When I talk to non-musicians and non-singers about the difficulty of breaking into the solo career scene in Opera, they ask me (as any logical person would) "Well, why not just join the chorus? At least you could be still doing what you love- singing!" And, while this is a very sensible plan and a good one in theory, it actually has a lot of pitfalls that I'd like to explain now to you in this post. This will also hopefully bring about some good conversation from my operatic colleagues who are opera chorus members, or who are thinking of doing it, or who are opera house managers and who deal with chorus singers and the system of how the hiring works.
I must stress that what I am saying here is in no way the only view on the matter, but it is an informed one, as I know many chorus singers are various size opera houses, and I see and hear about the politics associated with being a chorus singer through being in the opera business and being around those people in charge of such things.
First off, the quality and pay rate of an opera chorus position is dependent upon the size of the opera house. If it's a larger house (such as The Met) you will get paid well and you will get to sing a lot over the course of the season. If the house is smaller (such as Cincinnati Opera) you will most likely be paid less and perform less over the course of a season. Some smaller opera companies (such as Chesapeake Concert Opera, Center City Opera Theater, Berks Opera Workshop, Opera North) are so small that they have absolutely no budget to hire chorus singers and therefore rely solely on volunteers to comprise their opera chrous members.
So, as if that information weren't a deterrent for those of us who don't live in big cities to become paid chorus members (since the bigger cities have the bigger opera houses which means that you'd actually be paid a decent wage to sing in the choir, at least enough to live on) then there is some other news which isn't exactly a ray of sunshine peeking through the clouds. Normally there are (if you're at a bigger Opera house) two tiers to the chorus- the A and the B choruses---think of it as first and second string football players- if you're first string, you're playing all the time and if you're second string, you're sitting on the bench- well, that is kind of how A and B choruses work. And consequently, the pay scale for the A singers is higher than that of the B singers. Which, just figures. (Okay, it makes sense, but sheesh- don't these opera houses see how difficult it is to make a living doing this as it is?)
Then, there is always the schedule to contend with. For instance, I know many people who avoid auditioning for Opera choruses as a job, and even avoid thinking of it in general, because of the following stigmas associated with something like that on your resume (as a singer looking to eventually have a solo Opera career, that is). These stigmas that we as singers are familiar with are as follows:
1. If I put 'Chorus Singer' on my solo resume- immediately everyone who looks at that (Stage Directors and Conductors included) will think that I've opted for Chorus because I wasn't good enough to sing solo and wasn't getting picked, therefore: instant 'black spot' on resume.
2. If I'm a Chorus Singer, some opera companies won't even consider hiring me because they figure my schedule for chorus rehearsals is so demanding, I simply won't have the time to be flexible enough to attend their rehearsal process and the performances of anything I would get hired for.
3. I have heard that sometimes that Opera Company A tells Opera company B not to hire chorus singers because it will make Opera Company A mad when their chorus singers are always missing rehearals or asking for time off from their rehearsals to go and sing solo gigs.
4. Worst of all, there is the evil rumor that once you've put any 'Chorus' work on your resume (no matter how professional) it will stick in people's minds as your 'brand' and you will then automatically be out of their sub-conscious selection of available 'solo'singers when gigs come up and they need to hire someone; therefore, you won't be called for solo gigs, and you won't get any opportunities, so basically- consider Chorus singing a solo-career-ender.
So, taking into consideration all of the information above regarding Opera Chorus jobs, I must end with the caveat: this is only in America that I know of these things and have heard these rumors. I cannot speak for the validity of any of the above in Germany or Europe at large, so if anyone has any advice to that end, please do feel free to add it to this post as a comment and get the discussion going- I want to hear what you all have to say!