February 24, 2021
7 truths about a career in opera
Kerstin Hammerschmid
Seven truths about a career in opera
1. It takes hard work. Nobody is going to hand you a career.

If you are reading this blog and are part of the Living Opera community, I'd say this admonishment is hardly necessary, but just in case someone filled your imagination with lavish parties, fancy dresses, and champagne receptions as the regular experience of a working opera singer, please let me help you out in advance. Yes, we get to do those things from time to time, but our days are mostly filled with extremely mundane tasks that eventually allow us full creative and vocal freedom on stage when we get our chance. Yes, there are agents that can help open a strategic door or maybe a well connected voice teacher can make a recommendation, but when it comes time to take the stage and leverage that performance to score the next contract, that's ALL YOU! And it's good that way! Having control over your career means you work as diligently as possible to become as skilled as you can so you can have choices about how and where you share your gifts and talents. This might seem to be in direct conflict with point five, but I promise it's not...keep reading!

2. There is no such thing as a perfect career

When I was younger, I dreamt of a certain perfect repertoire I would sing at a certain circuit of opera houses, and even what my personal wardrobe would be like. It all seemed so far away and somehow that image of my future self also held the key to my happiness. I would think, well, if only I got to sing at my "dream" opera house with that "dream" conductor it would mean I had finally arrived at my best career self. I couldn't have been more wrong!! You know who has a perfect career? NOBODY! If you were to survey 100 working singers over 10 years about what their perfect career looked like, you would get 100 different answers that would probably change every six months. I'm not saying that singing at certain places wasn't amazing - it definitely was! - but it didn't change my life for better or for worse, and it certainly didn't change the problems in my life. There is no dream scenario where you sing at certain opera houses and you feel like you've fully arrived. There always seems to be something "out there" that is yet to be attained. I actually think that's okay as long as it doesn't create discontent. So at the end of the day the most important thing we can do is be present in the moment and appreciate the blessing of this stage, at this time, with these people, and this opera.

3. You will need to be self motivated.

This ties into point one, but I suppose this is more of the "how to" part of that statement. Self motivation requires self discipline, self awareness, and self discovery. It's a full time job to plan your life in advance, but it leads to great things. Want to sing coloratura more cleanly? You will need the right information and the discipline to get into the practice room and sing until you get it. Want to get healthier? You need a plan for diet and exercise, whatever your goal may be! The great thing is that you get to decide how, when, where, and why you do what you do, and you also get to set the timeline. This is a stark contrast to the formulaic thinking we were inundated with in school. Unlike in many degree programs, the life of a professional singer is highly unstructured, so it's up to us to create that framework so our bills are paid, the travel is booked, the emails are sent, the music is learned, our kids get fed, etc. ETC. And all of this only gets amplified when you're away on a job! Now you have to take care of everything at home AND in whatever city you're in. You have to be fully present at work but also make sure things at home are tended to. It requires a can-do attitude and the desire for excellence, and it's not easy!

4. At some point, you will probably have to sing while sick

That might sound obvious, but when it comes time to actually sing while under the weather, we need to be mentally prepared. One of the ways I know if the performance will work or not is by first testing my cords early in the morning. If there is no distortion in the sound, then I do not cancel the performance. If they will not come together and make a clear tone however, I wait a couple of hours and see if there is any improvement. Most opera companies in Europe require you to give plenty of notice if you will not sing a performance that night, and usually they need to have a definite answer by 11 am on show day. Some artists do not like to have the opera company make an announcement that they are ill, but I think it's important to deal with that on a case to case basis. If the performance is a standard repertory night at the opera at a regional theater and there are no reviewers in the audience and it isn't a premiere, then maybe it's not necessary. If, however, you are the lead role in an important opening and the audience is full of influential journalists that are going to etch your name in reviews online that will long outlast the show, then it's only prudent to ask for an announcement. Singing while sick is not fun and it feels very risky. When your paycheck is on the line however, it it unfortunately sometimes necessary.

5. Your network is almost as important as your voice.

I don't know why this statement makes many artists uncomfortable. If someone doesn't know who you are, it's incredibly difficult for them to give you a job! There is nothing wrong with building a strong personal network and there are ways to do it that do not have to be desperate or sleazy. Casting directors are people too!! Many singers rely on their agent and their network, and that is okay to an extent, but I have found that singers who are able to compliment their agent's sphere of influence with strong personal connections seem to be able to build more cohesive careers. For my part, I have found many of my side projects were born out of simply collecting interesting people and dreaming about how we could effectively collaborate in the future. My only caveat: do not be pushy. Use wisdom in approaching busy, important people. They don't have time for complaining or longwinded stories. It's most effective to have a clear objective in mind and approach them simply and confidently with your request. The worst thing they can do is say no!

6. You will go through several fach changes.

Fach changes are completely natural and occur with some predictability in most singers. In my experience, most singers change repertoire ever ten years or so, with the exception of very dramatic voices that tend to add and subtract roles every five years as more weight comes into their voices. It is rare for any voice to start with one repertoire and stay their for the entirety of a career, although it does happen in some fachs, like countertenors, from time to time. If you are going through a fach change do not panic!

7. Being a full time singer doesn’t automatically mean you are happy in life.

When I was 26 I landed my first singing jobs and they were all in great companies. I had "arrived" by industry standards. I had achieved my ultimate dreams and they left me feeling sad, unfulfilled, empty and super scared. Was this it? THIS is what I had sacrificed and saved for, said no to late nights and parties, sold all my possessions and left my family to pursue? THIS? I had made my career my be all and end all and it didn't measure up to my overinflated expectations. I was CRUSHED.

Thankfully, the realization that I needed to do more than singing eventually led me down the path to create Living Opera, but that took a very long time to realize and required that I take long, hard look at myself and find out the answers to many tough questions. Why did I become a singer? Did I actually enjoy being a singer? What was my long term goal with singing? What was I willing to sacrifice to continue in the profession? I know some performers who this never happens to. They are totally content just focusing on singing and feel maximum achievement in attaining their aspirations in that one stream. (And I think that is amazing!)

For me however, I quickly knew I needed more, but I couldn't put my finger on what would make me feel a more complete sense direction for my career until I started this project. Maybe that's you today. If so, I want to encourage you to keep pressing in to answer those deeper questions. You won't like what you discover during some parts of the journey, but eventually you will end up at a place of honesty and self discovery that will show you your true calling. Most of you are multifaceted people with multiple gifts with which to bless the world. Don't fight that! Lean in and become the solution to the problems you see around you. In times of crisis, people need hope more than ever. Artists, in their purest sense, should be ambassadors of that hope. Let me know how it goes!

Written by:

Soula Parassidis

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