This business can be very tricky. It involves a lot of self promotion, travel, hard work, paying of dues, schmoozing, and much more. Life as an opera singer, especially one just starting to get off the ground like me, can be difficult. You can spend thousands of dollars to apply for jobs, travel to auditions, buy a nice audition outfit, and sing for a panel of potential employers for just five minutes! Once you do get the job, you will probably not be paid very much, you might have to uproot your life for a month or so to take the job, and there are no guarantees that the experience will be positive or rewarding. On top of that, there can be a general negativity about this art form, about opera and classical music in general. People say it is dying, that opera companies and symphonies are folding right and left, that no one wants to come hear an art song recital and that our audiences are thinning and elderly.
I know all of these things. I have been hearing career talks for 10 years. I have been told so many times that out of a room of singers hearing the career talk, only 1 or 2 will be lucky enough to have a real career. I know all of that. And yet here I am, happy to be doing what I am doing, supporting myself as a musician, as a performer and a teacher.
What makes it all worthwhile is the art. Opera is a complete emotional art form. When it all comes together, there are elements of dance, music, acting, words, singing, and raw human emotion. It is truly an amazing thing to think about! When I am able to portray a character, I have to memorize a thick musical score, learn the words and their meanings (usually in another language), create the character onstage as a real human being, and express what they are feeling, all while strapped into some ridiculously amazing corset and layers of 18th century petticoats. Yes, it is stylized, it is not real life. In a way it is better than real life! When Violetta falls in love in La Traviata, the orchestra underlines her uneasy feelings, her fear, her final desire to give in to the outpouring of passion coming from the tenor. You are carried along with her story, feeling her internal life through the music, through her facial and body expressions, even through the lighting and stagecraft. By the time she dies at the end of the opera, you should know her completely, her heart, her soul! You should feel as much loss as Alfredo does when her spirit leaves her. If everyone has done their jobs, you should feel that cathartic release of death, the sadness and waste of her loss, with all of your senses!
I love being part of this emotional expression. I am someone who cries at the movies (most recently at The Amazing Spider-Man!), who feels things keenly, who loves to people-watch. There is something really special about being able to put on that costume and wig and be someone else. Of course it is over the top, of course the plots are convoluted. Opera is not real life, but a mirror into the emotional truth of real life. The picture with this post is from the mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor, which is one of my absolute favorite things to sing. The lady in question has been forced to marry against her will and jilt her true love (who is of course a member of a family who hates her family), and has murdered the unwanted husband and come down the stairs covered in his blood, to the horror of her wedding guests. She has gone mad and is talking to people who aren’t there, spouting nonsense, and entirely unaware of her surroundings. Do I have any experience with murdering a husband who my family forced me to marry? Not at all. But I have felt the agony of hurting someone I love, of not living up to family expectations, of not being able to be with someone I dearly loved. In that respect, her crazy blood-soaked scene is true to me, to my experiences, and more importantly, to human experience in general. Being part of that makes all the other stuff, the audition trips and rejection and frustration, more than worth it.
I treasure those lovely experiences onstage, the moments of pure heartfelt expression, and I am happy and proud to do what I do. Opera will never be pop music; it will always require more from and audience in terms of attention and education. It will likely not turn me into a star or a rich person. But there is a reason it has lasted since the time Handel and Mozart, and it will continue on. And I, too, will continue on!