7 Great Reasons Why You Should Sing in an Opera or Do Something Just as Hard

David Delp plays Carmen's MoralesI don’t like opera that much. I swoon to Jussi Björling’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, but that’s about it. I’ve never seen an opera in its entirety. That’s why it might seem odd that I’m singing in one, and I think you should, too, at some point soon. Here’s why, in story and list form. (Spoiler: It doesn’t have to be opera.)

Sweat and the glory of it

It’s opening night of Verdi’s Rigoletto by Verismo Opera. I’m playing a small part, Borsa, and I’m still ambivalent about my participation. It cost me a lot of time rehearsing and driving to rehearsals and hanging out with people I don’t know much or much want to know.

“Places,” is called.

As I peak between the slats of the set I see only ten people in the audience. What the hell! So much effort with only ten people to witness? Hacks. I’m a hack. We’re all hacks. What am I doing here?

I gather up my attitude, remembering I had practiced my part hard and worked on my technique very hard because I’m a Hard Tryer by nature but also because performing in an opera aligns, at least indirectly, to one of my life goals of singing through my bridge with ease.

My goal tonight is especially challenging: Sing out (to the ten) with clarity, ease, and presence. Breathe so my tongue stays loose and doesn’t pinch me on the high notes. Enjoy it. Really. Find a way to love it. I can do this.

I turn to Fred, the 70-year-old gentleman who is playing the part of the young, philandering Duke of Mantua and ask, “I’ve seen singers play Borsa as a stern naysayer, but I think of him more as a kiss-ass wannabe. How do you want me to play this, Fred?”

The overture begins as Fred and I walk the back stage steps to the balcony where we will make our entrance. He replies, “Oh, Borsa is definitely a wannabe. Play it that way.”

Then we step on stage and start belting out our lines. We casually discuss his most recent sexual conquest as the Duke reigns with glee over a ballroom filled with women he’s either schtooped already or plans to schtoop soon. My part, Borsa, is to point out the risks of each endeavor. We both chuckle; the Duke couldn’t care less.

Even funnier are my instructions from my voice teacher. To keep my mind present and my abdomen relaxed, in between my lines I’m panting like a dog. It’s working! I sound pretty good. I’m totally amused. I’m actually having fun.

I deliver well enough for my first opera on stage with an audience (of ten), and it’s time for me to watch the Duke launch into his first big song, Questa o Quella, translated This One or That One in which he explains his deal with women: Whomever he happens to be consuming will be the focus of his love and desire, and isn’t that grand!

As the climax of the song approaches Fred puts his hand and my shoulder like a buddy. He’s fully engaged. From 18 inches away I actually see the dots of sweat swell up on his forehead. Spit pops out of his mouth, and when those high notes come, his face screws up into what looks like terror, his mouth gapes, and  his tongue arches like a little gymnast hitting her mark.

And the sound.

The sound coming out of his gaping mouth, over the orchestra, over the ten, and into the next town.

Is glorious.

My ambivalence withers. I scan the cast on stage. These are not hacks. The young soprano just out of school, who’s singing her first big duet with Fred, looks tense but dishes up her best reluctant succumbing, and it’s convincing. The baritone who spent the afternoon making a scar across his face steams to life his insidious villain, while the sad hunchback jester, Rigoletto, watches from off stage, ready to bring us to tears.

And when he does sing, he brings it!

I know why I am here. It’s for the love of rare opportunity and the joy and the difficulty of so many things that matter. Only a few people ever get to sing opera on the grand platforms of world class theaters with the best of the best backing them up. Where do the rest of us sing? How is it possible to perform an entire opera to an audience of any size?

This is how.

We do it with what we can muster. We do it because it’s worth the effort to have even one small moment when everything aligns, the word, the vocal chords, the piano and strings, the theater, and the people we invite to be there with us. For that instant the world vibrates in unison.

Resonance. It doesn’t come often. It doesn’t come easy. But sometimes, when you line up enough of the ingredients, it does—eventually—pay a visit.

And there is nothing like it.

Why you should do it

“Should” is a dogmatic word, so please understand I only use it to provoke you, to coax you, or maybe goad you to consider what is merely a suggestion. Excellence and the resonance it affords come from hard work. This list gives you some good reasons to do it.

1. It’s difficult. Focusing on doing something just at the edge of frustration is how you grow your skills quickly, and the best way to find deeply rewarding Flow.

2. You may never get another chance. Extraordinary experiences often come when you leap toward a rare opportunity, even if it’s not exactly what you were hoping for. 

3. You contribute to one of the most awesome things in the world. Doing your best work for something that is bigger than yourself will inspire everyone else to do the same.

4. You fail in public. When you try something hard, you will fail at some point. Get used to being witnessed in your failures. That’s where real courage comes from.

5. You do incredible things you didn’t imagine you could do. Something unexpected and awesome will happen, and at some point, you will be the cause.

6. You try your best. Knowing you tried your best is the best feeling in the world, so do it.

7. You will respect yourself and the crazy people around you. Inspiring each other is a bond that goes deep, even with people you don’t like so much.

Then go home and gargle. Tomorrow you can rest.

And now

I played Borsa last Autumn. Next week is closing night for an 8-week run of Carmen. As Morales, I sing the opening song over the top of an orchestra and a chorus. It’s hard. Being the first solo voice puts me center stage, setting the tone of the story to come. During my short part, I need to watch the conductor for cues, listen to the bass for pitch and rhythm, ignore the violin that plays flat, do my business with a cigarette, hit on a girl, get rejected, and recover.

Oh, and sing—sing from a totally open, relaxed body.

It’s a meditation. It’s an act of “being in the moment.” I have it down. Even when I forget a line, even when I lose the orchestra, I know how to get back on track. I’ve done my work, and as a result, for many small and medium-sized moments, everything lines up just right.

What’s something difficult you’ve done that rewarded you with “Resonance?”

Answer in the comments.

Image by Flavien Bernardin.
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Leave a comment14 comments on "7 Great Reasons Why You Should Sing in an Opera or Do Something Just as Hard"

  1. Davide – I have been struggling with decisions, feeling insignificant, etc.
    I loved your daring and productive entrance into the operatic world – WOW
    That takes courage. I loved your comment about being ‘in the moment’ –
    which I’m being persuaded is the only modis operendi!!!! Three cheers for
    your endeavor – which sounded very successful! Love, Peace and Blessings
    Ginnie xo

    • Thank you Ginnie!!! So really, what weird stuff have you done that totally paid off? I may be making my re-entrance into the singer-songwriter performance realm in Delaware of all places. I hope to see you very soon. -Davide

  2. Ok, here’s my story.
    I competed in a Crossfit competition last week. One of the skills called for was something I had never successfully done before (toes-to-bar). I was not sure I could do it. I had 14 minutes to attempt to do that skill 50 times, plus 5 other skills. After “3, 2, 1, GO!”, I complete the first skill (easy) in 4 minutes. I then spent the next 10 minutes trying (really hard) to do the skill I had never yet accomplished. I had my judge, fellow Crossfit-ers, & random people I didn’t know cheering for me. And then they all started to help. “Pull with your arms harder when you get to HERE”, “Kick your feet a split second faster, right THERE”. And so, for about 8 minutes, I and a team of people, worked really hard to figure out how to do something I had never done before. In the end, I successfully completed the skill 18 times for a total (abysmally low) score of 78.
    But whatever. Time ran out, hugs and high-fives all around. For 8 minutes, everything lined up just right.

    • That is an awesomely perfect story. Let me look up toes-to-bar … oh, that. If you worked at toes-to-bar for 8 minutes, I worship you. My abs are sore just wincing at the thought.

  3. Hmm. I’m trying hard to remember the last time I really scared myself, but I do know that I love the feeling of resonance I get when I’m verbally riffing about something or the other. I love that sense of seeing concepts I didn’t know I’d synthesized come together. A couple of months ago, I actively started seeking out situations where I could do that more often, and I’m really enjoying it.

    • Flow has many forms. The beautiful comfort zone where we practice our skills and feel the reward is one of the most enjoyable feelings. Being at the edge is risky because of the failure quotient. I’m there all the time, and I must say I fight discouragement almost every day.

  4. I remember the resonance during synagogue services at my bar mitzvah. Imagine me as a non-native, non-fluent Hebrew speaker, charged with reading about half the prayers and text during a 3+ hour service. Oh, did I mention I was only 13 and had never spoke/sang solo in public before?

    But I nailed it! Almost a years’ worth of preparing paid off as a started the harmony for one song and had about 200 powerful, beautiful voices behind me join in a split-second later. As I was about to fumble the pronunciation of a word in the Torah scroll in front of me, there was Rabbi Allen, right next to me, mouthing the words at a level imperceptible to anyone but me. Whew! Save … made.

    Having a whole congregation of people behind me – literally and figuratively – gave me a sense of resonance like none other I’ve experienced. I just wish I didn’t eat a whole cheesecake later that day to celebrate.

    • Tears, baby. That story brought tears, especially the cheesecake part. Not the rolling down my face ones, more wet eyes. I just blinked to see if they would run. Nope.

  5. I have, in recent years, gotten really terrible at letting things like frustration and failure near me. It’s not a good thing and needs to change. Most of the resonance experiences I can remember revolve around music, too: singing solos that terrified me in college shows, or the first time I performed with my high school marching band after working like crazy to learn saxophone the summer before my senior year. I remember a few language-related things too, performing poems or story translations in American Sign Language in front of classmates. Scary as that kind of thing is, I do miss it.

    • The thing is, it doesn’t have to be scary, just difficult (enough) and best when it’s with other people rising to the challenge. Music almost always makes that opportunity.

      So, is there something this week that might feel a little more challenging? Something only a little bit scary, maybe?

  6. It’s always the weird things I’ve tried that lead to the most rewarding feelings afterwards. Usually they are things that people have to twist my arm. Best example: January of 2010, I had written about 3 complete songs ever in my life. My friends convinced me to join them in completing the RPM challenge: To write and record an album during the month of February. Not only did I complete the challenge (10 songs written and recorded), but it literally rewarded me by turning me into a songwriter. Go figure.

    • What a great story. Music seems to be a challenge/flow/reward theme. It’s one of the autotelic occupations, up there with games, sports, sex, and surgery.

  7. Love this. I think this is my absolute favorite of your posts. In fact, I know it is. Thank you. Sorry I missed the previous one; I’m going to try to make the upcoming one…

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