To become an opera singer you’re going to need a few things right off the bat. You’ll need a good bit of ‘general’ Intelligence. You’ll need a lot of persistence. And you’ll need a very strong work ethic. Learning to sing and the musicianship that comes along with it are SUCH multifaceted activities, that they require somebody who is a ‘jack of all trades’, in a way. For example, consider the life of your average opera singer. He/she is always:
Teaching, Directing, Conducting, Memorizing Music, Perhaps composing/arranging, taking lessons, meeting people and making connections.
All of these various, disjointed pieces are skills that a singer needs to make a living from their craft. You notice I wrote “meeting people and making connections”. The reclusive hermit artist stereotype doesn’t apply very often to opera singers. At least, not ones who make any money in their profession! This career requires plenty of social savvy. Sure there are some socially awkward singers out there but let me just tell you from experience that the ability to get along with people and let go of conflicts and let go of your ego, are all things that are best learned sooner rather than later.
There are a lot of egos and big heads in the music industry. Yes, even in classical music. In fact, ESPECIALLY in classical music! And it’s best just to learn how to deal with people without getting angry or emotionally invested in a negative way because it’s the nature of the beast.
Let’s not forget the music. You have to memorize TONS of music. Oh, and it’s probably in Italian or German. Keeping a sort of active portfolio of working songs and roles is crucial to being able to jump in at a moment’s notice to fill a role that could wind up making your career. So you need a pretty impressive memory. The good news is that sterling memory can be developed. Musical memory (remembering melodies, notes, chords, tone colors, etc.) gets strengthened the more you practice music, just as memory for words is strengthened the more you speak and listen to speech.
Well, like I started out saying, you’ll probably be teaching and gigging. Knowing a few instruments can make paying the bills a lot easier than just singing opera by itself. Being able to sing some jazz gigs for a few hundred bucks a night can keep you from going into debt. Being able to sing some pop songs can warm an audience up to songs that they may be unfamiliar with. And dabbling in different styles and genres is great musical cross-training.
It keeps you from getting bored and helps you keep an awareness for the fact that there are other types of music in the world, with different rhythms, different chord progressions, different emotional content. Just like making friends with people of different nationalities keeps you from blind prejudice, making friends with different musical styles keeps you from an attitude of superiority about your genre. Always look for ways to become more versatile, more diverse, it’ll only help you.
The fancy-pants word for somebody who teaches him or herself is ‘autodidact’. And it’s vital for you to become an autodidact to really do well in this career. Not only in this career but in life! There comes a point where you start seeing some success in your singing career, and you may be teaching a lot, preparing roles, doing performances, etc.
The result is that you spend less time reading, less time going to your own vocal lessons and less time keeping abreast of developments in your field. That’s a natural shift and you can’t do everything at once, so the moral of the story is to find a balance whenever possible. For example, having a subscription to Opera Magazine will allow you to read for 10 minutes while you’re on the toilet (pardon the imagery). But at least you’ll catch up on what’s going on in the opera world. It might seem on the surface that all these ‘developments’ really don’t concern you but classical singing is a small world and it’s good to know people, and know about people, and know what’s happening. Trust me on that one.
This one’s a no-brainer, right? Well it isn’t and having been in this biz for a while let me tell you there are plenty of people going on pure momentum. They’ve dedicated so much time and effort into their career that they keep going after it doesn’t fulfill them anymore. There’s no guarantee that this won’t happen to you. Whatever you do, make sure you’re 110% certain that this is what you’d like to do because it WILL consume all of your time. But being a classical singer has a lot of great, fun, beautiful moments that you will cherish forever. Especially the moments where you collaborate with other artists. Those moments are better than sex.