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I love all of this, except that you don't mention the fact that one can take all the advice you've given, devote everything to getting ahead, and if someone in a key power position decides they want to hold you back, then you can lose everything.

I read list after list of what students should be doing to be successful. I would love to see people writing about what the industry itself should be doing to be better as well. It's not all on the student or aspiring professional to work their asses off, education institutions should actually be doing their job, opera houses should be running themselves with dignity and professionally, and everyone should be doing more to promote general music literacy to ensure we actually have audiences (i.e. paying customers/jobs).


Thanks for commenting, SV. It's true that I didn't mention institutions in this post, but in my workshops I talk about them a LOT. I talk to students about what they should be getting from their schools and what they should do if they're not getting it. I give them a checklist of things to do before they graduate. I talk to them about how to choose a good school and a good teacher.

That being said, I agree with you wholeheartedly that many of our schools and institutions are NOT doing all they can or even all they should. Opera companies are at the mercy of patrons and board members who may or may not know or even care much about the art form. The people who get to stick around are often the ones who can raise the money. It's a complicated equation. There are politics and economics at play, and while I think (and know!) that *individuals* at schools listen to people like me, the institutions themselves don't really care. Unless you are a huge name in the business, they're just not interested in what you have to say.

Ultimately, we can't control what others do or think. We can only work on our own skills and strategies.


Amen to SVBarker! In school, I learned how to sing, but I learned nil about the business. I didn't know how it worked. I just thought I would go out and get hired because now I was a great singer. I think it should be a requirement of the universities to teach a class on the business side of opera singing so that singers have an idea of what the crap to do when they graduate. I had to learn it the hard way, and thousands of credit card dollars later....

Francine Simpson

After reading this, it makes me VERY grateful that I've been able to do the G&S roles of a mezzo-soprano that I've gotten so far. As my day-job is that of a Peoplesoft Developer, I truly enjoy being in both worlds and am glad that I don't have to do all this for a living. Hats off to mezzos who take the risk!

Cesar Torruella


Thomas Garrison

Gauge. Otherwise, great article!


Thank you for your honesty. I'm a young artist and this is the kind of stuff I want to be hearing. Amen sister. Preach!

S Blake Duncan

This is sooo true and not just for singers. As a now retired professional orchestral musician I can tell you this is absolutely true for instrumentalists too. Yes you have to be able to play a perfect audition, but the only way you really get to know the rep is by gaining experience and that means making friends and nurturing contacts and taking every gig you can. And yes Virginia the days of the demanding diva are over - if you are arrogant and rude and treat people with disrespect it will come back and bite you. We may be competing for the same jobs but that doesn't mean we can't be mutually friendly and supportive. Thanks and all the best...


Thank you Cindy, however, there is one point that you miss- the market place for the labour of opera singers is vastly overcrowded. Always was, always will be. Required reading for ALL opera wannabes, should be- R. Towse - Singers in the Market Place. The Economics of the Singing Profession. There are training institutes in the US that are now doing a good job of training singers for the market place and the business side of being a singers. Gary Beckmans survey of these institutes is well worth looking at for Americans considering their tertiary choices for training in performing arts. Meanwhile in Australia the work of David Throsby is excellent reading for understanding the market place for the performing arts. Yes- attendance, courtesy and knowledge gaining and contribution to the sector are important- however singers need guidance in how to be in business.


I have to say I'm not as on-board with this article as everyone else seems to be here. To preface, I'm a working singer on the international scene in both the opera and music theatre world. I make the majority of my income as a singer, which isn't a six figure salary, but isn't under the poverty line, either.

In this world, I think you get in big trouble when you make huge generalizations. This one particularly bothered me--- "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."

What makes a life "ordinary"? Is being a policeman or a fireman ordinary? Do you really think most people view their lives as "ordinary"? I don't think so. I think for some reason singers think they lead this unordinary, exceptional, out-of-the box life- and everyone else is content with a boring, normal, "ordinary" existence. This is not the case. People don't set out to lead ordinary lives- and being surrounded in my daily life by extraordinary non-singers make up most of the best moments of my days. Being a singer and pursuing this lifestyle does not make us any more special than the man fighting a fire or the person figuring out HR issues day to day for a corporation. It all takes skill. It takes travel-time for work functions. It takes a lot of time away from the family and friends. It takes sacrifice. A lot of times my family will ask why I don't send updates about every performance and rehearsal via mass-email- and I say, why would I do that? I respect what YOU do as much as you're interested in what I do. Let's update each other on the important parts of each other's lives instead of me always telling you about my next performance or the next ticket to my performance.

Putting your goals as a singer first in your life may seem like the way to be the only way to be a professional opera singer- but I don't believe it's the way to be happy in this world. In fact, it seems a little selfish to me. Creating a balanced life is what makes me happy. I put effort into maintaining relationships with my family, working out, staying centered, and singing. Sacrificing everything to feed this career, to me, sounds horrible. You don't have to go to every master class or to performances of operas you don't enjoy. You shouldn't feel pressured to spend the little bit of money you made on your last gig to go see a performance of "Cosi" that you know you're going to hate. If the master teacher has a record as a lot of master teachers do of using a bag of tricks to make the singer sound better the second time they sing the aria, I don't want to waste my time or money on that master class. If the articles in "Classical Singer" stress you out more than they make you happy reading them--guess what? Don't read them. If the performance is over and I don't want to "network" for an hour afterwards, and I want to go sit and have a glass of wine with my parents or best friend- or go to sleep, I don't feel bad. Maybe this has hindered my career a bit, but I don't think it has.

In short, you can make a career in any field while remaining balanced. I love rehearsal- I like auditioning and performing. I do put a lot of time and effort to get the jobs I have gotten in the past. There are certain things I won't sacrifice, though. "Ordinary" things and people I won't sacrifice. If my best friend from childhood is getting married and it' between standing up in the wedding, or singing a performance- I know the thing I'd regret in the long-haul would not be missing the performance. You have to find your happy- and you are not required to do anything you don't want to do.

I get what you're saying, though. There are a lot of valid points. You should be proactive- work hard-take lessons- get up at 4 in the morning to do an open call- figure out that AGMA is treated the same as Equity now and you can audition for legit Broadway-style productions- go to see productions and opera performances that you want to go see with your free time- say thank you to your colleagues and mentors-listen- be nice to people-network. I agree with all these points you highlighted in the article, and I am not trying to attack you.

Everyone has to make this work for themselves. I work quite a bit during the year, and I'm not the biggest name in the field. I'm not the smallest name either. I've sung at some pretty cool places- and I've probably missed a few gigs to make the most important people in my life feel important and special. Their wedding was just as important as the performance I missed. Flying in for a special family event for a weekend from the EU and missing a luncheon that could have progressed my career never bothered me. Life is about cultivating and maintaining love for others-love for yourself- maintaining people who mean something to you. If you're career is your number one thing in your life, it might not be there to hold your hand in the emergency room or to give you a hug after a break-up. It might not show up to your funeral one day and give the eulogy.

Just some food for thought...


HJ is the kind of singer I want to become. I love this article, but read many like it that put the focus on the total work ethic and commitment of the singer. It is absolutely possible to do EVERYTHING you can and fail at this career. I agree a lot with SVBarker on that end. I am a young singer with very little to my name. I know of so many of my friends that bend over backwards for this career and have nothing to show for it except depression and debt. What of that?


"Life is about cultivating and maintaining love for others-love for yourself- maintaining people who mean something to you. If you're career is your number one thing in your life, it might not be there to hold your hand in the emergency room or to give you a hug after a break-up. It might not show up to your funeral one day and give the eulogy."

Thank you HJ for your insightful comments. They definitely add balance to Cindy's article.


I have been mulling over what I would say to this post for the last 24 hours. The title does anger me, not for myself but for others I know who have done absolutely everything that you have outlined and still have not been able to make a living, or large career as an opera singer. The extreme arrogance of the title may make for a lot of hits but it doesn't take into account the reality of the world out there. It is extremely possible to be incredibly talented, to have thrown everything you have and are at this career and still end up with not much to show for it. Especially for lyric sopranos and mezzos. I think you do a great many of your colleagues a disservice with your title, it's insulting to many. While your critiques i'm sure are right on in some cases they are not in others. Why be so hurtful? It is hurtful to have thrown your life into something that didn't blossom due to whatever, nepotism, casting people having an abundance of riches to choose from or whatever. There is a degree of just plain luck. You can do everything, put yourself out there, be all over and if the right opportunity doesn't present itself at the right time you're SOL. And THAT is also the truth of the profession, that's why those who have made it are usually so incredibly grateful and humbled because they know how many people out there didn't and while it too a lot of work, they also know how lucky they are.

I get your anger. But your title has too broad of a stroke to be fair to everyone.


I think some of the thoughts shared in this article are very true. Some people don't really want to be singers and they just think they do for some reason. Where I think the mistake lies is measuring the success of a singer by the amount of work they're getting. Times have changed. It is harder than ever to get a gig at a paying opera house. Tuition has risen more than 300% since the 80s and there is no longer forgiveness even in bankruptcy. Real unemployment is the worst since the Great Depression and the market is flooded with musicians that just aren't going to get jobs even if they sing their faces off.

But even more importantly, getting a gig or even a lot of gigs does not make you a good singer, it just means you are a good business person. Or you're just lucky. Or you just know the right person. I worked at the MET for two years and was able to get standing tickets to practically every performance for free. Between the opera house, Carnegie Hall, and Avery Fisher Hall I heard almost every international level opera singer that comes to the states. You know what stuck out to me the most? The fact that of the dozens of "great" singers performing in these venues I could count on little more than two hands the number of singers who moved me or did something special in their perspective performances. Most singers, even the ones on the best stages of the world right now, are just not that interesting.

When I was at a conservatory for grad school, we were bombarded with similar advice. You have to always be "on." You have to constantly be thinking of ways to get work and further your career. At the time it seemed perfectly reasonable, but if everyone is following this advice where are the good singers? In a 2012 opera news article, Brian Kellow savaged the lack of quality performances at the MET and in her masterclass at Juilliard a few weeks ago Renée Fleming said bluntly that there is currently a lack of stars in the business. Yet we're all told the same thing. Find the right teachers. Pick the right arias. Kiss the right asses. And it's plain to see in the generation of new opera singers that they've mastered this advice and are working as a result it, but why is it that most of the singers who float to the top of the heap during the rat race are not very inspiring?

There is a fabulous interview on youtube with Nicole Cabell in which she said being an artist and getting to make a living singing don't necessarily have anything to do with each other, and this is something that should stay very much in the consciousness of young singers. Pavarotti wasn't a great singer because he sang at the MET. He was a great singer because he sang beautifully, and he also happened to sing at a lot of high profile places. I studied with a bass-baritone who was a chemistry teacher before beginning his career (he subsequently sang in almost ever major concert hall on the planet) who became a musician because some important people heard him while he was performing with amateur music groups in London for fun. He did less than 5 auditions his entire career. If you think YAPs are a sham and that you don't want to start out singing third spear holder from the left, then fucking own it. That's what Aprile Millo and Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs did. If you want to split your time between art and humanitarian work, sing for a while and then take a break. Or do something totally different. Teresa Stratas stopped singing for years to help Mother Teresa. There are a host of other examples.

I really believe that most people get into music because it moved them, and that's what should remain at the focus even if they never sing outside of a voice studio or a church choir loft. I've heard some singers who sing internationally that sound like conservatory students (or worse), and I've heard people at conservatories or amateurs with very little serious training who sound better than people who sing on the MET stage. Each singer has to decide for themselves what a career is to them, and how they see themselves living their lives. Instead of encouraging people to do anything they can to get a gig we should encourage them to sing as beautifully and honestly as possible, and if they are fortunate enough to ever get to share their work with an audience in a nice theatre that's just an added bonus. Maybe that's idealistic given the amount of debt people can accumulate training to be a singer, but that's really a problem with our education system, and I would hope we never end up telling people to not "waste their time" singing. There is no guarantee that anyone is ever going to get to sing places and do things exactly as they imagined, and pretending that everyone who doesn't end up doing so didn't want it badly enough is as naive as some of the people the author is talking about.

There is a level of discipline to being great at anything, but singing isn't really about just logging hours and doing the grunt work. Like Janet Baker says, you have to really work to keep yourself as clear as a piece of glass on stage so the work of art you're presenting can shine through you. She says this includes technique, language and musicianship, but it's also just about being an honest communicator and a genuine human being. There are pop singers who can barely sing in tune who are more honest than many young opera singers. Isn't that the essence of what this thing is about? I'm always so shocked to meet singers who have so little to say about politics and the world, as if they're afraid that if they drop their fake singer persona for one second they may offend someone and miss out on an opportunity. But guess what? Artists aren't supposed to be anodyne. Most of the artists I admire are wonderful people, but they have extremely strong personalties and opinions.

There is this endemic in the business now that extends from schools, to apprentice programs, and to opera companies of people telling young singers exactly what path to follow while simultaneously groaning about the lack of unique artists. There are no rules on how to sing beautifully and move people, and the best singers found their own paths. To be the artists we want to be, we must first be the type of people we want to be. There are a host of different personalities that end up as compelling artists, and I think there are far more important things than to think about than going to every single masterclass and performance (which can be very educational), such as developing character and cultivating a curiosity about the world, living and our interaction with other human beings.


Thank you for this. I was needing a kick in the seat of my pants to get me back on track in pursuing singing as a career (been out of grad school for coming up on a year, and have so far only managed some community theatre roles) and I think this was it.

Marybeth Verchot

The blog links you posted are really useful; are there any other singer blogs you'd recommend?


Life for a singer can be very different in Europe. Many singers there simply affiliate with a single house and live out their careers there.

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Where's Cindy Singing Next?

  • Madame Armfeldt, A Little Night Music, Alamo City Opera
    February 3 & 4, 2018 https://www.alamocityopera.org/

Cindy on Stage

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    I play dress-up for a living.

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