All the Ways to Make a Living with Your Voice

Carin Gilfry is a hard-working mezzo-soprano who sings with symphony orchestras and opera companies around the world. She is also a voice actor who has narrated and produced more than 70 audiobooks, voiced dozens of commercials, and played characters in many video games. We met in Phoenix where she was singing with the Phoenix Symphony to talk about her work over breakfast.

How do you find a voice-over job?

There are various websites that connect voice actors with people looking to hire them. Voices.com, Voice123
.com, and ACX.com are three of the most active. The last one, the Audiobook Creation Exchange, deals only with books. Right now, the industry is in flux and there are more jobs than narrators. I narrate a great many audiobooks. I’ve done children’s books, mysteries, and romance novels. You can hear some of my work online at my website, Caringilfry.com. The audiobook world is exploding. Everyone is listening to something while they are doing something else. People listen to books while they clean house or drive to the store, etc. Many people have a player, often a phone, with them at all times.

With the advent of self-publishing, it’s very easy to put out a book. One can even get an audiobook produced on a contingency basis on ACX, which is part of Audible.com, an Amazon.com subsidiary that provides audio content and entertainment. When the books are sold, Audible/Amazon gets 60 percent of the sale while the narrator and the author each get 20 percent.

It’s an exciting time to be in voice-over, because there is so much new technology. Right now there are approximately 10,000 titles looking for readers and as few as 3,000 qualified narrators. If you put a sample of your work online, you will probably have an audiobook to record by the end of the week. However, anyone thinking about becoming an audiobook narrator should know that it’s not easy to make money at first. Because of contingency arrangements, I did not receive any money for the first seven months that I worked. I worked hard, too, often putting in 12- and 14-hour days trying to get narrations finished before their deadlines. That was stressful. Eventually, you build up your résumé and you get more “clout.”

Do you need to buy much hardware to narrate books?

The technology has reached the point where it’s easy to build your own studio. Mine is even portable, so I take it along on singing jobs. You need state-of-the-art recording software and a good microphone. I chose my New York apartment because it had a walk in closet that would make a perfect studio.

Closets can be dangerous, however. One time, when I was singing with New York City Opera, I was in a hotel and needed to record about 15 minutes of an audiobook. I went into the room’s closet with my mic, my iPad with the text, and a bunch of pillows to deaden the sound. I left my computer outside because its fan made noise, and I closed the door. After reading a sentence and making a mistake, I tried to open the door and restart the recording, only to discover that the door did not open from the inside! There was a handle, but it wasn’t connected to the latch. I was stuck.

I started banging on the walls of the closet and calling for help. I tried calling the front desk from my iPad. Anything to get out! Finally, I heard some German tourists in the hallway and yelled out to them in German to help me. Being an opera singer who speaks German sure helped in that situation, and they found a maid who let me out. Meanwhile, my computer recorded every move I made.

I pitched the story to This American Life on National Public Radio, and they suggested I do an interview with Ira Glass. Ira, who is a cousin of composer Philip Glass, suggested that we turn the story into an opera. The story turned into a 13-minute opera, one minute of which Philip Glass wrote. Matthew Aucoin wrote the rest. When the Brooklyn Academy of Music staged it, I hired my dad, baritone Rod Gilfry, and several of my friends and colleagues to be in it with me. Best of all, it was broadcast to 5 million listeners. This American Life also made a video of the performance, which can be downloaded for $5.

What are some of your other voice-over jobs?

I also have a children’s show called Rosie’s Place on YouTube. For the show, my colleagues and I select stories written by children and make them into musical puppet shows. It is my labor of love. Now, there are six shows for which I wrote the text and the music. I love to compose, but I don’t compose classical music because I don’t think my compositions are up to that level yet. Because of my educational background, I tend to be very critical of modern classical music.

What kind of music do you compose?

I’ve composed the music associated with most of the audiobooks I’ve produced. Writing the beginning and ending music for an audiobook is like creating an aural book jacket. You have to capture the sense of the entire book within less than a minute of music. If the book is a romance, the music has to be romantic. If it is an amusing book for children, the music has to be fun too.

Do you enjoy working with writers?

It’s really interesting to work closely with authors on their audiobooks. Each writer seems to have a film of the book in his/her own mind, while I’m encountering the book for the first time. Most writers are highly complimentary, but once in a while I think an author would prefer a male voice for the male characters in their novel. Occasionally, I encounter a situation where a book has different chapters written from the first person point of view of different characters. In that case, male and female narrators can work together. For most books, however, one narrator reads all the parts: men, women, and children.

Being an opera singer has helped me tremendously in character portrayal. When I first took voice-over acting classes, I found that since I was already comfortable using my voice in extreme ways, my background put me ahead of many of my actor classmates.

Do you need different managers for different aspects of your career?
My manager for everything except voice-over is Kathy Olsen of Encompass Arts. She has been wonderful to me, and I love working with her. She says “yes” to practically anything I want to do. Often, opera managers and administrators want a singer to fit into a “box.” Many of them want you to sing only certain things and aren’t open to genres outside of opera, like jazz, musical theatre, TV, and film.

Kathy is open to all of that and wants me to be the most creative artist I can be. I feel so much more fulfilled being told it’s OK to branch outside of classical singing. And I think it makes my classical singing much better. I wasn’t happy only being in the opera box. Because I am creating every day, I am happier now than I have been in my entire adult life.

For voice-over, I work independently most of the time, but I am represented by Abrams Artists Agency for any union work (SAG-AFTRA) that might come my way.

The way the music business is now, singers have to be their own marketing teams. You have to engage with your fans. A singer is his/her own brand and has to promote it. Social media is a great help, of course. For example, a diva who was about to make her Carnegie Hall recital debut put pictures of herself wearing each of two dresses on Facebook and asked her friends to select the one she should wear. She had a huge group of Facebook friends and the pictures increased their awareness of the concert. It’s not easy to promote yourself, but it’s necessary in the world we live in today.

What is your family background?

My mom is a kindergarten teacher, but after I was born she stayed home for 11 years. Many know that my dad, Rod Gilfry, is an opera singer. I also have a younger sister and brother, Erica Buchiarelli and Marc Gilfry. When I was small we had a house rule: every day you had to eat something green, play a sport, and make music either by playing an instrument or singing. Our parents always wanted to be sure we were active in sports and music but they never forced anything on us. Still, we were always surrounded by music. I took piano lessons for a while, then switched to recorder and later to flute. My dad often played guitar and we sat around the living room together singing as a family. My extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins is also very musical. We have even performed a couple of benefit concerts together. Music was always a part of our lives, not just something we had to do.

Where did you live as a child?

Until I was 10 years old, we lived in Switzerland and I attended public school there. For that reason, I sometimes do voice-over work in German as well as English. I’m the “on-hold” voice for Expedia.com in Switzerland, for example.

From Switzerland we moved to Rancho Cucamonga, California. That was a huge culture shock. I went from homogeneous Switzerland to the colorful diversity of Southern California. I later attended the University of Southern California for my baccalaureate before going on to the Juilliard School in New York for my master’s degree.

What did you do to bridge the gap between school and career?

Having finished school, I returned to Europe to sing at the [Théâtre du] Châtelet in Paris with my dad. A year later I joined the Young Artist Program at Los Angeles Opera. That was a great experience. I got to work with musicians at the highest level. I had daily coachings and classes, all of which were geared toward preparing me for the professional world. And being around Maestros [Plácido] Domingo and [James] Conlon on a daily basis is not a bad gig at all!

How did you get started doing voice-over?

In 2012 I married a fellow singer and moved back to Switzerland where my husband had a contract with the Zürich Opera. I did myriad auditions. It was very challenging being married to another singer, though. I always tried to be very supportive of his career, but he was less so for me. I did not want to be an au pair or a nanny. I wanted to use my talents and do something that made use of my long years of training.

While I was in Europe on a spouse visa, I could not work there. I could, however, be in Europe and work in the United States on the Internet. That’s when I got into doing voice-over work. When we came home for Christmas, I began to take voice-acting classes and started to build my own portable recording studio. We divorced in 2014 and, luckily, at that point I could support myself financially with voice-over work and singing jobs.

Now, I have a professional home studio that I can easily take with me when I have a singing gig. Last December I sang seven concerts of Messiah. Two of them were in Los Angeles and five were in Phoenix. Right now I am singing with the Phoenix Symphony and recording jobs as well as auditions from my hotel closet again! Before closing the door, however, I made sure it opened from the inside!

What do you have coming up for spring and summer?

I am very excited about this summer. I am going to be working on some new music and producing a bunch of new projects. I’m filming a web series called Driving Mom Crazy in June and July. My audio production company, Gilfry Studios, is also venturing into the world of podcasting. We’re producing a podcast called The Door, which focuses on stories about doorkeepers. It will include stage door people, other doorkeepers, bouncers, and toll booth operators. Gilfry Studios was also the location for the recording of two episodes of the podcast Operative, which everyone interested in opera should check out. Opera coach and pianist Lachlan Glen and singer-turned-photographer Fay Fox are the Operative hosts.

This summer, I’ll be returning to the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) at CalArts to perform concerts and teach singing and other music to some incredible high school students. CSSSA is one of the only taxpayer-funded summer arts programs in the country. Over 80 percent of the students are there on some kind of scholarship and many of them attend for free. It’s my way of giving back to the next generation. Being an artist, especially a singer, can feel like such a selfish profession at times, and being able to teach for one month out of the year gives me great joy.

Do you also do commercials?
Yes, I do quite a bit of commercial voice-over. Recently, I did commercials for five different companies. I’ve done 13 national commercials for Zulily.com, a few spots for Planned Parenthood, Busbud, and several for resorts in Hawaii. But beyond commercials, I do tons of other types of voice-over work. I’ve done “on hold” message systems, e-learning courses, as well as audio and video for company in-service training.

Here in Phoenix, in my portable hotel closet studio, I narrated a training video for the installation of an elevator. I also do documentary-styled videos. Recently, I played Clara Schumann on the New World Symphony’s recording of works by her, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. I recorded the narration in my studio and sent it to the symphony. I find that all these different aspects of voice-over go hand-in-hand, and my opera training has been extremely helpful for all of it.

Sometimes you do not know what company you are working for until after they have hired you! That is what happened to me when I found myself doing a national television commercial for Liberty University.

Have you done video games?

I’ve done five of them. In a game called Heroes of Newerth I play a singing character called Tourmaline the Paragon who destroys her enemies with her voice. I got to use my opera voice for that one! In Warframe, I am Cephalon Vol, and in Heroes Charge, I am Nasira and Talenta. I’ve played small parts on some others, too.

Modern video games have characters and a narrative arc. All of them require fighting sounds like “Ooff” and “Aahh,” however, and that is different from my other work. Some video games use voice acting to bring players from one level to the next part of the story. I have not composed music for a video game yet, but I’d love to do that.

Do you do children’s recordings?

Last year I recorded 60 songs for a Canadian company called Kiboomu. And I wrote all the songs on my kids’ web series, Rosie’s Place. We produced an album with a live band, which also appears on the show. It’s available for purchase on iTunes.

I sang in a commercial for the Washington Wizards basketball team, which wanted a classical sound. I’ve also done some jingle singing. Voice-over work is tremendously diverse and it’s everywhere. The only drawback is that it is isolating. I’m in a studio by myself all day and it’s lonely. Narrating an audiobook can keep me alone in the studio all day. Voice-over commercials can be a little better because the company often requests a “phone patch” session. That means I call them on the Internet from wherever I am and they direct me while I make the recording. That way, there is a little bit if human interaction.

What do you find most rewarding in your diverse work areas?

Last night, sitting onstage, I could not help thinking how much I get from working with other people. There is nothing like making music with three other vocal soloists, over 100 instrumentalists, and a chorus. Singing is the most rewarding profession in the world.

Another rewarding experience is making Rosie’s Place, my YouTube children’s series. I created it with fellow singer and videographer Jonathan Estabrooks. That work has stretched me in every direction. For example, I made 23 puppets for the show. Luckily, I had training in costuming when I apprenticed at the Aspen Music Festival. The festival requires 10 hours of technical training from every apprentice. I also learned a lot about making puppets from puppet maker David Fino in New York. My boyfriend, Sean Slater, is a film producer who also works as a child therapist. We hope to work together on season 2 of Rosie’s Place.

What has this work taught you about success?

The first rule of success is “Believe you deserve the prize you want.” You must think you are at least as deserving as the other contestants. You can’t let anyone take that away from you. That is why it’s important to spend time with people who believe in you and your work. As my manager, Kathy Olsen is in my corner not just for opera but also for all my creative work. She represents me as an overall performer. When she said that her firm was going to cultivate me as an entire performer, it changed the entire game for me.

Maria Nockin

Born in New York City to a British mother and a German father, Maria Nockin studied piano, violin, and voice. She worked at the Metropolitan Opera Guild while studying for her BM and MM degrees at Fordham University. She now lives in southern Arizona where she paints desert landscapes, translates from German for musical groups, and writes on classical singing for various publications.