Photo by Michael Cooper, 2019 for Canadian Opera Company’s Otello.
By Tamara Wilson | July 2019
t takes years of study to become a proficient opera singer. We train our bodies to project our voices over a chorus and full orchestra in order to reach the back rows and top levels of huge theaters without microphones. We master different languages, and take movement, dance, and acting lessons in order to perform operas that portray the extreme emotions of life. We love, laugh, rage, scream, cry, and die in front of an audience. While it may seem like our job takes places essentially on stage, the actual time spent performing is relatively small. The thing no one prepares a singer for is the day to day career.
When I first started singing professionally, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool and I had to start treading water quickly. I did the only rational thing I could; I asked the people who knew what they were doing how they do it. I talked to seasoned veterans of the business about how they got their start. I asked what they would do differently in their life if they could build their career all over again. Slowly but surely, I began to build a small network of singers I could rely on to give it to me straight. From the outside looking in, a jet-setting life with beautiful costumes and a modest amount of fame looks terrific, but people tend to sugarcoat the career or say things like, “I couldn’t live without music,” or, “the sacrifices are all worth it.” No one talks about the daily work it takes to be a top-notch singer in a very competitive field.
Tamara Wilson. Photo by Luca Targetti at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, 2018.
Many people don’t know that headlining opera singers are private contractors and considered self-employed. That means there is no manual or job description for a professional opera singer, and no two careers follow the same path. I realized early on in my career if I was having all these questions, other singers must have them as well. That’s when I took the knowledge of the little network I had and began expanding it to include others in the business. I knew I would need a digital space to reach my fellow traveling singers, so I created two Facebook groups. One is dedicated to taxes and finance while the other deals with any topic in an opera career. No question is absurd. It is essential for people to feel comfortable asking very logical and basic questions that you really can’t find the answer to in a google search. As I’m sure happens in most other professions, asking questions can sometimes feel like you are incompetent at your job, when, in fact, asking the right questions can avoid a big mess later.
Tamara Wilson with tenor Younghoon Lee in Aïda, 2017. Photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Il Trovatore, 2018.
Opera singers travel for work all over the globe and its members come from many different countries. It is great to finally have a place where singers can network with people who have firsthand experience no matter their level in the business. There are young singers just starting, mid-level singers building a career, established singers, all the way to retired artists. I can ask a question about getting a visa for a particular country, and within minutes another singer will get back to me with their experience at different Consulates. Mothers with new babies can ask about childcare in Japan. If there are questions that no one knows the answer to, I do what I do best, research and put people in touch with someone who does.
Photo courtesy of Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy. Bows after Verdi Requiem. Pictured from Left to Right: Ekaterina Gubanova, Tamara Wilson, Riccardo Chailly and René Barbera, Ferruccio Furlanetto.
I am so happy with this new dialogue that I opened in order to ask the realistic questions about different fields within the opera community. There are voice teachers, opera coaches, acting coaches, directors, pianists, technical crew, make-up artists, costumers, not to mention all the administrative positions in the opera house. Singers are on contract for a short time—usually 2-8 weeks depending on the opera. They are never anywhere long enough to feel like an employee. Singers often don’t know how other departments run and how that affects their work directly. By crowdsourcing everyone’s experiences in the field, you build a workforce that is more confident and knowledgeable. This way a singer can do their number one job, earn the applause of an audience on behalf of a team of hundreds working behind the scenes.
With a voice that is a “veritable force of nature” (Chicago Tribune), American Soprano, Tamara Wilson, has made a name for herself in opera houses and concert stages all over the World, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, The Sydney Opera House, Royal Albert Hall, Disney Hall, to name a few. Ms. Wilson was awarded the prestigious Richard Tucker Award in 2016 at Carnegie Hall. She received an Olivier Award Nomination for her performance in The Force of Destiny with the English National Opera. Ms. Wilson has recorded various operas and concert works of Wagner, Strauss, Beethoven, Mahler, and Verdi. When she isn’t jet-setting around the globe, Ms. Wilson lives in Houston, TX. Connect with Tamara at TamaraWilsonSoprano.com, on Twitter @tamschloo, on YouTube and on Instagram @tamara_wilson_soprano.