A Change of Plans

But what does this mean for someone whose dream is to be an opera singer and who is willing to give everything to that dream?

I

t wasn’t supposed to happen this way. 

How many of us have said that on more than one occasion? Those words can apply to all kinds of endeavors and situations, from a cooking experiment gone wrong to a day that derailed us from our agenda to a promising marriage that turned sour to a dream career that took an unexpected turn. This is not to say that the “wasn’t-supposed-to-happen” happening is always negative. On the contrary, sometimes the upending of our original plan is the best thing that could have happened to us. 

But what does this mean for someone whose dream is to be an opera singer and who is willing to give everything to that dream? Faith and optimism are empowering forces on the way to fulfilling a dream, and no one wants to start out with the caveat that the dream may not become true after all. Doubt can be draining and undermining. Many who have gone against the grain to achieve their vision have either had no doubt or been able to overcome their own and others’ skepticism. 

Still, at times, life is made of other plans—and these plans take us by surprise, especially when they become ours. Maybe along the way you discover that the demands of a career in opera are not what you want to accept. Maybe all the right elements just do not come together for a variety of reasons that are beyond your control. This is such a complex business that talent alone is not enough. 

I am not here to write about doubt, but rather to address the “what if” question—as in, “What if the operatic career does not work out?”—and to invite consideration of other options. How can you start early to acquire skills that will serve you while you are pursuing an operatic career or are already in it and, at the same time, will also become Plan B in case you need a Plan B? 

Everyone’s journey is unique, and advice, while sometimes helpful, is in other instances best taken with a grain of salt. I can only speak from my own experience, and this is not meant to be an autobiography. I would like simply to share with you some extra steps I took that have led me to my own plan B. 

I fell in love with opera when I was 10 years old and dreamed that I would become an opera singer. At 16, I began taking voice lessons privately, and at almost 18 I was accepted into the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College. While at first I enjoyed the full immersion in voice and music studies at the conservatory, my instinct pushed me to also focus on languages. After all, Italian, French, and German are natural partners to operatic studies. 

While basic language and diction classes are offered within most conservatory and music school programs, taking the study of languages further can be a blessing and turn into a source of employment. Which it did for me. Thanks to my language focus, I was able to survive financially throughout various periods of my life by teaching, tutoring, and translating even as I was still pursuing an operatic career. 

Teaching languages is not a huge money maker, especially with adjuncting being so poorly paid. On the other hand, depending on the school’s policy about how much and how long you teach, your language teaching can provide you with health insurance. So investing extra time in learning well the languages that you sing in is not only in harmony with your opera singing preparation, but it also enriches everything from the mind to communication skills to possibilities of employment. Languages are treasures that will serve you throughout your entire life, and the sooner you can start acquiring them, the better, even if it is just one foreign language. 

After graduation, I went the European route. I studied in Vienna, auditioned, went to competitions, and sang in small venues in Austria, Italy, and my native Romania. But nothing clicked. And it was due to a combination of my lack of total devotion to this art—which I wasn’t admitting to myself then—and the fact that I was not considered fully ready yet. 

Although now, years later, I attribute that to the reality that my voice is not truly operatic. No matter what I would have tried, it would always remain a voice ideally heard in small settings or with a microphone—and in song rather than in opera. But how, at the time, could I even begin to accept the truth that grand opera, which my temperament and my expressive sensibilities longed for, would never be the right artistic home for me because my voice was not made for it? 

I returned to the United States, still intent on pursuing the opera dream. And what I did instantly also turned out to be a blessing, just like studying languages. I became involved with the alumni association at my alma mater, Purchase College. While I was still working on my voice, auditioning, and doing recitals and some musical theatre, I joined the alumni board and volunteered at alumni events and activities.  

Not only did this venture give me great experience in event planning and help me create a diverse network, but it also resulted in a few singing engagements and other freelance work as a translator and writer. Most of all, it placed me on the path that would offer me financial stability. As a volunteer, I was visible at university events, and the administrative higher-ups were noticing what I could do in event planning and public relations, so I became a viable candidate for jobs. I started to work part time in external affairs and ended up full time as the director of alumni affairs, all while learning to accept that an opera singing career was not meant to be. I worked in alumni relations for over 12 years at two colleges. 

Eventually, I channeled my love of opera to serve the art form in other ways: through organizing opera-focused events for alumni, students, and the surrounding communities and, ultimately, through writing. Although Plan B took over, singing remained a part of my life. I continued to practice. My singing has served me in introducing opera to students by enhancing the artistic component of certain fundraising events and special functions where I was asked to sing, and after which I inevitably earned the nickname “the singing director.” 

The alumni connection can be a very helpful avenue to explore as early as your student days. Your school’s alumni network is an invaluable resource, and there are plenty of schools that offer combined alumni-student events with a networking or professional development focus. Most importantly, it is the people you meet and the relationships you build that will be a resource no matter what path you take. As an alumni director, I always observed how much students benefitted from getting in touch with the alumni office and participating in events. 

Social media makes everything that much easier. LinkedIn, for example, has created University Pages. All you need to do is list your education on your profile, and you will be automatically added to your school’s page. Many schools use LinkedIn as a platform for announcements and event invitations, while alumni and students can connect there and network instantly. From my experience, I can attest to how useful it is to create a LinkedIn profile and build a network, even as a student. 

Conservatories like the one at Purchase College offer arts management programs as well. I have known aspiring singers who opted to enroll in arts management while continuing their voice studies privately. Others have pursued a business degree or taken entrepreneurship courses. Most have been able to keep music as a minor. These expansions, especially into complementary fields, have served them whether they embarked on operatic careers or chose to turn Plan B into an unexpected Plan A. 

Of course, many students of singing welcome and benefit from the full immersion into a conservatory or music school voice program. And the immersion leaves little room for anything else. But language learning and building a network do not have to disrupt that total involvement.

The exploration of these aspects can be done gradually, in stages, and right within your school. It can start while you are still a voice student taking language classes. If you achieve your dream of an operatic career, you will be that much richer for it. And if you don’t, these explorations will open possibilities that may surprise you. 

After experiencing these turns in life and the change in my original plan, I realized that what has been vastly important on this journey have been openness, connection, and communication. Openness to other talents that may lie dormant in you and to other options of expression and engagement, connection with others from your own profession but also from different fields, and communication about your aspirations and skills not just with those close to you but with the people you meet. You never know when a new acquaintance can spark an idea or an opportunity that may have never come from those who know you very well or from your colleagues. 

My credo remains that everyone who has the voice and the talent, loves opera, and wants a career on the stage owes it to themselves to give their dream all they’ve got. But while the single-minded devotion to your art needs to be an absolute priority, developing an early awareness and consideration of other aspects of yourself will serve you not only in practical ways but also as an artist. Taking a proactive approach to expanding what you can do in life will empower you. If, eventually, you have to switch to Plan B, then that won’t feel like a disappointment. You might just discover that Plan B can bring you excitement and fulfillment in ways you never imagined. 

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the books “The Don Carlos Enigma,” “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.