What It’s ACTUALLY Like To Be An Opera Singer: An Interview With Heidi Melton
> First posted on Ms. In The Biz, on October 2, 2013
People ask me all the time what it’s like being an Opera Singer. I have my standard answers that I recycle and reuse whenever necessary. They ask me all sorts of things, and I’ve noticed that strangers have absolutely no problem delving into the most personal of information immediately upon meeting you.
“Oh wow! You’re an opera singer? Don’t you have a real job? How do you handle moving around all the time? That must be really hard on your personal life. You’re not getting younger are you? Don’t you want kids?”
Holy Mary. Cut to the core of me, you bastards. Unfortunately, most of time the people who are asking these invasive questions are people who fund our livelihood so you better come up with an answer and you better come up with it quick, and it better be interesting and funny and a little self deprecating and it better make them feel like they’re spending their hard earned inheritances on the right art. Champagne helps. I usually say something like, “Well, singing opera is my real job and I feel very lucky to travel the world and meet new and interesting people like you!” Then I deflect. I don’t want to screlt at people for inappropriately asking my plans for procreation so I turn it around on them. Getting people to talk about themselves is a sure fire way to avoid having to answer these deeply personal questions.
Lately, I’ve been asked by a lot of young singers what it’s ACTUALLY like to be an Opera Singer. I think they want to know if they’re going to go from College to Young Artist Program to instant fame and glory and glamour. I feel dishonest giving them my sugar coated standard answer, so I’m using the phone a friend lifeline.
Ms. Heidi Melton is one of my nearest and dearest friends and we are both figuring this crazy career out as we go along. You can read all about her seemingly unstoppable career here: www.heidimeltonsoprano.com. From outfit choices to travel plans, and from career decisions to boy problems…there isn’t anything we haven’t talked about in great length. No matter where we are in the world, we always find time to connect with each other, and so I’d like to share my mostly unedited interview/conversation/gab session with the one and only Heidi Melton!!
Rhoslyn (R): Heidi, you’re clearly on your way to becoming a legendary operatic superstar at the young age of thirty-something. If you could, what are 3 things you would tell your 13-year old self about being a woman in the Arts? Pick 3, Chatty Cathy.
Heidi (H): You are clearly aware of my rambling capabilities. One: Be kind to yourself. You’re going to have enough distracters and nay-sayers in this world and you need to be your own ally and not your own enemy.
Two - Glamour is an attitude, and not an actual thing you can purchase. I used to wear heels, dresses and spanx every day and I was sweaty and uncomfortable. Now, I wear leggings, oversized tunic tops, scarves and flats. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be anything other than yourself. Yourself is enough.
R: This new-found glamour of yours is called the “Eileen Fisher” era. Bring on the drape-like cardigans. Welcome, my friend.
H: Don’t distract me! But yes. Number three! Not everyone is going to like you and that is OK. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re the nicest person, or kind to everyone, or if you’re always optimistic and cheerful. In fact, that seems to make people want to punt you. There will be people who don’t like you and they will be mean behind your back and to your face. I would tell my 13-year old self to just keep being you and that the people who are supposed to be in your life will be there. Everything will be ok.
R: I’m so proud of you for only picking three things.
H: People aren’t going to be able to read your biting sarcasm Jones, but I’m outing you.
R: Whatever. Next question! What were you like as a 13-year old? It sounds like you needed a hug…as I’m sure most 13-year old girls do.
H: Oh Lord. I felt like I was in a constant state of Post Traumatic Stress. I was so awkward.
R: Past tense?
H: Shut it. I was bigger and taller than everyone and had super duper curly hair that my mother cut into the shape of a Chia pet. I would desperately try to straighten it but it just ended up looking like a triangular Brillo pad.
R: Insert picture for verification here, please.
H: Absolutely not. I will hurt you. I was also plagued with an eyebrow trait that left each outer half my eyebrow blond and therefore invisible. I would try to fill this in with a colored pencil and would either draw mismatched lines which would leave people guessing my emotional status all day and/or I would get the nervous meat sweats and they would slide off my face. I just looked surprised and sweaty all day. I wasn’t great at making friends and just wanted to spend my days playing piano with my Grandma or listening to Celtic music with my sister.
R: I still think we’re going to need to see a picture for verification. I mean, I’m a real journalist.
H: You’re a real something, that’s for sure. No. Next.
R: Fine. Besides aspiring to be the newest member of the Celtic sensation Riverdance, what kind of music were you listening to as a teenager?
H: Oh heavens. I had so many teenage feelings that were best expressed through the music of Tori Amos, Dave Matthews, and Heart. Also, the entire Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack.
R: Yes! The Baz Luhrmann masterpiece. I feel like that was pre-requisite listening for all angst filled teens of the mid-nineties. Who are your top 3 favorite bands/singers now?
H: This is like Sophie’s Choice. At this exact moment? Beyonce, Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding. And Heart. Always Heart.
R: We do a pretty mean road trip karaoke version of some of those Heart songs, if I do say so myself.
H: Correction…YOU do a mean road trip karaoke version because you have a freakish unending chest voice. I just sing in full vibrato and enjoy the screlting.
R: I can’t argue with that. Alright, back to important stuff. What are you most afraid of in terms of your career?
H: Can I say that I’m afraid of everything?
H: Well, I am. I’m afraid of jobs drying up tomorrow. I’m afraid of missing out on things because I’m busy working. I’m afraid of being completely alone except for dozens of cats, and I hate cats. I’m afraid of being 90, living in a dilapidated apartment on the Upper West Side, wearing mumus and reliving the glory days while talking to my hated cats. Actually, the mumu part of that sounds good.
R: Way to keep it positive for the kids, Melton.
H: Well, it’s the truth. That’s what the youth need. They need the truth about life.
R: OK then. What are you most afraid of in terms of your personal life?
H: If after this interview I end up in my bathtub crying into my glass of wine listening to Bon Iver, I’m going to call and sob loudly in your ear. I’m afraid of missing out. I missed the passing and funeral of my Grandmother this past year. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through and I will regret not being there for the rest of my life. I’ve had relationships end because of the nature of my career. I’m afraid of missing out on my nieces growing up and I’m afraid of them resenting me because I’m not there. I’m afraid of missing births and weddings and celebrations and life in general. I feel like I’m going through all of this by myself, even though I am so thankful for the amazing powers of Skype, FaceTime, texting, and email. It’s not the same. It’s really hard, and sometimes it sucks big time.
R: Alright, Debbie Downer. Let’s change the subject because you’re making me sad. What is a Heidi Melton guilty pleasure?
H: TV. Or maybe carbs. They make me feel guilty, and they’re a pleasure.
R: Absolutely. Moving right along oh wise one. What are 3 things you would tell young singers about pursuing a career in Opera today?
H: Number one – don’t put anything on the Internet that you don’t want people to find. Number two – keep your receipts. Getting audited is no fun. They don’t teach kids enough about handling their finances in school, and they definitely don’t talk about self-employed artists making money in all sorts of different countries at sporadic times of the year. This stuff is important. Take a business class. The more you know, the better off you’ll be. Lastly, put your blinders on. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t compare yourself to other people. That’s a sure fire way to lose. You have to run your own race.
R: Such good advice! What are your thoughts about singers being pressured to look a certain way to further their careers? How do you think that pressure affects young girls looking to pursue a career in Opera?
H: Oh boy, here we go. I just want girls to be healthy. I want everyone to be healthy! To me, opera is first and foremost about voices. It is about incredible voices that have taken a lifetime of devotion, sweat and tears to train. It is about voices and bodies being able to communicate with the audience. Trust me, I have seen and heard plenty of horrible skinny opera singers. I’ve also seen a lot of fantastic ones. All humans are capable of portraying, expressing and communicating. There is the argument that we have to modernize and make opera more believable and relatable and appealing to the masses. First of all, I wasn’t aware that only thin people fall in love or have interesting stories to tell. This is news to me. As a woman who is not categorized by the rest of society as “thin,” I can tell you that men have fallen in love with me, and that I have fallen in love with men. The fact that I have some wobbly bits hasn’t made that experience less real or less important to me or to them. In addition, I think talent is HOT. Really hot. Sexy comes in all sorts of different packages and what is sexy to me, may not be sexy to you and that’s the way it should be. That makes things interesting and dynamic and HUMAN. I think our boundaries need to be expanded. I don’t think we need to conform to what we are supposed to think sexy is or isn’t. Can’t we come to those decisions on our own? Opera needs to showcase talent. If it comes in a thin package, fine. If it comes with wobbly bits included, also fine. Just sing the crap out of it.
R: Well said, my friend. I think it’s so important for that voice to be heard. Pun intended. How else are we going to empower young girls and help steer them away from things like eating disorders and low self esteem?
H: Totally. Also, if you want to be a singer, then bulimia isn’t going to help you. Acid burns. Your vocal cords are going to fry. Anorexia? You won’t make it through the Ring Cycle with no food. Have a burrito, go to the gym, and sing your face off.
R: Mmmmmm…burritos. Alright, let’s wrap this up because I’m getting hungry. You have a day off from rehearsal. What is your idea of a perfect day off?
H: I love this question. Stretchy pants, no makeup, hanging out with people I love. Foggy, rainy, stormy weather outside, couching, baking, a yoga class, maybe a little shopping, and seeing a movie with a diet coke that is bigger than my head.
R: That’s a big diet coke.
H: Your head is exactly one inch smaller than mine, so take it easy.
R: You’re my favorite. Thank you for taking time to answer these deeply personal questions. I owe you one.
H: You owe me nothing. That’s what friends are for.
R: Wanna watch Vampire Diaries online together while we skype? So we can enjoy teenage vampy angst together?
H: Um…yes. Immediately.