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Stepping Away from Opera

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

So, you're a classical singer just beginning their post-school career -- congrats!

Whether you just got your master's or bachelor's degree, you deserve all of the praise for your years of hard work and struggle. Now you can celebrate, because it's all been worth it.

Because now, you're an Opera Singer™️. It's what you're meant to do.


Unless, maybe it isn't.

Oof. It can feel soul-crushing to acknowledge that thought, I let alone say it aloud. But if you've felt that way, you're not alone.

There seems to be this stigma in the opera community that if you are questioning committing to a career in the opera world, you're not a "serious" musician.

I'm here to tell you -- that's just not true.

I could sense the echoes of that attitude palpably in Conservatory classrooms, masterclasses, and in casual conversation. I struggled quietly with overwhelming shame and anxiety for years.

What was wrong with me, that I couldn't just "decide"? Why was it so hard?

Was choosing a career in opera really supposed to feel easy, to fit like a glove?

Does it make everybody's chest ache, or just mine?

If we're being honest here, decision paralysis is an old friend. As a kid, I was insatiably curious. I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on, and regularly got lost in the woods behind my house trying to categorize the local flora and fauna.

Music has always just been a way I experience the world. I never wanted to "be" a famous singer or anything, but God, getting to play with sound every day felt like a dream. And, in many ways, it still is. But for me, it just isn't everything.

I wanted to be an opera singer one week, a neurologist another. Or maybe the founder of an animal rescue, or a local nonprofit. While my classmates' dream careers turned from being astronauts to accountants, mine has never panned out clearly. The timeline and the specifics have always been fuzzy.

This pressure was the worst during grad school. Though I loved it, I felt the enormous weight of the mantle of "The Conservatory" on my shoulders every day. In a way, I performed being a performer along with my arias, feeling like an impostor among the "real" musicians.

When asked to "narrow it down," I'd get unexpectedly hurt. What do you mean, I have to choose? Why?

I never received a clear answer. Truthfully, I'm not sure if one exists.

But I survived. I sampled different careers (IT technician? Insurance agent? Escape room manager??), and failed. Like, a lot. And I'm still failing. But I'm proud of that, because I'm taking risks -- just like my vocal training taught me.

I don't regret choosing to study classical music for a single second. It changed me. How could it not? Not many people can say they are trained to create worlds with their voice, body, and perspective.

I chose to step away from being an opera singer because I love it so deeply. It is so integral, so fundamental to my spirit that I had to. Only making music for others, never for myself, just didn't feel true to my values. And that's okay.

It took me too long to learn that my human worth and value as a musician has nothing to do with:

  • whether I'm actively performing

  • my peers' careers (and their "excited announcements")

  • whether I can financially support myself only by performing

  • how often I engage with classical music (and musicians)

You can be an excellent classical musician and choose not to pursue it as a main career, or at all.

You don't have to give anything up. If anything, by electing for a career that gives you the time/money/stability you need, you're gaining... well, everything.

This can be heavy for a lot of folks. If this was a bit overwhelming, that's totally okay. Know that you don't have to make any decisions right now.

Just know that, when you're ready to, you already have everything you need to craft a life that embodies your values and priorities. You deserve that, and it's possible. I promise.

Much love,

Em (they/them)

If you're interested in further exploring this topic, listen to our podcast episode, "So You're Thinking About Leaving Music."

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