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A Guide to Ethics for Professional Opera Singers

Dear fellow singing friends and professionals,

I was awakened a few weeks ago by a few very unsavory experiences to the fact that it might be a good thing for me to talk about the Ethics of being a Professional Opera Singer. Before I start, I would like to say that I welcome all of your thoughts about this topic, so if after you've read my post you feel there's something to add, please do share it in the comments section below!

It's certainly possible that these principles of professional ethics apply equally well to other industries, but I'll forge ahead with their relevance to being a singer, specifically. As a professional Opera singer who hasn't yet had her "big break" (a.k.a. a contract singing at an 'A-level' Opera house OR really any job which would allow me to actually earn a living wage from my singing in a year's time), I still feel it of the utmost importance for me to be "ethically professional" because I believe that having such an approach to living life benefits everyone and helps to create a positive environment where we live and work. Therefore, even though I have been hired to sing in numerous circumstances where there was already a less-than professional atmosphere, I always tried to rise above it and do the very best I that I could with the situation. However, a few basic principles have occurred to me to be true and important to keep in mind in every circumstance and they are as follows:

1.) Arrive to rehearsals and performances appropriately early so that you can be ready to do your best (for me this usually means anywhere from 1-2 hours before the show starts so that I can properly get into character, finish warming-up my voice, get into costume and makeup and NOT generally run around stressing everyone out and yelling at people to help me with x,y,z so that I can get myself together on time and generally acting like a "Diva/Divo" in the negative sense of the word. If I'm arriving to a rehearsal I try to be at least 10-15 Minutes early in case there's something I'd like to review before it begins, or someone I need to talk with, or just give myself some time to generally relax and get focused before the rehearsal begins. Normally for rehearsals I've warmed up fully before I arrive, in contrast to my pre-performance routine.)

2. Treat others with whom you are working with courtesy, kindness and respect at all times (this means everyone who is involved should be given the utmost respect, consideration and kindness that you'd expect them to give to you, and that includes people who you might think are "beneath" you in the hierarchy of the theater/production/etc.. Don't get a big head. Everyone is equally important and is there to help the greater cause, so keep up with your team spirit and don't let stress or a difficult circumstance make you into a monster where colleagues are concerned. They're most likely dealing with the same sorts of things too, so have a heart and some empathy.)

3. Do NOT EVER gossip or spread negative opinions about colleagues (this means that if I'm working on a show and someone said something snippy that I don't go right to my friend in the company who wasn't there that day and tell them all about it, painting that person in a bad light. People have bad days. And who are we to judge, really? It's as simple as this: if a person is a jerky turkey others will find out soon enough on their own. You don't need to gain the reputation of a gossipy, mean-spirited person just to "uncover" that person's true nature- keep yourself above all that. And, karma will get them in the end-so don't worry about doing something about it yourself.)

4. When you are employing others- do NOT cancel on them at the LAST MINUTE because you're "friends" and they'll "understand" (No, no they won't. They'll think you're a flaky jerk. That's what they'll think. And they will be very reticent to work with you again because you led them on and then it all came to nothing. Most likely they were counting on that money and now they are having problems paying their rent. Do you want that on your conscience? I didn't think so. So just don't do this one- it's not worth it!!!!)

5. Having Rehearsals/Meetings- Don't WASTE and/or ABUSE people's time! (this means that if you are in charge of a rehearsal make sure to start punctually and to end punctually. How do you going to expect your colleagues to concentrate on the rehearsal if they know you'll be starting late or have a tendency to run over? They'll feel taken advantage of, and that's no way to rehearse/meet. Furthermore, have a well-structured rehearsal schedule so that the majority of people who are called to be at the rehearsal are occupied with something to do. For instance, if they're not in the scene for a little while let them take a break. Or if they're needed soon but could rehearse dance steps/lines/whatever with another colleague who is called later have them go do that together until they're needed. Make sure that you are keeping in mind how you can best use a person at all times. Respect their time. Rehearsals are not the only time they spent on this piece- don't forget the countless hours spent beforehand in voice lessons and coachings on the material prior to the staging/group rehearsals. People will get disinterested if you call them each day all day and then let them sit there doing nothing for half the time, plus they'll just lose their energy which leads to uninspired rehearsals which leads to uninspired performances, and NO ONE wants that! That also means that you need to know how to budget time properly. Make sure that you don't call people to rehearsal for a 4 hour block to work a scene that will take 30 minutes.)

6.) When working with colleagues who are friends, DON'T TAKE ADVANTAGE of them (this means don't expect your friend who is now your colleague- because you're hired to do the same show or are working on the same project- to get you water at rehearsals, or always cover for you when you're late, or share their music or pencil with you when you forgot yours, or let them do all the work when choosing the music or costumes, etc..., or not take their ideas as seriously as you would another colleague's who wasn't your friend before. In a nutshell- it's not okay to use your friend simply because now they also happen to be your colleague. But, on the converse.....)

7.) Make friends with your colleagues, or at least BE friendly to them if befriending them proves difficult (because otherwise it's going to be a LONG rehearsal period and show week, that's for sure.  You're spending so much time with these people in rehearsals and during the show you have to have that magical "chemistry" onstage, and normally that helps when you at least make an effort to get to know the people with whom you're working so that you have a bit more than just a superficial connection onstage. Normally there's any number of things you can talk about as icebreakers with your colleagues- ask them where they're from, where they went to college, what do they like to do in their free time, who is their favorite composer, what is their favorite opera....you get the idea. It's only logical that you'll most likely have SOMETHING in common with your colleagues- even if sometimes you'd otherwise never search this person out as a friend- I'm sure you can still find some common ground to help understand one another better. And oftentimes those colleagues can become your best friends if you just give them a chance and don't write them off without a second thought- trust me, I have really met some amazing people over the years- it definitely pays off to invest the time and open yourself up to new friendships!) :)

8.) If a colleague recommended you to someone/for something have the courtesy to THANK them (this means that if someone went out on a limb to recommend you for a teacher or program or audition or anything else that you might not have been able to achieve all on your own, have the common decency to credit them with doing so and thank them profusely and sincerely. Don't have a chip on your shoulder and forget who helped you get where you are now- make sure you continue to let those people who helped you on your way up know how much you appreciated it. And tell others of the help they gave you, because they deserve that others know of their good deeds- it's the least you can do- and it helps you remain humble in a business that is filled with oversized egos which are not attractive, believe me.)

9.) If you're provided a Homestay during a summer festival with local people, make sure to be tidy, polite, responsible and a good House Guest (this might seem obvious, but it does seem that the definition of a good house guest can vary greatly, so I'll just spell it out here in more definite terms so that you know what is considered the bare minimum requirement. Let's say you're lucky enough to be accepted into a program or hired and then provided the opportunity to stay with local people so that you don't have to pay for a hotel or short-term rental. First of all, that's super- you're saving money AND you get to meet people who are fans of what you do- how much better could it get? So first off, you should always be super polite (that means saying please and thank you) to your Homestay Hosts, and making sure that if they give you privileges (use of their car, pool, hot tub, sauna, backyard/deck/patio, etc..) that you make sure to thank them for it and to return everything in the condition it was given to you in, and punctually when you said you would. Also if you've been staying in their home and you have been sleeping in their beds and using their bathroom and kitchen (for example) it is considered common courtesy to keep the shared spaces as clean as possible at all times- so that means that you should work out with the Host family ahead of time how often they normally clean (or with what- sponges, sprays, etc..) and then offer to do the cleaning- since you're contributing to the mess. So prepare to clean a bathroom and kitchen and strip and wash your bed sheets while at your Homestay. Considering that you may have really amazing Hosts, you might also be allowed to invite other colleagues from the program over for a pool party or BBQ or something similar. It's then your job to make sure that after the party's over that you clean up everything so that it looks like it did before, take out the trash, make sure it doesn't get too loud during the event and disturb the neighbors or the Hosts themselves, and just generally consider at all times how to make sure that once you're gone your Hosts are pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to have you staying with them and that they'll be psyched to host singers in the future. You don't want to be the type of guests where they say to themselves, "Well that was a lot of work. Let's not do that again next year." That means you didn't do a good job. So, make sure to be on your A-game and do yourself and your future colleagues a favor so that these generous Homestay Hosts keep opening their beautiful homes to us singers!

10.) If you're doing a program in another country don't be the "Ugly American" (it is very rare that I've met a singer who actually fits the description of the "Ugly American" when traveling or working abroad because most of us are well-educated and sensitive people, but since there are levels of what this can mean, I thought it was worth addressing. Certainly we all understand from our education within our singing degrees that different cultures do things differently and different things are expected from a person in different parts of the world, so when we do travel and or work abroad, we have to make sure we are not inadvertently offending or insulting the culture of the place in which we find ourselves. So because I'm living in Germany I'll use it as an example, you most likely know it is illegal to draw or wear a swastika symbol, but you may not know it is equally offensive to call Germans "Krauts", to make phallic jokes about "Wurst", to speak loudly or to eat while you're using any form of public transit, to not separate your garbage and meticulously recycle, to vacuum on a Sunday or make any loud noises- even in your own apartment- between the hours of 12-2pm every day, or to tell Germans they're not funny-most often they are- they just have a different sense of humor than we do-it's much drier-think British and then you'll get it. Some of these are things that are perhaps a bit more subtle than you'd have guessed, but they are all good examples of how you could be offensive without even being aware of it. So, before you go abroad, do your research and make sure you're doing your best to respect and understand the culture in which you'll be operating.)

I know that I'm probably missing some things, so please let me know in the comments below if you think of more! A list like this will hopefully help you to successfully navigate any situation in which you find yourself with regards to professionalism as a singer, and I hope it helps with preventing possible faux pas. :) Happy Singing!

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