Why classical singers are leaving opera for musical theatre

Five working singer/actors share how and why they made the big switch from opera to MT. 

Contributing Artists:

HEATHER HILL’s career covers a broad spectrum of appearances in opera, concerts, Broadway, television and film. She recently finished a four year run performing as Carlotta and the InnKeeper’s Wife in the Broadway company of The Phantom of the Opera.  This followed a run as Lily/Serena understudy in the 2012 Tony award winning Broadway revival of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Recent performances include the role of Miss Frayne in the NYC premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s newest opera Prince of Players with LOTNY, the New York premiere of Gloria by Robert Harris in Lincoln Center, Carmina Burana and the Lord Nelson Mass at Carnegie Hall. Heather performs concert engagements with orchestras and opera companies and she also enjoys performing as a guest entertainer with cruise lines. She holds a Master’s degree in Vocal Performance from The Manhattan School of Music and a B.S. degree in Biology from Clark Atlanta University www.heatherhill.com

LORI L’ITALIEN is a Boston-based singer and actress. She is on the voice faculty for musical theatre at The Boston Conservatory and serves as Director of Performing Arts at Lasell College in Newton. She holds a Bachelor of Music Education from The University of Maine, a Masters of Music in Opera Performance from Longy School of Music at Bard and a Master of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre from The Boston Conservatory. Favorite Regional Credits include: Adelaide (Guys and Dolls – IRNE nom, ArtsImpulse nom. – Reagle.), Acid Queen (Tommy – Maine State Music Theatre), Homeless Lady (A New Brain – Moonbox Productions), Lucille Frank (Parade – IRNE nom.)

KIMBERLY MOLLER received her MFA from San Diego State University in Musical Theatre and earned her M.M and G.D. in Vocal Performance from Boston University. She recently appeared as Clarity in The Beautiful Machine, Vicki in The Full Monty, Rose in Enchanted April: A New Musical Romance by Charles Leipart and Richard Evans, Principal Jacobs in a reading of Mr. Holland’s Opus by B.D. Wong and Wayne Barker, and cabarets for San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Career highlights include performing with various northeast regional theatre and opera companies, touring as a soloist with the Boston Pops, and performing with Kristin Chenoweth this year at The Music Box in San Diego. Kimberly has been teaching voice professionally for 10 years and recently began music directing shows. www.kimberlymoller.com

ANDREW O’SHANICKis a NYC-based actor and musician. Currently performing in The Sound of Music at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, O’Shanick’s other credits include A Little Night MusicSunday in the Park with George (Huntington Theatre Co), South Pacific (Cape Playhouse), Return to Spoon River: the musical (Theater Row), and Dog Sees God (MCS Theater). He can also be seen on The Office and in Pitch Perfect.” 

PIER LAMIA PORTER holds a B.M. in Opera Performance from the University of Nevada – Las Vegas. Recent credits include: Beauty and the Beast (Wheelock Family Theater), The Wiz (Lyric Stage Company), and 1776 (New Repertory Theater. She was a featured soloist in the concert premiere of the musical Brother Nat at the Emerson paramount theater and is a proud member of the AEA. She will sing Ida and cover Orlovsky in MassOpera’s upcoming production of Die Fledermaus. Instagram: @pierlamiaporter


Were you always interested in Musical Theatre?

HH: I always loved musical theater.  I moved to NYC intending to pursue Broadway.  Then I went to grad school and became focused on strictly classical music and opera. But the love of theater and acting was always there. 

AO: I honestly didn’t know anything about musical theater until I booked my first professional production. Since then, I have shifted the majority of my focus towards musical, straight play, and on-camera work.

PLP: In undergrad I was studying classical music and had to learn a musical theater piece for a cabaret concert. My coach at the time suggested that I look at ‘Your Daddy’s Son’ from Ragtime. I made my way to the music library, found the original cast recording, and that was when my love for musical theater began.

LL: I got hooked in high school. I performed in a few musicals and always loved MT, but was shepherded over to opera and classical music by my undergraduate voice teacher. 

How has your classical training affected your MT singing, and what are biggest differences technique-wise?

KM: My classical training provided a foundation for strengthening and coordinating my instrument. However, after training classically I had this focus on backspace and openness (especially in my middle voice) that produced a retracted tongue. When I began studying musical theater styles, the tongue was always more forward and released, which improved my belt and mix greatly.

AO: To some extent, I think the training I got in a conservatory opera program hindered my performance within the MT idiom. I often get the feedback: “Yes, you have a great voice. You don’t need to convince us of that. You need to show us you can act.” This was hard after years of being taught to respect the music above all. That said, my classical training has allowed me a solid base from which I can deviate, depending on the demands and style of the piece I’m singing.

LL: Musical theatre repertoire tends to call for a more forward, speech-like placement. Feeling the difference between loft and spread is one of the big challenges for young singers of musical theatre. I fought for a while to not pull back and add too much weight to my belt. Students of MT need to learn to sing healthfully in the middle voice. Mixing is your friend; learn it and use it. 

HH: MT/Broadway is relentless at 8 shows a week. Having a strong technique has been crucial, as has knowing how to take care of my body and voice. Vocally its not always about the beauty of sound, but it is always about telling the story and leaning in to the character. 

PLP: My classical training helps me on a daily basis in MT. When I’m working on a new song, I try different vowel shapes and embouchures to line everything up so it feels comfortable and free. My grounded breathing helps me sing and dance with no issues. For me the only technical difference between the two genres is where I choose to “send” the sound when singing. Classical is taller, MT is more forward and bright.

Other differences between the opera and MT worlds:

AO: The fields view young performers differently. In the opera world we are expected to continue to train and work in private and perfect our craft before being given a paid opportunity to work. Students don’t necessarily see themselves as artists who are honing their craft; instead they are “aspiring artists”. Though the difference is subtle, it can have such a negative psychological effect on a young singer. 

HH: In MT it is very important that you be able to move well and have body awareness. You have to take ownership of your character and choices. The days of park and bark are long gone. People want to be moved by more than the beauty of your voice. The rehearsal processes are also very different. In classical, music preparation is the name of the game; show up day one musically prepared and with a good attitude. Often in MT you get the music on the first day of rehearsal!

LL: In general, I have found the musical theatre crowd to be more supportive. The biggest reason I left opera was because of the social atmosphere backstage between singers. I saw and dealt with some really nasty behavior. It’s not hard to be kind and supportive of your cast-mates. It takes so little. Words matter, Tone matters…and directors remember!

PLP: The people are definitely the biggest difference between the two. MT has a more lax environment. I’ve seen people show up to auditions in yoga pants and fuzzy boots, whereas for classical auditions singers are in their Sunday best. MT will tell you to your face that you have work to do. Classical will say it behind your back.

Which field has more opportunity for paid work?

AO: Theater provides more opportunities for working actor/singers than opera, hands down. I go on an average of 4 auditions a week year-round because there are that many jobs to be filled. The pay for young artists is certainly better in MT. Larger regional MT contracts range from $700-1000 a week, smaller regional contracts can be anywhere from $350-700. Broadway and production tour contracts minimums are around $2000 a week. Short engagement tour contracts can be anywhere from $900-1200 a week.

KM: There is more work in musical theater, hands down. Popular music and rock is over 60% of the musical theater work out there now, so that makes it more mainstream than ever. 

PLP: I’d say MT definitely provides more opportunities for working actors and singers. So many classical “opportunities” are pay to sing, and you can only afford that for so long.

LL: As someone who has gone out and auditioned for both opera and MT in both Boston and NYC, I feel confident saying that there are far more jobs in musical theatre. However, I firmly believe it’s up to the artist (both classical and MT) to create their own opportunities and market themselves appropriately.

HH: I think there is more opportunity in theater for a several reasons. First, there is just more theater work in the US, period. Second, the expense of training and getting classical opportunities, especially if you are not the darling of a school or young artist company is exorbitant. The fact that students and/or young artists making little to no money are asked to pay to apply for young artist programs (regardless of if they are even granted an audition) is not fair or ethical in my opinion. You don’t pay to audition for MT. Third, theater actors are taught to be more flexible. I don’t know why more classical singers don’t do work outside of their niche area; voice over work, commercial work, extra work on tv and for film…it all pays!

Pros and cons of switching your focus from opera to MT?

AO: The biggest pro has been focusing on my acting training. It has grounded my singing and allowed me to view myself as an artist with something valuable and unique to contribute to the world. One con is the lack of feedback from auditions. You’re in the dark more than 80% of the time. I’ve developed my own checklist to grade my performance on my own, without feedback from a third party.

LL: Pros: I LOVE everything I sing. I never had that passion for classical music or opera. I tried so hard to love it but I just don’t…and that’s okay! I also don’t have to “sell” my students on loving MT. When I taught classical voice, I did a lot of convincing and selling the music and song selections to my students. Cons: People often think I “gave up” on opera because it was too hard, and that is very frustrating. Opera is not harder, just hard in a different way. 

HH: I work a lot and if one door isn’t open, another one usually opens. I don’t get bored because my projects change. One challenge is being disciplined to continue exercising my voice for classical work, especially while in a Broadway show. It takes time and there aren’t shortcuts, you just have to do the work.

PLP: Pros: MT is very much “train on the job”, while classical takes years and years of school, pay to sings, YAPS, etc. I’ve met many singers in MT that don’t have any type of degree, and they are doing amazing things. Also, I am a working actor and I never thought I’d be able to say that.  Cons: I sometimes just miss classical music.

Advice for other singers considering doing more MT:

KM: Many discoveries in MT pedagogy have been made in regard to body connection and the true athleticism of this kind of singing. Hop on that train and get a physical trainer. Get to dance classes as soon as possible. Most importantly, learn how to tell a story on stage. Acting class is essential!

AO: I’m feeling very lucky right now, as I’ve been working consistently for the last 4 months, but it took me a year and a half of auditioning in New York to get to this point. Ask your friends for help. Ask people for recommendations. Find an acting class. Build your MT book. Don’t try to do it on your own….and keep on working as hard as you can!

LL: Be yourself! Don’t try to audition with a big belt piece if your belt is your weakness. Do what YOU do best and find what roles fit you. Don’t try to mold your voice into a part just because it’s your favorite part. Be smart about your choices and show directors what YOU bring to the game. Also, go to the right teachers for the specific genre. I have seen many students come from classical teachers who do not know how to teach healthy MT technique. No one can be an expert in everything. If teachers would truly put the students needs over their own egos, it would solve a lot of problems and misunderstandings surrounding belting and musical theatre singing. 

HH: Take a real acting class and learn to break down a scene and sides. Take an audition class from people in the business.  It is a totally different audition process. Work with a musical theater coach on music theater repertoire.Take a movement/dance class and learn to learn short combos. Be flexible and positive and think outside of the box for work.

PLP: Just go and give it a try! Take dance classes. Learn not to take anything personally; it’s a complete waste of time.

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