Opera singers are specially trained performers who sing dramatic classical pieces.
Operas are complex classical musical narratives which consist primarily of singing. Because opera dialogue consists of uninterrupted song, it is distinct from dramatic acting; however, opera singers must be able to emote and perform while simultaneously singing complicated vocal lines, often in a foreign language. There is a distinct vocal style associated with opera, which takes a great deal of training to master; opera singers do not use microphones, so they must sing in a way that can be heard from afar over a full orchestra. The resulting tone is impressive on its own, but it must also be maintained, controlled, timed, and sung with precise diction in order to convey a story.
There are several traditional voice types in opera, and roles are determined by a singer's ability to match a role's range as written. The highest notes can only be sung by sopranos, while the lowest notes can only be achieved by a bass. In between are mezzo-sopranos, contraltos, baritones, and tenors; there are further voice categories determined by tonal distinction and timbre, but most will fall under one of these categories. The written text of an opera is called a libretto; it is set to music and scored by a composer, learned by an orchestra, and sung, often over the course of an elaborate performance.
Work as an opera singer may include...
- Learning music, memorizing lyrics, and singing complex pieces
- Attending frequent rehearsals and coaching sessions
- Performing opera pieces in front of an audience
- Auditioning for roles and preparing for these auditions
- Reading sheet music and notation
Most professional working opera singers are either chorus members employed by an opera company or touring soloists.
There are opera companies in most major cities, each with its own roster of performers who sing various roles in each season's performances. Performances occur at night, but days may be spent in preparation. Finding placement as a soloist can be especially difficult, and it can be a long time before a singer's big break. The opera world is notoriously hard to gain recognition in, and finding a position takes a combination of luck and skill. It's nearly impossible to work as a professional opera singer without formal training. Many opera singers teach in conservatories or conduct private vocal lessons, where their skills are often well-compensated. Others work as freelance musicians, lending their vocal expertise to various projects.
Becoming an opera singer requires an enormous amount of both training and commitment. Most singers begin at a young age, which prepares them for an intensive course of study at a conservatory. Others take up opera in college as vocal performance majors, where they learn theatrical blocking, character work, and often a foreign language. Either track consists of constant rehearsal and an array of supplementary studies, such as music theory and opera history. Most graduates of opera programs go on to graduate school, residencies, or young artist programs, where they can further cultivate their art and gain crucial experience. The most important element of an opera education is the roles one gets to play and the pieces one masters in the process; building an impressive repertoire is often the best way to progress from learning opera to working in opera.
Opera has a long and storied history; will you pursue a career as an opera singer and be a part of its future?
The National Opera Association supports a diverse community of opera educators and professionals.
OPERA America supports the creation, presentation, and enjoyment of opera in the US.
The American Guild of Musical Artists is a labor organization representing America's operatic, choral, and dance artists.