We have all been there. Well, if you are a singer, you have been there. That moment at a party, or meeting a complete stranger or sitting with a group of friends, when they ask you. It can happen anywhere and at any point in the conversation- and it will.
It’s when the inevitable question comes up, what do you “do”? You answer, “I sing opera.” Or something that indicates you are a classical singer, to which the following demand is made, “Oh, sing me something!”
This is one of the biggest jokes to all trained singers. It is insulting to think you, a stranger we just met, are now deserving of a free show. A performance which has cost us years of money and training. And that, at the drop of a hat, with no concern for what we have done all day or all week, that we need no time at all to prepare to sing an operatic piece for you, which, let’s remember has at least a two octave range, is in a foreign language and would require strength and stamina to sing.
The truly irritating thing is that, it’s not just strangers who make this grave mistake of asking us to perform, it’s often family members of which we expect more from. I was at a gathering over Christmas with my family and close family friends who asked me to perform a duet with their daughter and I was having trouble remembering the harmonies (because I had not sung the piece in over 5 years) so I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t remember it,” to which the family friend gave me a condescending look and said, “isn’t this what you do?” Needless to say, that statement stunned me silent. Since when is it appropriate to treat people as puppets built for your instant entertainment? This is also the moment, when we singers like to say, “Oh and you are a surgeon, can you just perform a small surgery for me now?” Or, “Yes and you are an architect, will you just draw up a house plan for me?” When you put it that way, you understand why it is completely inappropriate for strangers to treat performers this way.
And yet… let’s face it, we aren’t surgeons or architects or astronauts. Though we may not be warmed up or prepared for an audience or in the mood to perform, we carry our gifts with us and have the ability to bring wonder, awe and understanding to our art form by choosing to accept their request and to sing.
I think choosing to sing in those moments can be a selfless and humbling act. One where we set aside the irritation of the audience not understanding all the preparation that has gone into what we do and we remember what initially drew us to the art form of opera itself. An artform of beautiful and unearthly sounds produced by the human voice telling a universal story.
What I have seen is that people want to be apart of something bigger than themselves and people with talent, people singing opera are just that. Not everyone will understand or know how to react to what you are doing, but they know it is something that they could not do.
I took on this mentality when I realized, if I, as a trained opera singer, refuse to sing when asked then I am giving up an opportunity to represent the very thing I claim to be for, the thing I love and have invested my life into. Thereby relinquishing that opportunity to the America’s Got Talent child “opera” singers, Josh Grobans’, Andrea Bocellis’ and whatever stranger WILL sing for them. So, NO! I will not let those voices define the art form to the uninformed. I will sing. I may not be warmed up, I may not “feel” like singing, but I will sing, because I love it, because I know how to, because even on a bad day, I am a good singer, because no one in that audience can do what I can do. They want to celebrate you and your voice, so allow them to, allow them to enter into this great art form.
Jackie Evancho singing “Nessun Dorma” on a PBS GREAT PERFORMANCES special in 2011.
If Lady Gaga will sing upon request, you probably should too.
I can guarantee some people may laugh (a common response to big singing,) some people may cry, some people may get out their phones to record you, and all will be thankful you sang. And you won’t regret it.
So, when they ask you to sing…sing.
P.S. It should go without saying, that you are in charge of your instrument and if you feel it is not the right environment or for any number of reasons you find it unwise to sing, trust you instincts, politely decline, and invite them to come to your next show.
Some of my opera go-to’s when this situation arises: the Habanera, Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix and O mio babbino caro (give the people what they want, right?! No, those are not fach appropriate, but no one at my mom’s dinner party will know that!)