aspiring opera singers will go on to have international careers. The other lucky ones (another tiny sliver of aspirants) may do less gigs, but have a teaching job on the side that supplements their income. The other GRAND MAJORITY of aspiring opera singers will not be able to make much headway at all in the grand operatic scheme of things. There are three scenarios: either be disillusioned and forever pouring money into more lessons, coachings and auditions; forever grumbling that nobody appreciates their great talent; or find other ways to fulfill their lives either using their musical talents or not. Plan C sounds really great to me! My blog here is concerned with the grand operatic career and seeing if it’s for you. But what I do not go into in detail are the THOUSANDS of other things you can do with your music and make money from it. Just because you studied singing doesn’t mean you need to be an opera singer. How many times do I need to stress this?
Requirements of Character for this job
You have to have a certain kind of character in order to make this career. You must be easy-going, able to roll with the punches, flexible, and not easily flustered. This job brings many new situations al the time, so if you are averse to change, this is not the job for you.
Work Ethic – love the practice
You must be willing to work like a dog. You must LIKE to work like a dog on your singing. I’m the laziest person when it comes to most things, but when I get into the thick of my work, I could work for hours. I LIKE the minutiae of trying to iron out something in my technique. I like the challenge of learning something new; I make a game out of getting a phrase right and repeating it a million times in a row. You have to be willing to put in the hours required and do the research required and LIKE it. Otherwise, this is not the job for you.
You MUST be good with languages, because you will not only be singing in different languages, you will be dealing with foreigners and most likely, foreign countries as well. Side-note: even my Dad, who has problems pronouncing « Buongiorno » or « Buenos dias » could pick out the singers in competitions that had bad diction! Even to the inexpert ear, your language skills (or lack thereof) come across to an audience in one way or another. If you really have no ear for languages and are not willing to spend a good 7500 hours on that one aspect of your singing, you have no business being in this business.
You must enjoy being on your own. You must know, like or learn to like being by yourself. When you are on the road, you are ALONE. No matter how wonderful your colleagues are, how wonderful your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband is, you will most likely be on your own every night. Is this ok with you? Are you good at communicating long distance? Do you need daily physical contact with your family and friends? If you can’t hack being far away from loved ones MOST of the time, this is not the career for you.
You do not owe it to your talent to make this career. You only owe it to yourself to be happy with your life. Know yourself and pick the best career path to make you HAPPY. And that can mean you study music and voice for 6-8 years in college and then you DO NOT USE IT to make an international career as an opera star. This is perfectly ok. It was not a waste of your time. You have every right to go on to be a real estate agent, a car salesman, a housewife, a pre-school music teacher, a piano and voice teacher of high school students out of your home, etc… It is your life, and your musical studies will have only enriched your life experience. If, after all your studies, you don’t have the drive and passion nor talent to make a career, do something else! It is not failure, it is great insight to realize that your energies are better spent elsewhere.
- What do you want to do with your life?
- Sing, you say?
- First, what do you envision as your « ideal » life?
- Picture it; what does it entail?
- The normalcy of a fixed daily life?
- Being with your family for every holiday?
- A close circle of friends?
- Having dinnerparties with your friends, holding opera/theatre subscriptions, teaching some, taking classes on the side, or doing charity work?
Really get a good idea of what is most important to you. Of these things, which is absolutely essential for you, and which is something that you’d like, but that you’d be able to feel fulfilled without? Be HONEST with yourself. There is nothing more tragic than someone who has talent, and feels that he/she wants to do this career, only to discover that he/she really doesn’t like the lifestyle years down the road. Just because you CAN sing and have the talent does not mean you HAVE to sing. You do not « owe it to your gift » to have a crazy opera career. You owe it to yourself to be happy and fulfill yourself however you can.
I don’t believe it’s impossible to have a free-lance operatic career and have some of these things; but to expect to have all of them, and when you want them, is unrealistic and downright delusional. The reality of the lifestyle is much different than what you may expect, and it’s better to be forwarned than spend all your schooling learning to do something that you’ll either burn out on quickly, become disillusioned about, or both. There are compromises, and there are endless ways to deal with the difficulties. Or there are different ways to structure a career – you can concentrate on whatever period or style of music really lights your fire, and do concerts. Whatever your passion, study and do intensive research with experts in the field; really specialize – don’t just say « that you like it. » Remember that there ARE other things than singing the same old Puccini onstage! Baroque music tends to provide more concerts than operas, for example. Or modern music!! There is a nice niche in singing contemporary music.
Find your passion
What are YOU passionate about? Discover your passion in music, and follow your artistic nose! Quit looking for a « vehicle » for your fabulous voice, and see what YOU can bring to the world of music instead. We all need to quit worshipping the same old so-called masterpieces and discover the other 90% of written music and *new* repertoire. Just a few generations ago, singers were still doing more than 50% contemporary music. We need to come back to this « tradition! » The « golden age of singing » is now – we have the knowledge, passion, training, and only lack the courage to have some personality and some ideas.