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Phantoms of My Opera Education

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

Do you remember the first time you experienced music in a way that just… got you hooked for life? For a family talent show in the early 2000s, I performed Beethoven’s Für Elise on my aunt’s beat-up upright piano; despite my fat little ten-year-old fingers, I felt the music inside my body. The music started to move as I played, and my whole body followed (imagine something grotesquely Lang Lang-esque).

Fast forward.

I was a cellist in high school, and my orchestra had just won the All-State competition. The school district gave each pubescent teenager in the orchestra $100 and little supervision to spend a week in San Antonio, performing and consuming live music, all while eating Mexican food on the waterfront.

On a whim, a friend of mine suggested we go to the All-State Mixed Choir performance held in the grand ballroom at one of the hotels in the area. Free live music? Sign me up.

Up until this point, I understood music through harmony, timbre, and orchestral texture. I had never consumed music with words before. From my public school musical experience, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky were fairly adequate at expressing emotions. But after listening to the choir’s finale performance, “Leonardo Dreams Of His Flying Machine” by Eric Whitacre, my cheeks were wet with tears. Music became all at once the most accessible and understandable it had ever been, because its words further communicated its message. I was convinced after that performance that I needed music in my life, and that I needed to sing. I needed to.

I was never the best student in school. Consistently on the verge of failing my classes, I was almost held back a year or two. It wasn’t that I was incapable or incompetent. I just hated doing homework and I hated going to school (the police were almost involved on multiple occasions for truancy). But after listening to that Mixed Choir at All-State, I had the first real goal in my life. I needed to join the high school choir and audition to sing with the same ensemble the following year.

My aunt was an Eastman-trained opera singer, so I started mowing her lawn and dusting her shelves in exchange for voice lessons. After months of studying with her, months of All-State choirs camps, months of sight singing training, months of audition rounds, months of exerting effort for the first time in my life, I found myself singing the Mozart tenor solo in the All-State Mixed Choir the following year. And as I sang in rehearsals with 220 of the most powerful teenage voices in the state of Texas singing behind me, I started to cry again. It was this exact moment that I knew I would pursue a career in music. I just had to do it.

Fast forward again.

The year is 2018. I have just graduated with a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance with virtually zero job prospects or performing opportunities. The university experience, while vocally preparing me for a career in opera, has left me networkless, directionless, uninformed, and in debt. I loved my art, but at what cost? Logically, what was the next step? (Please don’t say another degree.)

Fast forward a bit more.

The year is 2021, and I have just graduated with a Master of Music in vocal performance. (Damn.) This time however, I have a manager, and I know a little more about starting a career as a professional singer.

Solomon as Count Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia at Indiana University.

In the fall following graduation, I submitted 2-3 virtual auditions a week. These were anything from voice acting gigs to TV and film projects to musical theatre. Everything except opera. And somehow from this wide-net casting, I landed a principal role on the national Broadway tour of Fiddler on the Roof. Around the same time, I was also offered a small job singing with a touring production of The Pirates of Penzance with The Atlanta Opera. Fiddler had a longer contract and paid a bit more, but shifting to musical theatre was a major career pivot. I ultimately decided to pack my bags and join the traveling, fiddling vagabonds, but not without feeling like I was closing a heavy door. Singing musical theatre instead of opera felt all at once like I was turning my back on years of training, years of tuition, years of productions, years of friends, years of establishing a specific identity.

The vocational ladder of opera, as I understand it, follows: undergraduate degree, graduate degree, Young Artist program, Young Artist program, Young Artist program, Young Artist program (ad nauseam), until finally you’ve either moved to Europe as a fest singer, landed an agent, or learned how to code and now work in the tech industry.

I needed money. And opera wasn’t giving it to me. After ten years of classical music education, was it too late to realize that I didn’t like opera enough to live this scrappily? Was all of the Mozart and 18th-century voice leading and French diction and Alexander Technique and masterclasses with our first ladies of song, Joyce and Renée… simply a massive sunk cost? I still haven’t won the Laffont Competition nor have I married a dying, wealthy widow from Aspen… So I said a temporary goodbye to what seemed like a toxic relationship with classical music.

But after spending nine months and 200+ performances on the road, I swallowed another pill by realizing: I really don’t like opera or musical theatre.

So I moved to Los Angeles. I’m writing this post from a coffee shop in Studio City with dreams in my pocket. I want to write my own music. I tend to sing songs I write better than songs other people wrote. (Shove it, Schubert! Eat your heart out, Sondheim!) And I want to try my luck with TV and film acting.

I knew from an early age that music would be a lifelong mistress and muse. I have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, but I still haven’t been paid as a professional operatic singer. Was my education a total waste?

I know what healthy singing is supposed to sound like, and I know what unhealthy singing feels like, and I know how to bridge that gap. I know how to prepare for learning a role. I know how to memorize lines in any language. And I have years of acting training under my belt.

So no, I don’t think it was all a waste. And I’m still in my 20s, so I have plenty of time to return to opera, if she’ll pay me. But for now? I want to make rent doing something I love, singing music, portraying characters on screen or on stage, making art. And maybe there’s room for all of that plus Mozart finales. Whatever comes, I’m thankful for where I’ve been and what I’ve learned, but I’m more excited about what’s coming next.


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