Performing is a personal choice. Think about it. Anyone can call themselves an opera singer, or any type of singer they want when singing in the shower, but until you actually get up on stage and perform that is where the real choice begins. I could extend that by saying to pursue opera as a career is also a personal choice. In a young singer’s career there are many opportunities to boast but it is only when we hit the high notes, get through a long passage in one breath, or have that amazing coaching session that we proudly scream, “I AM AN OPERA SINGER!”. Even so, screaming that is a very personal choice. There are paid opera singers and there are non-paid opera singers, there are amateur singers and there are professional singers, there are young artists and there are resident artists, there are those that pay to sing internationally at programs and those that sing at regional theaters. It makes no difference, we all do the same amount of work that goes into performing in an opera.
So how does a classically trained singer establish oneself as a successful opera singer? It’s simple. By being patient with our voice to grow, for our artistry to develop, and for providing ourselves opportunities to perform every chance we can. This means constantly being heard by voice teachers, coaches, managers, directors, etc. who will tell us when they think that we are ready, but we have to ultimately decide when we feel ready. This at first means choosing which auditions to go on and at what cost. It is a running joke among opera singers that if we had a dollar every time we heard, “You have an upcoming audition? You should audition for THE VOICE,” we’d not only be rich, but it would be great performance exposure for us as singers to showcase the end-part of what we do. Many people only see what happens in the short-term on TV that someone becomes an overnight sensation, but that is only a small reality of the daily practicing and intensive collaborations that go on behind the scenes. The years of dedication and commitment that it takes to keep singing is less featured and in truth it is the heart and soul of our chosen art.
One doesn’t set out to become an opera singer to chase the money that can come from a fruitful career. It comes from knowing that we are out there loving what we do. All of the best singers that I have had the pleasure to watch from the wings, from onstage, or from the audience, all have the same positive attitude for what they do and how they go about doing it. The energy flows freely and easily. Those singers with a humble and down-to-earth attitude off-stage have the innate ability to walk onstage with the utmost amount of confidence to make you want to pay attention to every word they are singing. It is there that they become a true Diva. In that exact moment they are convinced they are the character and every effort to produce sound, seems effortless. I will tell you that every great singer of this caliber is less concerned about what is going on around them and is extremely connected to his or her emotional self at any given moment during their performance.
I will admit that there are a fair share of “diva” tendencies among singers that do give our profession a bad name. But I will also tell you that there is a reason for this temporary disengaging attitude and that is tunnel vision — a certain level of focus that cannot be disrupted during and around performance time. It’s all a part of the process. If you see a principal singer before a show quietly sitting by himself or herself not speaking with anyone, you may think at first glance that he or she is being elusive and stuck-up. In reality, I can bet you any amount of money that he or she is just reviewing the most difficult parts of the opera silently in his or her head. That is focus. To quote the Ultimate Diva herself, Maria Callas, said “An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.” Which reiterates the point that everything that we as singers do in our life feeds into the entire production of an opera, you submit yourself over to what the composer has written on the page in hopes that you can do it justice, like those who sang it before you, but also in hope that you can uncover something fresh and new. Our lives, our voice, our art, is constantly a work in progress.
When I set out this past summer in Europe to take on three roles, one after the other, I took off on the adventure excited with my scores in hand but soon came the question: what am I doing? It is the same question that singers are faced with every time we are in the thick of rehearsals, or during opening week, learning a new set of music, or living out of a hotel room — when the tensions are high and we search for validation on why we are pursuing our art on any level. We are also human and we want it all, right now. One coach that I had studied with in New York mentioned to me candidly, take your sweet time. Breathe. Learn your notes slowly. Savor each and every moment along the way. I have to say that although I felt good about my performances after diligently learning them, I would have to agree. The reason is that time is the necessary component to allow for character growth and for the voice to wrap around those melodic patterns with ease. Time is what is needed for the singer to achieve the difficult, sophisticated way that is required to get into the heart of what opera is about: the emotional connection.
As in relationships, this connectivity to emotion is something that builds over weeks, months, and sometimes even years. It is not uncommon for a singer to practice or sing an aria for 10 years or more in order to get it even close to “perfection.” But the point is, opera singers choose to sing this music because we love it and we are open to sharing that love as a big part of our compensation. Some of us actually consider being called a Diva as a compliment. This choice becomes a part of our identity that will always be there no matter where life takes us. The closeness that we feel towards our colleagues and audience members is one of the highest gratitude. Of course, we all find our own way and would keep doing it for free in our living room but, honestly, when it comes right down to the dotted line we would prefer for someone else to take care of the details so we can concentrate on our next venture: to be on the stage, in a real theater, in wonderful costumes, under the lights, looking out over a full house where we have the possibility to capture the heart of a long-time patron, spark the attention of a first-time audience member, or inspire a young concert-goer to pursue the study of classical music. That is where the real payoff begins.