By BLO Intern, Eric Ritter
Have you been to the opera and thought how magnificent it would be to be up on that stage yourself? To hold thousands of souls in rapture with the sound of your own voice? Maybe you haven’t, but you’ve seen glimpses on television, like when Paul Potts, a soft-spoken cell-phone salesman, brought Puccini’s Nessun Dorma to the world of cable TV on Britain’s Got Talent. You might think what incredible gifts these performers have – how lucky they are, and how glamorous a life they must lead.
More likely, your understanding is a little more nuanced; you are reading an opera blog after all. I would bet, however, that your perception of opera singers is strongly colored by the word talent. And yes, I doubt any singer would deny that some natural talent plays a role in a successful singing career; luck perhaps even more so when considering extra-musical aspects of success like networking, casting, and economic or racial privilege. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you consider talent half of what it takes to be an opera singer. Let me attempt to lower that proportion to ten, maybe even five percent, by revealing the other 95 percent – the time, the hard work, and the unique challenges. Maybe you’re not so far from the stage as you thought. Maybe you’re farther.
I am not a famous opera singer, but my seven years of voice study (which still makes me very young), the teachers and professional singers I have met, the lessons I have learned, and the challenges I have faced give me a bit of insight into this profession. I just graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and throughout my four years of undergraduate study, I’ve begun to understand just how much iceberg there is under the surface.
So where does the journey to the operatic stage start? It can have many beginnings, but usually it starts with the fact that you like to sing. Maybe in high school you did some musicals or sang in a chorus. Maybe you were even lucky enough to take some singing lessons as a child. Unfortunately for most boys, this pursuit might be particularly heart-breaking when puberty hits, bringing with it a new unwieldy chest-voice. For young female singers the change may be less pronounced, but certainly has an unsettling effect. This is the first unique challenge that singers face: our bodies are our instruments. While your musical ear and instincts will develop early in life and can be cultivated on instruments like keyboard, strings, or brass, your singing instrument is simplistic and underdeveloped until your body changes into its full adult form. Child instrumentalists who start early could have as much as a ten-year head start on their singer colleagues.
I remember dreading music class in elementary school. I could never sing high enough, and even though I had a rich musical life at home – a mother who played piano, and a father with a song for every occasion– I would get reprimanded twice a week for singing down the octave. But my whole musical world changed when my middle school choir teacher made a bass section for me and two other early bloomers. With a newfound sense of belonging, I soon wanted to take voice lessons.
I began to learn the very basics from my first voice teacher. “Breathe low,” “Support from your diaphragm,” “Lift your soft palate,” “Relax your larynx.” If anatomy isn’t your forte, voice teachers have a gift for metaphor and imagery. “Imagine you have hot soup in your mouth,” “Bite the apple,” or a personal favorite: “The onset should be like pulling the ignition coil of a really easy-to-start chainsaw.” This was by no means the last time I would receive this advice, (well, the chainsaw metaphor was a one-off) and it was exciting. The 17th and 18th century music from Schirmer’s 24 Italian Songs and Arias was new to me, despite being very old.
But beyond all the technique, I discovered that good singing is about honesty, letting go of pretense, exploring parts of yourself you didn’t know were there and putting them on display without hesitation. The metaphors, imagery, and anatomical jargon would evolve and transform over time, but that lesson would never change.
The one hour each week I spent studying vocal technique with my voice teacher in high school was my most valued time. It made me feel challenged in a way I had never been before and motivated beyond what I thought myself capable. I learned to make choices and to boldly fail. I found a place to be vulnerable, where too few teenage boys ever get the chance to explore. Music became my own.
With a vague concept of what a professional musician was, I decided that this was what I had to give to the world. I didn’t see myself as particularly gifted as a singer, but it was a gift to have found something that I cared about so intensely. In college I realized I was not alone in these feelings about singing. And, as I soon discovered, this foundational drive had to be strong as it would be put to the test.
Two naïve voice students preparing for their first week of classes (Eric Ritter, baritone. Morgan Chalue, tenor)
So if you’re still with us on the journey to becoming an opera singer, now the real work begins. The first step is to realize how very, very little you actually know, not just about the act of singing, but everything that surrounds and informs it, and makes a singer into an artist.
Firstly, you must know what you are communicating. That is to say, the more foreign language classes you take, the better. Italian, the most common musical language, is at the top of the list, with French, German and Spanish tied for second. Russian gets you bonus points, but at what cost? Four years is a short time to gain fluency in at least four languages so the International Phonetic Alphabet is one of the singer’s tricks-of-the-trade. To avoid totally giving away your country of origin while you sing, you’ll learn a specific set of phonetic symbols along with the pronunciation rules for French, German, Italian, and three different dialects of English. Yes, you thought English was in the bag, but depending on the composer you may have to make alterations from American Standard pronunciation, to British Received (like a BBC host), or Mid-Atlantic (like in old black and white films).
To develop musicianship and understand the intricacies of the compositions you perform, you’ll learn music theory. With theory comes basic proficiency at the keyboard including scales, chord progressions, and arpeggios in all twenty-four keys. Aural skills will develop your musical ear, teach you to sing music straight from the page, without hearing it on an instrument first, and even develop corresponding harmonies and melodies.
a harmonic analysis assignment on a Chopin Mazurka
This is just a sampling of the skills necessary to develop into a great opera singer, but even if you ace all your classes you’ll still need to perform. You’ll learn just how hard it is to sing with technical proficiency while trying to incorporate all the information you’re learning in the classroom (diction, pronunciation, harmony, line, dynamics…). As you start listening to professionals and colleagues, and getting to know your own voice, body, and technique, you develop a certain paradigm of excellence. Your limitations then become more frustrating, progress can feel slow, and practicing every day can sometimes feel like a chore.
Practicing for a singer has unique challenges. The vocal cords are a delicate anatomy. You can’t practice for eight hours a day—the body simply won’t allow it—so a good singer must practice with a plan. Developing concise strategies for honing in on trouble areas, self-diagnosis, and training muscle memory without strain or wear and tear is a skill unto itself!.
Maintaining one’s physical and mental health are paramount. A cough or runny nose might be a great discomfort to an instrumentalist, but for singers it can be debilitating. Maintaining a healthy attitude can be just as challenging. As your musical aesthetic becomes more refined, personal standards increase, and failure becomes harder and harder to abide. The trap of comparison and competition challenge our capacity for self-compassion. In times like these, it’s necessary to dig even deeper into our personal well of passion—the one that brings us back to music time and time again.
The reality of pursuing a professional career as a singer started to hit home as my undergraduate degree reached its end. Working with pre-professional singers in fully staged operas with the Boston University Opera Institute quickly taught me that the hours in this job were brutal, particularly when trying to find a balance with the rest of my professional and personal obligations. Weekends and nights as late as 12:30 am are common during technical rehearsals prior to the performances. While rehearsing along-side young professional singers in their late-twenties, singers who were trying to break into the industry, I was able to get a glimpse of their lives. Their determination astounded me. Performing in one opera was never enough. They were always looking for the next gig, or another job to squeeze in between rehearsals.
One night, staging Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, our Lysander walked into the rehearsal room with a packed bag, having just landed at the airport after closing another production. The music continued to play as he met his scene partner and got right back to work without skipping a beat.
Making a name for oneself in the world of opera is painstaking work. Traveling long distances for gigs and auditions is a constant fact of life for most singers. The question “What’s next?” can spark a great deal of anxiety in fresh and seasoned singers alike as the life of any professional artist often oscillates between feast and famine. Our instruments (read: bodies) are fickle and constantly change: with the weather, seasons, and as we age. Many singers don’t “make it” until well into their thirties. It’s important to note here, that the career of a successful opera singer is comparatively long, unlike professional dancers whose careers generally end in their thirties, singers are just getting started. The voice continues to mature through singers’ 20s and 3os with each singer cultivating new depth and color with each new role, but it’s a waiting game that takes a great deal of patience and foresight.
At an intensive summer voice program in Northern Michigan, Michelle DeYoung conducted a brief residency that I had the honor of participating in. Michelle found success very early in her career, winning the Metropolitan National Council Auditions at age 24. Filling a void in the industry for Mezzo-Sopranos who sing Mahler, and excelling at the Dramatic Soprano repertoire of Wagner, she found her place in the classical singing world very quickly. She also made it abundantly clear to all twenty of us that her experience was extremely abnormal.
The truth of the matter is that people don’t become opera singers to become rich and famous. They don’t do it for the glamour, or the affection of the audience— that will not motivate for very long. And they weren’t placed there by some miraculous, convenient talent. Opera singers sing because they have to; because their music is the truth that they have to offer the world, and for them, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.
For many students who set out to sing opera, however, their definition of success evolves. Opera is one way to use your voice, but there are many others, perhaps less glamorous, but equally fulfilling. Some singers excel in the studio rather than on the stage, finding success interpreting the vast repertoire of art-song or early music. Many singers find success in the world of ensemble singing, a hotbed for new music compositions (especially those adept with aural skills). Boston’s choral ensembles in particular have been growing in popularity and demand in recent years, employing more and more trained singers. Plenty of classical singers find crossover work in musical theater, adapting their classical skills and knowledge for the popular genre. Expertise in diction or a knack for language leads some to linguistics or speech pathology. Classically trained vocalists can also find a use for their skills doing more tangentially related work as vocal professionals in the myriad of media that require voice-over speech recordings.
I’ve found my definition of success in the world of education. Music fundamentally changed my character and attitude by giving me an outlet for expression and the motivation for self-improvement in all areas of my life, not just music. It was a gateway to a passion for learning as a whole. While pursuing a career as a music educator, I have quickly realized that my musical experience was an uncommonly privileged one, but it is an opportunity that everyone deserves. To me, teaching is as much a success and as much a celebration of learning, discovery, and sharing as a career as an opera singer. I’ve chosen to use my voice and the wisdom gained through my vocal training to teach others. It is what I have to offer—my gift.