Simon says (1): what's it like to be a singer?

Simon Schmidt is a baritone in the Opera Vlaanderen chorus and has worked for the company for 7 full seasons. He writes this monthly blog to give honest insight into the inner workings of an international opera house and the lives of the people who inhabit it.

So, what's it actually like to be a singer at the opera?

Opera houses. You see them in every major European city. They stand nobly in the centre of town, elaborately ornamented inside and out. Great big pillars at the door herald the entrance into a world of make believe. Inside, the red carpet and marble extend the imagination through the foyer and halls until one enters the actual theatre, the throbbing heart of this artistic castle.

We are spectators in a world where all the elements of the human experience are intensified and condensed into 3 hours of elegance, beauty and agony, exactly at the crossroads where technical mastery and artistic expression intersect.

Surrounded by red velvet seats and ornate gold balconies our attention is briefly drawn to the work of art on the ceiling, or at least the part of it that we can see through one of the largest chandeliers we have ever seen. But they all point to the stage, the centrepiece, where our fantasies and nightmares unfold alike.

We sit and for a brief moment we are not ourselves. We are spectators in a world where all the elements of the human experience are intensified and condensed into 3 hours of elegance, beauty and agony, exactly at the crossroads where technical mastery and artistic expression intersect. We are at the opera.

Singers. They have come a long way from the cliché of the rotund blimp, melodramatically feigning grace and surprise as they receive their applause. The seasoned opera goer knows that opera has had to evolve in the visually obsessed internet age. The singers of today also know they must be convincing visually as well as vocally in order to get work, let alone stay in it. This doesn't just mean keeping healthy, it means committing fully to the drama, even sometimes at the risk of less than ideal vocal production. More than ever before, a singer is not just a singer. They are an actor, a dancer, a sex symbol, an artist. And all this they use on the stage to evoke the passions of the heart.

That sacred communion between performer and audience is like nothing else. It's like falling in love, or holding a newborn for the first time.

As an artist on the stage, when all of these elements come together, you feel it immediately. You realise you are communicating something powerful, something that is otherwise inexpressible. And when you feel it, you know the audience does as well. That sacred communion between performer and audience is like nothing else. It's like falling in love, or holding a newborn for the first time. I've never tried narcotics, but I consider the euphoria I get from singing for an audience one of the reasons I never felt the need to. It is the ultimate reward, one of the things that make singing on the opera stage the best job in the world.

But so it ought to be, especially when you consider what many must do to get there. Sure, the journey is exciting and full of adventure. But true adventures involve risk, and the singer's adventure is no different.

Many of my colleagues have left their home country in order to work in the theatre. Anyone who has lived in another country has frustrating stories of visas, permits and other beaurocratic problems. These complications drain time, money and resources, often leading to living standards that resemble La Bohème. Many colleagues have heartbreaking tales of failed long distance relationships. Some have precarious relationships with parents who have never understood or encouraged their artistic pursuits. Others struggle with children or spouses who experience difficulty adjusting to an irregular weekly, monthly or even yearly schedule. Still others have life long laments for being absent at deaths and other unexpected turn of events in the family, simply because 'the show must go on'.

You see, the sacrifices to undertake this profession can be high. As an expat they are incredibly more so. Reflexively, this should tell you that the rewards are also high, otherwise one would have to be stark-raving mad to persist with the job.

Personally speaking, it sure seems like I would have earned more money if I had chosen another path. And yet, somewhat ironically, I consider myself much wealthier for not choosing another path.

Was it even worth it? To many singers, it's a question that comes far too naturally. And yet it's almost impossible to answer. Where and who would they be? And what in God's name would they be doing if not singing? Personally speaking, it sure seems like I would have earned more money if I had chosen another path. And yet, somewhat ironically, I consider myself much wealthier for not choosing another path. In a very real way, I swapped material wealth for education, experience and passion. 

There is just no way that I would have received this breadth of human experience if I was just another office worker still in Australia. Having lived and worked internationally, I feel confident entering into conversations and debates alike. And generally people listen with interest when I share my experiences. I feel their respect for risking everything to follow my passion. It's the kind of respect that can't be bought - and for that I am grateful. And still, many years on, the fact remains that I love what I do. 

And ultimately, that is what makes being an opera singer the best job in the world. But so it ought to be. Because in the life of opera, complete with its thrilling highs and agonising lows - if it's not the best job in the world, you should probably be doing something else.


Who is Simon?

Simon Schmidt is a baritone in the Opera Vlaanderen chorus and has worked for the company for 7 full seasons. He also sings small to medium roles as a soloist in various productions. Originally from Australia, Simon moved to Europe in 2007 and has sung as a soloist and chorister in opera and oratorio in many different countries around the world. He writes this monthly blog to give honest insight into the inner workings of an international opera house and the lives of the people who inhabit it.