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Jennifer Rivera Headshot

10 Things About Having an Opera Career That You Don't Learn in School

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So you have a bachelors and a masters degree in... opera singing. Congratulations! According to about 85% of the population, you may as well have an advanced degree in underwater basket weaving. Now that you've done your upteenth young artist training program, it's time to venture out into the big bad world of classical singing. As someone who has been working in this industry for the past 15 years, I wanted to share with all of you some of the tidbits I wished someone had told me when I was starting out. Brace yourselves - it's not all pretty.

1. You've chosen a life that can be REALLY LONELY. Yes, it can also be really fun, and the people in this business, for the most part, are exceptionally interesting and wonderful. However, you will spend a lot of hours by yourself in a strange place, not knowing anyone, contemplating whether you want to eat the old crackers you found in your backpack or eat yet another meal alone in a restaurant. If you've spent all your time in school and young artist programs up until now, I can tell you that life as a solo artist is completely different. You arrive in a new city for gig with four to six weeks ahead of you. Maybe you'll be in the middle of Kansas or in the middle of Belgium, but you'll be in a foreign place and you may not know a soul. There are certainly gigs where all of the singers are very sociable and everyone gathers every evening after rehearsal for long fun dinners. There are also gigs where there aren't very many principals, and nobody wants to hang out ever, and so night after night you are alone in an extended stay hotel, cooking macaroni and cheese on your two burner stove top. The loneliness can be overwhelming sometimes, especially when you're not prepared for it.

2. You or someone you know will at some point engage in an illicit love affair. See above for explanation. It's not just Brad and Angelina - being away on a gig is like being away on a movie set, and stuff happens. You are also likely to get hit on by someone in a position of power at some point and there is very little you can do about it. Sexual harassment is much more difficult to pinpoint in an artistic environment than in an office. Just know that you don't have to go there if you don't want to. Really.

3. You will purchase more small containers of salt, pepper, and mustard than you ever thought possible. If you have a choice ALWAYS stay somewhere with a kitchen - even if you aren't someone who particularly likes to cook. Because eating three meals a day in restaurants for more than a few days is horribly tedious. These kitchens will be stocked with some pots and pans and flatware of varying degrees of usefulness, but they will almost never have kitchen essentials like salt, pepper and mustard. So on each new gig, you will buy little bottles of those things, use about 1/300th of them during your month long stay, and then either throw them in the trash, or do what I do and start leaving them in the opera offices for incoming colleagues.

4. Unless you are a financial wizard, your finances will likely be a bit of a mess. It's harder than people realize to earn a lump sum of money and then make it last for several months. Most singers have a very hard time saving money and keeping to a budget, partly because we incur so many career related expenses, and partly because being on the road all the time is unpredictable and makes living frugally even tougher. Yes, a lot of your expenses are deductible, but that also means you have to remember to set aside a portion of your income to pay your taxes at the end of year since most of your paychecks will not withold any taxes. This sounds obvious but when you have to pay your rent AND pay your teachers and coaches to help you learn a new role and maybe take a trip to do an audition it's very easy to put that tax money on the back burner. Getting savvy about finances early on is a really good idea.

5. The decisions made by important people about casting are very often completely arbitrary. After you've spent so long honing your talent, you sort of expect that the people with the most talent are the most successful. But the thing is, once you get to a certain level, everyone is really talented, and whether someone likes a certain voice is totally subjective. And on top of that, a lot of casting decisions are made based on who is already singing where, and not based on the singing itself. And who is singing where sometimes has more to do with being in the right place at the right time than being the very best singer around. I'm not telling you this to discourage you from working hard and always striving to improve - that is just a given in this business. I'm telling you this so you don't beat yourself up when you start noticing that person A has more jobs than you or better jobs or more attention. The sooner you realize the arbitrary nature of this business the better it will be for your self esteem. Which brings me to my next point --

6. Comparing yourself to other singers is useless and destructive. In art, the more successful artists there are, the better it is for everyone. It's really hard to accept this, but it's true. Art is subjective and each artist is unique in some way. One person loves Picasso and hates Rothko and the next person feels the opposite. I used to get so upset when someone who was within my age range would get vaulted to a higher position than I was on the ladder - until one day I had to remind myself that I may as have been an actress who was complaining about the fact that Hilary Swank had won ALL MY OSCARS! It's human to want to compare yourself to other people. Just try to be a buddhist about it - notice it's happening and move on to other thoughts.

7. Stage fright never goes away, but it does change over time. I've been through all the different levels of nerves, from absolutely debilitating to tiny butterflies that just cause me to have excellent focus. You can control debilitating nerves with various techniques, but they really do come and go and most people never get to a point where they just don't get nervous any more. You just learn to live with it and deal with it.

8. Reviews really don't matter all that much. Yes, it sucks to see something bad written about you in print, but it's very rare that casting directors use reviews as determiners. If someone consistently gets the same bad things said about them in the press, people may take notice, but criticisms here and there just disappear. My favorite story about this comes from the wonderful Bob Orth, who can recite his worst review from memory, but who also notes that not only did the critic fade away, but the paper also went out of business -- and he's still here!!

9. Yes, it's still better in Europe. Government funding for the arts means more jobs, better fees, fewer singers, more performances (compared with the amount of jobs), and more cultural awareness of the art form. We have better training programs over here and an incredible commitment to presenting new works, combined with some of the most exciting composers, but we also have a real dearth of jobs compared with the number of excellent young singers coming out of conservatory. That doesn't mean you can just pop over to Europe and start working - it's can be difficult to get your foot in the door over there as well. But working regularly over there compared to working regularly over here is just more lucrative - ask anyone who has done both.

10. You are your product and your uniqueness is everything. I think young singers learn all the skills they need to be excellent technicians, and they can learn things like stage comportment, musicianship and everything in between. But the thing that is very hard to teach is artistry, because it comes from whatever unique perspective you bring to your art form, and nobody can discover it except you. When a panel is hearing hundreds of singers auditioning all day long, the only thing that makes you stand out is finding your own artistic voice and using it. Just doing everything "right" isn't enough to make people notice you. You need to have something to say if you expect people to listen.