There are few words more unnerving to an opera singer than, "You're an opera singer?? Will you sing something??"
Whether it's at a party, a family gathering, a restaurant, or on a first date, that on-the-spot request can cause even the most relaxed opera singer to lash out.
I've heard countless responses to this request, from the benign, "I'm not warmed up," to the passive-aggressive, "Will you perform your job for me afterwards, then?" to the downright aggressive, "I'm not a performing monkey," and have admittedly offered a few of my own responses when I haven’t been in the mood to sing.
But are opera singers right to respond this way? Are we helping the future and de-stigmatization of our art form by refusing to share when asked, no matter how tired or out of the mood we may be? Singers have many fair reasons to object to singing on command. Sometimes, a singer worries about disturbing the patrons of the restaurant who haven't asked for an impromptu concert, or we just want to eat our lasagna in peace. But at other times, a singer's refusal to sing on command comes from a place of fear and insecurity.
Opera singers are held to impossible standards, with decades of recordings and centuries of legendary interpreters of our art form to measure ourselves against. Opera is also not as fashionable an art form in the 21st century as it was in the 19th century, and even mentioning that one is an opera singer can create a feeling of foreignness and unfamiliarity in many social settings.
But if the listening stranger has never heard an opera singer and is merely curious, what danger could singing hold? Would singing not only bring a brief moment of joy to the listener, potentially giving them a moment of awe at the skill we have devoted our lives to perfecting? Furthermore, what even is the purpose of being an opera singer if not to bring joy to strangers? To open them up to the world which has drawn us closer to our own humanity and sense of expression?
I recently went on a trip where my group leader asked at one point if I would sing when we were in a particularly acoustically flattering location (read: a cave). My trip was filled with all different sorts of people, from paramedics to accountants to jewelry designers. I was the only opera singer. I looked around and thought, I love to sing. I would love to share with these people. And so, I opened my mouth and let out some of "Je veux vivre" after two weeks of sleep deprivation and without a hint of a warm up during all that time.
The group loved it, and I take comfort in the fact that now many of them have heard an opera singer live. Did they judge me? Not at all. Did they treat me differently after my performance? Not at all, although many of them expressed surprise that such a large sound could come unamplified out of my unassuming body. And were some of them intrigued and illuminated by this rather foreign art form? As a lover and ambassador of my art form, I can certainly hope so.
Being an opera singer is difficult. We are striving for an almost unachievable goal, with centuries of history behind us. Yet, the next time someone asks one of us to sing, perhaps we might consider why they are asking, and what role we singers play in keeping this transformative art form alive. If it's not disturbing anyone, I personally don't see why offering a few notes hurts all that much.