People tell me all the time that I “look like an Opera Singer.” As a closeted self-conscious woman, I automatically assume that means I look like a combination of a bearded Luciano Pavarotti, and a viking with long golden braids holding a spear. Is that so bad? Not really, but I happen to be a woman and I spend money to get rid of any extraneous facial hair.
“Perhaps,” says the tiny optimist in my head, “they think I look glamorous and well put together. Perhaps they think my face is the kind that belongs on the STAGE! Perhaps they think I was born to be draped in long gowns and furs and jewels, and if they know anything about opera in this day and age, then maybe they think I look like a model-type glamazon star!” Then I roll my eyes at myself and come back to reality.
In fact, I am neither of these people. Much like every woman out there we have our good days and bad ones. We have days where we feel like a million bucks and our hair is awesome, and our clothes feel great on our bodies, and we feel like every other person on earth is forced to stop in their tracks to stare and marvel at our fierceness.
The next day you literally could not pay me to put a bra on. (If you have met me, seen me, and have two working eyeballs, you know that bras are a must for me. I am not one of those women who can throw on a napkin-sized tank top and just go casual or easy-breezy. I have what we call a full balcony.) On those days I’m not going to do my hair, or wear anything other than an oversized cheek-to-toe-mumu-tent. That’s right. Cheek to toe. I envision the perfect mumu-tent daily. It hangs from my cheekbones and drapes out to the floor leaving everyone guessing what’s going on underneath. All I want to do on those days is close the drapes, make a bed-nest, a plate of cheese and crackers, and hate-watch episodes of Smash. God I hate that show. I pray that a few of you are smiling and nodding right now in some kind of mutual understanding. Otherwise I’ll be over here rocking back and forth in the fetal position in my cozy bed-nest-mumu-cracker-crumb-cave throwing things at my television.
I digress. Back to Opera. Usually, the people who tell me I “look like an Opera Singer,” are about to ask me if I sing The Phantom of the Opera.
Note to everyone: Phantom of the Opera isn’t an Opera. It’s a musical. There. Now you know. I like musicals! But it’s not an Opera. You really wanna make an Opera Singer squirm? Ask them if they can sing this for you right now. Don’t be fooled, we can sing the crap out of it, but we don’t like it and we don’t want to sing it for you on the street right at this moment. Wanna see them go postal? Ask them if they can sing Phantom of the Opera and Celine Dion’s hit “The Prayer” at your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, with payment in the form of an all you can eat seafood buffet and one drink ticket. (Yes that happened, and yes I did that gig). Then sit back with a bag of popcorn and watch it get awesome. The Real Housewives of New Jersey have got NOTHING on a real life opera diva fit. Are we offended if you ask us if we can sing for free? Or for a souvenir mountable silver wall plate featuring your city’s skyline? (Yup again. True story). Yes. Kinda. I mean, wouldn’t you be offended if I asked you to perform an emergency C-section for three hugs and a case of diet coke? You went to school to learn how to be a doctor. You put money into it. You’ve memorized stuff. You are an expert in your field. We are too. I have 3 University and College Degrees in Music and Operatic Performance. I spent 8 years in post-secondary education, 2 years in an apprentice program, most of my 20’s, and a whole crap load of money, blood, sweat and tears into learning how to be a professional opera singer. I’m not even a special case! Most singers in my age group and at my level have done EXACTLY the same thing. In truth, most working opera singers have at some point sung under those conditions and/or much worse. We will pretty much sing anything, anywhere, and for anybody. We’d like to get paid, but we’ve all literally sung for our supper. I once sang over two hours of music for a 10 dollar Starbucks card. You know what? I like Starbucks. I’ve also had the privilege of being remunerated appropriately for the years of study and hard work I’ve dedicated to the craft of singing. Those gigs are wonderful. The other kinds keep me humble and make for great stories.
Along with the Phantom of the Opera question, here are the top five questions about to come out of the mouths of those curious individuals:
“Can your voice break glass?”
“Don’t you have to be, like, really fat to be an Opera Singer?”
“Can you sing something for me right now?”
I could, but I’m not going to.
“It must be wonderful to do something that you love and are passionate about right?”
“I just went to an Il Divo Concert! Don’t you love them?”
Inside answer: I’d rather remove my own spleen with a dull butter knife than go near that concert.
Outside answer: I love that YOU love them and that they’re introducing you to Classical music! Ever been to an opera? It’s pretty rad!
(Disclaimer: I don’t EVER judge these curious people. I am entitled to my own opinions about Il Divo but I make a concerted effort to not impose any operatic snobbery on an innocent individual who is merely trying to make a musical/personal connection. There’s no harm in that. I welcome it. Talk to me…I’ll chat your ear off about the coolness of all kinds of music all day long.)
I also think most people are under the assumption that opera is only for the elite and wealthy. It scares people a little. I’m here to tell you that some of the people who go to listen/watch opera ARE snobby, elitist, and rich. They may look down their nose at anyone not wearing a gown and furs in the box seats at the opera house. You know what? I don’t care about those people. (Except that some of them fund entire productions. Thank you wealthy people. Your jewels are sparkly and I like them. I like you too). If I’m going to an opera, you better believe I want to be wearing lululemon pants and flats. There’s no way I’m going to be sitting for hours at a time in heels and spanx. The gas pains…oh the gas pains! My advice to people who are interested in opera but are intimidated by opera snobs: Suck it up. Give it a try. Your money is as green as theirs. Also, you’re probably old enough now to care a little less about what other people think about you, and a little more about trying something new and different. I guarantee that no opera company is going to turn you away at the door for wearing jeans and flip flops. We want an audience. We need an audience, and chances are that the artists on stage have a comfy pair of shoes and stretchy pants in their dressing room that they can’t wait to put on. For the most part, we’re normal people. Normal people who can sing really, REALLY loudly. (My husband calls us professional yellers.) Give those gorgeous fur wearing queens a wink and a smile and be comfy wearing what you want to wear while you watch one of the most amazing art forms come to life on stage in front of you.
Back to Opera. Again. In case you were unaware, opera has had a makeover, and we in opera land want the rest of the world to know about it. We’re everywhere! We’re on your tv, on movie soundtracks, on the interwebs, we’re being broadcast live (in HD…yikes….close up singer faces), on the radio and in movie theaters…oh, and we also sing live in opera houses all over the world. We’re also in the main stream social media scene, as explained by this super cool article featuring some of my super cool opera friends:
Did I forget to mention that we do not use artificial amplification or microphones? No Madonna mics for us. We compete with anywhere from 40-120 orchestral musicians all while pretending to pay attention to the conductor waving their baton in front of us. I think the human voice is pretty awesome. I think opera is awesome. Does that make me a big nerd? Hell yes it does. That’s another cool think about the art form. We welcome the nerdy. The geniuses. The curious. The over-dramatic. The divas and divos, the shy, the unsure, the band geeks, the Trekkies, the old, the young, the goth, the hipsters and everything in between and beyond. We wave our freak flags. We wave them hard and loud. You have to if you’re going to buy into the fact that we are singing the text of a story that would take twenty minutes to read, but 3 hours to sing. We love to languish and bask in the unlimited potential of our imagination. How else could we rationalize the fact that some characters play a magical flute that safely guides them through water and fire on a quest for love and a membership to an exclusive Men’s Club. (True plot of Mozart’s Magic Flute) Ever been to a production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle? It makes a Star Trek Convention look like cheerleading camp.
What is the point of all this you might ask? Good question. I find myself wondering numerous times throughout the day, “WHY THE %$#& AM I STILL TRYING TO DO THIS????” Why after so many years of training and schooling and traveling am I still on my own quest to have an international operatic career? How do I have a husband and a family and be an aunt, a sister, a friend, a daughter and get to the gym and get my taxes done and practice music and research and coach and self-promote and teach and audition and get rejected again and again and again? How do I do all of that while on the road away from home? The answer is pretty complicated but it comes down to the fact that I am completely in love with what I do, and the rest is a balancing act. Nobody ever said that loving what you do would be easy. It takes work. Life-long work, ups and downs and everything in between. I suppose I didn’t really know that until I was so far into it that I couldn’t go back. Oh, the beauty and blind stupidity of youth.
The most important thing to me about doing something that you love for a living is to constantly remind yourself of that core fact. If I hold on to the fact that my love of music and performance will win out over being rejected a zillion times, and that my work ethic, dedication and perseverance will eventually overthrow any doubt that creeps in, then I can keep going. What makes me special and unique is what will make that difference, and not what makes me look or sound like everyone else. The fact that I don’t look like either of those women I described at the beginning of this blog is the exact reason why I have the faith that I am on the right path. My own personal oomph-ness. My Roz-ness. These things can overcome pretty much anything I put my mind and heart into.
So, even if some days I can’t see how it’s going to work out I know, deep down, that some day all of it will make sense and fit together in some form of divine hilarity and sequence of events. Until then I’ll be plotting and scheming in my bed-nest wearing a make shift cheek-to-toe-mumu-tent yelling (LOUDLY) at my television.
UPDATE: May 14th, 2013
Ms. In The Biz founder Helenna Santos-Levy and Rhoslyn Jones Facetime!