I was 25 years old studying at Yale University for a music degree.
This was when I began meeting agents for the first time (my first connection with the real world of opera!). Until this point, I was just an eager student with big dreams.
I became relatively close with one agent who showed interest in representing me. As a naive music student, I opened up too much and complained to them about all the requirements for singers to complete a music degree.
Back then, the mentality was that singers must suffer and keep pushing forward no matter what — suffering helps make a good artist. (And in some ways, that is true.)
The conversation then led to the agent telling me, “You won’t be able to have a career until you can fluently speak all the major languages of opera: German, French, Italian, and English.”
I froze and immediately thought, “Oh my god, I’m never going to make it because I’m so far behind. I’ll never catch up.”
It seemed like the intention of the conversation was to “put me in my place”: to remind me how competitive the industry is and to shut up and do the work.
It shook me in my boots.
So Fresh, So Green
This agent was one of the first people I met from the “real world” of opera. I was so green and impressionable. And I believed their advice for the longest time. It made me nervous about learning languages, and I was constantly concerned that my talent would never be enough.
The agent was connected to the top and until that point, I only dreamed of what that place was like. They were my first real connection to what a career could look or feel like.
I thought, “So, realistically speaking, how many years will it take me to learn four languages fluently before I can start thinking about singing professionally? Should I just quit now?”
To make the situation even scarier, I’d never left the country before — I had never been outside of the U.S.!! The time I had to learn these languages fluently was dwindling away, and I felt so far behind. As I looked into my future, my dreams of becoming an opera singer were waning.
The Real Side
So, do opera singers need to be fluent in the languages they sing in? After that conversation, I kept going and realized this advice wasn’t true. Here’s the scoop on speaking languages as an opera singer.
1. Immerse yourself in the language.
You can take language courses and lessons, but you won’t get the flair and flavor of a language until you visit its respective country. The intricacies of the language emerge when you’re engulfed in the life and culture of the language.
Personally, I couldn’t afford to take a trip to Germany growing up. So while I give this advice, it’s not impossible to study a language if you don’t have the means to visit the country.
I thought my years in German class were a waste because fluency felt so unreachable — I felt like I should just give up trying. In reality, I kept learning and got a better grasp of the language.
Try and practice those verbs and vocabulary!
2. Learn to sing like a native speaker.
If I could turn this agent’s advice into a reminder that’s more positive than scary, it would be: your job consists of singing French in France alongside native French speakers. The same goes for Italy, Spain, and Germany/Austria/Switzerland. If you aren’t well-prepared to sing a language, you’ll be lambasted in the press, disrespected by your peers, and possibly even fired.
When you arrive at a job, your sense of singing in another language has to be spot on. Singing in a language is different from speaking a language fluently off-stage.
In some aspects, I agree with this agent — for example, you can’t arrive and guess which vowels are open or closed in the context of your role. Your diction almost has to be better than that of a native speaker.
3. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Don’t be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone while you learn a new language. If I enter a situation and I’m a bit uncomfortable, it motivates me to overcome that challenge and return more prepared and ready.
For instance, when I enter a room and everyone is speaking Italian, I go home and learn a few key phrases. Then I’m better prepared for the next conversation — I greet them, ask questions, and engage in the conversation.
Once you have a general understanding of a language, you have to block out the voice that says, “I don’t understand anything that’s being said”. Hone in on the conversation and the overall message will come. Replay the words back to yourself and it begins to make sense.
Pick a noun here, take apart a verb there, and then you realize you understand more than you think you do. You may not know exactly what they’re saying but you have a general sense of what they’re talking about.
4. English is the universal language of opera.
No matter what situation you’re in, there’s likely someone there who speaks English. Even if the opera is sung in another language, it is absolutely acceptable to request a different language to conduct your rehearsal in.
If you’re at a rehearsal, try saying this in the native language of the country you’re in, “I understand what you’re saying but I’d like to know more. Can you tell me one time in English? Because this is important to me.”
This phrase shows respect to your colleagues and the country you’re in by attempting to speak in their language as best you can. Fear of making a mistake or mispronouncing a word shouldn’t outweigh the excitement to try and learn more.
Although, there was one time I ordered water perfectly in a language and I was told I wasn’t understood because I didn’t close the vowel enough (no name-calling any specific country but it rhymes with “pants”). Nevertheless, I still recommend putting yourself out there and trying to speak the language to the best of your ability.
I think it’s important, in fact, a responsibility of an international artist to understand and respect a country’s culture and language as a visitor.
On the flip side, we can’t be all things to everyone and it’s a big ask for us to be fluent in every language. So, it’s perfectly acceptable to request English in the rehearsal room. But it’s all about HOW.
If you get to work in Europe and prefer English as your go-to language, respond in English at first. Don’t stand up in rehearsal and announce it to everyone, just speak in English when you’re spoken to. If the conductor or administration keeps speaking to you in their language, kindly apologize in their language (yes, you need to learn how to say “sorry”) and make your request. Do it with a smile and show appreciation.
Interestingly, I’ve heard the English language butchered when sung onstage at major opera companies. If it was Italian, heads would have rolled. There is a hierarchy of languages that isn’t talked about.
I think about that conversation with the agent a lot.
Looking back, I think they were just exasperated that day and maybe a bit exasperated with me. They were trying to look out for my best interests, light a fire under me, and remind me that I have bigger fish to fry.
Now, with my grown-up goggles on, I can look back and offer advice to those giving advice: young artists are so impressionable that when giving advice, try not to say anything too definitive. Definitive advice becomes the law for some young singers and it can haunt their psyches for years into the future.
To summarize: knowledge of the language is crucial. Be charming when requesting English. Sing exceptionally well in the language, even if you don’t speak a word of it. You’ll be great!