The Do's and Don'ts When Looking for a Voice Teacher

The Do's and Don'ts When Looking for a Voice Teacher

No matter if you are going into musical theatre, classical music, or even pop music, a strong and solid vocal foundation is where everything begins. But how to begin? Its a big old world out there, even bigger now that the internet has made everything available at the touch of our fingertips. A  word of caution as you take this very crucial first step; not everyone is what they seem. It used to be that snake oil salesmen the like of Pirelli were found only at the circus; now they can be found in the pages of well-known industry magazines, on YouTube, and from self-professed ‘coaches’. So how can a young singer take the first steps?

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Dance 10, Looks 3

Kelli Butler 

  • OnStage Opera Columnist

Anyone who has ever been gearing up for a musical theatre audition knows the eternal struggle - finding that sweet spot of sixteen bars, in a ballad and an uptempo, contrasting styles, making sure they hear the true best of you. Will they hear your range? Will they see how well you emote? What monologue should you choose? What if they want a different sixteen bars? 

GOOD NEWS, EVERYONE! Choose opera, and you'll never have to worry about choosing sixteen bars ever again! 

Thats right, ladies and gentlemen, for the low, low price of a career in classical music, you too can be expected to have ready, for every audition, five to six full arias in the original language. Usually, at least one of these would have attached the accompanying recitative, which is basically the opera version of a monologue. At most auditions for competitions or young artist programs (YAPs), you have the first choice of aria, and the judges or audition panel will pick a second. Now, if they pick a second depends on a lot of things, only one of which is "Do they like me?"

Opera arias can vary vastly in length; we are talking as short as three minutes, to full arias and scenes between twelve and fifteen minutes long. You have a multitude of variables WITHIN each aria - whether is has cadenzas (extemporized elaboration at the end of a section or phrase; some singers write their own, some hire out the writing, some choose from 'traditional' variations); whether it is a baroque aria with an A-B-embellished A format; a bel canto aria with a cavatina and cabaletta (basically, a ballad section and an uptempo section, which is repeated with embellishments!); a 20th century aria, which can be long and notioriously difficult for your pianists; a...well, you get the point. An opera singer walking into an audition has to carefully choose their first piece with two thoughts in mind - "Will this show my best abilities if they don't ask for something else?" and "If they choose something else, will this be a sufficient contrast to my other offerings?" Often, these competitions or YAP auditions are also requiring your five arias to be in at least three of the major operatic languages - Italian, German, French, or English - so you are also grading on your diction and clarity of language.

And that is just for competition or general auditions! I asked Kathleen Berger of Berger Artist Management her thoughts on this topic. She had a very different viewpoint from the other side of the table. She says, "I don’t think that audition arias for mainstage, as opposed to young artist programs, need to show large amounts of contrast (five arias in 13 styles and 12 languages...). A mainstage package should focus on the two or three things the singer does better than anybody else. For example: let's say a lightish soprano's best things are high, arching lines and legato. I would want to see Sophie (Rosenkavalier), Giuletta, Pamina, maybe Susanna on her list. Not much contrast, but all playing to her skills and all things I can cast her in right now." So in this instance, your management (full disclosure - Kathleen is mine!) would want the arias that show YOUR PARTICULAR STRENGTHS, for roles you could sing onstage tomorrow (I call these your 'back pocket' arias)."

In a nutshell, the point is to highlight the fact that while opera and musical theatre increasingly share so much in the artistic and music world, the behind the scenes difficulties for an artist prepping audition is VERY different for both genres; each has their own difficulty, and their own benefit. I've only done three musical theatre auditions in the past several years (not counting operetta), and each time I found the challenge of cherry picking 16 bars MUCH more difficult than being able to offer a full piece! I have insane amounts of respect for actors and actresses in musicals who pack so much into such a short audition section.

There is one MAJOR benefit to opera auditions, though. 90% of the time....we don't have a dance call.  

Finding the Right "Day Job"

Kelli Butler

  • OnStage Opera Columnist

One of my favorite comedians, Maysoon Zayid, gives a web talk called 'Advice You Don't Want to Hear”. In one of them, an acting major at ASU asked her about finding out what she really wanted to do with her life. Maysoon's answer?  “Get a job. If you can get a job in your field, thats GREAT. If not, take whatever you can get. Nothing makes it easier to figure out what you love than doing a job you hate.”

Among the biggest problems for a working performer is...well, to be honest, the time when you AREN'T a working performer. There are very few singers I know in the opera world that are consistently booked; my friends in musical theatre (until they land in a Broadway production) often find themselves in the same boat. 

Enter the dreaded 'day job'. 

Some of my fellow opera singers, when asked, gave me a huge list of jobs taken to support the in-between times. Zuly Iniro taught school and tutored; Michelle Trovato and Anne Slovin both extolled their work found via temp agencies; Christine Thomas and Joshua Hughes teach voice and music classes, ranging in ages from pre-school and up. Without fail, we all have 'church jobs' – we get paid to come in and sing for congregations to round out their choirs, do more difficult solo pieces like Requiems and Messiahs, and so on. In addition, many more of my performer friends, across all disciplines, work in catering, waitressing, and bartending. Even with taking these rather temporary jobs, many of us find ourselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes time to leave for a contract; many times, we face unemployment upon our return.

When I started looking for a day job at the end of college, I had to face hard truths: my  piano skills weren't great to teach (and I don't have a lot of patience!), and I am fairly close to the klutziest person you will meet, ruling waitressing and catering right out. I floated in and out of retail jobs, admin assistant jobs, but nothing interested me enough to really stick – curse of being an ADD soprano (neither of those classifications tend to have a long attention span...oh look, a squirrel!). After three years of varied retail work starting in junior year, I finally found my niche.

For the past thirteen years, I've been selling luxury onstage and off - opera when I'm on, and diamonds and fine jewelry when I'm off. I fell into jewelry sales almost by accident; I was working retail and went to buy my Mom a gift for her birthday, and found the people to be kind and fun. On a lark, I decided to apply for a job for the Christmas season – and ended up being at my first jeweler for two years, until the company went out of business.  I found work at another company, along with two people who have been friends, coworkers, and great supporters of mine for many years, Myrna and Janet. Ten years later, I'm still in jewelry.

My current workplace, Blue Nile, is one of the leading online retailers of loose diamonds and fine jewelry in the United States. Every day, I get to go to work, play with diamonds, and basically sell romance. I've found Blue Nile to be amazing for a creative person – since we customize many of our bridal pieces to match what a client wants, and we can even custom create from scratch. Also, I've got a great manager, Candice, and fantastic coworkers; we all support each other and they are always very excited when I get a gig!

Now, not all opera is about luxury. I sing my fair share of concerts, oratorios, and church works; even there, however, opera singers are expected to have a certain glamorous look. You won't find even the lowliest fallen courtesan onstage without a perfect set of fake lashes and makeup – that would be letting the side down. However, there are so many roles that ARE luxurious, and decadent, and shiny...okay, so I like shiny. Nothing wrong with shiny. I can Glitter and be Gay with the best of them.

Everything You've Always Wondered About Opera (But Were Too Afraid To Ask) Part Deux!

Kelli Butler 

  • OnStage Opera Columnist
  • @KelliSoprano

...And we are BACK! I received enough questions (and always welcome more!) that I definitely needed to make this a two-parter! Without further ado, down the rabbit hole we go!

Norma asked : “My daughter wants to know why she can't understand opera, and does your throat ever get sore?”

Good questions! Opera comes in a variety of languages, with the most famous being Italian. I understand that there can be a bit of a language barrier! However, with the advent of newer and newer technology, we can easily compensate with sub-or-super titles. In some cases, the translation will be above the stage; other places, like the Metropolitan Opera, actually have it on the seat back in front of you!

As for your second question, singing shouldn't hurt! You can get tired, of course, and overuse your voice; but it shouldn't hurt to perform if you are singing properly and with a well grounded technique. That is why a good voice teacher is an absolute necessity for ANYONE wanting to sing, even if it isn't opera – vocal chords are delicate, and you can hurt them if you don't know what you are doing! Vocalizing is important too; just like you wouldn't run a marathon without stretching, you shouldn't sing a three hour opera without warming up!

Linda asked: “I don't always understand the story line in opera. How do I learn to better follow that?”

Just like the language barrier, the story barrier can be a bit overwhelming. Some operas rival the soaps with convoluted story lines and relationships! A great resource if you want to learn more before you attend is the Naxos Opera Synopses website. It gives a comprehensive list of operas from A-Z to help you look up and understand what you are about to experience. Also, more and more new operas are being commissioned in English, so that helps! Sometimes they even use familiar material, like Minnesota Opera's new The Shining. Yeah, that one. Creepy.

Don't worry though – if you can follow Game of Thrones, opera is a walk in the park.

Wendilyn asked: “Which is more difficult to sing, something from Wagner like Ride of the Valkyries or something from Mozart from Figaro or Flute?”

Aha! Now we get into one of the BIG differences that sets opera aside from other vocal art forms – the fach system (Yes, we know every fach you up joke imaginable). The fach system is a method of classifying singers, primarily opera singers, according to the range, weight, and color of their voices  For instance I'm a coloratura soprano – and that can get subdivided into specific types for specific voices. For me, Mozart is my bread and butter –  Queen of the Night in Magic Flute is my jam. I also sing several other Mozart roles. For a really great example of this voice type, you can listen to Diana Damrau as the Queen.

Wagner and his Valkyries require a SPECIFIC type of soprano. For example, here is Birgit Nilsson singing the Ride live at San Francisco Opera. It is a huge sound – Wagnerian voice types have an even larger orchestra than normal to overcome!  To combat this, when he built Bayreuth (his own opera house), Wagner situated the orchestra under the stage a bit. There are very few Wagnerian types roaming the world at large (they are like rare Pokemon).

And those are just the two you asked about! If anyone is curious about this system and how it is used, you can check out the Wiki on it.

Thanks again for all the questions! If you have any that weren't covered here, feel free to tweet me or ask me on Facebook! Next time, I'm going to cover the relationship of opera to musicals – like Rent and Miss Saigon. Stay tuned!

Everything You've Always Wondered About Opera (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)

Kelli Butler

  • OnStage Opera Columnist
  • @KelliSoprano

Hi there! I'm Kelli, the new resident opera floozy here at On Stage. I'm a professional working opera singer, with experience also in musicals, community theatre, and even a theme park (shhh.). I'm an avowed nerd of the sci-fi/fantasy and game variety, and can often be found playing my Gameboy in full costume backstage.

As my inaugural piece for this fantastic corner of the internet, I thought I'd do a bit of the old question-and-answer format to clear up some long-held questions about opera and what it is we do. I opened up the floor to questions on my Facebook and my Twitter to see what people were secretly wondering about my art form.

Stephanie asked : “Is opera ever sung in English?”

Why yes! In fact, there have been many stellar operas written in the last century IN English, by English-speaking composers and librettists. These include (but are not limited to!) The Ballad of Baby Doe, Nixon in China, The Ghosts of Versailles, and Dead Man Walking, as well as a much-lauded world premiere recently of The Scarlet Letter.

There are even some older operettas that – in America at least – are often performed in English, even if it is not their original language. These include works such as The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus. Opera company outreach and educational programs also often put together shortened, English-language versions of operas such as The Magic Flute, to present to kids and entry-level opera audiences who find the language to be a barrier.

Cari asked: “What is the most difficult language to sing opera in?”

Good question – and it is also subjective. Opera covers a wide variety of languages, including many most people don't associate with the art form, and each singer is comfortable at different levels. For me, I find some of the French vowels to be not so much hard as annoying to sing – a mis-spoken or sung vowel can change a word's meaning entirely. I also find German delightful to sing in, whereas some of my colleagues differ.

Brian asked: “What about a production makes it an opera vs a musical?”

An opera on the grand scale is almost ALWAYS completely sung through, with the 'dialogue' being in the form of what are called recitatives. Some operas, like Mozart's The Magic Flute, are what we call 'singspiel', or sung play. These are closer to what a modern idea of a musical would be – spoken dialogue, with set sung pieces. Many of the operettas I mentioned in Stephanie's question fall into this pattern as well. There are of course musicals that border the line, such as Candide, Sweeney Todd, and Threepenny Opera, all of which require a lot of training you usually find in a classical singer. The type of voices used also is a big factor in the difference between the genres, and each has its own specialties and subcategories.

Sara Jean asked: “At what age did you know this was your passion?”

 Oooh, it just got personal. 

Actually, I originally longed to be in musicals. However, my height rules me out for a lot of the shows (I'm tall for a woman, and the costumes are very expensive to alter) and my voice leaned towards the classical. I have done several musicals though, and loved every minute.

As far as music itself being my passion to pursue as a career, about, oh, 13. 

Michael asked: “Why do you think the opera and/or more traditional classical music is lost on today's youth? Is it the lack of music/arts education with more focus on a more traditional job career path? More spent on sports and less on arts?”

This is a very touchy subject, for both myself, my colleagues in opera, and all of my friends at On Stage and in the theatre world. All across America, we are watching arts funding be slashed and music and theatre programs being removed from schools, while money is somehow found for new sports stadiums, team uniforms, and funding for new sports initiatives. It frustrates me to the extreme to think about how many children are being denied the opportunity to learn and express themselves through music and the arts. I can't help but feel that the overwhelming 'opera is boring' sentiment comes from no longer being exposed to the genre via school and even public television. The themes in opera are humanist; they apply across generations. If more young people were exposed to it, I honestly feel we could turn around the decline in ticket sales at opera houses across the country.


Well, I've only covered about a third of the questions here – so expect a part 2 coming soon! Thank you to everyone who is participating online – initiating a dialogue about the differences and similarities in the arts is the best way to spread the love we all have for them!

Also, thank you for not asking about breaking glass. THANK YOU.