How to Become an Opera Singer

Opera is an amazing performance art form as it incorporates so many of the elements of other kinds of performance into one glorious, epic package. Opera has the acting of normal theatrical performance, its scenery and lighting design and costume creation, a director and stage manager and often also the dancing and the live orchestra one would find in a Broadway musical. Performances are usually given in specifically designed “opera houses” accompanied by the aforementioned full orchestra or some smaller variation.

Opera is an extraordinarily disciplined field of endeavor and calls the performer to practice great concentration in the moment and enormous tenacity over the long term.

As in any competitive field, there is always a surfeit of available talent for a limited number of available jobs. Though there may be many operatic performers in the world, few will rise to a level of success comparable to a Maria Callas or a Luciano Pavarotti and, honestly, few will ever be in the position of actually making a decent living pursuing this art form. This is the reality and, as such, one must have a burning passion, positive attitude and willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve success!

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Michael Rogers

San Francisco Opera Chorus

Quick Look Bio

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  • Michael Rogers
  • San Francisco, CA
  • 25
  • San Francisco Opera Chorus
I studied vocal performance at the University of Puget Sound and then studied privately for seven years with Charlene Chadwick, a professor of Voice Studies at San Jose State University. I’ve performed more than 20 principal roles with regional opera companies, including Escamillo in Carmen, Rigoletto in the opera of the same name, and Ezio in Atilla. I have performed in 50 different operas with the San Francisco Opera chorus.Like so many artists, my schedule isn’t 9 to 5. When the Opera is in full swing, I work six days a week –typically Tuesday through Sunday. A normal day might include a musical rehearsal, staging rehearsal and/or a performance that afternoon and evening. (Most rehearsals start at noon or later.) Operas can run until midnight, which means I don’t get to bed until quite late and often sleep later in the morning.

I do love so many things about my job. For example, I get to sing the type of music I’ve loved since I was young. I get to perform operas at one of the most beautiful opera houses in the U.S. (the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House); and I am privileged to sing alongside colleagues I love and respect to the accompaniment of a world-class orchestra. There are about 250 people in the entire country who are employed full time in opera choruses, and I’m lucky to be one of them. Add to that the fact that some of the top opera singers in the world sing at San Francisco Opera, and I realize how incredibly fortunate I am.

What I sometimes dislike are the so-called “agents” out there who prey on singers desperate to get roles. These sorts offer to represent young talent but essentially just collect a monthly fee for the “privilege” of being able to use the agent’s name in auditions. This really upsets me.

Advice

Be ready for opera to be your life
I really wish I would have known how difficult it is to get started in the business. You must be ready to give your life to the career if you really want to be world class. This means a huge amount of travel, time away from home and family, and, to say the least, an usual lifestyle. Not everyone is cut out for this.

Find a mentor
I really suggest looking for a good mentor early on –someone who understands you, your voice, your aspirations and the ups and downs of this business.

Figure out your goals
It is a good idea to decide what you ultimately want to do with opera. If singing/performing is your goal, I would suggest attending a conservatory rather than a traditional university. Some people will disagree with me, but I wish I would have done it. It would have allowed me to focus completely on singing and not worry about taking history classes I didn’t care about. It is really important to become a good musician, learn languages (Italian, French, German, etc.), and become as skillful an actor as possible. The most important thing, though, is to find a teacher who will find your natural voice, not one who wants to create a voice that isn’t authentic to you.

Get yourself out there
After you are done with school go to every audition you can and sing for every young artist program you can. Make connections. Just like most professions, it’s who you know that can pave the way to success. And, most importantly, don’t get discouraged. Opera is a very competitive field and only a small percentage of singers make the big bucks. Most singers, even if they have an agent, are continually looking for the next gig.

Kacey Cardin

Opera Singer

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I grew up in Tennessee singing country, blues, and gospel. Then I started studying opera at age 15 and went on to get a Master of Music in Vocal Performance. Like many musicians, I’ve had my share of “survival jobs” along the way and, a couple of years ago, I decided to train and obtain certification as a life and business coach; I feel lucky to be working on two careers about which I’m equally passionate! On the opera side, after finishing my degree, I did a couple of young artist programs and then moved to NYC.

At the moment, I’m preparing the role of Gretel for Gulf Shore Opera, and I’m in L’Opera Burlesque every month here in NYC. I’m a member of pop classical trio Bella Diva –we released a debut album this summer. I’m writing, directing, and producing an immersive jazz show in Houston, TX featuring the Hot Box Girls in January 2015.

My typical day is busy! Time management, passion, and dedication are perhaps the most crucial characteristics for a successful opera singer. You must have the talent and the “it” factor, but if you can’t make the time to practice, study, coach, and work your tail off, you aren’t going to rise to the top in such a competitive field. My days vary, but each one demands the time for a workout, yoga, vocal exercises, and score study. Then I also have appointments with clients, on top of auditions, along with the administrative part of being your own business. It can be a lot to keep up with!

Advice

Don’t waste time
I wish I’d known how quickly time flies –when you’re in school, you’re told you’re “too young” for a lot of roles and opportunities. Before you know it, your time arrives! I wish I’d have spent more time preparing and learning full roles when I was still in the school setting. Perhaps more importantly, though, I wish I’d known 10 years ago how valuable my spirit and self-confidence were –the music industry can beat you up sometimes, and it’s important to develop a strong sense of self to keep you going no matter what external circumstances arise.

Focus on your goal
It’s important to keep the big picture goal in sight while you fine tune all the details. You must be the total package, and it will be up to you to learn to live a balanced, healthy life on top of managing a demanding and sometimes tumultuous career path.

Your training is in your hands
Research the top schools, programs, teachers, and coaches. Take the initiative to educate yourself on what roles and shows are right for you. Young Artist Programs are a great place to look, as are competitions. Don’t underestimate the value of creating your own opportunities –recitals, original productions, all sorts of things that might not be “traditional”. You might find some of your most fulfilling work is “off the beaten path”.

Tynan Davis

Opera Singer

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I was born to a classical musician mother and started singing with local a community children’s chorus as an adolescent. I began to take private voice lessons at 16 and was soon competing in state-wide competitions. A university music school showed interest, and I received a scholarship and bachelor degree in vocal performance from university.

Throughout I worked on foreign language and started a Master’s Degree program but soon quit and left for NYC with my two packed bags. When I got to New York, I basically pounded pavement, found a side job, took lessons and applied for every summer program and audition opportunity I could.

Advice

Be on point
Have a deep understanding of appropriate musical style and a technical mastery of vocal function. If you’re singing an aria like a pop princess, you’ve missed the mark. Only if you’re Aretha Franklin can you get away with that, and she had to use a microphone. Believe me, it’s WAY more fun knowing how to safely project over an orchestra using your own resonant body! Regarding learning languages, you don’t have to speak ALL the languages, but you do have to know how to sound like you do. I also suggest that you sing for as many teachers/coaches/programs/composers/companies as you are able, and keep that side job for financial stability.

Getting started
I wouldn’t get started until some of the above were solidly in play. Then I’d see what amateur and professional companies are in your city or region. If they have open auditions, start there. Find out about comprimario (supporting) roles or cover (understudy) opportunities. Build your resume. Keep learning about your instrument. Remember that superstardom isn’t likely, but joyful and satisfying human interaction through music is most definitely worth all the hard work and preparation.

Audition opportunities
A good source for audition opportunities is www.yaptracker.com. YAP stands for young artist program, but it lists a myriad of auditions, both domestic and international. There is a yearly fee with registration.

Make an audio or video recording
Well-made audio or video recordings are game changers. Work with a coach (a pianist familiar with operatic repertoire and performance practice who can guide your interpretive journey through a role), find a space with a great acoustic (I love a church sanctuary.), and record yourself. Not only is it a quick and easy way to get your musical product out in the world via YouTube or other social media outlets, it’s a way to monitor your development and assess your skills and habits from the audience’s vantage point.

Get a website
Get a website that you’re proud of! Put those fabulous recordings and production photos up for the world to hear and see. My site is tynandavis.com, and there are a number of times that it was enough of an audition for some companies, and I got the gig without leaving the apartment.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become an Opera Singer?


Our interviewees all vehemently state that ongoing vocal training is absolutely essential for all opera singers, new and veteran. Successful ones have gotten to where they are through very hard work, long hours and singular dedication. A natural ability is important, but operatic singing can be (and must be) learned.

Being accepted into a music school typically involves some pre-screening followed by a live audition. Music school officials inform those auditioning what kinds of vocal works are required for the process. The audition can also be a video recording, MP3 or CD submission in addition to live auditions. Regardless of the kind of submission, schools, in general, would like students to memorize an aria, or some other appropriate selection, in multiple languages.

Common bachelor degree majors include music, music performance or music theory. 4-year programs typically cover subjects like vocal performance and development, music history, chorus, acting, diction and ear training. Piano is also generally required to be learned. Note that opera majors will often be asked to give a solo performance prior to their graduation.

Other than training and classes, a big benefit of school is the student productions. Most music schools have several musical theater productions and even fully-staged operas for opera students to hone their craft.

A Master of Music program generally provides students with individual, tailored vocal classes. In addition to advanced vocal development, graduate programs help students to focus on working in the professional world, including audition, vocal coaching and preparation for rehearsal. Typical classes would be opera staging, acting, history and diction. Graduate programs also offer more opportunities for students to perform on the school stage.

It is important to also keep in mind that opera houses have apprenticeship programs for aspiring opera singers who are still working toward their degree and for those already graduated as well.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME AN OPERA SINGER?

  • Oberlin College-Conservatory of Music
    Oberlin’s college-conservatory is an undergraduate music program. This is good news for the undergrad as there is a lot less competition for top roles in the college’s opera productions. The college is choosey and only accepts a small number (around 20-30) of vocal students every incoming year.
  • Eastman School of Music
    The Eastman School of Music is considered to have one of the most selective and acclaimed vocal performance programs in the country. Offering full-scale opera productions, students are provided with the opportunity to have lots of practical experience singing and acting in both operatic and musical theater productions, such as The Marriage of Figaro, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and shows like Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.
  • New England Conservatory
    This historic school has produced some of the finest singers performing today, including such notables as Denyce Graves and IMG artist Jill Grove. The New England Conservatory is often thought of as one of the great departments for vocal performance in the country.
  • Yale School of Music
    Considered as one of the most competitive and intensive graduate programs for vocal performance in the country, Yale Opera’s output is on an equal basis with any major opera company. Yale provides New Haven with its favorite and most famous music ensembles, and every semester students of the program stage a large scale opera production at the school’s Shubert Theater.
  • University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music
    The Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music stages several impressive large-scale opera performances per year, providing plenty of stage performance experience to its many talented young vocalists. Additionally, students are afforded weekly private lessons, recitals, and workshops under the brilliant tutelage of the school’s exemplary faculty.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Again and again, the common theme in our research and interviews with opera professionals is the following: Great training, consistent and constant practice, unending vocal preparation, mental perseverance, performance experience, a great attitude, a singular devotion and exemplary work ethic all can enable a singer to become successful.

A good school can offer so many benefits to the aspiring opera singer, such as networking, practical experience and, of course, intensive training.

Opera singing demands a great deal of stamina. By everyday dedication to training, your voice will be ready for the rigors of demanding use on stage, in the hard but immensely rewarding world of opera.