What It’s Really Like to Be an Opera Singer

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.

The Writer as Truth-Teller

We have seen the tragic event of the past week and events of the recent past and this only emphasizes the importance of the writer as a social figure. It is also crucial that we allow democracy to filter into the classroom, allowing a variety of viewpoints to be read in various texts.

There are a variety of ways in which writers tell the truth. Sometimes, they overtly criticize a political regime or administration. This act seems to be what is most often chastised and severely punished, even by imprisonment or death. At other times writers use satire, a phenomenon which, when done carefully, evades censors and thus the readers (or viewers of theater) are quick to pick up on institution that is being critiqued. Humor can be a tool in doing this: what we know of as, for example, “dark Slavic humor” masks a sarcastic commentary. The twin sister of satire is allegory, in which a fable-like quality is given to the lead characters and narrative, allowing it to be read on one level as simple story (that retells a classic we know), while a more profound subtext is below what we read on the surface.

Politics, religion, social institutions, -isms of various sorts (such as sexism) are all topics that brave writers address through literature whose goal is social commentary. Sometimes, fiction is the best way to make sense of our world and engaging people: think of how many people tune out and stop watching the evening news or reading the (online) newspaper when they are faced with the literal facts and information about what is going on in the world. Fiction allows for a deeper analysis of our current situations, end it often does so in a much more poetic or palatable way.

There are those who will say a writer should write with the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” such as Oscar Wilde did. However, Oscar Wilde himself did comment on society in many of his works, albeit in a highly aesthetic way. Even his own life, as a gay aesthete writer, was an act of rebellion for which he heavily paid the price. The takeaway should be that enjoyable, appealing prose and social commentary are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding How We Deepen Fiction

Being a writer is quite an arduous process and a fascinating endeavor, nonetheless. Once we discover the impulse to put something down on the page, we find that there are layers and layers of work. Perhaps the most gifted of writers have little struggle, but for the rest of us mortals, it takes much trial and error to understand the complexity of our task.

Over the years, I have enjoyed editing others’ work in workshops, conferences, and even privately. In the early days, my feedback was largely line edits, as that’s what I understood fiction editing to be. Over time, I started to think about plot and motivation: was there a clear cause-and-effect? Were the characters’ reasons for doing things legit, based on what was on the page? And naturally, this tied into scene and scene length. Where did I feel there was a bit missing, where something needed to be expanded? What darlings need to be killed? (A lot of writers err on the side of putting in too many details, and often they do not serve the plot or the main thrust of the story.) Was the writer setting us up properly at the beginning of the story or piece of fiction for things to unfold in the way they did throughout the work?

And in my own writing, I came to understand importance of the quality of prose. A good friend of mine from my MFA program spent hours laboring over her sentences. We would send each other a sample of our work weekly, and I understood from her that it wasn’t enough to simply tell the story from the images in my head: variation in my sentences and what I put on the page was extremely important. Due to my earlier training in the social sciences and academia, I was used to observing and writing down what I saw. This had its advantages, in that my characters were never flat, and I always received positive comments on the their complexity and on the realism of my stories. However, the cost was I had to think about the nature of my prose, which sometimes seemed simplistic and flat. Who were the master stylists among writers? Who had a great command of the language and used diction to their full advantage? Toni Morrison is one author who immediately comes to mind, as well as Oscar Wilde.

Dialogue was another part of craft that I picked up on by analyzing the masters in addition to my social science training and powers of observation. Robert Boswell, one of my MFA advisors, had me write craft essays (called “annotations” at Warren Wilson) on this, and I learned that what mattered was not only realistic-sounding dialogue, but also the structural purpose it held. For example, in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” dialogue was deception; the characters were constructed through dialogue that was very much at odds with their personalities. Good dialogue in a piece of writing makes it feel real. The characters come to life, we can relate, and the reader is engaged. Playwrights must have a strong sense of this, for their works are based entirely on dialogue. Same for opera: everything is told through the libretto.

As my understanding of writing became more sophisticated, I started to understand more about that elusive concept called “emotional resonance.” Earlier in my writing career, it sounded like a slippery, ambiguous, subjective term (which one could argue still is). But I got a better sense of this intangible thing over time and especially when working with my final Warren Wilson advisor, the renowned Joan Silber. When the reader grasps the themes and characters from the beginning, they anticipate certain feelings and emotions to be evoked. Then they ask, “What feels real or true to this character or situation? Would the character really do X? Or shouldn’t there be more expansion here, so we see how the character reacts to Y?” In my own work, a novel retelling of a classic, I changed a significant element of the plot with one character, putting her pregnancy before marriage, because it affected what was going to happen through the whole novel. I jokingly told my advisor that my realization of this was a WWJD–”What Would Joan Do?”–moment, that she would have made such a suggestion while I was writing. Even outside the scope of retellings, this is an important yet subtle technique, for the best writing incorporates this without the reader ever knowing. Consider two examples (spoiler alert!): The Story of a New Name, where Lenù sleeping with the father of the boy she is in love with is shocking but fitting, or Jane Eyre’s flight from Mr. Rochester after she finds out he is married. They feel right with the tone of the novel and the character.

I could go on and on about what makes fiction deeper, as I feel this post is superficial and doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I want to say. Besides, numerous books and articles have been written on this subject. But I choose to write from my own experience because it has been a surprising, sometimes frustrating, yet always- fascinating journey that will continue for the rest of my life.