Age Before … What Does It Take to Be An Opera Singer?

Molly Colin on July 29, 2014

When Talya Lieberman awoke in her parents’ suburban New York City home one cold January morning in 2010, she was at a crossroads. The most logical direction led to work at a Philadelphia sleep research center and adding a Ph.D. in psychology to her degrees in linguistics and music. Lieberman, however, contemplated hanging a big left. Could she, at 25 years old, become a professional opera singer when the competition had seven years on her with training and role experience? She hoped her father's 99-year-old cousin Frances, a voice teacher, could tell her.

Talya Lieberman
Talya Lieberman
Photo by Annie Wu

Later that day she traveled to Manhattan, accompanied by her cellist mother and a well-rehearsed score of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. In Frances’ tiny Upper West Side apartment Lieberman proceeded to sing the multiple high Cs and D-flats of "Glitter and Be Gay" from the operetta. The fiendishly difficult aria, written for coloratura soprano, requires musical marksmanship and whip-smart acting. Lieberman, who perceived her voice as low, moved it up a fifth and did her best. Frances offered her assessment to the young woman.

“She gave me the greenlight,” said Lieberman in a telephone interview, her voice giddy recalling the moment. “She told me, ‘You’re five years too late but you can do this.’” Shortly thereafter Lieberman, who had studied trumpet, took her first professional voice class as a newly minted soprano.

Less than four years later, at age 29, she is one of 23 singers handpicked through national auditions to participate in the San Francisco Opera Merola program this summer. The intensive training program included performances of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire earlier this July, the upcoming Don Giovanni by Mozart, and a Grand Finale featuring all the Merolini at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.

Lieberman’s less than four years of vocal training wasn’t a deal breaker to get into Merola, according to noted soprano Sheri Greenawald, who has directed the Merola program since 2002. “Talya has displayed a very specific kind of talent and I knew she’d studied music before,” said Greenawald in a telephone interview. The Merolinis are chosen, she said, because they offer a superb combination of voice and artist.

The Merola program is set up for young artists, but vocal gifts and artistry aren’t necessarily timestamped by biological age. “It depends partly on the voice type,” said Greenawald, noting men’s voices mature later than those of women. “We will go as high as 30 to 35 years old with both genders if the talent warrants. Look at Melody Moore ... I always recognized her as a fabulous talent.” Moore, now a rising star soprano, was around 33 years old when she attended the Merola program in 2005.

When Greenawald considers an aspiring singer who hasn’t followed the American opera baseball-like farm team system of music degree, graduate school, and then a prestigious program like Merola before heading into the operatic big leagues, she asks herself if this person can be developed. “If a 50-year-old walked in, and they’d have to sing like Franco Corelli or Leontyne Price, and said, ‘I didn’t start singing until three years ago,’ I’d discuss it with the Merola board. I’m willing to bring this person along and take a risk but they’d have to have some kind of special vocal gift.”

How Artists Are Made

Thomas Gunther in the Merola production of Streetcar
Photo by Kristin Loken

While Lieberman has the least amount of vocal training compared to other current Merolini, she isn’t the only current participant who came to classical singing later than the more common trajectory of entering a conservatory or college to study voice after high school. Bass Scott Russell, 29, took his first classical voice lessons at age 21. Baritone Thomas Gunther, 31, started opera voice training his senior year of college.

The trio doesn’t represent a trend of Merola accepting singers with fewer years of vocal training, according to Greenawald. Russell and Gunther, she noted, “obviously had a musical background.”

“It’s never too late to start singing opera, it just takes a long time to break into the opera world,” said Gunther in a telephone interview.

While starting an operatic career past 50 years old might be unusual, the scenario wouldn't rule out a substantial professional career of some length, according to Greenawald. There isn't a codified biological expiration date for opera singers, she said. "Some sopranos go into their 70s. Basses can go until they drop dead," she said, adding, "some of them do on stage."

“I don’t think I’m extremely unusual,” said Lieberman. “There are a lot of singers who started as an instrumentalist. And there are certain advantages to coming to opera later. What matters is the artist you are — the age is not what’s important.”

“It’s never too late to start singing opera, it just takes a long time to break into the opera world.” — Baritone Thomas Gunther

The trio’s paths are crossing with those of 20 other singers in the Merola program, which receives around 900 to 1,000 applications each year for 650 audition slots, according to program officials. The high-level boot camp for opera singers-on-the-verge usually has 29 participants: 23 singers, five apprentice coaches, and one apprentice stage director. Over the summer participants study voice, acting, movement, stagecraft, languages, and performing roles.

Russell, Lieberman, and Gunther are not the oldest current Merola participants but they've worked hard to feel like they're with their peers who started earlier with voice training, languages, and role experience.

“I used to feel like I was catching up,” said Russell in a telephone interview. “I had a better instrument than others when I was younger but they had access to languages. At this level, I’m competing with people at my age.”

Russell sang in his native Virginia high school choir, and he was also an athlete. A series of injuries when he was 16 ended his sports ambitions and he headed off to Liberty College in rural Virginia as a pre-med student. He’d always liked singing and, in his junior year, added a voice minor because medical schools, he said, like a diversity of interests.

“It wasn't until my Liberty voice teachers told me I had talent, and that the way I look — my size — could fit a lot of roles, that I started thinking seriously about singing,” said Russell. He switched his major to voice his senior year of college. “I started to realize how much I could express myself as an artist. I fell in love with it.”

After a brief stint living in Washington D.C. post college to get some additional vocal training, he moved to New York City, which is now home base. His family, he said, has been very supportive. “I’m stubborn: I just wasn’t going to give up. And they see how hard I work.”

“I’m stubborn: I just wasn’t going to give up. And they see how hard I work.” — Bass Scott Russell

Gunther, who played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, initially faced pushback from his parents back home in Iowa when he told them of his plans to become an opera singer.

“My Dad was concerned,” Gunther recalled. “He asked me, ‘How are you going to make a living doing that?’ He’s now my biggest supporter. My Mom said ‘do what you love to do.’ There is a certain amount of talent given to someone, but it’s only half the work.”

Gunther discovered he could sing during his senior year of high school in his school choir. While he couldn’t read music, his interest in singing blues and jazz continued when he started college to study music education. In his senior year of college he changed his major to vocal performance and decided to become a professional opera singer. When he asked his teachers if he could make a living singing opera, they replied, “You really have to want it.”

“A lot of friends I grew up with are lawyers, dentists, and they're making a good living, and I'm 31 and still in school,” said Gunther, who is pursuing a PhD in music at the University of Kentucky, Louisville. “If you have a major career, you can get by without a terminal degree. With a modest career, a doctorate makes a difference.

Determination and Grit

Scott Russell
Scott Russell

“This profession takes a really long time to break into,” he continued. “You have to have a strong sense of self. If you don’t know who you are, you don't succeed. Voice is so subjective when it comes to singing. It’s something people comment on — how we sound. That removal of personal relationship from your instrument is very difficult.”

Lieberman concurred. “The criticism is personal: It’s your body,” she said. “Our training is a lot of feedback and opinion. You have to be able to sift through and take what’s useful for you and leave what’s not. It gets to the vulnerability part of it that’s an advantage coming to this later. I couldn’t have gone through the criticism at 23 or 24. I don't think I’d get the same things I’m getting out of it now. I have an identity outside of my voice.”

The resumes of Lieberman, Russell, and Gunther are now studded with professional diplomas, competition awards, and professional opera roles. Gunther obtained an Artist Diploma from the University of Cincinnati-Conservatory of Music in addition to his college and graduate degrees in music. Russell’s performance credits keep growing and he's won the New York regional Metropolitan Opera Competition that continues on the Met stage in March.

Before finding her operatic voice, Lieberman had sung in choruses as a child, and in rock bands in her early 20s. She already held a degree in linguistics — her parents, both professional musicians, had staged an “intervention” with their daughter not to study music in college — and a masters in trumpet performance. She has since won several vocal competitions, and a Fulbright in Latvia to study voice. Lieberman is now pursuing an Artist Diploma at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

“The criticism is personal: It’s your body. Our training is a lot of feedback and opinion. You have to be able to sift through and take what’s useful for you and leave what’s not.” —  Soprano Talya Lieberman

While her operatic future may be uncertain, she believes she’s charted a course. It’s unlike how she remembers the state of things that chilly January day in New York in 2010. The way she tells it, she felt lost at the time. “Looking back I know that “Glitter and Be Gay” was a totally insane choice; it is one of the hardest things to sing, period — but that’s kind of how I function,” she said in an email. “I didn’t know how hard it was supposed to be, so I just did it.

“I always knew I could imitate an opera singer’s sound but I assumed I didn’t have an ‘instrument’ inside me that was worth anything,” continued Lieberman. “Frances is a no-nonsense kind of woman, and, at 99, she had been around the block. She had no reason to say something like that for the sake of politeness. So the strength of Frances’ sentiment hit me like a ton of bricks. From that moment on, I became doggedly determined to give singing the best shot I could. In so doing, I found myself on a path of discovering my voice, both literally and metaphorically.”

After the Aug. 16 grand finale performance, the Merolini will return to their home bases. For Lieberman, it's back to Cincinatti. Russell heads back to New York City. Gunther plans to return to Louisville and his doctoral studies.

Many Merolini hope to become Adler Fellows with the San Francisco Opera. Adler Fellowships are two-year performance-oriented residencies for 10 singers and two pianists as apprentice coaches. If a professional opportunity came up for Gunther, he'd put the PhD on hold. “The world of academics isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “Opportunities, on the other hand, may not come again. An Adler Fellowship, for example, is a huge opportunity to break into the opera world and to be considered an artist, not just a singer.”

“When you start in your 20s, you look around and see thousands of you. Then you get to 50 years old, and you're down to about 10 of you. Those of us who stuck around … had to have psychological endurance.” — Merola Program director, Sheri Greenawald

Merola participants may apply for a Merola Career grant. Up to $6,000 may be awarded a year, with a $12,000 lifetime maximum. Greenawald encourages her singers to use the money to pay for audition travel and language immersion.

Hard work is critical to becoming an opera singer, acknowleged Greenawald, also the director of the San Francisco Opera Center, which oversees the Adler Fellowships. There is, however, so much more. “A uniqueness of talent, musicianship, language skills — I had a French boyfriend, it’s the best way! Can they act? Can they move? Do they have the emotional maturity? This is what the business is about,” said Greenawald. “But it’s so complicated. When you start in your 20s, you look around and see thousands of you. Then you get to 50 years old, and you're down to about 10 of you. Those of us who stuck around, predicated on having talent, had to have psychological endurance.”

Who knows if the trio of singers, or any of their fellow Merolini, will make it to the one percent of opera singers who are booked years in advance for lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera or Covent Garden. “Maybe one of you will make it,” Greenawald recalled former San Francisco Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg telling Merola participants their first day during Rosenberg's tenure. “I’d say maybe two or three out of the 23 singers in the program will go on to major, substantial careers,” Greenawald said. “But as far as I’m concerned, you can sing in Omaha all the time, and that’s a career.

“What people don’t understand is how often you're away,” she continued. “I was on the road 40 weeks a year for several years, and I have a daughter. It’s not easy. Maybe in the top one percent of opera singers you get someone to handle your luggage, manage your bills. But most of us don’t have that.”

For now Lieberman isn't number crunching where she'll end up on the opera career scale. “I’m able to step back and take on the bigger picture,” she said. “I’m doing what I love. It’s just the most glorious thing in the world. We’re naked onstage. There’s nothing to hide behind. That’s the beauty of it and the scary part as well.”