Being a Professional Artist in the time of COVID-19: Thoughts from an Opera Singer

As an aspiring young musician, it wasn’t Camille Sherman’s original plan to pursue opera professionally. Yet one short month ago, she excitedly prepared to take the stage as Asteria, a principal role in Vivaldi’s 1735 opera Bajazet, at the Newmark Auditorium in Portland. Sherman, a mezzo-soprano completing her second year as a resident artist with the Portland Opera, had been rehearsing the role for months. While the performances, which had been set to take place the last week of March, did not go on as planned, Sherman remains resilient and hopeful that once the pandemic clears, audiences will be especially eager to enjoy art together once more. Here are her thoughts on being a professional performing artist during the time of COVID-19.

Background and Education

“I got emotional yesterday, and I keep thinking about how things could have gone differently. So many things could have gone differently if I hadn’t gotten into music school,” Sherman said about her undergraduate education. “I didn’t get invited to audition almost every place I applied.” Her dream school, Boston Conservatory, was the last school she heard from. She got an audition and was eventually accepted. Still, she remained on the sidelines as an undergraduate and was not cast in any roles her first year.

“I didn’t get to be in any of the operas. I was not the star singer in my undergrad. I was like okay, if I am going to keep up, I need to take all of these classes, work hard at my languages and all of the things I can control. For the majority of singers, it is not intuitive. I worked on it, got into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and worked with a teacher who was really able to help me with my vocal technique. I was extremely lucky that coming out of grad school, there was a resident artist position at the Pensacola Opera in Pensacola, Florida. That was my first professional experience.”

From there, she got into the Portland Opera residency program, where she is today.

On Rejection

“I get so many rejection letters every year. I keep track of them. I have a rejection fund!” Sherman said.

If rejection robs you of your joy of the actual art, now is the time to think about that. There are not singers who enter the career who don’t experience rejection. The key is to look at each rejection as a building block. Letters that say no, are saying “not right now.” Maybe they didn’t pick you because they wanted someone who had blonde hair and you have brown hair. You have to get 100 no’s to get 10 yes’s. You have to be strong and believe in yourself. Artists need to keep their spirit in tact more than anyone else. We help everyone else with their spirit!”

“It’s like yoga, it never gets easier. It gets harder when you get better at it. And then you have to put it in perspective” said Sherman. “Comparison is the thief of joy, and I find strength in that.”

Camaraderie Among Fellow Artists During Coronavirus

“One of the things I am told over and over again is that having a web presence and having a brand is part of becoming a professional musician. Having your recordings, having your bio, having performances you’ve done ready to go.” Sherman explained.

“We stay connected because we are all following each other on social media. Every company, every singer, has social media. And this is a time that this is the only way for us to share what we are doing and that is the way we are clinging to each other.”

“I’ve been helping friends in the arts who don’t know each other connect with each other. Now is the time that it wouldn’t be weird to pick up the phone. So take advantage of that. Pick up the phone and call that music teacher and ask if you can work on technique.”

“A lot of us are sending each other clips of us practicing. It doesn’t have to be complete and it doesn’t have to be perfect. But there is something in us that told us we had to share music. We are all just trying our best right now. So whatever that means: singing a few scales, and sending it to a teacher, and asking for feedback. People are as relieved to share their art as they are to have art shared with them.”

“I’m just like anyone else, trying to build a career. The competitive nature of the industry is paused, we can all just try to get better now.”

On “Side Hustles”

“Right now, with COVID-19, it’s the great equalizer. Everyone’s industry has stopped,” Sherman said.

[Side hustle] is one of the biggest topics of conversations in opera because if you do not perform, you don’t get your check. You don’t get paid to rehearse. A lot people are in the service industry, a lot of people find temp jobs, a lot of people try to do the gig economy thing – Uber, Door Dash, etc.

The biggest thing people need to remember is to not stigmatize the hustle. Not make value statements on how much you are contributing as an artist based on how much you are struggling. It doesn’t make you less of a singer or less of an artist if you have to pick up something else to pay your bills.

If anyone else tries to make you feel inferior for not being a full time artists, they are a jerk! People who are jerks about that are only coming from a place of insecurity.”

Looking Toward the Future  

“A lot of people are really panicking about what this means about opera in general. Opera is, in America, is not federally funded, and the arts are not supported very widely, compared to other first world nations. People are nervous about the effects this could have. I have to believe that as soon as we are able to go back to our lives, we will have so much fire. It will be like It’s a Wonder Life: we got a taste of what life is like without opera, and we will come back more excited and more full of joy. You know that that first rehearsal back, there are going to be tears, joy; it will be the most beautiful hour of your life. You remember what it feels like to make music with other people. We all have to trust what that is going to feel like and how that is going to motivate us to keep moving forward.”

“We are still as full of passion as we were before. It doesn’t go away because we aren’t allowed to share it. “

By Eli Heller (He/Him)
Eli Heller (He/Him) Career Coach Eli Heller (He/Him)