Just Because You Can Sing Opera, Doesn't Mean You Should
Updated: Nov 6, 2019
Last night, sitting in the third row at Manon Lescaut at the Metropolitan Opera, I had, you might say, an epiphany. Except that it wasn't some new idea or revelation that dawned on me. It was more a recognition that I've been trying to live for some time and realized on some level had finally “taken.”
Since I was tiny, I loved to sing. I grew up in a small town in Florida in the 80’s pre-internet in a world before YouTube. I pretty much watched West Side Story on repeat. Julie Andrews was my idol. Having had no real music education, I had no idea how Broadway or opera singers looked, lived, studied, made money, or even survived. I just knew I wanted to be Julie Andrews.
When my grandmother signed me up for voice lessons, I was elated. My teacher was a Juilliard grad who “didn’t work with children” but made an exception for me because at 13, I was “more ambitious and dedicated to singing than any adult she knew.”
I’ll never forget when she played me a recording of an opera singer. It was the first time in my life I had ever heard an operatic voice. She played a cassette tape of Cecilia Bartoli singing one of the 24 Italian Art Songs & Arias. (I think it was “Se Tu M’ami.”) I smiled politely, then went home and cried.
I didn’t want to sound like that! I wanted to sound like Julie Andrews as Maria in West Side Story.
But I was a good girl. All three people in my hometown who knew about music--my church choir director, my high school volunteer musical director, and this teacher--told me I was “operatically inclined” and that I simply must study opera.
And so I did. For the next 11 years. Finally, I earned my Masters Degree in Vocal Performance (Opera) from the Manhattan School of Music.
The trouble was, opera wasn’t me. The bigger trouble: I had known this since I was 13, but did nothing to act on this knowledge. In fact, I did the very reverse, studying opera like my life depended upon it.
I locked myself in practice rooms for, well, hours and hours on end. To save my voice, I didn't go to college football games or frat parties. I didn't cheerlead for the same reason. I spent college spring breaks touring on choir tours instead of lounging on the beach with my friends.
To be fair, and to add to my confusion: I was good at it. Or good enough to be accepted into a top conservatory and study with the best teachers in the world. But none of it came easily or intuitively for me. In fact, it was absurdly difficult. It was as if I were swimming upstream for 11 years as hard as I could without moving an inch.
I didn’t get lit up by music theory, 20th-century counterpoint, choir rehearsals, foreign languages, AH vowels, diction, coloratura…. In fact, all those subjects thrust me into a dark place, where I could think only, “This is all really hard.”
Academics--which is to say my professors--didn't help. That’s a conversation for another day---with, ahem, a stiff drink (or two or three...). Teachers told me I wasn't good enough pretty much everyday. Yet through all these painful years of study, I never met people who saw me for me and asked me whether this was the correct career path. The universe gave me no “signs” indicating that I was on the right path. Nary a coincidence that made me feel I was doing what I was meant to do. More concretely, I didn't land roles, much less leads, in college or grad school productions. It was all just struggle.
Still I persevered. I was a good girl. Good things come to people who work hard.
Unless they don’t.
Unless those things aren’t yours to receive.
Today, fifteen years after earning my Masters in opera, I can safely say, opera wasn’t mine to receive. And the crazy part of it all? I didn’t even really want it in the first place.
15 years later.
I can't tell you how powerful it feels to say that: it wasn’t mine to receive, I didn’t want it in the first place, and above all, I knew what I wanted even at 13. What I did want, with every fiber in my being, is to be Maria in West Side Story. I didn't want to be Cecilia Bartoli (as much as I love listening to her now).
But I didn’t have the tools, experience, or wherewithal to stand on my own little 13-year-old feet and say that to anyone. Or my 23-year-old feet. I nearly lost my soul in the process of not saying the truth---my truth--out loud. I suffered for years.
I remember singing Cherubino in a jury in graduate school. One of the jurors wrote, “You’re too worried about the acting. We don’t care about that. Work on your bright AH vowel.”
Um, MINDA. Hello? How much clearer could it be?
Still I persevered. I worked on my bright AH vowel.
Today, 15 years later, I am working on my acting. Because deep down, as long as I can remember, THAT is what I have truly wanted.
Kids now are luckier and unluckier than we were. They have tools and resources we didn’t have. They can Google a singer and find out where they went to school, who they studied with, even what songs they used for their auditions. But it's harder to hear or find your true self in the age of social media, where “influencers” (often with little if anything substantive to say) make so much noise.
My advice to myself and all artists: find ways to find and listen to your true self. To the whisperings of your soul. To your deepest desires. Find people who see you in you and validate that uniqueness. The whisperings get louder once you start to listen. Ignore the multitude of advice-givers (your hairdresser, your cousin who has never been in showbiz, the husband of your best friend who can't even carry a tune) and do what lights you up.
I took a long, circuitous road to the end stage of a field I ended up not wanting. But my opera training ultimately did lead me to a field I love and just rediscovered: acting. For the first time in 26 years, roughly two-thirds of my life, I can honestly say I'm on the right path.
Not once in all my years studying and singing opera has that been true.
And so last night, sitting third row at Manon Lescaut at The Met, I felt my entire soul moved to tears. I actually started trembling. Watching the singers, and knowing, really knowing, how difficult it is to get where they are. But also knowing that no matter what I did or didn’t do, it was never going to be me on that stage. And I felt joy. More than that, I felt relief. I felt moved and inspired by their magnificent work, but even more grateful to be back on my own path.