Aspiring Opera Singers: Operapreneurship

Today’s fast-paced and highly competitive professional music scene demands that aspiring opera singers become skilled at what I call “operapreneurship.”

by Alexandra Gilliam

It’s not enough to be amazing and engaging opera singers. Building a working knowledge of at least three different languages and parsing their dictional nuances – and delving within ourselves in order to convincingly bring characters to life onstage – is not enough.  Although we spend countless hours developing the chops necessary to flawlessly interpret music across multiple time periods, we need a corollary skill set in order to take our dreams from the practice room to the concert hall. We must become our own managers, tax professionals, press representatives, legal advocates, and biographers.

How do you become an operapreneur?

My collegiate and graduate work in opera, along with my work in two conservatory admissions offices and as a Professional Development career advisor at my current school lead me to suggest the following:

1. Seek as many opportunities as possible to expand your knowledge base, both inside and outside the music world.

Without becoming overtaxed or compromising your practice schedule, you’ll find this to be essential, as it is the relatable nature of the characters and intricate storylines that make opera as widely-performed and beloved an art form as it is.

Take advantage of liberal arts classes at universities and conservatories. If you do not expand your horizons and occasionally venture outside of the practice room and take active strides to challenge your innate beliefs and understand the human element, it is significantly harder to become a singing actor and to grasp the emotional depth of the characters you interpret.

2. Enroll in as many language and diction courses your school offers.

If the offerings are limited, look to summer festivals or local accredited colleges whose credits will transfer. Although excellent resources such as Nico Castel’s translations and John Moriarty’s diction books exist, they are intended as a reference to supplement the work you have already done through your own personal translation, character development, and research.

It is significantly easier to interpret nuanced characters when you understand the grammatical syntax of what they’re saying. Imagine a movie that takes place in the Deep South that casts lead actors with heavy German accents and little understanding of the English language — they wouldn’t be nearly as believable as performers who studied the Southern American English language patterns.

Furthermore, new operas are constantly being composed. Many schools and Young Artist Programs offer opportunities for their students to workshop these new operas, which often have not been pre-translated.

Indeed, each and every one of my previous coaches agrees that to be successful, modern American opera singers need a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the languages in which they will ultimately be required to sing.

3. Take advantage of the career services office at your school.

Whether you are writing a grant application, a long- or short-form artistic biography, or an administrative résumé, the career services office at your school is there to help you. Utilize these resources while you still have access to them on a regular basis.

Bring all of your materials to be proofread as many times and by as many trusted advocates as possible. By asking questions and gaining an understanding of the various forms and layouts of these critical documents early on in your education, you will set yourself up for success in the future.

4. Allow your authenticity to shine through.

Your career goals, much like your voice, are unique to you. Although it can be difficult to keep things in perspective when our Facebook feeds and YouTube homepages are full of successful peers and amazing artists baring their souls, remember that success is relative, and the biggest stars were once in your place. By living the most authentic form of yourself as possible, and by taking time to enjoy the art that you are creating, sustainable success is firmly within your reach.


Alexandra Gilliam, soprano, is pursuing her Master of Music degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she works for the Office of Admission and Professional Development and Engagement Center (PDEC).  She received her Bachelor of Music degree in 2015, graduating with honors from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA.

Photo: Alexandra Gillliam performs the role of Lillas Pastia in San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s production of “La Tragédie de Carmen.”

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