How do you train to become an opera singer?
If you believe you have a voice strong enough to be heard at the back of a concert hall while delivering a narrative in another language, then perhaps opera singing is the career for you. George Hall looks at what else you’ll need
What do you require to study to become an opera singer? Firstly, and most obviously, a voice. Vocal training frequently begins in the teenage years, and finding the right teacher is crucial. A personal recommendation from someone whose vocal skills you admire is as good a way to locate one as any.
Good musicianship is important in learning any repertoire you may want to sing, and some knowledge of languages will be vital – especially Italian, French or German and increasingly Russian or Czech. The ability to understand and correctly pronounce the text you are singing is essential.
If you believe that your voice is developing into the kind of instrument that could make an impact in theatres and concert halls – and bear in mind that opera singers don’t use microphones – how can you take things further?
Most singers who enter the operatic profession go to a conservatoire, often for a period of three or four years of graduate and/or postgraduate study. The UK possesses a number of institutions with international reputations where students can develop all the other skills necessary to launch an operatic career.
The conservatoires regularly present full-scale productions open to the public with casts made up of the most accomplished students, plus a student orchestra and chorus. The shows are designed, directed and conducted by professionals and are widely attended by agents, casting directors and other opera professionals on the lookout for new talent.
In London, the main conservatoires are the Royal Academy of Music on Marylebone Road, the Royal College of Music in South Kensington, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama next door to the Barbican Centre and Trinity Laban in Greenwich.
Across the rest of the UK, an extremely high level of training is maintained at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. All of these have a solid track record of achievement and impressive lists of alumni.
Not a conservatoire, but rather a specialist training programme, the National Opera Studio located in Wandsworth, London, provides high-level training in operatic skills for singers close to the point where they can launch themselves as professionals.
What does an audition panel expect?
At the Royal College of Music in London, head of vocal and opera Nicholas Sears is looking for “storytellers, musicians, individuals whose quality of voice touches the panel viscerally and emotionally. Singers who make us listen, sing to us rather than at us and showcase themselves by putting the music and text first”.
Meanwhile, at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music – where Lynne Dawson is head of opera and vocal studies – the qualities a panel looks for are similar. She explains: “For undergraduates, we are looking for a natural talent, curiosity, healthy voice and a love of singing, and for postgraduates, commitment, good vocal health and stamina, a reasonable level of languages, communication and performance skills and strong musicianship.”
What do graduate courses actually offer?
Once again, the approaches run in parallel. At the RCM, Sears promises “one-to-one voice lessons with exceptional vocal professors, repertoire and opera coaches; song-class provision; language coaching, classes in recitative, movement and stagecraft; masterclasses; three operatic productions a year in the Britten Theatre; exposure to professional expectations through group and individual mentoring, and an atmosphere of support – as well as feedback aimed at bringing out the best from each individual who joins the faculty”.
At any conservatoire that trains opera singers, acting and stagecraft are vital constituents of the course. Like other such institutions, the RNCM offers classes in acting, voice and speech, stage combat and physical awareness. Students take part in biannual opera scenes as well as full-scale productions, working alongside professional directors, music staff and language coaches.
Partnerships with professional organisations and individual musicians help smooth the path for students ready to enter the profession. The RNCM has a number of visiting répétiteurs and music staff from UK opera companies and European opera houses who work with students throughout the year. Professional partnerships include close links with Opera North, the Buxton International Festival and the Edvard Grieg Kor/Bergen National Opera in Norway, which provide opportunities for students to undertake performance projects, role shadowing, professional chorus mentorship, weekend residencies, CD recordings and professionally paid work.
Meanwhile, this autumn the RCM will roll out a newly revised Artist Diploma in Opera for its Opera Studio. “This is the most demanding and prestigious of our vocal courses,” Sears explains. “Up to 15 fully funded places are offered for one or two years, depending on the specific trajectory of a singer.”
“In addition to preparing for operatic productions, each singer has a professional critique of their audition and media packages. We assign them mentors who are current artists active in the profession. Each singer prepares a Mozart/Da Ponte role independently of any specific production involvement, we film mock auditions in different languages to prepare for working in Europe and hold song classes and performances with international artists.
“We also provide honest, targeted feedback and numerous opportunities to engage with the profession at the highest level. We are ambitious for our singers, and our goal is for them to enter the profession at the highest level possible.”
One young singer I spoke to seems to have achieved that target. From Bushey in Hertfordshire, April Koyejo-Audiger graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with a first class bachelor of music degree in 2015 and went to on to complete a masters’ in Vocal Performance at the Royal College of Music as a scholar, graduating in 2017. Now she is a member of the Link Artist scheme of the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, with a role in Handel’s Susanna, which will be performed at the Linbury next season.
“Attending conservatoires has provided me with a solid artistic foundation,” she claims. “The access to a wide array of highly experienced coaches and professors, and being surrounded by talented singers and instrumentalists – each at different stages in their careers – meant that I was able to develop my own sense of artistry.
“Through collaboration and by witnessing the growth of others I was able to build upon my own skills, allowing me to move on to a professional career.”
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