Being an opera singer is 1% glamour and 99% hard work.
Learning the notes, rhythms, languages, working on technique, going to coachings, auditions, competitions, being disciplined, taking care of your voice … all while being vulnerable and released when it really matters, to connect with the audience while onstage and make them feel something.
It certainly seems impossible at times. You spend so much time working on your voice or conquering that one difficult aria, or learning another language, that you feel like a brain on a stick sometimes. There are so many languages, arias and recitatives inside your head, and when it comes time to audition, or perform, or compete (all three are performing, by the way), how can you let it all go? How can you be a performer that connects with the audience instead of being a robot, just carefully regurgitating everything you worked on for so long up to that point, so you don’t screw it up?
I think the question becomes: How much of your soul are you willing to show?
Opera is full of emotion. Operas aren’t written about a normal day in the lives of these characters, because then the audience would be bored. There is love, betrayal, murder, suicide – all of the stories have such high stakes with beautiful music used to tell the story. How can one not adore this art form? Well, if we, as the storytellers/singers do not do our job, the audience won’t be connected to it, and won’t love it as much as they should to keep coming back.
Singing is very personal and exposed. High notes, low notes, vibrato – no voice sounds exactly the same and it’s important to find your voice and not imitate past singers. Why would you imitate past singers in the first place? Because it’s safe. “Well [enter famous singer here] sounded like this and when I do this one thing I sound like her so that must be right,” only to discover that you’ve been pushing or holding back or creating tension. By trusting your own body to create sound that is unique to your voice, and only your voice, you are exposing part of your soul. When you expose your soul like that, you become susceptible to criticisms. Scary, right? Maybe they won’t hire you, maybe they won’t like your sound, maybe they will whisper to each other that you are the worst singer in the world and that you are a massive failure.
Since all of that is quite frightening, it’s easy to take the safe route while performing. You have your roadmap for the role you are singing that day and BOOM you hit all your marks. Held that one high note for 4 beats like the role called for, didn’t fall down the stairs onstage like you thought you might, you feel great. Did the audience feel anything? Maybe, but not necessarily. You hit all of the technical points. Where was the emotion?
I’m certainly not saying we all need to start crying onstage or something – that would be an invitation for tongue tension and we wouldn’t even be able to sing. But there needs to be a balance. I’m still trying to figure this out as a singer myself, but I know that the ultimate goal is to connect with the audience – something I certainly do not want to sacrifice.
Until I have the answer for how this balance between technical execution and emotional connection is achieved, I’m putting it out into the universe for other singers to think about. Maria Callas (yaaas queen) wasn’t always perfect 100% of the time, but you know what she did do? She connected with the audience. Yes, she had the voice, but she also was a theatrical genius. The audience couldn’t get enough of her. There is a recording on youtube of Callas singing, “Ah, non credea mirarti” by Bellini. It is one of my favorite arias to sing and I would listen to it on repeat while I was learning the aria a few years ago. While watching it and hearing it, you can feel the absolute ache coming from her. She didn’t sing it robotically, she sang it as a human who was heartbroken. It is so moving that I played it over and over again. She appears vulnerable on that video. Vulnerability, for anyone, not just singers, opens you up for failure. Maybe we need to make sure we stay brave and take that leap. Remain vulnerable onstage, and show your soul. It is more fulfilling for you as an artist and more satisfying to your audience. Sounds like a win/win, doesn’t it?