Myths and stereotypes abound about opera singers or the opera world. The classic clichéd image of a fat woman with blonde braids and a helmet with horns belting out Brünnhilde lingers in our zeitgeist, but the reality is very far from this. Legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti put opera on the map, creating a presence in quotidian life, made it a household phenomenon to the point where someone might say, “Sure, I can sing, but I’m no Pavarotti.” For others, opera is a complete unknown. Even for me, trained on the violin and the world of classical music since childhood, opera was a beautiful yet virtually alien art form: I believed they were descended from some other planet, because how else could they produce those otherworldly sounds? What is the field of opera like, beyond all the misconceptions and stereotypes? Here are my observations as an emerging professional soprano.
At its core, one must simply produce a good sound with healthy technique. Many of us are trained in the Italian bel canto style, which translates to “beautiful singing.” Control of the breath and good breath support, producing the sound in the “mask” (roughly, the area of our face which is now covered with a mask due to Covid!), and no strain on the vocal cords are all key components of opera singing, no matter the method of training.
The majority of arias and Lieder are in foreign languages, especially in Italian for beginners. So knowledge- and ideally mastery of different languages or at least transliteration of the sounds for those who are not linguistically inclined is crucial. The more you understand what you are singing, the more convinced you are about the text, the better your credibility. This is not an easy task; even some A-level singers do not understand the languages in which they are singing. This is certainly understandable in many cases, such as if one is singing in Czech or Russian. Even if the singer knows the language, such as Italian, the texts are written in older and poetic forms of the language, so that also provides a big challenge.
This relates, naturally, to acting. How do you manifest the text through your body and gestures? And at the same time are trying to produce a healthy, consistent sound that does not vary as you change emotions? Cecilia Bartoli is notorious for her movements (which some might say are excessive), while Renée Fleming is often fairly still. Some of us are advised to study straight acting and not acting for singers. I believe this is good advice, because it gives the singer broader tools and a deeper understanding of the craft. And there is also the whole aspect of acting for stage, how you block and move, your physical relation to other performers and to the overall effect of how it looks to the audience.
Now we come to the actual career side of things, something which many singers are not prepared for given the general lack of information about this from musical institutions. The standard rule is to have five arias of different languages and characteristics ready before you audition. Of course, this will vary from singer to Singer and what their goals are. The expected path for talented singers is to audition for young artist programs or smaller companies, participate in competitions (such as the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions). One can also audition for professional opera choruses, via soloist in a church or ensemble, etc. There is a huge leap from training to having a career as a singer, because there is no one way in which to develop it. Everyone’s path will be different. Some people attend the top institutions in this country, maybe even perform in a couple of A-level productions, but struggle with auditions, and give up, changing career paths altogether. Others work menial jobs, such as someone I knew who was folding clothes at a retail store yet singing in high-caliber performances. There are others who make a steady living as a working singer, singing in their church, local gigs, weddings, small productions, and more. And there is also a category of singers who are working professionals in a different field while pursuing opera as a second career.
For the lucky singers for whom opera is their entire career and livelihood, there is a high level of professionalism and discipline they must maintain. It is irritating when nearly everyone asks if most opera singers are divas–absolutely not, as one simply CANNOT maintain a successful career as an opera singer if one is not a responsible performer and agreeable colleague, because there are at least a dozen people to replace you. Professional singers’ schedules are booked for months, even a year or two in advance (several years in advance for the top singers in the world). This can involve lots of travel, and not very much pay, so it is not a lucrative career except for those at the very top. German singers who have a Fest contract are fortunate, as they receive a regular, stable salary: it is a regular working job. Many accomplished professional singers also teach conservatories or universities as a way of maintaining stability with both career and finances.
In my experience, almost all the world-class singers I have studied with or met are down-to-earth, kind, and extremely committed to their craft. Some are even self-deprecating and self-effacing! Many of them certainly have high standards for what they expect of their students but are not cruel or unkind. They understand how important it is to be supportive of the singer, who is in a vulnerable position, and that the opera world can be brutal. This doesn’t mean they sugarcoat the difficulties of the career: some can be quite frank about how a student should develop their career given their abilities. But I want to dispel the myth of the snobby, volatile, entitled, opera singer, because most of them are nothing like that (with a couple of exceptions). I find there is more pettiness and ignorance at the bottom and beginner levels than there is at the top. Some singers are quite intelligent, cultured, and well-read.
Teachers and music institutions have been extremely mindful in recent years of the mental health of their students, and the old style of teaching with brutal put-downs, tantrums, harassment, etc. is on its way out. This is a very positive and necessary thing. Also, opera companies and organizations have been reevaluating their pasts and the lack of diversity in casting, along with the stodgy nature of repeated operas by dead composers. In the opera world beyond the stage, as the pandemic spurred artists on to create new ways of performing.
It is truly a joy to be part of such a beautiful, bizarre, challenging, and historic art form.