This will undoubtedly come as a surprise to some people, but education is not something that just happens to you. And it is not free.
Every day I spend walking this earth, it becomes more apparent that the vast majority of people just want to get by. They want to have enough to eat, a safe and comfortable place to live, good health, time with their families and friends, and a few treats. It's a nice bonus if they like their job. Most people just want to live ordinary lives, no one bothering them, go about their business in peace. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's actually a really nice way to live.
Some of these good folks think they want more. They think they want a lot more money, fame, a big career, travel. Some of them even make a go at it. They do some study, they attain a high enough level of skill and knowledge to get some encouragement, they do a few interviews or internships, they may even get to the point of doing some work in the field. But somehow, it never really ends up going anywhere, or it goes to a point and then just stops, because when it comes right down to it, they don't know what they have to do to attain their goals, and they don't really do what they must to find out. They want the thing itself, not the whole rocky, tangled path that comes with it. They want magic.
We see this a lot in the classical singing industry. Hundreds upon hundreds of people believe they want to be professional opera singers, and are devoting thousands of dollars (much of which is often borrowed) and years of their lives to pursuing the dream of life on the operatic stage. And when we're totaling resources, let's not forget the intangible sacrifices people make: missing family occasions, going to rehearsal instead of out with friends, asking a great deal of the loved ones who stay at home and hold down the fort while they travel.
A lot of these people are really talented, and hard workers, and they become viable contenders. Some of them go on to fulfill their goals. Some go at it successfully for a while, and then realize that they don't like the lifestyle, or there's something else they'd really rather do, or family is more important, or they would be just as happy singing occasionally instead of full time, and they quit.
But the vast majority of people who think they want to be professional singers don't achieve any real degree of success, and that is NOT because they aren't talented (though sometimes they aren't) or even because they're not hard workers (though some of them aren't). They aren't successful because they don't go all the way, and if you want to be an opera singer -- or indeed, any kind of artist --- in this day and age, you've got to be willing to go all the way. It's not the only factor for success, but I'm willing to state that in my professional opinion, it's one of the critical factors.
What do I mean by going all the way? I mean that for most of your career, but especially when you're studying and transitioning from school to your profession, the fact that you are a singer trying to get paid for singing and trying to build your resume and your contacts in the business --- that has to take precedence over all other factors.
This is not easy and it is not cheap, not in terms of money or time or friendships, but this is what has to happen if you want to win. By the way, it also does not mean you have to be rude, disrespectful, cutthroat, arrogant, or uncaring. It just means that when you have a choice between an extra hour of sleep and going to a master class, you go to the master class. It means taking day jobs that maybe don't pay as much but allow some flexibility so you can go to rehearsals and go out of town for auditions when you need to. It means spending free time educating yourself about the business by thumbing through Musical America to find out who the agents are and who they're representing, or reading blogs like Laura Claycomb's or Susan Eichhorn Young's or Kim Witman's Wolftrap Opera blog. It means reading Classical Singer Magazine and all the Opera America publications. You cultivate friendships with more experienced singers and other people in the business, and you treat them well, and you ask them for advice and help when appropriate. I guarantee you that if you show that you are hard-working and interested and actually out there doing something about achieving your goals, and if you ask at the right time in the right way, and if you always say thank you, most of your colleagues up the ladder will bend over backwards to help you.
It means that you proactively seek to educate yourself in your chosen field. You take advantage of opportunities. You don't just wait for them to come to you, you seek them out. And for heaven's sake, if something is low-cost or free and available to you in your own back yard, SHOW UP. You see, these opportunities die off if they aren't fed with interest, and then they aren't there for you any more. Suddenly, you're on your own, working your day job in your hometown and getting frustrated because the little bitty local opera company that might have hired you to do a role shut down -- not enough people were buying tickets --- and now there is no place in the vicinity for you to get a role under your belt. Not that you ever bought a ticket and went. Or everybody's complaining because your school never brings in master teachers like your friend's school does --- but you didn't go to the last three master classes and you skipped class the day they brought in a working singer to talk about the business. Or you were meaning to audition for a summer program, but you put it off for some reason and now all the deadlines are past.
Putting your goal of becoming a professional singer first means, in short, setting up your life so that you can get the education and contacts that you need to move ahead. It's hard, but you find a way. The way may not be ideal, but you work it until you can come up with something better. And you don't follow it blindly, either. You're realistic. You've done your homework, you guage your progress, you compare yourself dispassionately to other singers not so you can feel bad or beat yourself up, but to see where you are and where you have to go. You develop self-perception. You don't throw good money after bad. You research opportunities you have to pay for and only pay for the ones that are going to give you the experience you need.
It's a lot of work. But that's what you sign on for, when you sign up to be a professional, working opera singer.
And by the way, if the title of this post pissed you off, good. I truly hope that you get out there and show the world that you're the exception to the rule. In all sincerity and good will, I wish you good luck.