I just read someone's facebook status the other day that said, "This is a career that, I swear, takes years off your life, but oh Mama is it ever fulfilling sometimes." There are an abundance of people in this world that only know the first part of that sentence to be true. When I tell someone I'm an opera singer, I am usually asked if I've auditioned for Canadian Idol or if after being done university I have graduated to become a "certified opera singer". The truth is, our job is a complete myth to those who don't live in our world.
The most important thing that anyone has to remember is that everyone's journey is different. Not one singer will walk the same path as the other. This is not a 9-5 job that is the same day after day and that is what it is so extraordinary. For those reading who don't quite understand the "formula", I would love to enlighten you. I will again stress that everyone's journey is different, but there are a couple important landmarks that most singers visit.
The majority of opera singers find a love for their art somewhere in high school or earlier, and they seek out a post-secondary institution that will train them in the art. This profession is a very academic and cultured one. We study musical skills, theory, music history, acting, vocal literature, languages etc. First and foremost, we must become skilled musicians. In this day and age and with a recession, gone are the times where singers can get away with being poor musicians. Simultaneously, during all that academic study, we have our voice lessons. Someone once told me that an undergraduate degree in music is equivalent to a pre-med program, and trust me, it felt that way at first! We focus mostly on art songs, which are basically poems set to music by different composers--opera usually comes later in the learning process.
Now this is the path I took, but others study in conservatories where the academics are, for the most part, absent. The conservatory setting deals with mostly "hands on" training (voice lessons, coachings, rehearsals). Many people attend conservatories after they are done a degree as well.
Because students go to university at 18, the majority of them decide to opt for more schooling. The voice is one of those tricky things that takes time to develop. I personally took the Diploma route, because I felt I was done with academics. This doesn't mean I don't still try to feed my brain, for I am a life-long learner! At Laurier, the diploma program was a one year program that focused specifically on opera. I sang all operatic repertoire and performed roles in excerpts, as well as a full role. I also performed in a self-produced year-end recital with my fellow Op. Dip. colleague.
3) Summer Programs
These are programs designed for singers to continue their training in a facility outside of a school setting. They are usually paid for by the singer (some are free, or partially subsidized). The majority of them produce operas and the singer is cast in an opera, as well as being able to take part in many classes. I am attending a program in May (that I have attended in the past) called Opera NUOVA. Along with my rehearsals for the show, I get to take part in voice lessons, acting classes, master classes, dance classes, yoga, tai chi, professional development classes, poetry classes...the list goes on. It is quite an extraordinary program. These programs allow the singer to get "on the job" experience, as well as to continue their training. Some last six weeks (like this one) and some are as short as one week. Not only do you get to take part in this fantastic training, but professional singers, pianists, directors and conductors make up the faculty, so you are also building a network of people that are already successful in their careers. Some singers attend these during their undergrad as well as after its completion.
4)Young Artist Programs
These are training programs created by specific opera companies. There are usually a very small amount of singers accepted (about 7-12). This allows for a singer to continue their training whilst being paid and being immersed in a professional environment. They usually perform the small or "comprimario" roles and also cover (or understudy) the lead roles being sung by professional singers. People in these programs can be anywhere from the age of 21-35, depending on their voice type. These are very competitive to get in to, and many singers audition two to four times before being accepted, or deciding not to audition anymore.
These programs offer a lot of exposure because you are performing on the main stage for an opera company. This usually opens up the possibility to sing for management (agents). Now, you don't need to do a YAP, as we call them, but you can sing for management elsewhere. All in all, YAPs are a great opportunity, plus you are getting paid to sing! Woo hoo!
From then on it takes time. Management will hopefully get you work and you will continue to climb the singer career ladder.
If you are interested in reading more about how a YAP program works, or to read a great book about being backstage at the opera, pick up Fortissimo by William Murray. It is about the Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artist program, where journalist William Murray follows these 12 young singers for a year and documents their experience.
I hope this de-mystifies what we do as singing artists. Yes, it is a long hard road, but it is so incredibly rewarding. Plus, if you love what you do, why do anything else?
Fellow singers, please pass this post on to any of your family and friends if you don't feel like explaining why you don't sing in a band or have any desire to audition for Canadian Idol! Haha.