In the past few weeks, there have been several blog postings from fellow opera singers that have a "Why You'll Never be a Successful Opera Singer" theme. Mini lectures, if you will, on how much work it takes, how much tenacity, how much money you'll spend on your education, how little work there is, how poor you will be, how many "normal" things you have to give up in life to sing opera, how you should never attempt this career unless you are willing to give it all up, etc etc etc.
What is a "successful opera singer" anyways? I mean aside from the basic requirement that you are someone that gets paid money in exchange for singing in public. A singer who has no other job besides singing? There are many ways to do that besides being an A house singer. I know lots of people who survive on church gigs and choral gigs, or who took a full time job in the Met chorus. People who get a gig here and there and claim to have no other job besides singing, when they actually live at their parents' house or are supported by their spouse or other family members. Is it the title that makes you a success? The fact that you don't supplement with any other job? Or is it singing in A houses? Are you not a "successful" singer if your career doesn't take you to the Met or La Scala? Is getting a fest contract and building your life in Germany what success means for you? Are you successful if you have an active regional career and perform in lots of smaller houses? What if most of your performances take place in big cities, like New York, San Francisco, Chicago? Does that make you more successful than a singer who travels regionally and performs in smaller cities? What if you make enough money singing to pay your living expenses, but it's not enough to pay your student loans on top of that? Are you not successful then? Is it how much money you make? Where you're singing? Your reviews? What if you're on a voice faculty somewhere and sing a few big contracts per year? Are you not a successul opera singer because you also teach?
I write all this because there really is no one right answer. We throw this "success" word around, but what does it really mean anyways?
While singing indeed takes lots of hard work and tenacity, some of the hardest working, smartest, and most talented singers I know never end up working professionally (to clarify again, getting paid to sing). I've met plenty of lazy singers as well, who don't take advantage of every master class, every training opportunity, who don't put a lot of time into their languages and studies-who have what one would consider a "big career". The right voice singing the right aria in front of the right person at the right time.
There is no formula. There is no perfect answer. Working hard and having talent doesn't entitle you to a full performance schedule or come with any guarantees. And it can be quite the financial burden. Maybe that's what the bloggers are trying to get at.
I say you CAN make it. You CAN be successful. If you are open to the idea that success is not the same for everyone, why would you let someone else tell you what being a success is? The person who defines "success" and "making it" is YOU. Why should people studying opera or people who are already working professionally in the opera world put some kind of ultimatum on themselves by comparing themselves to others who have a completely different story to tell about how they arrived to today?
You can sing professionally and have a personal life, get married, have children, do lots of traveling, or stay based in one city by taking a fest contract or doing most of your work in one particular area. You can sing professionally and have lots of other hobbies. You can sing professionally and identify as being something other than just an "opera singer." Likewise, you can have other jobs besides singing and identify with being an "opera singer." Where did this idea come from that being an opera singer automatically means you have to fill your life with imbalance and personal drama? That if your life is not all opera all the time you are not a successful opera singer?
Studying music is one of the most positive and enriching things you can do in your life. It may not result in the career you envisioned, or it very well may. The opera world has changed. Many opera companies in the US have closed their doors in the past 10 years. But there are new companies, too, and opportunities to combine opera with other mediums and types of media. There is hope. You can be a successful, working opera singer. Work hard, enjoy the ride, and just keep going. Seriously, it's all going to be just fine.