I am pleased to kick off the long-awaited return of this blog by featuring professional opera singer Amanda Pabyan.
If your exposure to opera is limited to watching Julia Roberts tear up over La Traviata in Pretty Woman, or Cher blubber over La Boeheme in Moonstruck, I can tell you from personal experience that these scenes are not exaggerated for dramatic effect. Seeing live opera is a powerful emotional experience, in which everything is super-sized, including the effort put forth by the performers.
I was fortunate enough to see Amanda’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last year in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and no description of how amazing live opera is can do justice to the actual experience: I will simply tell you that if you ever get the chance to hear a coloratura soprano sing the Queen of the Night’s aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (in English, “Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”), make sure you don’t miss one of the most exciting and terrifying five minutes in all of theater! (Note: The Wiki link to the aria does include a sound file if you want to have a listen!)
Being able to move audiences all over the world with music certainly seems like a cool job to me — but what it is it really like to be an opera singer? Let’s check in with Amanda who was kind enough to take some time to tell us about her cool job!
When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?
I just usually say, “I’m an opera singer.” That usually gets a bunch of follow-up questions, like “You’re not fat. How can you be a singer?” or “Oh, like ‘Phantom of the Opera’?” (which is NOT an opera)…the list is endless. There is a lot of understanding about theater, but not specifically opera. We don’t perform every night because singing a 3 hour opera is taxing physically – the costumes are frequently heavy and we sing without microphones over big orchestras…it should be an Olympic event (particularly Wagner operas that are 5 hours or longer).
What are the things about your job that you love?
I love singing in other languages (other than English) it’s much more rewarding and interesting to me. I love traveling to different cities and/or countries and spending more than a few days there – finding the good local places that you only find when you’re not a tourist. Opera contracts are anywhere from 3 1/2 to 12 weeks long (typically about 4 or 5 weeks) and that’s plenty of time to explore. And where else can I sing high notes in a corset while holding a bloody knife? I mean really! That’s entertainment.
What are the things about your job that you hate?
Jet-lag. You get used to traveling, but I’ve never managed to resolve myself to the inevitable jet-lag. It totally stinks to fly 8 or more hours, have at least a 6 hour time difference and be expected to work in the morning. I once got off a plane where I’d been traveling for 23 hours, with a time-zone change of 16 hours (!) and had to sing in the afternoon about 5 hours after I arrived. That was insane.
What education, training, vocation or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?
Well, I have a Masters degree (MM in Music Performance) and I trained as an apprentice for 1 1/2 years in Washington, DC at the Kennedy Center (Washington National Opera), but that’s certainly not strictly necessary. What you need to have is a “operatic” style of singing, a facility for languages, and presence on stage. Remember, opera singers sing over full orchestras (anywhere from 30 to 70 players) without microphones or amplification. Yes, I said without amplification. This is very different than musical theater performers who rely on microphone enhancement. It’s a skill that takes time to develop and not everyone has the time, or the interest, to do it. Opera theaters are generally larger than their theater counterparts – for example, theaters for plays and musicals are rarely larger than 1200 or 1300 seats. The Metropolitan Opera house is somewhere around 4200 seats and most of the major theaters in the United States are at least 2500 seats. Big costumes, big orchestras, big sets…big theaters.
What is the funniest story you can think of that involves your professional training or your job?
I don’t know about funny stories. I’m usually tripping over something or dropping something on stage. I’ve tripped up stairs in a hoop-skirt so that my…um…behind was flashing the audience. I’ve stepped on the hem of my dress and fallen face-first in front of the audience. The list goes on – and all of it revolves around me being a “certified klutz”.