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My Secret Life As an Opera Singer
Jonathan Maseng
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I’m a former opera singer, and proud of it. Opera changed my life and the way I look at the world, but at one point it wasn’t something I was willing to share with people because I was too embarrassed. I was a secret opera man, hiding my pre-teen passion from my friends.

My career started in 4th grade when I joined my school chorus. One day, my chorus master approached me about an opportunity. She told me a friend of hers was the chorus master for the New York City and Metropolitan Opera’s children’s choruses. She asked if I’d be interested in trying out.

I was stunned. Opera! I’d never thought about that before. I thought opera was only about fat women in Viking costumes singing high notes in front of fake-looking sets. But I told her that I was interested because, even though I had my doubts, I was secretly intrigued. I wanted to know what it’d be like to be onstage in front of so many people and sing. I wanted to see how a professional theater worked.

My dad brought me to the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center. I met several members of the children’s chorus and sat in on rehearsal with them. Then, Ms. Horner, the chorus director, had me and another kid who was auditioning sing “America the Beautiful” and “Happy Birthday.” When we were through, she told us to wait outside while she decided if we were in.

I Got In

The minute I spent waiting was one of the longest minutes in my life. Opera didn’t excite me yet, but I didn’t want to fail a tryout and let down my chorus master. I sat in silence with the other kid until Ms. Horner came out.

“You’re both in,” she said. I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t want to be a failure. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents or my… friends?!?

It hit me: I was an opera singer. What would I tell my friends? No kid I knew considered opera cool. I might as well say I’d become a yodeler. Chorus was one thing, but opera?

I thought my friends would think I was a sissy since many kids don’t consider opera to be a “manly” occupation. And if they ever saw me on stage, I was sure I’d die.

My Voice Made Me Self-Conscious

I was a high alto, a girl’s voice, and that made me self-conscious. I could just imagine my friends sitting in the audience and laughing when I’d sing, calling out, “Jon’s a girl.” I convinced myself that telling them meant certain ridicule.

When I got home, I told my mom I’d gotten in. She was happy and told me how proud she was. I felt a bit better about being in the opera. My mom recognizing my talent made me happy, since, at the time, I waited for someone else’s compliments to feel good about myself. That’s why I was so worried about being rejected by my friends.

I was also insecure about school since I was the new kid there. I’d moved there only a year before, and I didn’t have the kind of trust with my new friends as I had with people I’d known my whole life. I felt like an outsider and I figured that exposing my secret would make me feel even more alienated.

I told only my best friend that I’d joined the opera. He thought it was cool and wanted to tell other people, but I made him promise he wouldn’t and he respected my wishes.

So every Tuesday in 5th grade, I’d leave school early and my dad would drive me two hours into the city for rehearsal. I told people I had business to attend to, but I didn’t go into specifics.

Despite my shame in school, I had fun at rehearsals. I enjoyed going to the city and getting away from country life. I also made friends at the opera, becoming especially close with Nigel and Ray, two other members of the children’s chorus.

When I would walk up to the security desk at the entrance and sign my name in the log book, I felt powerful, important. It was like I was part of the “in” crowd, which was unlike my experience at school.

image by Duran Rivera

But I felt torn between my life in the opera and my life outside it. When I was inside the opera house, I felt strong, but away from it, I felt like a loser for being an opera singer.

I was living in two very different worlds, straddling their borders, and I didn’t want to pull my foot out of either one. I didn’t realize that it might be possible for those worlds to mix.

At the end of 5th grade, I moved back to the city and started going to a new elementary school. My old friends never found out about the opera. Even though I was glad my secret was safe, I wished I had felt comfortable enough with them to share my Lincoln Center experiences.

That year, I got my first parts in two shows: Carmen and Tosca. Carmen became my favorite opera to be in because the music was upbeat and there were plenty of fun props, like dulled-down knives.

I did the show several times over the years. The children’s chorus was in the first and fourth acts; between appearances, the other kids and I played games downstairs and ran around the maze-like hallways.

New School, Old Secret

After the season ended that year (fall and spring seasons run about two to three months each), I kept in touch with Ray and Nigel by talking to them on the phone. I even went to visit Nigel at his home a couple of times.

I also started to attend yet another new school after the break. I was still worried about how people would respond to my opera singing, so I kept it a secret. When the new season began, I was cast in two new operas; Carmina Burana and Attila. I was happy that I’d be doing more performances, and I felt appreciated.

Getting positive feedback on my work made me feel secure. I started to get less strict about my secret and I told close friends. Then, something happened that revealed my secret to everyone.

One day, I accidentally said something about “my friend from the opera” when I was talking to some students in the lunchroom. They were shocked.

“Opera?” they said with wide eyes and stunned faces. My secret was out! I felt like I was going to hyperventilate. I tried to think of ways to slip out of it, but nothing came to mind. So I just gave in and told them the whole story. Surprisingly, they asked me questions about what it was like and the guys wanted to know how many “hot” girls there were.

Of course, after word got out, there were people who said stuff like “You castrated?” or “Hey, opera boy, how’s it hanging?” but for the most part, my friends encouraged my singing.

I Was Asked to Sing in School

And so did strangers. People I didn’t know were coming up to me in the halls and asking me to sing. It was a bit embarrassing since I didn’t want so much attention, but it was better than being ridiculed. I would usually just go, “Ah, I don’t want to,” and they would let it be.

One time, though, my friends wouldn’t leave me alone, so I broke down and sang something from Carmen. I hated it because I only liked to sing during performances or when it moved me, not at random. Still, after singing, they were like, “Oh, that’s so cool!”

After all the years of keeping life at the opera secret, I felt like a big weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I didn’t feel like I was lying to people about who I was anymore. I became more open and friendly, because I was less afraid of being teased.

I’d psyched myself out. I was so worried about what other people would think of me that I neglected to realize maybe they wouldn’t say anything at all. Finding out that being in the opera wasn’t such a big deal to other people made me feel stupid for feeling I needed to hide who I was.

Eventually, when my voice changed, I left the opera. And years later, I no longer feel the need to keep my old career secret. After dodging the truth, I learned that sometimes people build things up in their heads and make them bigger deals than they really are.

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