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3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Opera School

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photo by Kevin Steele

photo by Kevin Steele

I’ve been spending a lot of my time this Fall at the San Francisco School of the Arts. No, it’s not like High School Musical all day long (I can only dream…sigh), but it is one of the most competitive, high level and talent-full places in the Bay Area to study Classical Music…if you’re into that kind of thing. Let’s be clear. Kids are into it. I am so over reading articles about the youth of today having no interest in real culture and that Classical Music is dead. OVER IT. It’s a full on lie. I’ve seen these kids with my own eyes and heard them with my own ears. The Bay Area is completely brimming with unbelievable talent just waiting in the wings to blow your face off with their voices. I get free tickets to the San Francisco Opera all the time (perks of being married to a man on the stage crew) and these kids snatch them up faster than hotcakes. They’re hungry for something amazing and a lot of them think Opera and Classical music is AWESOME. It’s inspiring, humbling and totally fantastic. So ignore the haters. The haters are wrong, and watch out for these School of the Arts kids. If I don’t hurry up, they’re going to be taking singing jobs from me in no time.

My dear friend Todd Wedge runs the School of the Arts Vocal Program (like a champ) and students have “normal” academic classes in the mornings and then they have their Arts electives in the afternoons. These classes consist of choir, small ensembles, chamber music, theory classes, music history classes and the class that I’ve been helping with: Vocal Lab class. Students study one art song over the course of a 6 week period. They translate it, learn how to sing in English, Italian, German and French and then they perform it and I get to sit there and judge. Like Mariah on American Idol, (any chance I get to align myself with her, I’m going to unabashedly take it) I try to be encouraging and mindful that these kids are teenagers. They’re delicate little beings with fragile self-esteem and confidence that is constantly on the verge of complete destruction. With that in mind, I can be pretty picky too. Wrong is wrong, and these kids are smart enough to fix it…so FIX IT.

The thing that I don’t remember about being a teenager is the STRESS. Maybe I just blocked it out, but these kids are under a lot of pressure to succeed. Especially the senior class. College applications are no joke and if you want to go to music school, you better have your s$&t together. Your grades have to be nearly flawless, you have to have participated in community activities, you have to volunteer and donate your time to plump up your resume, and you also have to compete against the world’s finest young singers to get a spot at the music school of your dreams. You’re also supposed to somehow come up with a zillion dollars to help pay for it all. Oh, and then there’s all that Senior Year stuff. Student Council, Prom, Exams, and all that “rite of passage” crap that they’re all made to feel is the most important thing in the world. It’s enough to send a grown adult into full panic mode, and yet these kids constantly amaze me.

I feel a large sense of responsibility to these kids (young adults) to help them and guide them in any way I can. College/University life is hard enough, but add in Music School and you’ll be taking more classes per semester than the Quantum Physics majors. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit. When I was doing my Bachelor’s Degree, I had class from 8am until 10:30pm. Homework? Social life? Bad news kids, it kinda just gets worse for a while. Then it gets better. Promise. Parents: this might come as a small relief for you as there will literally no time for your children to party and make those sometimes regret filled college choices if they’re in Music School. They’re just going to be too busy being awesome.

Perhaps some of you are wondering, ”Can you really go to College/University for Opera?” The answer is yes! Yes you can! Isn’t that crazy awesome? It’s kind of like Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Every student has a special talent and they come from all over the world to go to this special school and pursue something that “normal” people might think is crazy. They don’t wear robes or play Quidditch but I’m still holding out hope that they might someday. My dear children at the School of the Arts ask me every day about what comes next in the land of Classical Music. It’s a lot of pressure on me to somehow be honest, inspiring and not inflammatory about my experiences as I transitioned from High School to Opera School. I find that things come and go in threes, so here goes:

3 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Going to Opera School!

1. P.F.O. Letters

I wish someone had told me about these a lot sooner. It stands for “Please F@%k Off” Letters, (Rejection Letters) and these are the kindly worded but potentially devastating letters/emails that you get from Institutions or Programs denying your application, your audition request, your scholarship request or just you as a person. It’s partly the fancy letterhead that you’ll not likely see again, and it’s partly that it’s in writing that one of your dreams is not going to turn out the way you thought it would, but these letters can really have a devastating effect on the confidence and self esteem of a teenager. Heck, it still sucks and cuts like a knife when you’re 30.

It’s important to have a plan of attack when you get one of these letters. My plan usually involves ice cream and/or a blocked off amount of time to cocoon myself in a bed/couch-nest that is strategically placed equidistant between the bathroom and the fridge. The truth about P.F.O letters? Everyone gets them. You will not just get one. You will never get zero. I got my first one from the University of Victoria when I was 17 and it was the first place I had applied. I thought I was going to die a thousand deaths. Clearly, the dramatic gene was alive and well in my operatic 17-year old soul. I later went on to get into Juilliard, The Curtis Institute, and a boat load of other places….so nah nah nah nah nah nah. These letters are going to happen at some point in your life so prepare for it and then deal with it accordingly. Some people frame them and use them as some kind of morbid form of encouragement, and some people burn them (huge fan of this). Whatever you decide to do with them, try to avoid reading them more than once. Those sentences have a way of searing themselves into your hearts and minds and it’s hard to erase those things from your all too delicate teenage confidence. Read them once, shred/burn/crumple/flush/discard it and move on to the recovery stages…with a large spoon, maybe a good friend, and comfy pajamas.

2. The Long and Winding Road

I recently sang at one of the nicest homes in San Francisco in a fancy part of town called Pacific Heights. It’s the kind of home (mansion/palace/castle) where you’re afraid to touch anything because if you break it, you may have to sell your first born to replace it. The kind of place where one dining room chair could pay off my remaining student loan debt. I always have the same thought when I am fortunate enough to get these kinds of gigs: “I picked the wrong profession.” Its’ something that I am both thankful and regretful of now that I’m in my thirties and am starting to want things that most normal 30-something year old women want. Like a house. Or a 401k. While I am thankful that I do something I absolutely love, I am constantly and sometimes painfully aware that the glamor and sparkle of what I thought a life in opera would be has certainly lost its luster a bit over the years. Newsflash for opera babies: You don’t graduate from College and instantly land at the Metropolitan Opera draped in gowns, jewels and paychecks. I know. It’s very shocking and upsetting. This is a LONG, difficult marathon of a career. It is an endless and often frustrating journey of working consistently for a few years, then having large chunks of time off. It’s missing holidays, birthdays, funerals, weddings, delaying family plans, sacrificing friendships, working jobs to make ends meet, and living out of a trusty suitcase in strange places. Being a diva on stage takes up about 3% of your time. It’s mostly travel, practicing, waiting, auditioning, making connections, fostering relationships, aligning yourself politically, and finding the closest drugstore in a new city to replenish your neti pot packets and allergy meds.

I think it’s important to know that the road doesn’t always lead where you think it will, or where you want it to. You will have an easier and more enjoyable time if you allow your self to be flexible, roll with the punches and make the most of the situation you’re in.  You also need to work your ass off to change your situation if you want to, but I have accepted that no matter what, I am in exactly where I’m supposed to be. I am in the right place at the right time. This is more difficult to expect on challenging days, but it does help me calm down when the nervous sweats and panics come creeping out of the shadows. I know. I sound like a hippie. Whatever. I live in California. Plus, I’m right.

3. Team Roz

The most important thing I learned quite early on is that being an Opera Singer is not really an Individual Sport. It’s a Team Sport. Yes, I am the one up on stage and singing the auditions, practicing, scheduling lessons and traveling but NONE of it would happen if I didn’t have a team of people on speed dial ready to help at any given moment. There is simply no way on earth that anything in my career would happen if it wasn’t for the people on Team Roz. Having a group of people in your corner is the single most important thing (for me) when it comes to pursuing a dream of any kind. I don’t need a football team sized group of people. This is a quality not quantity situation. Team Roz can be counted on one hand but they’re a fierce, loyal and unrelenting group of women (and my husband). I treasure them dearly and could not get through a day very easily without them.

A difficult part of this for young people is realizing that not everyone who loves you dearly will be on your team. Sometimes parents or close family members are not capable of providing the unconditional support that a team member needs. Don’t fret. There are people out there who will come into your life, and sometimes from the most unexpected places. Also, team members don’t always have to be human. A dear friend of mine has a very important Team Member who has 4 legs, weighs about 6 pounds, never barks when she sings, and goes by the name of Gatsby.

Of course there are a zillion other things I wish I had known before starting my post secondary education, but I can’t give them all away. Where’s the fun in that?

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About Rhoslyn Jones

Opera Singer - Soprano Rhoslyn Jones is quickly becoming an important presence on both the concert and operatic stages of the world. Described as a “superb singer and artistic presence,” Ms. Jones’ voice is “luscious, and her soul opens forthrightly and generously to the audience.” Recently, she covered the role of Roxane opposite Placido Domingo’s Cyrano de Bergerac at the San Francisco Opera. Signature roles include the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, and Mimi/Musetta in La Boheme. She has performed leading roles with Arizona Opera, Vancouver Opera, Opera Santa Barbara, Pacific Opera Victoria, Pittsburgh Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, and San Francisco Opera. She has appeared as a featured soloist with Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and New York City Ballet. Originally from Aldergrove, B.C., Ms. Jones holds an undergraduate and masters degree from the University of British Columbia, a Diploma in Opera Performance from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, and was selected to be a participant in the Merola Program, which led to a two year Adler Fellowship at the San Francisco Opera.