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Susanne Mentzer Headshot

So You Want to Be an Opera Singer?

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Since it is that time when many young singers are applying and auditioning for college and grad school I thought I might lend some unsolicited advice.

After 12 years of teaching, six at Rice University's Shepherd School and six at DePaul University, I find the following thoughts quite helpful for prospective students:

1. Sing your best prepared and most comfortable song first. You never know if you will be asked for another. It should be something appropriate for your age. This tends to eliminate opera arias for freshman auditions.

2. Be sure you have rehearsed your piece with piano before your audition. Many times students make the mistake of learning a song without ever hearing the accompaniment. Once they arrive at the audition they get lost while singing.

3. Sing from your heart. Most schools are looking for a natural emotional connection as well as a good strong voice. We see through "staged" presentations. Remember that we all sing to express and thus need to communicate. The young singers who do this are always amazing and stand out. It is hard to teach someone how to emote true feelings while singing.

4. If you are singing in a foreign language you better well know how to pronounce it and what it means.

5. The people listening might not talk much or seem very welcoming. Do not let this affect you. They all want you to do well.

What should you look for in a school?

Some schools are more nurturing than others. Not every school or teacher is right for everyone but the voice teacher and you will have a four-year relationship so choose carefully. I feel it is also important to choose a liberal arts education by attending a university or college for undergrad and then a conservatory or professional school for your advanced degree. There is so much to be learned in a four-year college campus experience. Many people sadly poo poo liberal arts these days but one learns from just being in the environment and meeting new people. College years are a gift of time to mature, explore and narrow one's focus.

Music is not well-learned out of context. It is important to know historical periods, foreign languages and literature. Many operas and songs are set to words from great literature, mythology, and more. It is important to understand what was happening at the time a piece was written and about the lives of the poets and librettists.

Grad schools also vary but normally a singer will choose to do intensive study with a particular voice teacher over the actual program of study. However, some may prefer to have more chances to perform so a school that has many performance opportunities is also a good choice. There is nothing like learning on one's feet.

Bottom line, a singer needs to invest in their vocal technique if they want to succeed. I transferred to Juilliard after two years at a liberal arts college. I often regret this as I lost out on the complete college experience. At that time there were no dorms. It was a hard life surviving in Manhattan, working three jobs and attending school full-time. I think I was too intimidated to learn. However, the irony is that my Juilliard degrees (I also completed my Master degree there) did give me a foot in the door when I wanted to start teaching. The degrees and my singing career were deemed equivalent to an advanced degree.

I love teaching. It is so satisfying when a student "gets it." My job is not to berate or beat down but to believe in and give a student the skills to eventually survive without me. My own technical challenges and singing career has helped me as a teacher. As a performer, I am more empathetic than some who teach theoretically. There are so many levels to singing and performing, conscious and unconscious and emotional. There is not just one way to sing. It is a joy to share what I have been fortunate enough to learn through experience.

You are in. Now what?

Once accepted to a school, it is a major eye-opener to realize that the major you picked is so hard and time consuming. In high school, music is pure fun with not much at stake. It is a different ballgame when it comes to college when there is a risk of being put on academic probation and even losing scholarship money or being dismissed.

Most music majors generally must take or pass out of music theory, aural training, piano skills, music history and more. Vocalists have to take foreign languages, vocal diction (Italian, French, English and German), song and opera repertoire (from a 400 year period), opera workshop (acting, movement, presentation etc) as well as all the other required core courses in the university. It is a requirement to sing in large ensemble (choir) and to be willing to participate in opera productions.

Additionally, singers and instrumentalists need to have time to practice, just as an athlete works out. One's mind needs to be very calm and focused to do this so that there is no accidental injury. Overuse or wrong technique can cause many problems.

It is the core music curriculum that really can kick one's proverbial butt. Learning to read music is like learning a foreign language. For many it does not come easy and takes repetitive drilling. Each semester gets more advanced. Music students need to hear a piece of music written over the past 500 years and identify the composer and the time period and style. They need to hear music and notate what they are hearing onto sheet music.

Moreover, singers cannot put a finger on a pitch so they have to learn how to hear differently from instrumentalists. Rhythm is another hurdle. Sure everyone can pretty much keep a beat but to actually obey what a composer wants is another thing. Correcting miss-learned pitches and rhythms can be brutal. (I was horrible at rhythm and still have to be meticulous when I learn a new piece. One Juilliard coach had a picture of the Count from Sesame Street on the wall to remind us.)

At the end of each semester the students need to perform a jury from memory for the faculty, correct in style, phrasing, and expression. As a junior and senior they normally are required to give a recital which is normally 45-60 minutes of music with piano or other instruments, also from memory. The singer programs this him/herself. This requires hours of research and then writing program notes an translations.

Yes, I could go on. Majoring in music entails major multitasking and focus and a particular skill set. Those who think it is easy are misguided as those who think we never landed on the moon.

Good luck to all and sing from the heart!