Getting from Here to There

I love working with singers. I am so fortunate that, entirely by accident, I happened upon a career as an opera coach. We never really know what is just around the corner and what opportunity lies waiting for us, if we just have enough courage to recognize it and to take it.

What I have never come across is a perfect singer. I’ve known many singers who are perfectly terrific, and perfectly thrilling, and perfectly wonderful. But perfect? No. But I know this is a perfectly wonderful time for singers! Never mind the economic situation. We have increased access to more information for young singers than ever before. We have more teachers who are willing to share everything they ever learned, which was not the case some 25 years ago. We have more young artist programs. We have more summer programs.

As singers, you have more opportunities to make contacts, to treat yourself as a professional person, to avail yourself of the programs that really give you the opportunity to become a professional person, to work as one and to live as one.

Twenty years ago, you couldn’t get a book with all the phonetics written into it. You had to do all that work yourself.

One of the big problems for singers is that you have only about 10 years to really become fully prepared. Between 20 and 30, you have to acquire many skills—and the demands on the singer have become greater in the past few years. Linguistic ability in opera today is more important than ever. With supertitles and subtitles, people understand what you’re saying—and they’re beginning to realize when you’re not clear.

Most young singers really do want to do their very best. The problem we face is that singers are not always physically or psychologically prepared to meet the demands of this grueling profession. You must use the little corners of time to continue to perfect your craft. Do you want to make the sacrifices in personal life that this career asks of you? Do you want to give up the evenings of friendship and play to connect with those language exercises, music studying, CD-listening, composer studying, all of the factors that are important in preparation for this intensely difficult professional life?

I find, in fact, that most of us worry more than we work. Yes, being a singer is incredibly intense, stressful and difficult. It is also absolutely rewarding. But it does really require the discipline and sacrifice that many people find difficult to make. That’s something that you must consider very seriously about yourself.

Ask yourself: am I the kind of person who likes living in hotels, flying on airplanes constantly, traveling all the time, under difficult conditions? Can I stand the strain of working at not catching a cold, of not being sick, of being far away from my loved ones or not having time for my loved ones? Can I take the financial insecurity, the emotional roller coasters, the highly complex and difficult job of being a diva at night and student by day?

The fact is, not everyone is cut out to be an opera singer on a national or international scale. But there are many ways to be a singer that can accommodate the personality that you have. Consider that no matter what happens in the business world of opera, you will always be a singer. Your voice doesn’t leave you.

Opera is part of “show business” and there are two components to that phrase, show and business. “Artistic types” must be practical about the business phase of opera. Preparation for being a singer is a very expensive undertaking. You need to be aware of the fact that you’re not going to get out of college and be ready to go out there and earn a living like your lawyer and doctor friends.

Two tracks lead to a career. One, you have to be technically prepared. Can you sing softly, can you sing loudly, can you sing high, can you sing low, can you sing in tune? All the time? Is your middle voice good? Are the low notes reasonably good? Does the top work 99 percent of the time? Week by week, month by month, work on securing your technique. Find somebody who can teach you. Do it now.

The second track is one of gathering information, on languages and styles of music, on performance techniques, on interpretation. For that, you need to get all the help you can. If learning music is difficult for you, sit with a pianist who will teach it to you. Put it on your tape recorder. Do whatever it takes. I know many, many singers who really have a kind of fright opening a new score. They just won’t do it unless they’re sitting with a pianist and the pianist is playing out the notes. That’s OK. If that’s what works, do it.

Try to get yourself a really, really good coach. We have more good coaches in New York than ever before. Try having two types of coaches. Work with a young coach with all the verve, energy, enthusiasm and good fingers to play your music, so you can practice singing it. Change that off with an older, experienced coach, one who has done the operas, who is familiar with every part of them, who knows all the nuances, the traditions, what’s going to be required of you on the stage, one who will help you find the pitfalls and the high spots for your voice and your whole presentation, who will help you pace your performance and help you define your interpretation of the role, so your performance will be tailored to show off what is so uniquely you.

Develop a wonderful personal relationship with as many people in this business as you can. Let everybody know what a really wonderful person you are and what a great colleague you would make. Diva tantrum stories aside, nobody really wants to work with an extraordinarily difficult person. We will if we have to, but it doesn’t enhance the stress that is inherent in the preparation of opera. We’re fighting against time and expense in trying to produce the best theater and music possible. With cooperative, humbly confident singers who encourage each other and come into rehearsal with a smile and a compliment for their colleagues, we can produce that product. Let off steam when you get home, but do it at home.

I find it the most rewarding day of the week when I go to my mailbox and find a little note from a singer that I may have helped. It says, “Thank you,” “thinking of you,” “just had a great success at La Scala” or wherever. It makes our work worthwhile. Acknowledgment of your coaches and teachers really makes our day.

Use us. I find that so many singers are hesitant to ask questions or to ask for an opinion. Establish honest, forthright question-and-answer relationships with your teacher. If you can’t trust your teacher, you shouldn’t be there. If you can’t rely on your coach for encouragement and honesty, you shouldn’t be there.

Keep informed about your own profession. Have you read Musical America cover to cover? If you are introduced to a manager, will you know who he or she is? Do you read all the opera magazines, looking at the names, seeing what operas are being done? What could you do if you were out there? And if you’re not in the opera house twice a week, you should be, or at a concert. There are very inexpensive tickets, there is standing room. You need to be there, you need to see it live.

When you’re not at the theater, you need to be watching a DVD or a video of a performance. You need to know the past 60 or 70 years of singers and what made them great. You need to know opera history. You need a vocabulary of operatic sound in your ear, an international sound, not just an American sound or an Italian sound. It’s important to have an international frame of mind, to go to museums, to understand the cultures, the food, the games, the humor, the art of many countries.

I think it’s wisest to sing the simplest thing that you can sing marvelously well, as opposed to the most difficult. You will have a chance to show your talent. Someone will listen to you. You will be in a competition where you can shine. You will be in an audition where you have the opportunity to be hired.

It’s imperative that when you get that chance, you have it all together. Somebody will help you find a manager. Keep your networking going, meet people who know people and someone will call up and say to a manager, “Would you listen to this person?” Or you will find a manager who answers your letters. But if you’re not ready, you won’t get a second chance. The second chance is very difficult to come by. So be ready with proper repertoire, with repertoire that really shows you who are, what you can do, where you can go and work.

I think the best advice I ever got was, “Be serious and be of very good cheer.” Never lose your sense of humor about yourself or about the business. There’s a good reason singers like to tell jokes. It takes off all the pressure. Keep a few good jokes in your pocket and a smile. Keep your energy, your health, your mental well-being, and give it all to this wonderful process of growth. And remember that growth really is a process. It takes work and it takes patience, but it does arrive. And each day, you feel a new part of yourself blooming.

Don’t worry. Work. Work hard. It’s truly worth it. Be exceptional. Be yourself, exceptionally so.

Joan Dornemann

Joan Dornemann is the founder of the International Vocal Arts Institute (formerly Israel Vocal Arts Institute) (, a summer program for young professionals that focuses on improving performance and audition capabilities. [see ad p.10]. She is also an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and has written the book Complete Preparation: A Guide to Auditioning for Opera, which is available on