International opera singer
Celeste Lazarenko is a successful opera singer. She’s sung roles in a Philip Glass opera and for the English National Opera. She’s performed in Hong Kong, across Europe and in her home country of Australia.
Early in her career, Celeste was offered a rare scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the UK. But she isn’t sure she’d recommend opera singing as a career. Not even if you think you have a fantastic voice.
What it takes to sing opera
Celeste has studied for three qualifications in opera and performance. A great voice, she explains, is only the first requirement to sing opera. “What audiences, opera houses, agents want – what the whole opera industry wants - is ‘diva quality’.
"Preparation is critical. If you turn up to an opera house not prepared for a role, you could be fired on the spot.”
“The average opera performance involves hundreds of people working together, from the stage crew to orchestra to chorus to conductor to principal singers. In this crowd, a brilliant opera singer must stand out.
“There is something about the top singers that commands the stage. You have to be exceptional. Opera focuses on talent: you will be thrown out quickly if you are not up to the job.”
This makes opera different to many other musical art forms. Rock and pop bands may assume that success will come with hard work, or clever marketing, generating enough popularity to make a living. This is s not true for opera singers.
“There’s a risk that, no matter how hard you work, you will reach a level and realise you don’t have the talent to progress further. It’s has been heartbreaking to have friends drop out.”
Becoming an opera singer
“I’ve studied to be a singer nearly as long as you need to become an architect,”
“What audiences, opera houses, agents want – what the whole opera industry wants - is ‘diva quality’."
Celeste’s studies began with a Diploma in Opera, then a Masters in Performance from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
Out of 2,000 applicants, she was then selected as one of seven singers accepted to the Guildhall in London, where she completed another Masters in Performance. She describes the day-to-day job of singing as ‘feast or famine’.
“You may earn good fees for a season or a one-off engagement. But each role requires you cover the costs of weeks or months of preparatory work. And preparation is critical. If you turn up to an opera house not prepared for a role, you could be fired on the spot.”
The process of staging an opera
The preparation for performing in an opera is complex. For a new role, Celeste translates the opera libretto into English, then works with a ‘répétiteur’. Both pianist and vocal coach, a répétiteur helps resolve the technical and musical challenges of each new part.
The opera house will then have a series of ‘production calls’, where the leading roles, the director, a pianist, the conductor and stage management will map out how an opera will engage with its performers. By the end of the calls, each person clearly understands how they will perform together on stage and how they will co-ordinate off stage.
At this point, rehearsals move from a rehearsal room to the stage itself, complete with lights, orchestra and singers. The ‘sitzprobe’ aims to integrate the orchestra and singing, in preparation for the final phase of rehearsal. There, the singers perform on the final stage, complete with scenery and props.
“The orchestra itself is rarely part of rehearsal until two weeks before opening. Because they are in the pit, orchestra members never actually see the opera. And most final rehearsals, where the director and singers work on lighting cues and staging, use a pianist rather than the full orchestra.”
“A million things can go wrong on stage. Stage hands can be electrocuted, a singer can fall into the pit, or a technician can fall from the lighting rig onto the stage. I was once in a production with candles onstage that nearly ended in a fire. A candle fell onto the stage floor. A singer had to stamp out the fire while still continuing to sing her aria.”
The future for opera singers
Celeste’s next set of engagements are for the Angers Nantes Opera Company in France. She is positive about her future, “I’m fortunate to be booked three years ahead where most singers are only booked two. It’s a sign of getting somewhere. It’s great to know that opera houses are willing to book far in advance to secure you for a specific role.”
“I’ve studied to be a singer nearly as long as you need to become an architect.”
But Celeste also sees opera changing, not necessarily for the better. She is scathing about ‘classic-crossover’ singers such as Kathryn Jenkins, a mentor on the ITV show ‘Popstar To Operastar’.
"Someone who has never sung on an actual opera stage should not be advising people how to sing opera.”
She also dislikes traditional opera's increased focus on looks. “You can be perfect for a role but there are so many skilled singers in competition that now you also need to ‘look the part’.”