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Don’t ask a young opera singer these three questions

It’s a common scenario: I meet someone new at a party and we get to talking about our work. “I’m an opera singer,” I say. “I recently finished my masters degree in vocal performance and am doing the audition and competition rounds, trying to break into the business.”

Without fail, one of the following statements will be made:

-”Wow! So are you going to be on American Idol?”

-”The Phantom of the Opera is my favorite!”

-”Have you heard of the amazing 14-year-old opera singer, Jackie Evancho?”

At this point, I decide whether I want to spend the next 20 minutes explaining why these statements are all non-sequiturs, or simply smile and say “sure!” because I don’t want to be a snob. Opera remains so steadfastly isolated from mainstream media that it’s hard to blame anyone for not knowing that a) American Idol is not a competition for opera singers, b) “The Phantom of the Opera,” despite having the word in its title, is not actually an opera, and c) Ms. Evancho, though talented, is not an opera singer.

It may surprise the non-fan to know that opera is currently undergoing a kind of identity crisis. Every morning, I see at least five new articles lamenting the “Death of Opera” in the US and around the world. Major houses are struggling to stay afloat financially, and smaller houses are simply closing down. Several weeks ago, the Guardian published an article in which Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, says that the Met could be bankrupt in two or three years. The New York Times followed up with an op-ed painting a dire picture of the Met’s financial struggles and union disputes. A recent Quartz article revealed that even Italy, the birthplace of opera, is struggling to keep the art form alive.

Everyone agrees that something is wrong, but how to fix it?

Some proclaim that opera needs to get with the times by employing more conventionally attractive singers and spicing up new productions with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Others decry this as cheapening the art form, sacrificing musical integrity and pandering to the audience. I cry a little on the inside whenever a beautiful Zeffirelli set is scrapped in favor of a high-concept, Ikea-looking, minimalist production or slapdash modern update. And don’t get me wrong, I like experimental theatre and performances that make me think. It’s just that setting Rigoletto in glitzy 1950s Las Vegas with hookers and pole dancers does not a brilliant social commentary make. Meanwhile, John Adams’ brilliant and politically charged opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, was dropped from the upcoming Live in HD season following outcry that the piece was anti-semitic and sympathetic towards terrorists. Anyone who’s seen it can tell you that’s not true; Leon Klinghoffer’s 1985 murder is depicted with adequate pathos and horror. Adams does, however, present the Palestinian terrorists as humans with thoughts, feelings, and motivations for their actions, however horrid. Apparently, this is too controversial for 21st century audiences.

But I think that no one feels the strain of opera’s current identity crisis more than young singers trying to make sense of the changing landscape. We feel pressure to be thinner and more attractive, our bodies as well as our voices now fodder for professional criticism. Female singers, especially, are called out either for being too fat and dumpy, or for using sex to market themselves. After her performance as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, 25-year- old mezzo Tara Erraught was blasted by reviewers at Glyndbourne for being “dumpy” and “a chubby bundle of puppy fat.” Meanwhile, her more slender colleague, Kate Royal, was referred to as looking “stressed by motherhood.” Unless you’re a tastefully sexy, bikini-ready bombshell who manages to look just under 30 at all times, you’re out of luck.

We are told in music school to be entrepreneurial and make our own opportunities, yet cautioned against it in the same breath. The avenues for traditional operatic success are relatively few and narrow; the industry does not typically respond kindly to singers trying to jump the line to success. A pop singer can put her music on YouTube, garner a million views, and score a record deal. But an opera singer? Sure, we can put our recordings on the internet, but this would almost never lead to “respectful” employment. In order to get those kinds of jobs, we have to take countless auditions, enter competitions, and build up our resumes with the “right” kind of credits, hoping that the “right” people will hear us and get us to the next level. Achieving internet fame a la Justin Bieber would almost certainly ruin an opera singer’s chances of ever being taken seriously.

That’s not the only difficulty with trying to be entrepreneurial. Actors are typically encouraged to write and produce their own work, often while waiting for a big commercial success; singers may meet more resistance. Somehow, opera singers aren’t supposed to be jacks-of-all-trades. I founded a startup opera company with two other singers, and a lot of people were confused. ” So, you want to specialize in new music? You want to go into arts administration?” Actually, I just want to be an opera singer who does interesting things that fulfill me artistically, and I’m tired of waiting for the perfect opportunity to appear. Creating new, independent work does not detract from my love of traditional grand opera. But at times it can feel like a conflict of interest. With so many elements balanced so precariously, it often feels like the singing comes last.

Opera performance
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Chelsea Feltman (left) plays Lucia in The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten, performed by the Mannes Opera in May 2013.Photo/Eugenia Ames

But the singing! That’s why we all got into this mess of a business. Few people know the innumerable hours of study and practice that go into making an opera singer—of the musical, interpretive, linguistic, and stagecraft skills one has to master in order to tackle some of the most challenging music on earth. I often liken opera to the Olympics of singing; my voice teacher compares hearing a great singer fully in control of her instrument to watching a figure skater flawlessly execute a technical program. It’s absolutely thrilling. There is an athleticism to operatic singing that is truly stunning to behold. That a single human voice can project over a full orchestra and envelop an audience of 4,000 people without any artificial amplification; that we never rely on autotune to deliver a note-perfect performance; that we can sing higher, lower, faster, and longer than anyone else in the world—all while telling the greatest stories and giving life to the most intense human emotions. How is that not exciting? In my heart of hearts, I feel that if people really knew this, they wouldn’t dismiss opera as elitist or irrelevant or ridiculous. At its best, it is a perfect marriage of technical mastery, physical endurance, and artistic vision, and no amount of sexy costumes or high-concept set design can ever displace that.

So, does opera need saving? Perhaps the industry needs an overhaul, the way money is spent and the way singers are viewed, treated, and allowed to pursue their art. But opera does not need to become something it isn’t. We shouldn’t strive to be more like pop music or TV or Hollywood. Rather, we should get back to the essence of the art form: no holds barred, balls to the wall, flat out incredible singing that has the power to excite and inspire people from all walks of life.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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