Making the Big Transitions as an Opera Singer

The career of an opera singer is certainly not as common place as an accountant or doctor. Describe your typical day.

Craig – Every opera singer basically leads a double life. There is life at home, and life on the road. While at home, I try to be as much of a house-husband as possible. My wife and I have a toddler, and my wife also has a full-time job as an opera coach. I try to help out as much as I can while at home since life is very difficult for my wife while I’m away. (The parent who stays at home to hold down the fort while their opera singing spouses are away are the real heroes of the business!) Besides helping out around the house while I’m home, I also have to devote time every day to prepare for upcoming roles. Life on the road is obviously quite different, and it definitely isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. There are always different variables with each gig. The most important variable is housing. Some companies put their singers up in housing, some do not. Some will only help by making suggestions as to where to stay. The best situations are obviously when you know somebody that has a spare room. Staying in an actual home or apartment while on the road makes an incredible difference. I love to cook for myself, but find myself very frustrated by most hotel’s definitions of a kitchenette. Opera rehearsals are held six days a week, usually for a maximum of six hours a day. Rehearsals generally do not start before 10 am, as singers usually bitterly complain if they are forced to wake early to get their voices going. The rehearsal period on average lasts 3-4 weeks, with the last week being technical and dress rehearsals leading up to the performances. Performances are then usually spread out giving the singers a day off or two between shows. It is during this time that I am cramming for the next gig (if I have something directly afterward), but I am always counting down the hours until I fly home to see my family.

What is your background in music? When did you first decide to pursue opera?

Craig – The only musician in my family was my father’s mother. She was a self-taught pianist, singer, and church organist. She played by ear and had a huge voice. It is a shame that she never received any formal training. On a really amazing side-note, she actually died what she loved doing best. She suffered a brain aneurism while playing hymns for her church, and simply fell off the bench! Pretty traumatic at the time, but what a great way to go – doing what you love. Anyways, I showed an early interest in music and asked to take violin when I was 4. I switched to piano at 6 and took lessons on and off until I was about 15. I had always sung in church and school choirs, but my passion was always for classical music and piano. I loved going to the symphony with my parents, but I had yet to be bitten by the opera bug. When I was around 15, I was playing a Rachmaninoff prelude – which I had no business playing. My technique wasn’t up to snuff, and our piano wasn’t up to the task either. It was a small piano with a super light action, and I kept banging away trying to get more sound out of it than it could produce. I ended up ruining my arms with pretty severe tendonitis. I was devastated. Coincidentally my voice was developing more and more during this time and my choir director in high school had taken notice. She encouraged me to enter into the Texas All-State competition for singing, and also hooked me up with voice lessons during school hours. Our choir even took a few field trips to see dress rehearsals of the Houston Grand Opera. When I was a senior in high school, my voice teacher at school told me one day, “You know, you could make a career out of singing if you wanted to.” I thought she was kidding at first. She encouraged me to apply to music school. When I told my parents I was going to apply for music school, they thought I was kidding, too!

What is the most enjoyable part about your career as an opera singer?

Craig – There are a few things that come to mind: the creative process, and the exhilaration of the performance. It is incredibly rewarding to work with a team of world-class singers, a conductor, a director, a pianist, and the stage management team and bring an opera score to life through rehearsal. I think I like the actual process of staging rehearsals more than the actual performances. Performing can be pretty stressful, but it can also be incredibly exhilarating. Singing and acting on a huge stage, in front of thousands, over an orchestra, surrounded by amazing colleagues, choristers, sets, costumes, and lights – and making it all look effortless and seamless – well, it pretty much ignites every neuron in your body. There is no stopping. There are no do-overs. There is not even time really to stop and think – if you do, the opera will move on without you. Being on stage is an amazing rush, and there is a phenomenon that happens on stage unlike anywhere else I’ve found. When people say, “my life flashed before my eyes,” or “time seemed to stand still,” they are usually talking about times that jolted or exhilarated them to the core. Performing opera has the same affect on me – time seems to warp. Three hours on stage will afterward feel like only 5-10 minutes have passed. While at the same time, really difficult or complicated moments on stage sometimes feel like time slows down. It sometimes even takes on an out of body experience where you can kind of look in on yourself performing from the outside and observe and manipulate it in slow motion while it’s happening. Hard to describe, but it happens.

How would you describe your singing process? What do you focus on first: technique, expression, emotion, etc?

Craig – It depends on if I’m just learning the music, working on it with my teacher or a coach, or staging it with the director. In each of those situations different things may take priority (technique, musicality, word inflection, emotion, etc.), but hopefully in the end they have all blended all together into one performance, or character, with not one thing being dominant. I never want someone to comment on my performance, “wow, what a technique!” I obviously want to have the best technique possible, but in the end, every ingredient of the finished product are just important as the others.

What advice do you have for students or emerging artist pursuing their dreams as a successful opera singer?

Craig – This may be discouraging to some, but I think it is extremely important to try to stay away from as much debt as possible. No one should ever pursue singing in hopes of fame and fortune. First and foremost you have to have two things: talent and a fire in your belly. The ratio of the two in each individual may vary, but they both must be present to some degree. Some people are basically handed their careers because of their enormous God-given talent. Others have adequate talent, but have an incredible passion and drive, and work their way up slowly through the ranks. Back to the debt part. I cringe when I hear about singers who keep trying to make it happen by continuing to take on more and more monstrous school debt. Granted, we all need training and school, but programs and schools do exist that are far more affordable (or free!) than others. If you do find yourself currently in a very expensive institution, take some classes outside of your degree! Make it happen. Getting some classes in business, finance, even lab sciences could prove invaluable later on if you find yourself needing to make a career change down the road. I know a recent graduate from a very expensive school who is very talented. She could have made it into several graduate programs in vocal performance, but perhaps not into the very top level ones. While in school, she took some classes in journalism and even did an internship at a local TV station. She was even able to juggle that while participating in school opera productions. Well, when she didn’t get into the top graduate schools, instead of settling for lesser ones and hoping that things would work out eventually, she applied for a top graduate program in journalism. A mere year later she now has a super job at a TV station. Her performance experience and vocal training helped her quite a bit, too, as she is now on camera. Now, on the other hand, I also know some singers who tried and tried and tried to make it happen, and they eventually DID make it happen. I have a friend who made her MET debut after she was 30. And a few years earlier it didn’t seem like anything was ever going to get rolling for her. You basically never know, unfortunately, what each person’s career path is going to look like. Anything can happen in this crazy business. But again, I don’t think you can go wrong with trying to avoid financial decisions that could haunt you for decades.

What do you see as the next step in your career? Are there any roles/operas that you can’t wait to perform?

Craig – I’m in a season of making some pretty big leaps, and it’s very exciting. It’s also a bit scary. I’m about to make my biggest debut to date. I’m singing a lead/supporting role at Lyric Opera of Chicago. I don’t think the reality of it will truly hit me until we finally get into rehearsals on the stage. I can’t wait. But at the same time, I’m pretty anxious about it! I’m incredibly blessed and thrilled to be making the leap into the next rung of opera companies, but it is also a bit nerve-wracking. I’m sure I’m not the only singer who battles with self-doubt and confidence from time to time! As for future roles, I’m eager to sing Billy Budd and Don Giovanni. Fortunately, my dreams for Billy Budd are coming true next summer in Santiago, Chile!! Can’t wait!

Let’s say you come across someone who doesn’t think opera is relevant in today’s society. How do you try to convince them otherwise?

Craig – It’s difficult to put a dollar value on art. Even harder to put a cultural value on art. But what if I were to tell you, “You know, old paintings from the 16th, 17th, 18th century, they really don’t interest me, so let’s just clear them all out of the museums, throw them away, and make room for the stuff I DO like.” I’m sure anyone would conclude I was crazy. Why then do people seem to be apathetic about the decline in popularity of opera? Is it because it isn’t as tangible as a painting? Perhaps it is because anyone knows that something hanging in a museum must have a high value placed on it due to the measures taken from having it stolen. Yet, how do we place a value on opera? The magic of opera, is that for around 3 hours, multiple incredibly difficult art forms come together into one cohesive vehicle of artistic transcendence. And then it’s over. CDs and DVDs can only capture a portion of the magic. In my opinion, the full experience can only happen live in the theater. And I think a lot of people share that opinion. The trick is getting people into the theater so they can get bitten by that magical bug. It is our job as singers and artists to do our best to help create the magic.

Check out Craig Verm’s website to learn more about his upcoming performances.