9 reasons why you should never, ever date an opera singer - never mind marry one....
Ex-singer and opera-star widow Lucy White explains the pros and cons of dating - or heaven forbid even marrying - an opera singer.
For lovers of music, dating an opera singer may seem like a great idea. After all, you know your Verdi from your Puccini, which gives you plenty to talk about straight from the off. As your relationship develops, you’ll probably find that you can throw your date into any party of people, knowing they’ll charm the pants off everyone there with their confident performance and hobnobbing skills.
And, of course, it’s a brilliant novelty to be able to tell friends, ‘Yeah, he’s an opera singer’ – because, let’s face it, it’s more interesting than ‘Yeah, he works in server networks’, to which the only answer is, ‘Oh. Ok.’
Perhaps you’re in a relationship already, and your partner has started learning classical voice. In which case, you’ll have all the above pros, but also a few new points to factor in – namely the sudden drop in income, late nights in the practice room and new (younger) friends they’re hanging out with. This is all fine, because one day, you’ll be in a private box at the ROH with your parents, watching your significant other in the lead role. Right?
Well, maybe. I first met a sub-editor, who became an opera singer. It’s not all bad (reader, I married him) but there are definitely some things to bear in mind if your other half is on that journey. As neither Verdi nor Puccini ever wrote, ‘it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll’.
1. It’s a high-maintenance threesome
There is a third party in your relationship now: your partner’s voice. Previously, your partner would sing for fun, perhaps even wail out some Freddie Mercury while in the shower. But now that they’re learning to sing ‘proper’, the shower singing becomes much weirder, and the voice much more all-encompassing.
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The basis for teaching someone to sing is intangible: it’s done through a mix of visualisations, metaphors and strange physical exercises to help ‘free’ the voice. This is a lifetime’s journey, filled with personal revelations that they will want to share with you. Did you know you had a soft palate and a hard palate? You do now. Get used to it, because you’ll hear so much about this voice in the months and years to come that eventually it will take on its own identity.
At this point, that person is no longer your boyfriend, girlfriend, partner or husband and you should not think of them as such. No, it’s best for your own sanity to now think of them as your singer – because that is how they are redefining themselves in the world. Let me put this clearly: if you’re both ultimately hoping for red carpet success, which would result in the big house, grand piano, enormous practice room and fantastic views, your partner’s voice has to become the most important thing in your life for quite a long time. Which means…
2.You’ll never go to the pub together again
This is a tough one. The problem with pubs is not necessarily the alcohol – sure, it dries the throat, but you can live with that in moderation. More dangerous to an opera singer is the loud music – or worse still, pub band – that you have to shout over to be heard. The more alcohol you drink, the less you care about protecting your voice. Just one night’s indulgence can knock out an entire day’s singing the next day, and you can’t afford that, if you’re hoping for some decent money to come in at some point. Become a member of your local cinema, or start learning sign language.
3. Rock music will become a guilty secret
If you clocked my AC/DC reference earlier, this one’s really going to hurt. It goes back to singing lessons: we learn by imitation – it’s second nature to copy what we hear. Young women will be put on a diet of such singers as Renée Fleming, Maria Callas or Sarah Connolly; or for men, it could be Luciano Pavarotti, Bryn Terfel or John Tomlinson. Rock music, with its scraping chest voice, is about as far away from classical singing as it’s possible to be. In fact, most other genres are best avoided around the house if you ever want to have any disposable income again. Time to get some wireless headphones and take up jogging?
4. Say goodbye to weddings
If you think operas are time consuming to watch, try being in one. There’s learning the words, then the music, then how to best sing it – which may require a lesson or two (see point 7, ‘Get used to being skint’), rehearsals with the rest of the company, dress rehearsals, walk-throughs and finally the shows themselves. So if you want company at any of your mates’ weddings, christenings, birthdays and any other social event that might happen on a weekend, forget it.
5. Start secret eating
Turns out that spicy food – that tikka masala you used to love on a Friday night – can be extremely bad for the voice. Your singer’s stomach, which you used to admire (or at least lovingly tease them about), is now a note-generating machine, and as well as forcing huge volumes of air upwards through the mouth, can also push acid up towards the throat and cause reflux. So, if you want your curry fix, you’ll have to do it in secret. Of course, there will be plenty of chances to do this, as you’ll have most evenings to yourself during an opera run.
6. Say goodbye to tea and coffee
The same goes for caffeine. If you want to continue drinking normal coffee – and again, this depends on how supportive you’re feeling – then buy yourself a single cafetiere. Caffeine dries out the throat and causes jaw tension, and of course contains milk, which (sorry) mixes with your saliva and coats your soft palate and throat. Your partner can’t sing ‘on’ that, so you’ll be making tea and coffee pots for one. I’m afraid chocolate will be out for the same reason.
7. Get used to being skint
Every new singer has a side hustle – for my partner, it was freelance editing – but once they start landing roles, that part-time lifeline has to shrink to make way for the all-consuming practice. Two hours is the minimum for a session, in order to warm up, find the vocal position, sing through your pieces, work on particular sections and sit gazing longingly out of the window, dreaming of the future. It’s hard to fit this in around a full-time contract, so eventually you’ll have to start turning them down. There is no seamless transition from ‘normal’ job to ‘performer’, unless you have savings you’re prepared to use up or jump off the property ladder in order to pay your way for a bit (this is not recommended).
On top of this, you still have to pay for singing lessons, however high up you get. There are stories of singing teachers accompanying the most prestigious opera stars to rehearsals and silently miming actions during the piece to help that singer get through it. In fact, the only other person more important than your singer’s voice is not actually you, it’s their teacher. You’ll have to find peace with this.
8. Be prepared to single-parent
If you’re planning a family, or pregnant, you either need a support network around you, or you need to be prepared to go it alone during the day and during the night. Oh didn’t I mention? Lack of sleep can really damage a voice, so you’ll be doing the night shift with the new baby, too. Prepare yourself to be home alone, surrounded by half-sorted clothes, doing your 17th breastfeed that day and scrolling Facebook when a photo will crop up of your partner in their latest performance, probably dancing on a table (or a vintage car, if it’s ENO) and looking radiant. Worse luck if they’ve got the romantic lead, but at least by that point, you probably won’t care.
9. Be prepared for earworms
Whether it’s a Puccini operetta or a Wagner cycle, operas can last for anything from one hour to five. Your singer has to learn all the words and music, and they will leak this score constantly around the house. You may have loved Mozart before, but you will soon come to loathe his recitative with a passion when you find yourself humming an ever-reversing cycle of fifths that, you realise bitterly, could be any of his operas. Preserve your sanity. Get some earplugs.
However if this doesn’t put you off, you’re in for an enriching and music-filled life together. There are opportunities for travel, stimulating new acquaintances and some excellent stories while you’re at it. If you’re not fussed about planning every part of your life in advance, this is the kind of life you’re going to love. Bon voyage!
Lucy White is a freelance journalist and session singer who now lives in the West Country with her husband and kids. She studied classical voice and composition at Goldsmiths University.