Praised by Broadway World as a “compelling actor” with a “rich and powerful bass voice,” James Harrington returned to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program ... more
Written on ban Profiles & Interviews.

Last update on .

July Mail Bag

Each month, our editor answers reader questions pertaining to careers in opera. Last month, the questions focused on Young Artist Programs, or YAPs. This month, our readers wanted to know about some of the personal challenges of a career as an opera singer.

Welcome back to the OA Mail Bag! Last month’s questions on YAPs got some great response, so I’m really looking forward to this month’s questions, which focus a bit more on the career after training — but much of this information is applicable to YAPs, too, so let’s get down to it:

  1. What is the biggest aspect of professionalism you've learned about in your career?
  2. Two things:

    Preparation. If you think you’re fully prepared, do more preparation. When that’s through, find some other way to prepare. It’s never enough, truly. You can never know the music well enough – the sonorities of both the piano and the orchestra, the way your music intertwines with that of other roles, the text and especially its idiomatic meaning, the character, the source material… you can never go wrong in knowing all of these things when you show up for the first day of the gig.

    Second, especially as a young artist, is to be teachable. Since none of us is born with intrinsic knowledge of every aspect of singing, we have to be willing to adjust to new evidence, and to try a different course of action if your current one is not working, or if someone you trust advises you to change it. For example, it is highly unlikely at 24 years of age that you are correct and a seasoned coach or administrator is wrong about the repertoire in which you’re marketable. Be open to what people say, and learn to sort out which sources are reliable and which are well-meaning, but unreliable. This takes some practice, and the ability to be honest with yourself and those around you, but allowing your assumptions and dogmas to be questioned and tested will make you a much smarter singer in the long term.

  3. What do you do when you don't get a job? Do you just get a nine to five in the middle of nowhere? Do you move back home and sulk?
  4. First of all, opera singers (and actors and dancers) are warriors — the amount of rejection inherent to our work is staggering, and I think it’s important that we honor that in ourselves and our colleagues. What I mean by that is my response to the last part of your question: Do you move back home and sulk? Sort of, yes. I believe it’s very important to acknowledge how crummy it is to not get a gig, and whether that realization comes through the bitter directness of a PFO (industry slang for a rejection letter, short for “Please F--- Off,” because why not?) or the creeping despair of the rejection-by-radio-silence, it is valid and the disappointment is real and consequential. Be gentle with yourself.

    So when I don’t get a gig that I really hoped for, I gauge my feeling about it, and allow myself up to 48 hours to grieve in whatever way I decide to. This mostly just means I allow myself 48 hours where I’m not allowed to pick apart my recordings, my performance (if it was recorded), look up who actually got it, or plan any corrective action in myself. I let it sit, allow the most intense disappointment to pass, and then I get to work. If I have a recording of the audition, I take it to my teacher. If the auditors offer feedback (they almost never do, except through your agent), I bring that to my teacher.

    But here’s the deal I’ve made with myself: I have to always be getting better. Maybe it’s a new aria, maybe it’s polishing an old aria I take for granted, maybe it’s working on languages, maybe I decide to do another layer of preparation for the next audition/gig that I didn’t do for this one. So once the grieving period is over, it’s time to make a plan and get better. And some days, you’re going to sing your best and just plain get out-sung. That’s just the mathematical reality of this career, and it’s fine. It’s out of your control, so you can’t spend time worrying about that. Control the things you can, and give yourself over to the almost complete randomness of what you can’t.

    And yes, get a nine-to-five or some other kind of flexible side hustle to keep the lights on and keep you in lessons, coachings, scores, flights, and application fees, because after the rejection comes the next audition, and you’ve got to be ready. Starvation isn’t a good look on anyone. (Insert Bohème joke here.)

  5. What happens if you have to chase the dream part time because of a financial downturn? How do you balance a boring part time job and practice time?
  6. Some of this is included in my answer to the previous question, but in short: you do what you have to do to keep moving forward. Maybe lessons have to be biweekly instead of weekly. Maybe you can’t take a German class, but DuoLingo, Babbel, and Tandem are free. Maybe you need to spend a few weeks just translating a libretto word-by-word, or reading source material for the opera that your new audition aria comes from, or watching productions of unfamiliar pieces online to help broaden your palate. Maybe you just need to spend a month singing two-octave chromatic scales. There’s always something to do. Stagnation is a state of mind, and a poisonous one for us. Always be moving toward the next thing. If you’re not on stage, pour your energy and labor into the next time you’ll be on one… do all the invisible work that will pay dividends at your next audition. Set yourself apart.

    As for balancing a “boring” part-time job with practice: I’ve had jobs that took the life out of me, that left me intellectually and physically ragged at the end of the day. My advice is this:

    • Get good sleep and do your singing in the morning, before work has worn you down.

    • Save the hardest work for your days off.

    • If you have anything left at the end of a work day, pick a task that isn’t too challenging, but nevertheless moves you forward in some way, even if it’s listening to a great recording with or without the score in hand.

    • If you have nothing left at the end of a day, pour yourself a glass or cup of something and let yourself rest. You’re not a superhero, you just play one on stage.

  7. I've heard that being a performer can be very lonely. Is this accurate? How can one manage their personal life and their career?
  8. This is a great topic for a longer post, but I’ll try to answer you here. There is an aspect of loneliness to any career that requires constant travel. You may spend as much time with your family as without in a given year, and that can take a toll. The wonderful thing about our career is that at every gig, there’s a whole new group of people who we can connect with, become friends and spend time with, who can give us excuses not to sit in our hotels and homestays and mope, and who can get us through the loneliness for the most part.

    The nice thing about being in this career at this time in history is all of the technological tools we have at our disposal to stay connected to those we’re leaving behind. My wife and I have tinkered with our schedules over the course of the last 5 years or so, but at this point, we’ve figured out that the following schedule works pretty well:

    • A couple of texts each day, involving each other in our routines

    • A phone call every 2-3 days

    • On really long gigs (6+ weeks), a weekly Skype “date” that is on the calendar and inviolable except if previously agreed upon, or in emergencies

    • A visit every 4-5 weeks

    If we stick to that, we stay pretty much in sync, and manage the loneliness pretty well.

    If you’re in a relationship, you may find that your being gone is harder on your partner than it is on you – and that makes perfect sense, if you think about it. You’re the one out meeting new people, seeing a new city, experiencing new things. Your partner is at home, in the same routine they usually do with you, only now they’re doing it alone. And that can be really rough. So make sure you work together to find a solution that keeps you both sane and happy – the loneliness cuts both ways, after all.

That was a heavy mail bag with some great questions! I hope that helped shed some light on some of the more personal aspects of being an opera singer. As always, please send your questions – on any topic – to me at, and I’ll do my best to answer your question in an upcoming mail bag! And if I don’t feel I’m qualified to answer your question, I’ll find someone who can.

Praised by Broadway World as a “compelling actor” with a “rich and powerful bass voice,” James Harrington returned to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice program ... more