Elizabeth Harmetz does more than 100 sit-ups per day to keep in shape for the opera.
Harmetz, a Los Angeles-based opera singer who also teaches vocal empowerment, says singing opera is like competing in sports – abdominal support, physical strength, and lung capacity are all important factors. In addition to the sit-ups, she schedules regular cardio workouts and practices singing for more than an hour each day.
Her repertoire includes playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Cinderella’s evil stepmother in Into The Woods. In an industry increasingly focused on youth and beauty, Harmetz remains optimistic in the face of rejection because of the sublime feeling of music taking over her body, she says. Which is much like a hot fudge sundae.
Age: Age isn’t given in this profession.
Graduated from: San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Master’s degree in vocal performance
Studying opera for: 22 years
Voice type: Soprano
Previous jobs: Resident artist at the Central Florida Lyric Opera
Did you sing and perform as a little kid?No. Since age 6, I wanted to be a musical theater star, but it was a secret dream. I didn’t tell anyone.
But eventually, you did. I found a singing teacher at age 18 who introduced me to opera and told me that my voice was well suited to it. The energy it gave me – it was sublime.
What would you compare it to? A hot fudge sundae.
Something people don’t know about your job: To be an opera singer is to be an athlete; you use your entire body, not just your neck up. So you need to be physically strong, with abdominal support and lung capacity.
What’s your workout regimen? I do at least 100 sit-ups per day, and cardio workouts regularly. My ribcage has expanded, and I’ve probably grown in height about 1.5 inches since I started singing opera.
Why is that? I don’t chronically compress my spine anymore. You use your whole spine to sing, so my torso is essentially like a big beer barrel. It expands from the waist to upper chest.
Pre-show routine: I keep stress and talking to a minimum. I’ll do some gentle physical activity, like walking, and eat an early dinner at 4 p.m. Shows are usually right at dinnertime, but I can never eat for an hour or two before I perform.
First thing you do after a show: Eat. I’m very quiet.
Where were your first gigs? While getting my Master’s, I did lots of “gigging” at weddings and nursing homes – anywhere they’d pay me. That gave me a taste of the industry, so after school, I began doing solo concerts at upscale retirement facilities.
Do you still sing at weddings? Not as much. There’s too much classical crossover music.
Go-to songs: “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat, and “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Boheme.
Are those what you sing in the shower? I don’t sing in the shower – or the car, for that matter. Whenever I sing, I have to be very focused on the task at hand.
Watch Elizabeth as Cleopatra in Julius Caesar:
Dream job in high school: I wanted to be the first professional women’s baseball player. By 18, though, I wanted to be an internationally renowned opera singer.
Best part of your job: The sheer joy of being immersed in a character and a production.
Worst part of your job: Constant rejection. That’s the other part that people don’t think about – they don’t understand how challenging the industry is. It’s very hard to be older than 30 in this job, because most operas want that “young” perception.
Doesn’t your voice progress with age? That doesn’t matter as much anymore.
How do you stay optimistic? [Singing opera] is my calling, so I don’t have a choice. I’m going with the needs of my soul, and I also enjoy supplementing my income with teaching voice lessons.
Is the saying “It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings” actually used in the business? The fact of the matter is, most singers aren’t fat anymore. International opera companies are transmitting performances in high-definition to movie theaters, so looks are becoming more and more important.
Favorite Broadway show: That’s too hard – I’ve seen hundreds! The first one I ever saw, though, was Annie, with the original cast. That gives you an idea of my age.
Favorite singer: Patti LuPone.
If you had unlimited money and resources, what business would you start? A scholarship fund for older, struggling sopranos – people who age out of competitions.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Many large regional operas have young artist development programs, which are fantastic introductions to the industry. The cutoff age is usually 30 or 35. [Check out The Metropolitan Opera’s program here.]
2. Focus on opportunities that have impact and meaning. Playing at retirement homes brings people such joy – it’s a wonderful feeling. I also love performing with a group called Once Upon An Opera, which brings classical music to children.
3. If you feel that singing is in your blood, then never give it up. Never stop working on your craft.
All photos courtesy of Elizabeth Harmetz.