A Muggle's Guide to the world of Opera
I've met a lot of new people recently. A lot of those people have met their first opera singer. Congrats! You now have a personal guide to this weird but wonderful world of opera. I've created a comprehensive guide to understand what it takes for us to do what we do. This guide is geared towards people that are curious about what we do and also for younger singers that want an introduction to the industry. My personal journey may be sprinkled in along the way, but this is meant to be a general overview. Perhaps my personal journey will be another blog!
As always, message me with any questions you have. I am always happy to answer. You can message me here on the Contact page of my website or on Instagram @thescrappymezzo where I post about daily life in opera. Enjoy!
What do I sing?
I am a mezzo-soprano. I sit just under where most sopranos sing comfortably, but I've sung high C's (C6) and even low F's (F3) on stage. Opera singers choose their repertoire based on what is called the Fach System. We choose repertoire based on the range, weight, and color of our voices. More info on that here. I don't sing Queen of the Night, but I do sing Carmen. Trust me, you've heard both of their music. :) My voice type is usually cast as mothers, grandmothers, housemaids, courtesans, sorceresses, young boys such as a page, and even kings and princes. Yes, you read that correctly, my voice type is often cast as a "pants role." This is traditionally a female playing a male character and the opera world has been doing it for hundreds of years! Of course, there are so many more types of characters written for the mezzo-soprano voice, but I'd say those are the majority.
We also study music within a large time period. We study Baroque music (as far back as 1580ish) all the way to opera being written today. This doesn't mean we end up singing all of it, but we do sing a large variety. Some singers specialize in a certain style/period and generally work within that repertoire. For example, my current voice teacher, Jennifer Rowley primarily sings Puccini, Verdi, and Bel Canto repertoire. Of course she ventures out here and there, but works within that realm.
I sing in a variety of languages. The primary operatic languages are Italian, French, German, and English. There are plenty of Czech, Russian, and Spanish operas and Concert/Sacred work is often in Latin. We do A LOT of studying for how to sing in these languages, even if we don't speak the language. Even if we don't speak it, it's important that we sound like we do. Diction classes and coachings help us be understood on the big stage. It's very different than the way we speak!
I went to college to study classical music. I began at Lee University with a Music Ed major and added Vocal Performance later on. After graduating with a double major, I went to get my Master's degree at McGill University in Montreal, QC for Opera & Voice Performance. Before college, I was heavily involved in choir my entire life. I play piano and guitar. I took voice lessons to basically learn my college audition songs and only applied to one school. This is not the norm. If you have a child that wants to study classical music in college, I highly suggest enrolling them in voice lessons much earlier and apply to more schools.
AUDITIONS, AUDITIONS, AUDITIONS.
For Opera auditions, we usually have about 5 arias. These are arias are within our Fach and when you are in school and auditioning for young artist programs, they are in 4 languages and contrasting time periods and styles. As you get older, these arias can get more specific and don't need to be as broad.
We find out about auditions in a few ways:
A company will post auditions on their website and we submit materials like a resume, headshot, and 2-3 recordings of arias. After the companies review the materials, then we may be invited for a live audition. These auditions will either be general season auditions or for a specific show. In the opera world, if you are auditioning for a specific role, then you bring the arias for that character. If you don’t have those arias, then you bring something as similar as possible. This can be from the same composer or the same style of music.
There is a website called YAP Tracker that companies can post to and we can apply through there. Sometimes this is for a specific show or competition, but it’s mostly used for things called Young Artist Programs. (see below)
You can reach out to a company to sing for them or be notified when auditions are happening.
It’s a slightly different process when you have management.
Sometimes the auditions happen where the company is located, but most of the time the auditions happen in New York City. Companies that are auditioning for Young Artist Programs often do a tour where they hold auditions in a few cities in different regions of the US.
Young Artist Programs:
Fun fact: Your vocal folds don’t actually mature until at least your mid-30s and mature as late as your mid-40s depending on your voice type. Singing in a big house over an orchestra is a big feat. When you’re in your 20s and early 30s, there are training programs where you coach, cover roles, and sometimes sing smaller roles. It is kind of the equivalent of a paid internship, but I would say it’s a level above that. These give you time to let your voice mature and provide you training and opportunity to network. There are different levels of these programs and even some that you pay to participate in. These programs are not the only path to an opera career, but a highly suggested one by many. Most of the time, these programs take place over the full season, or half of the season for the company.
Nashville Opera - The main part of the program is Jan - Apr. Some of us were contracted in December for another one of their shows. This program takes 4 singers (Soprano, Mezzo, Tenor, Baritone) and a pianist. We performed roles in their season. In between shows, we did an Education Tour where we performed Little Red’s Most Unusual Day for elementary school children in the area. We also did a few masterclasses, fundraising performances, and covered larger roles in the season. There were 3 mainstage shows over a few months. The mainstage shows had rehearsal periods of 3-4 weeks. 2ish for the shorter shows.
Central City Opera - This company’s season takes place over the summer. There were 24 singers hired, there are usually more, but because of COVID, they didn’t have as many people. For this company, Young Artists perform in the chorus, sing small roles, sometimes cover larger roles, and take classes every day such as stage combat, movement, acting, and coaching class where we work on our audition arias. They had 3 shows in their season. Rehearsals took place in June and performances almost every day in July. It is very busy!
When you are working with management, you are auditioning for the main stage, rather than a training program. The company actually reaches out to the managers and tells them their season or the show and sometimes specific roles they are casting for. The managers send in options from their rosters and the company replies with who they want to hear. Just like other auditions, sometimes it is a general “get to know you” auditions and sometimes it is for a specific role. If you get the gig, your manager will negotiate your contract for you and will receive 10% of your earnings.
I’m in sort of a crossroads in my career at the moment. I am 30 years old and decided to continue applications to select Young Artist Programs, but I also recently signed with Management. So some of my auditions are ones that I applied to through YAP Tracker. I also have auditions that my managers set up for me. Hooray for transitions!
When you get the gig
If you end up getting the gig, the company will contact you or your manager and you will begin contract negotiations. This will decide how long you will be there, housing, travel, when/how you are pain, any outside performances/appearances, and many other things. You are normally considered an independent contractor. I always immediately set aside about 20% of any performance paycheck I receive for tax season.
$$$ For YAPs, you are normally paid weekly. For normal gigs, you are paid per performance or at the last show. This is part of why singers are so adamant about their health. The downside of this is if you do the rehearsal process, but you get sick for the show and can't perform, you don't get paid unless otherwise negotiated in your contract.
Most gigs provide your housing for you and give you a travel stipend to aid in booking plane tickets or your drive to the city. This stipend varies depending on the company. If you are auditioning at the local and sometimes regional level, you will find your own housing. I found my own housing at my own expense for the first 4 years of my career and am so thankful to all the friends and family that allowed me in their home for 3-6 weeks. At this point, I no longer have to find my own housing and now have someone negotiating that for me. (Thanks NCAM!) There are larger companies that have you find your own housing, but you still receive a stipend to do so.
What do I do when I'm not auditioning or at a gig?
PRACTICE. I am always honing my craft. Singers are athletes and we need to keep up and move forward with our skills. When I am home, I am studying languages, learning new repertoire, honing technique, reviewing old arias, planning projects such as role studies, and preparing for any upcoming auditions and performances. I also take voice lessons and coachings.
I design websites for singers (Elephont Web Design), teach voice lessons, and currently work in a coffee shop. I honestly like having these aspects of my life. I like having an extra job that has nothing to do with music. It's not for everyone, but it works for me.
Being an Opera Singer is incredibly expensive. We are constantly studying and practicing. Voice lessons, coachings, and plane tickets add up. Did I mention that many young artist applications have a fee? Yes, we often have to pay to submit an application for a job interview that we might not even get...
It is also not my hobby! Of course, I am incredibly lucky to do what I get to do. There are so many singers out there that could easily take my position and I don't take anything for granted. But it is my profession. I am a paid professional that makes a living from opera and I love it!
Did you learn anything from this blog post? If so, let me know! I always enjoy introducing my world to new people.
Interested in Voice Lessons? Contact me here
Follow me on Instagram to follow along my opera journey and behind the scenes for shows and auditions! @thescrappymezzo
Photo: Cast of Twisted 2 | Opera Columbus