As mentioned in an earlier post, an opera singer friend of mine was recently featured in a New York Times blog-article (blogticle? Is there netspeak for that particular branch of journalism?!) for her 100lb weight loss. The article was upbeat, positive and insightful, just like the singer in question and, while there were a few comments which were pessimistic in tone, most of them were highly supportive.
However, several of those comments, as well as some questions recently asked of me in passing by non-singers, really made me realise just how many misconceptions there are about the modern opera career. There is so much people outside this operatic world DON'T know about what we do, particularly those of us in the trenches who are "working singers" rather than "household name stars". So, without further ado, a few clarifications!
1. Singers live a glamour lifestyle and have lots of money
Well, maybe for those at the very top of the profession that's true. But for most? It's good just to be working and paying our mortgages with our music-making (singing for our supper indeed!), and not having to fill in between singing engagements with other non-musical employment to make ends meet.
For many singers, the lengthy training process to reach "career ready" (usually by late 20s or early 30s) has racked up significant debt via student loans. The coveted spots at Young Artist Programs (summer, or occasionally year-long "internships" at opera companies for singers transitioning from student to professional) often pay stipends which barely cover living costs. Many singers are still living like students even once they've started working professionally, or at least spending their between-gig-times waiting tables or working in offices. And singing work is by no means "guaranteed", even for those who enjoy a degree of success - until the calendar is booked up years in advance (something becoming rarer these days as opera companies reflect global economic uncertainties) it's never a sure thing; health insurance, pensions or any of the other peripheral securities that many people assume go with any "career" don't exist unless we buy them for ourselves, and there are seldom any longterm contracts to a single house (except in Europe, where a "Fest" (full time) contract can give a singer some financial security). There is often an element of the Vie de Boheme until a singer is consistently engaged at the very highest levels!
2. It doesn't matter what you look like if you're an opera singer, because everybody knows that all opera singers are fat.
This is a hot-button topic in Operaland so I hesitate to wade in and discuss it at length but, suffice to say, looks DO matter these days. While vocal ability is still the single most important element towards making a singer a star, "type" plays into it more and more and singers have greater pressure on them to "compete" with media images of dramatically credible than has ever before been true. Any look at Anna Netrebko, Kate Aldrich or Nathan Gunn (just to pick three high profile names out of the air) makes it abundantly clear that looks DO count these days (these folks are all excellent and committed singers who have for sure earned their star status musically and vocally, but nobody would argue that they all come in a package that could just as easily be successful in Hollywood as onstage at the Met).
3. What's so difficult about being a singer? It's all natural talent - you either have it or you don't.
The basic talent may be "natural", but learning to use it is anything but! It's more like developing an athletic skill than any kind of magical inspiration, and takes years of physical (muscle) and musical (intellectual) training. In addition to training the voice itself, singers need to be versed in various musical styles and at least familiar with the major European languages (even if they don't speak them fluently or even conversationally, they need to be able to read them well enough to be able to look up literal meanings in a dictionary and pronounce them properly). Oh, and develop their stagecraft and dramatic sensibilities enough to be able to act out an operatic story while still keeping beautiful sounds coming out of their mouths... Add to that acting as their own CEO and marketing team (even the best agent in the world can't actually make our decisions or do all the on-the-job networking and schmoozing for us), and there's a lot to learn, develop and sustain in making this a career.
4. Being an opera singer means you have loads of free time
Not so's you'd notice! The actual musical preparation time involved in sustaining a career is significant even when not in rehearsal for a production (at which point it's a pretty consistent 4-7hrs of rehearsal a day, 6 days a week until the opening). An average "day off" (ie, not in rehearsal or performance) for a working singer probably includes 1-4hrs of actual singing practice, plus pretty much endless score study and research - translating a part, learning those foreign-language texts, researching the story, character and historical background... Many hours of work. Even when it's something you love, it can be a long day! Remember too that while working at "just a job" may mean that you clock off when you leave the office (or the factory, or the sales department), as a singer your voice is a PART of you - you can't put it in a cabinet until the next professional appointment and thus you are living with your career 24/7 and have to remain vigilant about caring for that instrument; this can be more wearing than you'd realise! Many singers also teach or have other professional activities in addition to their performing commitments, and those take time too; it can often be flexible scheduling for sure, but it's busy.
5. Dedicated only to their art and their voice, all singers are solitary diva/os
Well, as discussed, I think many singers DO have a single-mindedness about their singing, but that doesn't mean they aren't also pretty normal people, too. Vissi d'arte, but vissi d'amore and a whole bunch of other things as well. Plenty have families (I'm certainly not alone in being a working singer with children). And I sometimes think that "non opera folks" would be surprised how many singers spend their free time playing video games, woodworking, walking trails, volunteering for charity, breeding puppies and doing any number of other low-profile, "non diva/o" quite mundane activities (in fact, mundane and uncomplicated, down-to-earth pastimes are a wonderful antidote to the emotional intensity of opera, and I think many of us actively seek it out in "down times"!). There is indeed a conundrum between singing being a job that you DO and a vocation that you fulfil, but singing and real life are NOT mutually exclusive... even if they occasionally collide!