Verismo: A Career in Opera

Interview, Music Business, Performance

“Violetta Valéry knows that she will die soon, exhausted by her restless life as a courtesan. At a party she is introduced to Alfredo Germont, who has been fascinated by her for a long time. Rumor has it that he has been enquiring after her health every day. The guests are amused by this seemingly naïve and emotional attitude, and they ask Alfredo to propose a toast.”*

This isn’t a daytime soap, or some evening cable drama. It’s the beginning of Verdi’s famous opera, La Traviata.
Pursuing a career in the arts, music especially, is daunting these days because…let’s face it. Pursuing any career is daunting these days. Student loan debt, the cost of textbooks, the lack of jobs, the seeming acceptance by my generation that our quality of life and careers just won’t match the previous generation’s. Glum enough?
It’s more prudent than ever to REALLY know what you want to study before investing in it. It’s quite a leap of faith in the arts, and I hope to explore the different areas that one could pursue here in this blog.
That being said, how many of you know–really know–what it’s like to be an opera singer? What is the audition process like? What is the competition like? Heck, what’s out there for you, job-wise?
Meet my friend, Amal El-Shrafi. Amal has a B.M. in Music Education and a B.A. in Vocal Performance from the University of New Hampshire, where she graduated in 2009. As a student there she performed roles such as Dido (Dido and Aeneas), and Cunégonde (Candide), and is a two time award winner of NATS. She performed for Governor John Lynch, at the University of New Hampshire’s commencement ceremony, and worked as an elementary school teacher for a year after graduating.
She began studying with Michael Meraw, of the New England Conservatory faculty (voice), and became involved as a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She made her Symphony Hall debut in 2011, and competed as a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Regional Finalist.
I hope to not only offer insight as to what an operatic career entails, but dispel stereotypes and shed some light on this beautiful art form. Drum roll on timpani, please…
Amal El-Shrafi. Photo by Shino_Takahashi.

Amal El-Shrafi. Photo by Shino_Takahashi.

Currently, what is your professional background, title, and education?

I have a Bachelor of Music in Music Educaton, BA in Voice Performance from UNH, and A Master of Music Degree in Voice performance from New England Conservatory of Music.

At what age did you start to listen to opera? When did you pursue it, and decide that it’s what you wanted to do?
I started listening to it in college. I was more into Musical Theater growing up and when I went to college, I was told I had a voice for classical music and should pursue it. After trying it out and seeing how comfortable it felt to sing, and discovering how vast a world it was, I was hooked.
What is the first opera you attended?
Ummm….I think my first was a touring opera company (performing) La bohème when it came to UNH, but my first professional production was seeing The Barber of Seville at the Metropolitan Opera.
First opera you performed?
Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. I played the Mother of Antonia.
What is your favorite piece?
That’s a tough one. I honestly can’t answer that because there is so much music I haven’t heard out of there yet. I’ve always had a soft spot for Dvořák’s Rusalka because not only is it the story of The Little Mermaid (which is my favorite Disney movie’s ever), but the music is GORGEOUS.

 I think a lot of people still have an incorrect idea of what opera is. It’s probably horrible of me to admit this, but after hearing ‘Lucia di Lammermoor‘ in The Fifth Element, I started to look into different opera pieces. When I first heard Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament‘, or ‘When I am laid in earth’, I was in college. I thought it was one of the saddest pieces I’d ever heard. Opera can be so moving! What is one of the most common incorrect generalizations about opera, in your opinion?

I think people think that opera is pretentious and not easily accessible . Yes, you have to have a certain level of understanding for the music to be able to appreciate it, but when it comes down to watching a person pour out their heart and soul into what they’re singing, you’re seeing true human emotion. That speaks to everyone. Yes, the stories can be out there and character’s reactions can be a bit dramatic at times (think being stabbed in the back and singing about it for 5 minutes before you die), but when the majority of the famous stories and operas were written, it was one of the only forms of entertainment so it had to speak to the common people to thrive.

What is the hardest piece you have ever performed? What is a piece you really want to pursue?

The hardest aria I perform is “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). It is sung by the character Pamina when she is at her lowest, weakest state. The music is so exposed, the accompaniment doesn’t have much support for the singer and your voice has to have the agility and precision like a wind instrument. It is so hard for me and I think I want to put it away for a while, let my voice figure out more technical issues and return to it. As far as what I want to pursue, I would love the chance to get to study and sing another Mozart leading lady like Fiordiligi from Cosi fan tutte or Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni. Their characters are so complex and real and crazy. That would be so much fun to play! 
Did you prepare yourself for studying opera before college?
I didn’t. I just sang musical theater and in my chorus class.

Do you have suggestions for prospective students who want to study opera? Tips for grad school?

Hmm…for someone considering opera…take your time and pace (yourself). Our voices have a long way to mature. Women’s voices peak from their late twenties to early thirties and some men’s voices aren’t fully developed until they are 40. Also, sometimes the larger the voice, the longer it takes to mature. Taking that into consideration, sing what shows your voice off well at the stage you are at now.
As far as grad school goes, do your research. Also, know that this is really what you want to do. I’ve seen people realize that this profession isn’t for them after they are thousands of dollars in student loan debt. It is a very competitive market and you will need to get used to being rejected audition after audition. It requires a lot of traveling, a lot of money to pay for auditions and traveling, and it can get lonely at times. It is a long, hard road. That being said, hard work makes the prize that much sweeter. If you know your passion thrives off of the energy of an audience and singing is what you live for, go for it!

 Here’s a big one (I think)! What about auditions? If you could give performers any advice on auditioning, it would be…

Don’t sing something in front of anyone unless you are 100% committed to it and you know it inside out. Know what every word of your text means if you’re singing in another language. It is obvious to those watching if you don’t. Besides that, have fun and tell a story!

What has the preparing-for-post-college-in-the-opera-world process been like for you?
Lots and lots and lots of auditioning. Lots of trips to New York. Lots of time on Yap Tracker. (www.yaptracker.com). It’s a part time job in itself.

What is something you think most people don’t know about opera, or opera singers?

I can’t speak for every singer, but the ones I have encountered are respectful, hard workers, but don’t take themselves too seriously. When we have to sing pieces that can be emotionally challenging for us to get through, laughter and joking is the best therapy.

How is preparing for professional opera different than, say, preparing to be an actor, or instrumental musician?

I don’t think it really is different. You need to be committed to what you do and, in doing that, your performance will be more receptive to an audience.

 I think people may also have this notion that opera singers only listen to opera and classical. What else do you listen to?

I still love my occasional musical theater, but I’m really into vocal jazz and Brit Pop, like Adele, Amy Whinehouse, Mika, etc.
(Side note: Mika. This song got me through more than a few college midterms and research papers. Oh, Emerson.)

What has been one of the most exciting experiences for you so far?

I made it to the New England regional finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions this January. It is a huge competition with a lot of exposure and it was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life!

What is the most discouraging?

As you study and work with more people, everyone will give you opinions. Sometimes its hard to weed out what and what not to listen to, and you can lose yourself in the doubt. Stay strong to yourself or the doubt can destroy you.

How was Tanglewood? It sounds amazing!

It was fun! It’s like a vacation to go sing with amazing conductors and a professional orchestra. I’m going again this summer to sing in Beethoven’s 9th symphony!

 Anything you wanted me to ask that I didn’t touch on?

No, I think you covered a lot!

Have more questions? Ask on the ‘contact‘ page!

*Intro retrieved from http://www.metoperafamily.org/

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