What’s So Hard About Singing Opera?

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© Cory Weaver

I gear most of my blog posts towards aspiring opera singers or young professionals but sometimes I like to mix it up and reach people who might not be in the opera world but are curious about it. So today’s post is all about why opera is known as the most difficult genres of music to sing.

Whether you’re dabbling or dripping with opera, I hope this post gives you some insight into opera singing!

This Thing Called Resonance

Compared to other genres of music, opera singers use more resonance when they sing in order to fill an entire hall with their sound. They don’t use microphones so their bodies become their amplifiers through an acquired vocal technique.

To achieve optimal resonance, each singer finds their own balance between their three in-body resonators: nasal, pharyngeal, and oral cavities.

A highly nasal voice, like The Nanny’s Fran Drescher or Gilbert Gottfried, has a lot of nasal resonance but the sound itself isn’t necessarily pretty and is fabricated. Practice at home by saying the word “ding’ and hold onto the final “ng”. That’s your nasal cavity, my friends. A darkened pharyngeal voice, like Darth Vader, doesn’t have enough volume or point to the tone. Try this one by imitating a ghost on an “oh” vowel. Finally oral or mouth placement is where most people naturally speak.

Over time and lots of training, I’ve found my mid-voice recipe for resonance is around—35% nasal, 50% oral, 15% pharyngal. After it’s found, you memorize that sensation, remind yourself of it, make minute adjustments, and recreate it time after time. It’s kind of like a recording studio soundboard in your body and you must adjust the levels of each resonator in order to achieve the desired effect.

Yes, some halls have more feedback, or echo, in them than others. Yet regardless of the hall, you have to be able to understand your voice and reproduce “your sound” under any circumstance.

The reason why resonance is a key factor for opera singers is that it allows their true voice to be heard with the utmost clarity, all without yelling. This can achieve varying effects, according to where a singer “places” their voice within their resonating chambers. The biggest goal is to achieve the loudest volume with a certain “ring” to the sound (in Italian, squillo). This is normally the sweet spot where we can hear the true beauty of the unamplified voice.

All three are options for vocal resonance placement, and finding a happy formula between them is opera singing in a nutshell.

Back To Nature

Everyone knows how to run. We never learn how to do it, you just start running one day. Now, if you overthink how your pinky toe connects to the ball of your foot and how your Achilles heel bends your ankle, you might fail at even taking one step.

Singing is similar. We hear music from an early age and join in with our family and friends with songs. It’s all around us when we grow up and it’s somewhat natural to us.

The first step to singing is breathing. What could be more natural than that? Luciano Pavarotti even said when asked how he did it, “I breathe, I sing.”

To put it simply, vocal sound production is a measured amount of air going over your vocal cords, over your tongue and out of your mouth. When you try to master something so elementary as breathing and vocal production at a very high level, it can get unnecessarily complicated. It’s a tough task of getting back to the basics of something innate. Undoing years of habits and bad form can lead to overthinking and overcomplicating.

The Total Performance

Opera has been around for centuries and that presents an interesting challenge for today’s audiences. It can be difficult to make certain operas accessible, because they may seem dated or archaic. As an opera singer, one must convince the audience to believe their emotions through their character. That story-telling aspect is unique to opera and musical theatre, and it takes a well-rounded performer to deliver such a show.

Even more so in opera, the characters at times sing about only one emotion and repeat words for five whole minutes, when it could have been conveyed in 10 seconds. For a fast-paced modern audience, that can get really boring. Especially when compared to other forms of entertainment like a movie, musical, or play. We constantly want things faster and it’s opera’s job to make those five whole minutes of repeated text mean something profound.

I believe that this “problem” with opera is also one of its strongest assets. When else in life do we get to simply kick back, open ourselves up to someone’s live art and spend our time enjoying something beautiful that elevates us to something higher than ourselves?

Languages

Another challenge of singing opera is that the singers have to sing in languages other than their own. Most operas are sung in Italian, French, German, English, and Russian. Unless you grew up speaking all five, you’re gonna have to put lots of effort into learning these.

Even if you’re a native speaker, the level of diction in opera is more elevated than everyday speaking because the words need to be heard over an entire orchestra.

Now, opera singers don’t need to be fluent in the languages they sing in. They learn the respective diction rules for each of these languages, along with the intricacies and “flavors” of each language by working with language coaches or listening to native speakers. This takes years to perfect since they have to sound as close to a native Italian or German speaker as possible since, as we’ve learned, singing opera isn’t already hard enough.

Opera singers translate each word and phrase into their native language, so when it comes time to perform, they know exactly what they are saying and allow the emotion of the words to steer their performance. That takes a lot of preparation because when the lights hit you, you gotta let yourself go with the character’s emotion, and without thinking about every individual word’s definition.

Until the Fit Lady Sings

The physicality of singing opera is also challenging. Gone are the days of singers pulling up to the stage to “park and bark.” Opera singers nowadays use their bodies to portray their character in more and more interesting ways. I’ve had to sing upside down, on the floor, sliding down a fireman’s pole, hanging from a ship’s mast, on top of a moving house, etc. All of this is to be accomplished while singing with perfect resonance, air support, diction, and emotion.

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San Francisco Opera in Die Tote Stadt, when I sang on top of a rolling house

The Tradition of Opera

We’re not done yet, folks! Also on the list of singing opera is understanding what goes into the style of this music. Lots of genres exist within opera such as bel canto, verismo, Mozart, Wagner, etc. and each of these have their own set of rules. You can’t go in with what you know about one genre and apply it to all others. This takes years of study and practice.

My point is that classical music exposure is limited in our culture and it’s not part of our everyday life. Unlike pop, country, and R&B, which are everywhere, we have to go out of our way to find it. You have to come across the opportunity to be exposed to it and then seek it out.

Vocal Limits

In opera, you’re physically limited to the number of performances you can do in one week. The human voice needs sufficient time to recover after singing over an orchestra for a 3-hour show. It’s just like how a marathon runner can’t run a race every day because their muscles need to recover. I shouldn’t sing more than three operas a week with at least a day in between to recover—not that I haven’t had to sing back-to-back shows—but a day in between is ideal. Musical theatre performers are impressive because they can sing eight performances a week. They use microphones to achieve this feat.

As opposed to a violinist or pianist, you can’t start fully singing until after you’ve gone through puberty. It takes a while for our voices to mature. The voice is limited due to its slow development. Have you ever noticed that there are no prodigies in opera? I’m not talking about America’s Got Talent “opera” singers. REAL opera singers. There are no 14 year-olds singing on the main stage of any opera house in the world. Your voice doesn’t fully mature enough to sing proper, large-scale opera until your mid-20s.

So there’s a lot of patience involved with finding one’s voice type. Even after years of allowing your voice to develop with age, there may be more years of studying on top of that to hone your talent. And 10 years after that, it may change again. That being said, your voice will constantly change throughout different stages of your life and you must regroup, reassess, and sometimes reinvent.

#OperaSingerLife

By far the hardest thing about opera is the uncertainty of a career. After mastering all of the previous things I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t guarantee you shit. I spent 8 years at 3 different universities and 2 years in an internship. That’s 10 years of study with no professional safety net. There is no guaranteed pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Because there are no gold medals in this field, you can only move towards goals that are then replaced with other goals. You need to exhibit a lack of complacency. Yes, there are different statuses within a career and after a point, more jobs start to pump out for you, but there is no destination. Even with the success I have found for myself, I have to scrap every day to keep my place in the sun.

Strangely enough, the most difficult thing about singing opera—that never-ending road towards transcendence through art and something bigger and better than ourselves—is also the most rewarding. No matter how close one gets to the top, there’s always room for growth. Some nights I feel like I’ve reached my next level and some nights I don’t: even if I have given the best performance of my life, I know I can still do better. And even if I do have a so-so night, I don’t let it get me down. Instead, I think of the bigger picture and find those moments to bask in the collective greatness that is this art form.


What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in with a comment below.


6 thoughts on “What’s So Hard About Singing Opera?

  1. I found this incredibly helpful as a mother of a rising artist in opera. I never knew what goes into singing, the work and discipline for this art. Thank you for this new perspective. I look forward to begin to enjoy opera now that I understand more. 😊

    Like

  2. I am a retired professional violist, (Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland). I formulated it thus: One day, I reach for something new and achieve it. I feel as if I am the best in the world! Then the next day, what I achieved yesterday is the new “ordinary” and I reach higher but I fail and feel as if I am the worst in the world. The truth is somewhere in between! Not to mention having to find a new way of making music: In an orchestra, you have to blend in. The conductor decides WHAT you play; HOW LOUD you play it; HOW FAST you play; WHAT TIME you play; HOW LONG you play; WHEN the coffee breaks are: WHAT YOU WEAR; WHERE you play. Suddenly, there you are, with no one to blend in with, and no one making those decisions for you! Talk about an identity crisis!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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