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Getting Started in the Opera

Opera singers are extraordinarily disciplined. Performances are generally performed in dedicated opera houses, often in prestigious cities around the world. Opera singers perform both live and recorded pieces. These works combine a musical score and a libretto, or text, and are typically accompanied by an orchestra. The live performances incorporate stage acting, costumes, scenery, and often dancing.

The traditional opera season lasts from about September through May. For singers who are booked with a show, their work day generally begins very early and can last well into the evening, with performance days often extending late into the night. They will have already memorized the entire opera before rehearsals even begin. When a performance is cast, the entire group begins with a run-through of the piece. They spend the next two to three weeks staging the opera. During the fourth week, called tech week, they move into the theater and practice the piece in costume for the first time, perfecting each note and each step using props and lighting. After that, opera singers will have one entire run-through with the orchestra, plus two dress rehearsals before the actual performances begin.

If a singer isn't currently booked into an opera, that doesn't mean they can afford to take time off. Opera singing is completely entrepreneurial, which means you must constantly be auditioning for new parts. Opera singers without current gigs spend their days taking voice lessons, practicing for recitals, attending performances, and learning musical pieces to use in future shows.

The most successful opera singers are driven, work well with other people, love to learn, and are self-motivated. Self-care is very important in this job, so healthy eating and exercise must be priorities. Great opera singers are versatile as well, and able to roll with adversity and adapt and overcome problems with good humor. Above all, it's important for opera singers to always look for ways to improve. If a school doesn't offer a class that's needed for a particular part or show, finding an independent tutor to teach what needs to be learned is the usual course of action in order to be considered for a role.

Opera singers come from all over the world, and the great centers of opera are in countries around the globe, so as you advance in your career and gain a reputation in the world of opera, the more likely it is that travel will be a big part of your career.

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Master the Fundamentals of Music, Language and Performance

Opera singers start training when they're very young. High school is generally considered a late start into the profession. This is one reason why opera is often considered more of a calling than a career. During elementary and high school, budding opera singers should join glee club and take private voice lessons.  It’s also important to experiment with different types of music and genres within the field of music.

As part of a bachelor’s of music degree, many colleges and universities offer majors in opera, vocal performance or vocal study. An audition is usually required for entrance into a music program. Curriculum at this level typically includes a focus on stage and performance skills. Classes include vocal pedagogy, repertoire, and a vigorous focus on languages, including German, French, English, Spanish, and Italian.  In addition, you should take dance classes, theater classes, and even improv lessons.  Students will also participate in choral or ensemble performances and recitals, and workshops as part of their degree requirements.

Graduates who choose to continue their vocal training and education may enter a master of music in vocal performance and doctor of musical arts in voice performance and pedagogy or another closely-related degree field.  Coursework builds on concepts and skills learned in the bachelor’s of music program. A recital or final paper may be required for graduation. 

European study is also important for opera singers, so study abroad options should be one of the considerations when choosing a school. Not only is Europe the home of opera, living in a different country allows individuals to grow and learn a different way of life and performance style. Broadening your viewpoint to include people from around the world adds value as a singer when applying to opera companies.

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Build Experience & Continue Vocal Improvement

Amassing experience is the best way to learn and advance as an opera singer. Participating in as many performances as possible while in school, in community theater, in local choruses, etc., can all benefit a budding opera singer’s career. Opera houses often offer apprenticeship programs to opera students who are still attending school and for those who have already graduated. Once accepted, singers undergo intense training and opportunities to perform. Apprenticeships also provide exposure and invaluable experience.

Aspiring opera singers can also look for a Young Artists Programs. These programs are a bridge between the academic and professional opera worlds. Opera singers taking advantage of these programs are generally in their 20's and early 30's. They are in-residence programs that pay a salary to sing small background roles or serve as understudies for larger roles.

Networking is always at the top of the list of activities for acquiring more work. A contact you made five years ago can turn into an audition for a performance if the person in charge remembers you fondly as someone who works hard and takes direction well. Being a hard worker who's willing to go the extra mile will earn you much respect in the business.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS) employment for singers (in general) is projected to grow only three percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much slower than average for all career fields. That said, opera is a specialized area within the general realm of singing, and there will always be fans who will pay to see a great opera. This is true also in Europe and elsewhere, so opera singers with talent, contacts and a stellar reputation in the field will always find work.

Get to Know Our Experts

Michael Rogers

  • Title:
    Opera Singer
  • Company:
    San Francisco Opera Chorus
  • Where:
    San Francisco, CA
  • Experience:
    25 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Opera Singer
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    New York City, NY
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Opera Singer
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Opera Singer Infographic