How To Become an Opera Singer
Opera Singers perform pieces that combine a libretto (text) and a musical score accompanied by an orchestra. These performances incorporate costumes, scenery, stage acting, and sometimes dancing.
The opera season lasts from September through May and is a varied and intense period for Singers. If cast in a production, a Singer’s typical day will be quite different than that of a Singer who’s not currently in the midst of rehearsals. Mezzo-soprano Bergen Baker says, “It’s totally an entrepreneurial business. You are your own product. I’ll have weeks where it’s a little bit lighter, with one rehearsal a day, or if I’m on a gig that’s a really intense rehearsal period.”
During their downtime, Opera Singers are always studying for their next gig. They also perform in capacities outside the opera setting. Baker says that when she’s not part of a performance, she tries to “keep as regular of a schedule as I can. I work out, check work emails, and schedule rehearsals.” She has a weekly voice lesson and spends time preparing for recitals, attending rehearsals, or singing on her own for a few hours each day. “I have a Pianist who will come over and work through some things. I’m always working, even when I’m not getting paid for it.” Like all Opera Singers, she spends a lot of time studying. “I always have a score in my lap. I’m always doing some sort of research, always learning.”
When Opera Singers are booked for a performance, their schedule is packed. On the first day, the whole cast (minus the chorus) joins the Maestro for a sing-through. Everyone will already know the whole piece. Then the company works on staging the opera, a two to three-week process that sees them working generally from 10am-10pm. On the fourth week, they move into the theatre for tech week, when they move around on the stage for the first time in costume, using props, and experimenting with lighting. Opera Singers will get one musical rehearsal with the orchestra where they sing the whole opera through, then they get two dress rehearsals, and then the production opens for two to three weeks of performances.
Opera Singers work with the company’s Artistic Director, Music Director, Conductor, Stage Managers, Stage Directors, Assistant Stage Directors, Orchestra Musicians, Accompanists, and of course, other Singers.
Advancement really “depends on what kind of artist you want to be,” Baker says. In general, for an Opera Singer, advancement means working with more and more prestigious companies, becoming well-known and earning more money. For a part-time Singer, salary can be as low as $15,000 a year, but a high-earning performer will make around $250,000. Then there are stars like Renee Fleming, who earn millions.
Education & Training
Opera Singers start training at a very young age. Baker started studying opera in high school, which she says is considered a late start. She sang in glee clubs and took private voice lessons. As an undergrad, she majored in vocal performance, later earning an MA in music. (After their BA, Opera Singers decide whether they want to earn an MA or get an artist diploma.) Between college and graduate school, she studied and sang in Italy. European study is important because “it allows you to grow in a different way than if you had stayed stateside your whole life” because not only is it the place where opera was born, but it also “gives you a different perspective on what the art form is really about.”
Opera Singers must have a working knowledge of the most popular languages for operatic performance: Italian, German, and French. In addition to musical training, Baker encourages aspiring Opera Singers to “take a dance class, an improv class or a theatre class.” Schooling is important to Singers because “it’s a safe environment to develop your instrument,” but Baker cautions that it can be difficult to make the jump from academia to the professional world. To ease the transition, she suggests that students “see if your college, university or conservatory has a link or a partnership with a local opera company or theatre company where you can take advantage of student discounted tickets or coaching from that company because that really starts the networking train moving.” After earning an undergraduate education, she says, “see if graduate work is the right thing for you or move to a major city, get a job, and take singing lessons on the side. But you have to be very self-motivated” if you choose the latter option.
Experience & Skills
To get experience, Baker suggests aspiring Opera Singers “do as many performances as you can at school, community theatre, in opera company choruses.” When you are cast in a production, learn from the best. “Every moment I wasn’t on stage or in the makeup chair, I was in the wings watching seasoned pros. It’s like a free lesson,” she says of her early performances.
Young Artists Programs are the bridge between academic and professional management. During these programs, Singers (generally between the ages of 22-32) are in residence at a company and get paid a weekly salary to sing smaller roles or work as understudies.
A successful Opera Singer is “someone who is driven, self-motivated, who works really well with other people and who loves to learn. You have to love to learn in this career because it’s learning new music, stories, languages, and staging.” It’s also important to be or become someone who takes care of their body, “making sure you get exercise on the road and eating healthy because no one wants a sick Singer.” Singers must also be adaptable. “It’s so important to be as versatile as you can, to know who you are as an artist so you can create as much opportunity as you can.”
Motivation is key, especially for students. “It’s creating your own opportunity, not waiting for someone to come to you. If they don’t offer Advanced German [at your school], go to the local German-American Chamber of Commerce. There are so many resources beyond the walls of your school.”
The opera season lasts from September through May, with Singers doing as many back-to-back gigs as possible. When attached to a performance, Opera Singers usually rehearse from morning till about 10 pm or 11 pm. Performance nights don’t wrap till anywhere between 11pm-1am, and if there’s a matinee, they return to the theatre at 10 am for makeup.
Mid-October to mid-December is audition season, in which companies cast their next year’s programs. Singers like Baker will spend 2-3 weeks in New York or another major city, singing for as many companies as possible. Since the schedule is so intense, they generally take summer as a “recovery period,” Baker says.
Opera Singers come from all over the nation and all over the world, so travel and being away from home are a big part of the lifestyle.
To land that first opera singing gig, audition and network as much as possible. “When you sing for somebody, just because they don’t hire you” doesn’t mean they won’t eventually hire you, Baker says. “Many times a company will want to hear you sing a few times. Take heart if you don’t get hired right away.”
Getting a Manager will expand a young Singer’s career opportunities, but when you’re starting out, Singers will have to “be your own Manager for a period of time.” Spend this time on auditions and studying and just “getting your feet wet” after graduation. Baker got her start thanks in part to an internship with the Minnesota Opera. She stayed in touch after graduation, sending a “quarterly email, about this is what I’m doing” and when a position as a Teaching Artist opened up, they remembered her. “It’s more than just how beautifully you sing. It’s about how you present yourself and how you communicate. It’s really committing yourself to the art form.”
Early on in their careers, aspiring Opera Singers will spend lots of time freelancing and doing artist-in-residency gigs. “Rule number one is always do your homework. Know your music and your language. Rule number two is always be a good colleague. Your talent got you hired in the first place. Being a good colleague will get you back.”
Opera Singers are typically paid per project, although those participating in Young Artists Programs or as artists-in-residency are paid weekly.
The opera company will send Singers a “contract and fee which you either accept or negotiate. It’s a lump sum fee, no taxes taken out, so you have to be good with money,” Baker says. Singers get “half the fee after the first performance, then the other half after the final performance.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
The American Guild of Musical Artists sets rates of acceptable pay and hours. “The biggest Opera Singers are members if they’re American,” Baker says. Membership is not a requirement for the career, however, as operas can hire union and non-union performers.
- “Networking is on top of the list.”
- Study and prepare. “Really make sure you’re ready for your auditions.”
- Study Italian, French and German. “You have to be functional” in these languages. Since the female voice doesn’t fully mature till a Singer’s early to mid-thirties, “language is something you can do at any age.”
- “Present yourself in a way that’s polished.”
- “Find a Voice Teacher that you trust and an academic program that’s a good fit for you.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Be genuine,” not only to others but to yourself. “Really understand why you want to do this. If you’re in the game to get famous and sing at the Met, you’re going to fail and not be happy with yourself.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Expecting things and opportunities to come to them like they did in school. You have a limited amount of opportunities and a limited amount of students vying for spots. You have to put your artist cap and your business cap on.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
What it’s really like to work as an Opera Singer. “It can be lonely, it can be fantastic. It can be all things, good or bad. The thing that inspires me is loving the art form and what I can communicate onstage.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Bergen Baker has been a featured performer with companies such as the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, Skylark Opera and Florentine Opera. Ms. Baker’s concert and oratorio experience includes performances of Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Mass in C minor, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces, as well as many programs of art song. In addition to performance on the operatic and concert stage, Ms. Baker served as Teaching Artist for the Minnesota Opera from 2012-2014. Ms. Baker currently directs opera and music theater programs for students through the University of Minnesota and Musica nelle Marche in Urbino, Italy. More info at bergenbaker.com