Photo courtesy of Henry Choo

So you’ve done it! You now have a music degree from an institution, you’ve done a couple of gigs, you have connections and you finally feel that you are ready to work as much as possible in your chosen field. And then the tape reel shudders to a halt and you step out into the forefront, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, “Yes, but I have no idea what to do with my life!” Then you sassily shout to the world at large “I wish someone could just guide me!” Sadly, not everyone gets Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, and you’re probably going to have to work quite hard for a number of years before you tackle the role of Cenerentola (Mezzos, you know you want to), however, there is still hope, it just may take some soul searching.

I have been a choral singer for many years; I have passable sight reading skills, an understanding of singing in groups and the great pleasure of singing with some great choirs. So, when I was asked to work with the West Australian Opera Chorus on their most recent production of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers as a tenor, I jumped at the opportunity to do some satisfying work in my chosen field at a professional level. I will admit that I have been very, very lucky in this regard, as I have not technically been trained as a tenor, but they are always in high demand. I will say that on the whole I have coped quite well. However, the thing that I was probably not prepared for was the total stylistic difference between traditional choral singing and singing in an opera chorus. Suddenly, it’s not just about excellent blend, but also the quality of the sound, which is rich and vibrant, full of vibrato, and taking full advantage of a trained singer’s support and understanding. It was a culture shock to me, but thankfully one that I was able to tackle. Though it begs the question, “Why aren’t young singers being trained for this?” Opera chorus work is a great stepping stone in gaining experience and meeting contacts in the opera world, and it requires a set of skills that are specialised. For example, how do you blend, whilst focussing on your technique at the same time? How do you learn and absorb an entire chorus score of a work like Pearl Fishers in three weeks? How do you take on broad direction for an entire group of people without feeling uncomfortable that you don’t know where to look, how to look etc.? The simple answer is that you need to learn these as you go along, gain the experience, and these are all questions I have asked myself at different points in this run, comparing my thoughts with other singers, who have come up with their own interesting and vibrant internal monologues. I’m very thankful to have had this experience with the West Australian Opera Company.

When I first went to university, I thought for certain I was heading to be a baroque tenor, specialising in Bach. 4 years later I was a countertenor and my repertoire choices had widened considerably. After some issues with my voice, I have come back down to tenor land after university, pending some difficult decisions and hopefully some more expert input than what I am able to give myself. Music of the late German Romantic School makes me weak at the knees, and I can identify Mahler 1 from several hundred places. So this year, being able to perform the role of Der Tanzmeister in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos with OperaBox was an absolute dream come true. Truth be told, I don’t believe that I am a high tenor, (certainly not right at this very moment as I type this with both a cold of some description and a bottom D in my repertory) and some of that role was a huge learning curve for me, as I have never learned such complex music in such a short amount of time. However, I never believed I would EVER sing in a Strauss Opera, especially one I held as dear as Ariadne. So now I have diverged considerably from my original plan of being a Bach singer I think you’ll notice. New small opera companies are popping up in Perth all the time, and if you’re lucky and keep your eyes peeled, there may just be something that they need you specifically for.

So, should you continue study? Short answer is, I don’t know! Do you feel ready for more study? What do you want to do? Sometimes, we all must make hard decisions as to our futures. Maybe you have taken on board the feedback and decided that you want to continue as an amateur or semi-professional musician, but your heart or your skill is holding you back for now? Maybe you’ve developed a love of teaching, or remedial massage, or jewellery making and you still want to sing? Or perhaps you really want to sing professionally, your heart is all the way in it and you feel like you aren’t ready to tackle a young artist program or anything else, and you want to go study your masters, or doctorate somewhere. Unfortunately, I can’t assist with your decision, but I can offer you my thoughts when I was considering the same problem. Do you want to go interstate or international? If international, consider the two questions I have asked previously. What do you love? And what are you good at? Originally I thought as a countertenor with no strong tradition of Early Music surrounding him in Perth and eager to learn more, I would audition in Amsterdam at one of the conservatoires and learn all I could about the music of the Baroque and before. But small doubts have crept in, not least the state of my voice as a countertenor. Thoughts like: Do I love this? Could I stand by and let myself sing nothing but Baroque for two years? It’s very specialised, and without knowing what I was getting myself into, I chose to stay and work out my position before throwing myself in. But I am, and have always been exceptionally cautious, so you may be very more willing. All I can say is, I wish you all the very best no matter what you may pursue!

Written by Ry Charleson