Now that years have passed since I stopped, I don’t mind telling people that I trained to be an opera singer. I used to be ashamed of it, though I’m not sure what exactly felt shameful – the admission that I’d once wanted to be part of that world or the fact that I’d failed. Even now, I’m careful always to say briefly – I briefly trained to be an opera singer – because I want to make it sound like it was all a very long time ago and didn’t mean much to me anyway, and I often find myself putting on an expression of generic self-deprecation when I say it too, like, yeah, mad I know.
I remember the time I really felt I might make it. I’m twenty-two, singing in the chorus for a summer opera festival. There’s an insane heatwave that’s lasted weeks already, turning the ground to a crisp, and we’re all stuffed into the wings of the theatre for Suor Angelica – an opera about a woman who, after having a baby out of wedlock, is forced to join a convent. It’s the lead-up to the final chorus, which we’ll sing, hidden, from offstage – a choir of angelic voices. But since there’ll be no time to put our costumes back on before the curtain call, we’re all still dressed in our heavy polyester nuns’ habits from an earlier scene, wimples topped by headdresses covering our ears so we can’t really hear the orchestra. Sweat drips down the back of my neck and thighs. On stage, Angelica has just learnt that her child is dead and, mad with grief, she drinks poison. But almost straightaway, she realises that by taking her own life, she’s condemned herself to eternal damnation and so will never see her dead child again. Then we come in – a chorus of angels – and tell her she’s forgiven. A child runs out onto the stage into his mother’s arms. Church bells sound.
I’m about to start at music college, taking up a place I never thought I’d get. All of this is exciting to me. It’s the first opera I’ve been in with a paying audience. My first proper experience of the camaraderie of show-making, sequestered away with a load of new people who become everything to you – the jokes you share, anecdotes from rehearsals becoming legend, the outside world unreal, irrelevant.
This festival fancies itself a lot, trying to be a sort of mini-Glyndebourne – the audience, who are paying full whack for tickets, come early to enjoy the grounds, to picnic and drink champagne. There’s something disorientating and a bit comical about the sudden arrival of these quite dressed-up sixty-somethings – men in suits and women in pearls and heels. The chorus is mostly young people, most of us studying or aspiring to study at top conservatoires. We’ve spent the past few weeks of the rehearsal period living in a boys’ boarding school, watching their DVDs (Eurotrash, in particular, sticks in my mind), drinking in their common room until late each night and sleeping – often together – in their single beds. My room’s under the eaves so it’s about a hundred degrees and if I sit up too quickly I bang my head.
We’re probably all having a bit too much fun, but we want something too – we want something desperately, that’s why we’re here. At the after-show party, we put on our best clothes and flirt with the men in charge. Because if – big if – we one day audition for them – for real this time – we want them to remember us. We want them to remember we’re fun at parties. We need to get something out of this, you see, because we’re all – all of us – paying to be here.
To this day, listening to that final chorus of Suor Angelica remains an exercise in self-indulgent masochism: I put it on if I want to feel bad. Because I remember that summer as a moment of uncomplicated joy, being on the cusp of my singing career, being sure I really wanted it and could get it.
But what about that final party, where everyone else seemed instinctively to know how important schmoozing was and the rules of it, and I was left wishing I’d worn a slightly longer dress? What about the fact that, as a professional opera company, they really should have been paying us and not the other way round? I know these things, but they barely register in the flavour of that memory. The whole summer of that festival is tinted for me with a dishonest nostalgia. Am I misremembering, for example, that constant glorious sunshine?
A night at the opera
When I decided, in my final year of university, to pursue singing as a career, I’d never actually been to an opera. I’d taken vocal lessons and been in choirs for most of my teenage years. Singing had always seemed to come naturally to me, and people would reliably tell me I was good at it – something very important to me as an attention-seeking youngest child. But I’d never seen an opera performed.
What I loved was the feeling of power that singing gave me, of physical strength – the fact I could make a sound that filled a room just by using my body. I didn’t have Spotify back then, so I rarely listened to recordings of the pieces I was trying to learn. Instead, I sat down at the piano with them and played the notes and sung them back. There was something special about that, about hearing the piece emerge as I learnt it, working out how it was meant to sound just using my own voice and not through imitation. It felt like a secret just for me.
At university, I’d been a choral scholar in the chapel choir, and life was all rehearsals and lessons and concerts. I enjoyed the discipline of music, a life structured around practice and performance, and, always a perfectionist, a career spent honing my skills in an esoteric art form appealed to me. If I’m completely honest, I was drawn towards opera, I think, because it seemed like the most prestigious and impressive sort of singing. I wanted, with that abstract, misplaced confidence of a very young person, to be the best. I’d learnt a handful of arias from operas over the years, but beyond that I knew next to nothing about it and strangely it didn’t occur to me much that this mattered.
When I finally did go to see an opera performed, a couple of months after I’d graduated, I was – something I found difficult to admit even to myself – instantly disappointed. What had always moved me about vocal music was the sense of raw unfiltered emotion, of feeling that couldn’t be suppressed. The stories of the operas themselves, I admit, had always struck me as overblown and melodramatic, but I felt like the fact that they were sung excused that – there was already a suspension of disbelief written into the art form. And so going to the opera, I was sure I would witness something magical and transformative. Instead, I felt detached and indifferent and, yes, just a little bit bored.
One of the first operas I ever saw was Puccini’s La Bohème. It’s normally billed as a love story, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. In the opening, a group of young artists living in poverty in Paris burn their creative work to stay warm. Later that night, all of them are gone except Rodolfo, and Mimì – a young embroiderer who lives nearby – knocks on the door. Her candle’s gone out and she wants it relit but, in the darkness, she manages to lose her key. After a quick search, Rodolfo finds it, but pretends he hasn’t and puts it in his pocket – he wants to stop her from leaving his flat, you see, because he fancies her. Apparently this is romantic. In the next scene, having taken her out to the local cafe, he introduces her to his friends by saying – and this is in front of her, by the way, not even behind her back – I am the poet, and she the poetry. Well, you might ask, what does Mimì think of that? Who knows. She says nothing. The next time we hear from her, several minutes later, she says she’d like some custard.
It’s an odd opera. The gender politics of it are old-fashioned and flawed, but in other ways it’s radical. The characters are all artists on the margins of society railing against the establishment. And the plot hinges on Mimì’s tuberculosis, which forces her to leave Rodolfo for someone much richer, because the Bohemians are barely surviving, TB or not, and she needs money. I’ve seen a few productions of it since that first one. They’ve all been basically the same. The dire living conditions of the young artists are romanticised, presented in a cuddly and unthreatening way – their flat is high-ceilinged with ‘distressed’ décor, the sort that would set you back a couple of mil these days, and they’re all dressed in quite cool-looking Boho layers, having a great time clowning around together. Poverty honestly looks like a lot of fun. And the problematic aspects of the gender politics are mostly ignored (although I have seen productions where the director has Mimì notice Rodolfo’s stolen her key, and then they do an oh how playful and flirty that you won’t give me my key back kind of thing). In the end, it’s the unconvincing love story that takes centre stage.
The music of Bohème is beautiful, some of the best ever. And the emotions it describes can be real and relatable (isn’t Rodolfo’s instant obsession with Mimì, for example, a desperate longing for something, anything, beautiful in an otherwise hostile world?). But I found the constant disjunct between the conventional staging of works like these and their anti-establishment subject matter bizarre and alienating.
It was hard not to relate this to the contexts I was viewing them in. When you go to watch an opera like Bohème in a big opera house, there’s an unavoidable irony: in so many of these works – from The Marriage of Figaro to Tosca to Wozzeck – money, disempowerment (particularly of woman) and social inequality are repeated themes, and yet the contexts they’re so often seen in – at large opera houses with expensive tickets and dressed-up audiences – are rich and privileged. The rituals surrounding going to operas, its entire reputation as an art form, seem to me now so at odds with the spirit of the stories and the music.
Let’s see what you’re made of
But at the beginning, I was willing to give opera the benefit of the doubt. In fact, after that beautiful summer singing Suor Angelica, I rock up to music college quite full of myself. I think that getting onto this course – this full-time postgraduate vocal course – surely means this is it. I’ve made it. Hundreds of singers apply for a handful of places: I must have sufficient talent, I think, or they wouldn’t have let me in, and I know I’m a hard worker. All I have to do is go to college every day, apply myself with that perfectionist diligence, and I’ll emerge a fully-fledged opera singer at the end. I am, of course, deluded. I’ve just turned twenty-three. I’m already too old, apparently, and I’m nowhere near as good as everyone else anyway. And I soon discover that coming into college isn’t a virtue at all. In fact, the singers who are never in college, the ones who don’t come to any classes, are the ones who are doing the best. They’re too busy and important to bother. They’ve got externals. I have no idea how you go about getting an external. I’m not even totally sure I know what one is. In the cafeteria, the singers say things like it’s such a pain we have to be here for all these bloody classes, like we don’t have anything better to do, and I say God, yes, it is, isn’t it?
In my first week, I discover that I’ve been allocated a singing teacher without a consultation lesson first. This isn’t standard practice. The most important relationship in your life as a young singer is the one you have with your teacher, and so it’s usual at conservatoires to be offered consultations, or trial lessons, before you pick one. For whatever reason, pointless to speculate about, from day one my teacher despises me. I’m a people-pleaser, desperate for him to like me, and the more I try to please him, the more he seems to hold me in contempt. His favourite thing is humiliating me. I’m so used to men humiliating me, it barely even registers. He lounges on a chair, and says ironically, ‘Okay then, let’s see what you’re made of.’ I sing something. He sighs, and says I shouldn’t bother even thinking about singing that because it reveals all my flaws. ‘Sing it again,’ he says, so I do. I sing again and I sing it worse. He sighs. ‘Sing it again,’ he says, so I do. This goes on for weeks. I let him deconstruct me because I’m not sure what the alternative is. He’s a very serious artist and I’m a waste of his time. ‘Vocal support isn’t toothpaste,’ he says. ‘Singing is abstract not concrete,’ he says. ‘You need to think east-west not north-south,’ he says. ‘The fact that you define yourself as a soprano is a part of these psychological issues you have,’ he says. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I nod keenly and diligently and afterwards I go and cry in the toilets.
For a while, I enjoy the good fortune of London-based parents, and then I move into a small flat with a tenor and a theatre director. We spend a lot of time, Bohème-like, complaining about our artistic output and how cold it is. My bedroom is actually freezing – the window’s been badly fitted, letting an icy draught seep in, and I can see my breath in the mornings – but when the lady from the management company comes round to take a look, she claims it’s toasty. We have an electric keyboard pushed up against the window in the sitting room, the only place it will fit, and we’re on a main road with a bus stop right outside. The top deck is exactly the same height as our flat and so, when I’m practising, the passengers all sit and watch. My flatmates put their headphones in. Our downstairs neighbour bangs on the ceiling. She’s got the garden, which she’s decorated with bits of mirror, framed photographs, absurd quantities of fairy lights which twinkle manically all night through my thin curtains. In the mornings, she rollerblades to work. I watch her out of the front window, weaving through traffic.
She also has regular parties, putting her phone in a vase outside for amplification. And more than once, I hear her at these parties loudly discussing me, drunkenly doing an impression of a big wobbly opera voice. She’s actually quite good, I think. Anyway, I get it – singing is very annoying. The tenor, for some inexplicable reason, seems to only practise in the shower. He stays in there for hours until the water’s gone cold. I’ve taken, alone in my room, to muttering shut up shut up shut up.
Despite being not that nice, the flat isn’t actually that cheap. The area we’ve moved to has just started getting trendy. Asian grocery stores and fabric shops are being replaced by craft gin bars. Brunch places have queues out of the door. None of us ever has enough work or enough money. Can you just be cured of art? the director asks one day. Like smoking, just not want to do it anymore? Do hypnotherapy or something and just be cured of it? I’m not earning any money from singing, but I am working until 9 p.m. most weeknights, and on the weekends too. I do a lot of tutoring, and I start working for a woman who owns multiple flats across London and rents them out. She’s a great supporter of the arts, a major donor to festivals and opera houses. My duties for her include calling round electricity companies to switch providers when there are deals on, accompanying her on shopping trips and peeling the stamps off envelopes that have been delivered unfranked so she can reuse them. She pays me £15 an hour, which isn’t bad, and she buys me nice lunches and gives me her daughter’s cast-off designer clothes. But she doesn’t have a regular working schedule and often disappears for weeks, leaving me without an income. One day, she tells me she’s going on holiday the next week and she’ll get in touch when she comes back. I never hear from her again.
There is one time that I nearly get paid for singing. I’m out with a couple of singers from college, and one of them offers me a gig. She’s meant to do it the next night but she’s double booked. It’s for a posh corporate party, a close-harmony quartet of popular songs. I turn up at this fancy hotel in Russell Square the next evening, and I sing fine I think, but then afterwards, when I email the fixer with my invoice, she doesn’t reply.
I complain about my teacher to the head of department. When I try to explain, she looks a bit bemused and says, no, that can’t be right, she knows him and he’d never do that to a student, but she does let me switch. My new teacher’s a woman. She’s no nonsense and, honestly, I’m not sure she likes me too much either, but she says that everything’s fine and she’ll sort me out so I try to believe her. Whenever I see my old teacher in the corridor, he ignores me.
At the end of the year, I’m in the chorus for our annual summer opera. The director, midway through the rehearsal process, decides I should be the cover for a major role, despite having never heard me sing, because I look right for the part, he says. This gives me some insight into how it all works. I spend the rest of the rehearsal process terrified that the soprano who’s got the role will get ill and I’ll have to go on. I’m a singer, I say to people when they ask. I’m a classical singer. I’m an opera singer. I mean, I’m training to be a singer. I mean –. But after a year at college, I barely sing. I’m scared of singing. I’ve spent all year auditioning for things and not getting them. Singing in classes and being told I’m not good enough. I stop auditioning. I stop signing up for classes. I barely sing in front of people at all. I’m a singer, I say. I’m a singer who doesn’t sing.
In the first week of the new academic year, I look at my timetable and think about it all starting up again, and I feel crushed by the utter circular pointlessness of it all, and so I quit. I don’t tell myself I’m giving up. I tell myself that the conservatoire environment doesn’t suit me. I’ll be a maverick, I tell myself. I’ll find another way.
My head of department asks me why I’m leaving, and I tell her I think it’s a waste of money. She agrees with me.
My body is my instrument
I’m twenty-four, and I’m still saying – to myself and to other people – I’m a singer. I’ve left college now, but I’m still on the singing treadmill. I keep auditioning. I spend my life on the Underground. I warm up on residential streets or in empty Tube carriages, and then I go and sing for people in the backrooms of pubs or in church halls or in houses, and they all smile and say no thanks. Once, I turn up to an audition and it’s just some guy, cadaverously thin, in this tiny smoke-filled house in Ealing. I ask him what his company’s next production is, and he doesn’t seem at all sure, but I sing for him anyway and he tells me he’ll be in touch, which he isn’t. Everything I’m auditioning for is, of course, amateur and unpaid, but it’s not just me. I keep bumping into people I know, people who have trained seriously for years. I see the same singers at all these auditions, read the same names when I see who’s been cast. I google the people I studied with, the ones I thought would be successful, and I find videos of them on YouTube pretending to be mushrooms.
I still go to operas. I still love music. I watch friends sing upstairs in pubs with small companies, some of whom are trying to make work that’s challenging and fresh, and I’m jealous of them. No one’s paid for any of that either. I learn more repertoire, find singers whose voices I fall in love with and go and see their productions. I take friends to the opera, and I’m embarrassed by their reaction, even though it’s mostly the same as mine. I get defensive, like someone trying to claim that their naughty child is normally well-behaved. One time, I go to see Tosca with a friend – another opera about struggling artists railing against the establishment – paying £17 for standing tickets right at the top. In the interval, we spot free seats in the stalls and go to sit there. A suited man sitting a few seats along takes a photograph of us. It’s outrageous, he says, that sort of behaviour, moving to the stalls without paying. He’ll be sending the photo to the opera house to complain.
I still practice, because practice is what I’m good at. It’s comforting. The familiar routine. The diligence. Being good. But I’m not good, I’m bored. I’m bored of warming up. I’m bored of auditions. I’m bored of rejection. I’m bored of my voice type. I’m bored of learning the same old stories. In opera, voices are divided into fachs, and your fach dictates which roles you can play. I’m a soubrette, the lightest type of soprano voice. My main bread-and-butter is sluts and children – Emmie, Zerlina, Despina. In a form that already offers such limited options for women, my voice type just narrows it down further. These would be my roles, I realise. Sluts and children. This would be my entire career.
I become obsessed with illness, with controlling things out of my control. Every time I have an audition, I get sick. I spend hours steaming my vocal cords over a bowl at the kitchen table, gargling mountains of salt, scanning my body for early signs of voicelessness – the tickle in the throat, the pain when I swallow. I wash my hands constantly, eat healthily, exercise (but only the permitted types of exercise, cardio, and nothing that will firm up my stomach muscles too much or tense my neck), stay away from smokers, barely drink. The rules I impose on myself to keep my body, my instrument, working on the off-chance that someone might want to hear it are so extreme, so ridiculous for a 24-year-old failing singer to be living by, that more and more I find there’s a relief in just saying fuck it. It’s just too tempting, destroying it all, getting out of my head, hurting it, breaking it. I drink too much. I smoke. I go to clubs and scream along to the music all night until I wake up hoarse. One night, I go to meet a group of university friends out after singing for a choral society, still in my black concert dress, and my friend, extremely pissed already, says it’s not slutty enough. We’re standing outside a club, and she says, ‘Come on, let’s tear it down the front.’ ‘Do it,’ I say. She puts her cigarette in my mouth, takes hold of the collar and rips it. Inside, men, shouting above the music, ask me what I do. I’m a singer, I shout back. I’m an opera singer. It sounds true when I’m drunk. Perhaps that’s why I like drinking so much.
The world doesn’t end
I turn twenty-five, and remember a talk I’d gone to a few years back. A Q&A with a famous soprano, who was asked by a young, keen audience member how long it took to become an opera singer. The soprano started to explain that the voice took a very long time to mature and that people studied for years and years before they were ready to sing professionally etcetera etcetera. ‘But you know,’ she added, ‘if you get to, say, I don’t know, twenty-five, and you’re not there already, well then –’
An amateur opera company is doing a double bill. I audition and get cast as the main role in both operas. I’m astounded. I haven’t even been cast as chorus for months. When I get to the first rehearsal, it’s immediately clear why they want me – I’m about thirty years younger than the rest of the cast, and the only person who isn’t a true amateur, who isn’t singing entirely for fun. No one else there wants to be a professional and they’re all having a great time. We do one opera as a version of The X Factor, and set the other during a nuclear apocalypse. One of the principals brings her Labrador along to a rehearsal, and asks if he can be in the show. When we’re asked to suggest costumes, another guy – a fifty-something management consultant who’s playing a witch – turns up in a glittery mesh vest and hot pants. ‘It’s nuclear punk,’ he says. These are all people with rich and varied lives, and they’re all doing this in their spare time because they love singing. I don’t have a rich and varied life anymore and, God, I miss loving singing.
After a rehearsal one night, the director gives me a lift home. I tell him I’m going to give up. I mean, to give up for good. I’m not going to try to sing professionally anymore. I’m probably not going to sing at all, I say. It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud and I expect the world to end but it doesn’t. He asks me what I wanted to do at aged five, at ten, at fifteen, and I tell him that I’d always wanted to be a writer. ‘Go and write something then,’ he says, so I do.
A few months after I give up singing, the tenor moves out, and our flat falls silent. One evening, my downstairs neighbour shouts up at me when I’m standing at my window. She asks me if I’ve just moved in. Slightly wrong-footed, I say yes. She tells me how glad she is. She says that the person who lived there before me was a total twat. ‘She used to sing opera,’ she tells me. ‘God,’ I say. ‘How fucking awful.’ She invites me down to her flat and, when I’m there, she tells me she’s got a present for me. She wants to give me something, she says, though she’s not sure what. Eventually she lights on a sparkly pink hip flask. She used to use it, she said, when she was my age. ‘It’s the best age,’ she says. She’s giving it to me, she says, for not singing opera. I’ve still got it.
Photograph © Canadian Opera Company / Michael Cooper