There is no I in team, nor is there one in opera. This misconception that the diva runs the show is outdated, and there are a lot of people needed to make a show happen. Opera is so much bigger than just one person. Understanding the importance of your attitude and how to create positive work-relationships will give your career longevity.
Kindness is essential in creating lasting, working relationships. More often than not, directors, conductors, and choreographers will cast people they enjoy working with. You don’t need to become best friends with everyone, but establishing a reputation as a singer who is competent and easy to work with will get you far.
Showing or recognizing the work each department does for the show is vital to securing your reputation as a kind singer. Department heads in every company meet often and discuss the success of current and previous productions. The work ethic and attitudes of employees also get discussed, both good and bad. The stage crew and artistic team will always remember the good, the bad, and the hard-working. You never know who is going to be in the casting room!
When it comes to the “diva” mentality, singers often perceive they are the most important part of the equation and can demand whatever they need. However, there are so many parts that go into producing an opera, and replacing a singer is no big deal in most situations. This is especially relevant in today’s climate, but we can also think back to the Golden Age of Opera at The Met. Despite their incredible talent, divas Kathleen Battle and Maria Callas were fired due to poor behavior. In today’s world, with the study of opera increasing and the job opportunities decreasing, there is always another singer with a better attitude who is ready and willing to step in.
Similarly, this principle applies when negotiating contracts. If you start making grand demands, you have to be aware that there are hundreds of singers who will do the same work for much less. Of course, standing up for yourself is essential in this career, but you have to be smart. Talk to colleagues or mentors who have gone through similar situations and see what is within reason in terms of your negotiation.
A great way to think about navigating this career is that as performers we are temps. Unlike many other professions, there isn't a way to gain tenure at a company or to be guaranteed work long term. Even the greats don’t have that kind of job security. A singer's career primarily consists of work that is contract to contract. A fest contract in a European house may get you a consistent job for a year or two, but there is no guaranteed work after that. A singer's job security is in a company’s desire to hire you again. They aren’t obligated to, but are much more inclined to rehire you if you create a strong product and an enjoyable experience for the company. In some houses, your debut pay is low, but every time you get rehired by the company, your pay increases. Careers are made on the basis of being rehired. You can debut across the world, but if a company won’t rehire you, you are quickly going to run out of places to sing.
Even if you are being the best co-worker a company can ask for, you will still come across colleagues who do not function as team players. These personalities can be difficult to navigate, especially during rehearsals. Here are a couple things to help give you some space and perspective:
1. You can not control what others do, but you can control how you respond to the things happening around you. Before you jump in kicking and screaming, remember you can still do your job even when a colleague is behaving poorly.
2. Everyone is doing the best they can. It can be hard to believe sometimes, but people are generally trying to live in the best way they can muster. We don’t know their stories or what they are going through.
Pursuing a singing career can take it's toll and cost a lot. One thing that costs nothing is your attitude and work habits. With a good combination of the two, you have a solid foundation on which to build your career. As director Francesca Zambello once said, “Be nice to everyone on the way up because you will see them on the way down.”