How to be a successful opera singer

The legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said, “There’s a ball. There’s a hoop. You put the ball through the hoop. That’s success.”

Personally, I don’t really think there is such a thing as success or failure in the arts at all. GASP! I know, I know, I’m sooooo radical. But let’s really think about it for a moment. We perform works by “successful” composers, who often died penniless from venereal diseases. Florence Foster Jenkins sang at Carnegie Hall, so does that make her a very successful opera singer? Thomas Kinkade was one of the wealthiest artists of all time, possibly ever. Does that make him better than Van Gogh?

Unless you have some bizarre obsession with poorly painted stone cottages, your answer is probably no. But to me, these things highlight the paradox of art and success; how we define it, what it looks like, and who decides whether or not we are “successful” as artists.  I have a hard time seeing myself as a successful artist, but I am (and so are you). And I’ll tell you why—I put the ball through the hoop. I sing opera. Maybe Mr. Abdul-Jabbar didn’t mean it quite that literally, but maybe he did. In an impacted market with fewer opportunities and less cultural relevance than ever, just singing opera, period, is a massive accomplishment that the vast majority of humans cannot achieve.

So I’m not yet wearing bespoke Dior gowns and rubbing elbows with New York’s elite inner circle. But you know what? Neither are most singers, and frankly, I’m not really into the big galas and red carpet anyway. And if that IS what your career looks like, then serious congratulations to you! This post isn’t really for you, but I know you probably worked your ass off to get where you are, and that you would never think less of a colleague for not commanding as high a paycheck or not singing at the biggest houses. The most famous opera singers I’ve met would never do that; partially because they realize their incredible good fortune, and also because to get to that level, you usually can’t be that petty.

I care about the singing, and as long as I’m doing that well, I am a success. I have watched some of the most talented singers I’ve ever known walk away from this career for a variety of reasons, and THAT is success, too, because the clarity needed to recognize that you don’t want a life of endless frustration, sleeping on airport floors, crushing disappointment and financial struggle, and the courage required to do what’s best for yourself…it’s just choosing a different route. Every time I hear someone say they've failed at singing, I just say, "choosing a different road to success isn't failure." 

So, is it just a matter of shifting your perspective? Yes and no. One *can* be unsuccessful at singing opera. If you never practice but demand instant acclaim and reward for all your hard work, if you’re impossible to work with and don’t hold yourself accountable for your own behavior, if you perform selfishly and don’t give your best effort, those are all good ways to not be a successful singer, in my opinion. But I do believe there is a choice, and that most people inevitably will choose success.

Here are some things to think about as you ponder that choice, and some ways to cultivate your own success.

 

Good art is everywhere

So you’re not singing at a certain big name opera house with fancy chandeliers. BFD. Most of the best singers I know aren’t singing at the most famous international theaters. The best Lucia I have ever heard was singing in a former adult movie theater in the San Fernando Valley. I once heard a homeless man sing an aria so beautifully that I was a weeping, sobbing mess afterwards (turns out he used to be a professional singer, you can read more about him here). I have been to performances in people’s apartments, lofts, and even swimming pools that shook me to my core. I reject the idea that good art is only at the highest levels, mostly because I have seen far, FAR too much evidence to the contrary, but also because elitism is like a bad chest cold that opera has had for far too long and can’t seem to get rid of. Start separating yourself from the idea that success is only equivalent to working at the biggest and highest profile houses—it’s great if that happens for you! But good art isn’t just happening there. 

Work is work is work

Let me make this perfectly clear—I don’t care what kind of gig it is. I don’t care how much you’re getting paid. I don’t care if you wore a costume that had holes in the armpits and you had to awkwardly adjust your staging to avoid the audience seeing them, and I don’t care if the set is made entirely of repurposed egg cartons. Are you singing for people in a public setting and doing it well? Congratulations, you’re a successful opera singer. It’s easy to get discouraged when society and social media present you with only ONE image of success, and it’s a photo of a Kardashian diving into a pile of money like Scrooge McDuck. If you got into opera for the money, you’ve probably already figured out that there isn’t very much, and there are maybe twenty people in the world who are actually making significant coinage doing it. And a lot of them are exhausted, overworked, and just trying to make enough so that they can do crazy things like actually retire, buy property, or pay for their kids’ college, how crazy! So don’t let the paycheck influence how you feel about what you’re doing, you’re in good company. (Next post will be about finding those magical side jobs that help you pay the bills and keep singing, stay tuned.)

You can dream bigger

The artists I look up to the most and seek guidance from are usually more than one thing. I’m not sure why some people still think opera singers need to JUST be opera singers in order to have integrity as an artist, but honestly, that world doesn’t exist anymore. I hate talking about being a millennial, but one really great thing about us is that we are much quicker to adapt than previous generations. Most of us have had three or four jobs since college, and most of the instagram accounts that we follow have three or four occupations listed in the bio, so don’t limit yourself to one thing. You wanna write a book? Do it. Start a business? Do it!!! Make a line of artisanal baby clothes woven entirely from shower drain hair if you want, it’s 2018! There are more resources than ever to start new ventures online, or you can reach out to someone for help. You’d be surprised at how helpful even complete strangers can be, particularly if you offer to pay them a little bit for a consultation. If opera isn’t giving you the creative fulfillment that you need, don’t wait around for it. Seek it elsewhere.

Sometimes you need to be a honey badger

Some of you may have noticed that I have a honey badger tattooed on my arm. For those not familiar with the noble honey badger and their ability to not care what anyone thinks, please consult the YouTube video here, and enjoy. His name is Leonard, after Bernstein. I got him after a particularly devastating interaction I had with someone I thought very highly of, who told me my singing wasn’t “professional quality” and to go into artistic administration instead, because I would “never have a career”. I had tried for years to make this person happy, and to make them believe in my talent. I was completely devastated, and I cried (not quietly) in a Starbucks for at least an hour afterwards.  But it taught me an important lesson. If I start worrying about making every single person in the business happy, I will completely lose my mind. I no longer care what that person thinks about me or my level of success, I just can’t. If you start letting other people define what success is for you, you’ll likely never feel successful. I have a very short list of people I trust and listen to, and the rest is just noise. Leonard is my permanent reminder that my success is not dependent upon the wildly fluctuating opinions of everyone else.

Professional lurking is bad for you

If this were a live speech I was giving, I would now pull out a megaphone, turn the volume to 11, and say this: DO NOT COMPARE YOUR CAREER/LIFE/SUCCESS/NUMBER OF FOLLOWERS to ANYONE ELSE’S!!! This, my friends, is the path to personal misery and spending hours of your life that you will never have back on your phone/computer eating entire sleeves of cookies, wondering why your life isn’t perfect like THAT singer’s life. Our social media accounts are full of lovely, beautiful lies we tell the world so we can feel better about ourselves. And photos of cats. Opera careers do not function within the same timeframes as other opera careers. Some people work more or less at different times. Apples and oranges, as they say. Don’t let society’s gross obsession with youth affect how you feel about where you are--this is opera. 45 year old women portray 16 year old girls on a regular basis. If you get wrapped up in watching what everyone else is doing, then you’re not working on your own projects. I (embarrassingly recently) decided to stop ALL lurking, full stop, and I cannot emphasize how much better it has made my life. If you take away one thing from this post, let it be that.

 

Disclaimer: this advice is not one size fits all. This is what works for me, it might not for you. Take what you need, leave what you don’t. It took me YEARS of beating myself up, wondering what I did wrong, long talks with good friends/mentors, angry jogging and hours and hours of soul searching to get to this place. Of course sometimes I feel like a failure, but when I get off track, these things help me realize that no one can truly make me feel that way except myself, and I think that’s worth something. No one can take away your accomplishments or your abilities. You owe it to yourself to be a success, in whatever way you choose. Now go be one.

Val

Have you ever met someone that just knew you immediately?

I met Val when I was in the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, they call it “opera boot camp”, but I would say it’s more like Opera’s Next Top Model, in that you are constantly being judged on literally everything by just about everyone. You’re in rehearsals, lessons, coachings, costume fittings, meetings, etc, for around ten hours a day for three months. And then at the end, they invite around 3-7 people to become permanent young artists for the company. It’s a three month long audition, basically, during which you are highly scrutinized. And they often boast that the acceptance rate is lower than Harvard’s.

The program can be extremely stressful. I, however, was super young, naïve as all hell, and really had no idea what I was doing. I was just happy to be there. I was one of 7 women and 16 men selected from thousands of applicants worldwide, and I wasn’t sure why I had ended up with all of these veritable operatic superstars, but there I was, and I was determined to do the best I could. I was learning, having fun making friends from all over the world, soaking up San Francisco’s art and culture, and most of all, just trying to keep my head down and not piss anyone off.

One day, I had a bit of a break, which was unusual. The opera house has a massive basement that you really have to see in order to appreciate (it’s like Labyrinth, you expect a bunch of puppets and David Bowie to pop out at any minute). It’s a maze of costumes, backstage amenities, a few kitchens and lounges, an orchestral library, locker rooms, makeup rooms, basically anything you can think of. The main lounge has couches, a ping pong table, vending machines, the usual lounge-y things, so I decided to head down there and relax.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I really love talking to people, and also that I’ll talk to just about anyone. (I feel like that last sentence was really palindrome-y, but it’s also true.) Especially if they seem sort of weird, or like they need someone to talk to, or if I forget to turn my automatic Southern California smile off and they just walk up to me and start talking.  This was how I met Val.

Val was a member of the chorus, a Russian bass. He looked exactly how you would expect a stereotypical Russian man to look to any American: bushy brows that were constantly knitted in a look of fatigue/grumpiness, stocky build, and an angular face and jaw that made me think of an old Tsar’s portrait. His eyes were intense and very focused, as if blinking were a sign of weakness that he would indulge in only when absolutely necessary. He was maybe in his late fifties, but his hunched shoulders and bad posture made it seem as if he had done more living than the average man his age.

It should be mentioned at this point that I am obsessed with Russia, Russian history, literature, music and in particular, Soviet history. One of my first tattoos was from a Soviet propaganda poster that I was obsessed with in high school. I find Russian history so impossibly dark and fascinating that I can get lost reading about it for hours. The more I learn, the more I understand that culture and how difficult and hard life is there, and it has given me a great respect for its people-- particularly the older generation that lived through terror and discord, and yet somehow managed to escape and continue living after seeing things that we can’t even imagine. Of course, 2018 brings its own association with Russia, which is not important for the purposes of this story, so for once I won’t go into politics at all, and let it suffice to say that I still think Russia and its people are really amazing.

“Ah, Marina,” he said. “Tumultuous, like the ocean. One minute happy, next minute angry, then sad, all at same time. I know this, my first wife was named Marina.”

I didn’t really think much about the weight of that statement at the time. I think I laughed. When you’re mentally ill, tumult is your normal. Feeling emotions in quick succession is pretty much an everyday occurrence for me. When I was younger, it was much more intense and harder to control, but I still think I tend to feel things more strongly or viscerally than other people. I can’t change that, but what I can change is my response to those feelings, and I’m proud of how I handle myself. I don’t cry at work (at least not in front of anyone), I’ve never thrown a tantrum, and I’ve kept my composure even when I probably should have lost it. When you’ve fought for the will to live, or just to get through a day without tears or that empty feeling that comes with depression, a three month audition doesn’t seem as daunting.  

We kept talking. I asked him what he remembered about Russia. “No food. Never any food. In America, everywhere is food,” he said in a thick accent. He grabbed his small potbelly, shaking it. “Too much food!” He told me about his grandkids, a hint of a smile creeping on to his face. We must have looked funny. I’m sure I was grinning ear to ear the entire time, but I doubt his strong façade ever really cracked, except for that one moment.

I don’t remember much else from the conversation, sadly, but we talked for almost an hour. He mostly wanted to know about my life, and I wanted to know about his. It was one of those moments I live for that crosses barriers that humans normally have with each other; different cultures, ages, world views. Two people with absolutely nothing in common with the exception of opera, learning about each other’s lives. I wish everyone could have these moments. I know I am so grateful for the ones I’ve had.

He was spot on, though. I am tumultuous. Like the ocean. I was aptly named. From marital woes to career woes, financial distress, chronic illness and mental illness, I’ve seen some things. The highs have been high, and the lows very low. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s all made me stronger and wiser in the end.

But not as wise as Val.