The So-Called Life of an Opera Singer
Life upon the wicked stage ain’t nothin’ for a girl.
Ellie in Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical Show Boat*
People outside “The Business” are fascinated when they hear that someone is an opera singer. Either that, or they find it hilarious. It’s an alien existence to most people. Sometimes it’s an alien existence to us, too, but that’s a whole other story.
For those of you who are really curious about what life on the operatic stage is like, here are a few glimpses. If you are not all that curious, please read this anyway. I like having readers.
You can’t be an opera singer if you can’t sing like one. Just being able to sing is not enough. Opera requires standing onstage in a theater and singing without a microphone, over a full-sized orchestra, without resorting to bellowing. You need at least a two-octave range, in a recognizable voice type, and the stamina to keep all this up through a two- or three-hour performance (not counting intermissions). In other words, you have to have a big, loud, wide-ranged, beautiful voice with a nice vibrato to begin with, after which you have to study for years to get it into shape. If you’re smart, you’ll keep on taking an occasional voice lesson even after you are singing on the stage, just to keep in training. Why not? Athletes do it.
Oh, but there’s more!
You have to be able to act, too. Well, let me qualify that statement. You have to at least be able to move around a stage without looking like a clumsy robot. The acting ability of opera singers ranges from genius to embarrassing, but the audience likes to see that you are, at least, trying to play a character up there, at the same time that you are singing the world’s most difficult vocal music, trying not to forget any of your words, and trying not to trip over your costume or stab yourself with your sword.
Don’t plan on having a normal life. Little things like marriage, family life, a permanent home somewhere that you actually get to be in a lot of the time and being able to spend holidays with your family become a lot harder to achieve the more you achieve your career. (Okay, scratch the family holiday. That can be a blessing, if you have relatives from Hell.) Working opera singers can end up either moving from place to place or getting hired in New York, Berlin and London** in the same month.
Don’t get me started on auditions. I’ll let you know all about them later. Right now, I’ll just say that they are a something like being in front of a firing squad without a blindfold or a cigarette.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here is a list of frequently asked questions, along with answers you might get from a singer who is in the mood to be snarky.
Can you break glass with your voice? No. Nobody can do that. If you ever find anyone who can, please warn me ahead of time, because I won’t want to be standing in front of him when he opens up with one of those pinging notes. If he can break glass, think of what he can do with my fragile brain cells.
Where do you sing? I’m like a streetwalker. I perform for whoever pays me. I travel around a lot. So you won’t have to worry that I’ll commandeer you into coming to my next performance. It’s in Tokyo.
What do you think of Luciano Pavarotti? I don’t know. I never met the man and, considering that he’s dead, I don’t think I’ll get an opportunity now. I do love his singing, and I’m sorry that he was silenced so soon.
Is it true that opera singers are temperamental? No. And if you ask that again I am going to kick you in the ass.
How many hours a day do you practice? I practice until my neighbors start throwing rocks through my window. (In other words, I don’t get as much opportunity to practice as I would like, and I’m not about to let you know that.)
What advice can you give to someone who wants to have a career as an opera singer?
Find something else to do that has less aggravation and pays better.
*Notice how I gave all that proper credit.
**Or Minneapolis, Detroit and Fort Worth, if you’re not quite in the New York, Berlin and London category