The Lifestyle of an Opera Singer

Nicola Said as Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor, Fulham Opera)

I am an Opera Singer, and I love it. I consider myself extremely lucky to be following this career. It is wonderful to be on stage, it is a gift to be able to move an audience, to give them joy, to bring tears to their eyes, to inspire them in any way possible. There are not many other jobs in this life that allow for such honest, bare, raw communication; it is a gift to allow myself to be completely vulnerable in front of a theatre full of people I don’t know. Yes, it is glamourous and exciting, adrenaline is often my best friend. I get to wear crazy costumes, go to pre-drinks, after-parties, wear nice dresses, meet generous people from all over the world, and travel lots. One of the best parts is when after I’ve given my heart and soul into the performance, an audience member or two come to tell me after a performance how much my singing moved them, that’s when I feel I have really succeeded as a performer!

Yes, the lifestyle is wonderful, but it also requires a lot of discipline in every area of life, and while this is true for most professional opera singers, the lifestyle varies depending on each person and what affects/doesn’t affect them and their work productivity. I find that I require quite a strict regime in order to work at peak performance, particularly during production period (the period during which rehearsals for an opera are in full swing). The “strictness” of my lifestyle very much depends on what I have going on, whether it is a concert, an opera or an audition and more specifically what I am singing for each event –   whether the music consists of very high notes, whether it is high or low pressure, whether it is difficult, whether it is a piece I have performed several times, whether it is a piece I have only done a couple of times before or whether it is a completely new work.

One of the things I’m asked most is, are there any foods Opera singers stay away from, particularly on the day of a performance ?  – I can only speak for myself in this, as everyone is different. There is the saying “You are what you eat”, and I find that to be very true in my case. In general, I will always stay away from wheat and dairy (particularly in my own cooked meals) if it can be helped, especially when I have an important performance or audition coming up. I like to live a relatively healthy lifestyle consisting of mostly meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, although I have a sweet tooth and enjoy my dark chocolate! I also do Pilates weekly (which is similar to Yoga but focuses on the core strength). I must say that sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the financial aspect of living a healthy lifestyle. There are varying degrees of course, but at this stage of a career singers aren’t paid that much, or we have to resort to not being paid in order to get roles onto our CV, to build our reputation and to be heard, to do various “opportunities” as they like to be called. In truth they are opportunities, but don’t necessarily help towards actually paying one’s rent or food…But that’s a whole other ball game! The competition even for such roles is high, since supply vastly outweighs demand. The setback of having spent a long time training in institutions also puts many singers at a certain financial disadvantage to begin with.

My social life can sometimes be limited, particularly during times of performances and auditions. Unlike other musicians, an opera singer’s instrument is their body, therefore if I do not take care of my body, my instrument will suffer, and so too would my career. Compared to other singers I know, I am extremely strict about this. I avoid alcohol and generally stay away from areas where smoking is allowed, loud places like clubs and bars since one has to speak very loudly to be heard, and my voice is never happy the next day! I prefer meeting people in smaller settings, and focus on developing and keeping close friendships. Of course, once there are no auditions/performances around the corner I can let my hair down a little, but that doesn’t happen too often. Another reason social life can be limited is also because living in London is just expensive, and while there are indeed some free events going on, most mean that at some point you’re going to spend money one way or another (one doesn’t go to food festivals/markets to just stare at the food…). Being an opera singer is a very expensive career to follow. Costs range from singing lessons (£80-£100 per lesson, coachings (£30-70/hour), pianists (£30-35 per hour), applications for competitions and auditions (£20-£100), flights (generally these are only covered when doing an opera production or a gala event, not for competitions and auditions, for operas and for some young artist programmes), so that’s another £150-£300 per month depending on how frequently one applies for competitions/auditions. Then there are dresses (audition and concert dresses) … which I generally recycle as often as is possible.

Many say that luck counts for a lot in this business. When I first started, I used to believe one can make one’s own luck…after ten years of making my way, I am not so sure I believe that anymore. One can work extremely hard and do their utmost to create optimum chances for success (whatever success means to each individual person of course). Luck does play a big part in this career. There are others who have not been so lucky, and there are others who are far luckier, it is something we learn to accept, just like we must learn not to take things in our job so personally (to tell a singer not to take things personally is like telling a mother not to care if someone offends her own baby); we learn that there will always be someone better than you, someone prettier, someone braver, someone who was in the right place at the right time, someone who looks the part and is exactly what the director wants. For this reason, we must also learn to try to separate ourselves from something that for the most part is out of our control, particularly whether or not we are given a role, granted an audition, win a competition, and sometimes even, have a bad singing day when we are not feeling as well as we usually feel (we are human, we can get sick too). As already mentioned, our bodies are our instruments, there will be bad days and there will be good days. That is why we need to train so hard so that even on our bad days, we sing well.

I have been so blessed to be surrounded by people who support me, including my very dear family and close friends, and the Malta Airport Foundation whose Ambassador I am very proud to be. Opera singers learn to create a network bubble of people they can trust, to lean on for support and advice, and this is absolutely essential in making leaps of faith into this very crazy, but indeed wonderful world of Opera. To round off, when I had decided to follow a career in opera, one of my teachers had once told me: Only follow this path if you cannot imagine yourself doing anything else in life. It’s only now that I look back and understand just how full of truth that statement was.