I don’t remember ever having had grand career ambitions as a child. I wasn’t born into a musical or theatrical family, although they were Italian which is dramatic enough. When I approached the question of what to study at University, which was something I always wanted to do, I fell into Law on the recommendations of my high school teachers. I am relatively certain their reasoning came down to, he is always talking in class and is argumentative so he will be a great lawyer. In any case, after high school I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws. I liked television shows like Boston Legal and Law and Order (specifically Criminal Intent at that time) so I decided to major in Psychology, Philosophy and Italian thinking that maybe I would become a Detective one day. In the end, Psychology and Philosophy fell away when I found the theatre and I ended up doing an Honours degree in Theatre Studies whilst finishing off my Law degree. At that time, I looked at Law as a back-up. My family were pleased that I had that security blanket available to me and I think that at that time, they thought it was where I would ultimately end up, after I got this theatre business out of my system. I resented that attitude. I couldn’t comprehend why I wouldn’t be able to make a decent living out of the theatre. It’s basic business. Spend less than you earn. Put shows on with a shoestring budget and charge what people will pay to see it. And with that philosophy, I started a regional touring theatre company with a friend and colleague who shared the same aesthetic. He continues to successfully operate this business to this day.
I came to opera later than most. Whilst I had been actively involved in amateur musical theatre since starting at University, I only came to opera by happy happenstance. Not many people can attribute their love for opera to The Simpsons, but I am one of the fortunate few. This exact clip in fact:
Airing in 2005, The Italian Bob introduced me to what I now consider my life’s passion. Ridiculous, right? But I remember sitting there, and being so moved by the incredible theme of this music. It was passionate, it was powerful, and although not a professional rendition, it spoke to me. And so my interest was ignited, and as my Mother always says, I am like a dog with a bone (read: I am determined… and probably stubborn). In any case, I can unequivocally say that my operatic vocal voyage commenced here. It led me to undertake private studies with various teachers, with the last encouraging me to pursue further studies. I was accepted into the opera program at the Western Australian Academy of Arts (WAAPA), where I studied under brilliant teachers and gained the insight necessary to continue on the path to a professional career. For the most part, that put me where I am now; a lawyer, working and singing as a Young Artist with Pacific Opera in Sydney.
It is a funny thing to discuss the future with students of voice, and particularly those couched in a conservatorium environment. In my experience, the subject is the source of immense anxiety, and I can entirely understand why. Psychologists take note, here is a captive market. Take for example, a law student. Whilst the market for graduate lawyers at this point in time is almost equally horrific as opera singers, it is still a well-trodden career path. You study, you intern, you graduate, you apply for a job, you climb the corporate ranks, and one day you retire, if not wealthy then comfortable.
Show me the well-trodden career path for an opera singer.
You study, you… study more, possibly overseas, you… audition for young artist programs? The life of an opera singer, like most artists, is an uncertain one. But per previous, there are lots of different paths.
When I was at WAAPA, I paid very close attention to the plans my colleagues were making to continue their studies overseas before taking on the greater industry. Because there was such commonality between them, I took it to be the best path to take. It is undeniable that there is a lot to be gained from studying at a prestigious overseas institution. Some of that value is unquantifiable, and a great proportion of it is. I am talking about a value to the tune of many dollars; dollars that many don’t have. Now those dollars are no doubt well-spent in experience, both life and otherwise. But if this path isn’t available to you either for cost or perhaps because you aren’t accepted into a school, or maybe you just aren’t prepared to make that sort of commitment, what happens next? Heads up, you don’t have to quit.
The reality for most singers, which I am led to believe includes professionals, is that the money we make from singing, regardless of our education, is insufficient. When I have told coaches, teachers and colleagues previously that I am a lawyer, they often remark, why would you not just do that instead, surely the money is better? Well, I love opera, so that’s why I am pursuing a career in it.
So why do law at all people will ask. If I were serious about singing as a career, I would quit my job and pursue it with everything I’ve got. And I would pay my rent with fairy dust and live off air alone. Pardon my sarcasm, but this simply isn’t the way the world works. One doesn’t often just step into a full-time paying gig as an opera singer. Even when you have “made it” the industry is moving away from full-time contracts forcing singers into freelance arrangements. This means that to earn the equivalent of a full-time wage, we have to be looking for a variety of income streams. Best case scenario, this might mean multiple houses, festivals, corporate gigs, recording contracts, concert and recital performances, so on and so forth. In essence, all the fun stuff we train for so long to be able to do. But what if you only get one professional engagement in your first year out? The money might flow for those three months, but it won’t be enough to sustain your living expenses, let alone your singing lessons, coachings, and associated singing costs such as audition recordings, head shots, competition entry fees and travel and accommodation expenses. To achieve our goals, certainly at the start, and realistically possibly during and even at the end of our careers as singers, we are going to need something else to supplement our singing revenue. For me, that is law.
So the one piece I am going to venture to provide in this article is to find yourself a secondary job. Something you can enjoy and be passionate about. You don’t need to wait tables unless you want to. There are so many opportunities available to you. Jump on a jobseeker website like seek.com.au and find something you like. It will obviously need to meet certain criteria. My suggestion would be to pick one that is flexible, pays you just enough, will develop valuable and possibly even transferable or relevant skills to your opera career (think business for example), and also has long-term prospects. I’ve heard it referred to as a correlating career, and this is certainly how I refer to my lawyering.
Once upon a time, the motivation for me to leave the law behind and study opera, was that I preferred being known as an opera singer rather than a lawyer. Now I’m at peace with the fact that I am both. They are both worthwhile and neither is a back-up for the other. It is a situation borne out of a recognition that I like to live a particular way (i.e. in Sydney) and to achieve that, I need both. Occasionally, my singing chips in and that is just great. I know that I am doing everything I can to further my professional development as a singer and I will continue to do that. When singing can pay its own way, and the rent, then law can take a back seat while I pursue a singing career. Then when I am older and my voice is gracefully worn out, thankfully I will have developed skills in an alternative field that can sustain me until retirement age. It’s a win-win, and it is something I would encourage you to consider. Maybe not law, we apparently have enough of those. And I am not necessarily saying that you have to go back to uni, although there is nothing wrong with that if you do. What I am most emphatic about is that you shouldn’t think that you are giving up because you have a day job. It is practical. It is worthwhile. And it is part of your life as an opera singer.
One last observation before I sign off, on the state of opera here in Australia. Believe it or not, Australia is actually a great place to make opera. There is a lot happening here, and more happening every day. Does it compare to an industry like Germany? No, but they have been at it a lot longer than us. Germany’s first public opera company was founded in 1678. From a quick Google search, (and apologies in advance if this is controversial to any readers) but Australia’s first company appears to be The Royal Italian and English Opera Company which was established in 1861. Australia has a rich operatic tradition and one which I am regrettably only now starting to familiarise myself with. Internationally we are seeing the demise of bigger companies which are unfortunately imploding as a result of their need for big-budget productions to fill their massive stages with the upside being that phoenix-like smaller companies are arising in their wake and doing some pretty incredible things (see http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/04/operatic-startups-take-on-the-met). We actually have a lot of these smaller companies here and those companies present great opportunities for young artists to get on stage. More companies equals more productions which equals more opportunities. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Why not capitalise on the situation yourself? One of my favourite things about singing in Sydney is how quickly I have come to know so much of the classical community who are collegial and ready and willing to collaborate. As I prepare to undertake the formation of one of the aforementioned smaller companies with a colleague, I am grateful for the skills that my correlating career has afforded me to be able to do so.
Written by Christopher Curcuruto