2. Secrets behind an operatic career

2. Secrets behind an operatic career

The reality of life is that your operatic career is a business like any other, and some aspects of it must be treated as such. Work breeds work. If you’re not in the “market,” you will most likely not get many other offers. If you’re working a lot, most likely, you will get more and more offers and even have to turn down things. In order to have a “big career,” you have to work!

So forget the idea in the beginning of “I’ll just do two gigs a year and teach and have babies on the side.” It sounds like a perfect compromise, but A) performing usually takes you away from your great teaching job just when the students need you and B)if you’re only doing two things a year, everyone’s going to forget who you are, (unless you established a great name for yourself first) and the performing work will dry up.

I know this from experience.  I have been in the business for over 30 years; I started when I was 20.  When I was 48, I had my first child and at 50, my second.  In that period, I was not performing much already and then the pandemic hit.  When things started up again, and all my friends were getting gigs left and right, I found that the operatic gigs just did not come in…  Some of this is my age and repertoire (I play young women onstage!), but a lot of it was that I was out of the circuit for a while and people thought I was no longer singing or didn’t think of me when they were casting.  Even I, after a long and productive career and a phone full of wonderful contacts, had to admit that I was not an exception to the rule.

Let me be very simplistic and OVERLY pessimistic. Everyone thinks he/she is the exception to the rule. There are few exceptions to the rule, and one has to work really hard in order to earn the distinction of breaking the rule! Usually the “exceptions” busted their hineys for at least ten years, establishing themselves, and then decided to stay more in one place. More power to whomever is managing both careers, but I have yet to see someone who juggles both jobs of international performer and teacher perfectly.

In this business, you are either 100% IN, or you can get thrown out. High-level institutions hire people who are working and who are very visible in other high-level institutions.  If you are not working 3/4 of the year in places with a lot of visibility (i.e. reviews, publicity, etc…), I guarantee you that offers from other high-level institutions will taper off and people will begin the dreaded “I wonder what happened to her..”  They don’t think, “Oh, maybe she wants to have a LIFE, too…” , that casting people can be fickle or stupid, or that perhaps your agent isn’t calling on your behalf.  🙂


I have been singing full-time freelance since 1994 now and I was ALWAYS traveling until I had kids a few years ago. Just doing concerts has not been an option for me. My career just didn’t develop that way.

So, I was performing in operas in new places all the time. I spent an average of a month and a half in each place. In some years, I was away from home 8 months total by December 31. And that is not an especially busy year. And we’re talking about after 20 years of building up a career.

Travel is not at all luxurious or glamourous. You have to figure out your travel by yourself most of the time if you want more options.  Your agent or the opera house do not have time to figure out what is the best deal on your frequent flier airline, which flight is upgradeable, nor an airbnb that suits you perfectly. You need to be your own travel agent.  In the States, there are often volunteers from the opera who can come pick you up at the airport and help you settle in.  In Europe, you’re left to your own devices to make it to your new abode and get to the opera house.  Good luck!

Living out of a suitcase is not easy; dragging the suitcases around these days, with the scarcity of porters, is not to be taken lightly. I don’t know one opera singer who has not had back problems, and I’m sure lugging luggage and sleeping in bad or new beds must be a few reasons why. Jetlag also takes a pretty large toll on voice and brain when you’ve flown trans-Atlantically. Since almost all airports are well outside of the destination city, it’s usually another hour from the airport to your rented apartment. Then there’s no one to help you carry all your stuff up the inevitable stairs.

The first few days are usually spent getting lost and having no groceries (besides going to rehearsals, of course.) Restocking a kitchen with salt, pepper, oil, rice, pasta, tea, sugar, the ever-missing can opener, spices, etc… every two months is not a joy. There’s usually something not quite right with the accomodations, that the host or landlord says “oh, you’re only there a month and a half, you can just put up with it, can’t you? (droning fridge, major roadwork first thing in the morning just below, saggy bed, real estate agents “popping in” to show the place to other prospective renters when you’re in the bathtub, bad smells, no oven – this is a favorite, drafts and/or heating problems, only two spoons and one glass,etc.. etc..) Things that you would have fixed in your own home don’t get fixed, and you just have to “put up with it” because A) it’s not your place B) you can’t meet the repairmen, anyhow, because you’re at the theater working.


If you’re expecting glamour and fabulous parties after the show, I have big news. There are sometimes some great dinners afterwards with your colleagues, sometimes lots of fans wanting your autograph or a picture, and sometimes you will walk into a restaurant near the opera house and everyone applauds… but many times, you just take off your makeup and go home. No big deal; it’s a job. Get your pleasure from your work, your musicianship, your public’s applause at the end of the show… but don’t expect the jubilant adulation and celebration that people will lead you to believe follows performances!


At school, did they say “In the REAL world, you can’t pull this kind of stuff…”? Well, the REAL world is even worse than school – – be prepared. Do you have nerves of steel? Can you put up with bad/destructive colleagues and reviews without breaking down? Both exist in the real world, too. Colleagues may suggest things to undermine your performance, or might even upstage you.  In a world where there has been rampant sexual harassment, I have actually only had problems in this vein with COLLEAGUES, not people in power.  And so I just dealt with it myself.  I have had bad reviews, dismissive reviews and reviews where they even mistook me for the other cast, etc…  You can’t do anything about it.

Directors can be bad, mean, mind-*%#!ers, or even worse – – nice, but incapable. It takes tactics and a cool head to handle. And the skin of a rhino. Remember that it’s most likely their own insecurity that’s the problem. Or their own stupidity. But instead of getting upset or throwing a fit or feeling hurt, you must first try their suggestion (it might just be a great idea!) and if it doesn’t work, figure out a way to get your own way while either A) making it sound like THEIR idea or B) making them THINK they got their own way or C) not letting them realize that you’re doing it your way.

After saying all this macho stuff, I actually tend to be very open to what the director wants me to do and try to throw myself into the show as he/she sees it.  You never know how you come off until you see the show in its entirety.  Funnily enough, some of the shows that I have thought were the stupidest, most static things I have ever done were huge successes.  So you just don’t know…

“Traditional” these days usually means some overblown, meaningless tradition of empty gestures and things you’re “supposed” to do. Most people don’t question who created these traditions and whether they’re still valid or effective today. Push the envelop; question things and TRY things out.

Major acting training is a must (Read on to the next page…) But in the long run, it is YOU who is judged by the performance, not the director. You need to feel comfortable in your role at the end of the rehearsal period. Bad reviews are the worst, especially if they criticize you for something the director or conductor expressly told you to do. A critic can’t know you were following directions. (Or at least, usually doesn’t.) – – No, you don’t write a letter to the editor; you just bear it in mind the next time you get a GOOD writeup for something you did that you know was dog poopoo. If you’re fragile as a spring flower, either get over it or don’t pursue this career.


– need I say more?The main reason people have nerves in my estimation is lack of preparation. So if even after you are super-prepared, you still suffer from stage fright, figure it out!   Either get therapy for it, psyche yourself somehow out of it, or don’t do this job. There are enough neurotic people in this business already. I think I’ve worked with the majority of them, too!!  My dear colleague and friend, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton has become a mental wellness performance coach to help performers with all aspects of their performances.  If you need help, check her out!