Danielle Perrault planned to be a psychologist.

In 2007, she finished her undergrad degree in psychology at Simpson University in Redding, CA, while maintaining a connection to music. “I had a lot of friends in the music department and I sang in the choirs,” said Perrault. “I was very interested in classical music even back then. There were times I considered switching my major to music, but at the time, I didn’t think I was good enough. I was afraid I would fail at it, so I never switched while I was at Simpson. I still really loved studying psychology, so I finished that. It wasn’t until I almost graduated that I realized I didn’t want to be a psychologist.”

Born in Queens, NY, but raised in San Diego, CA, Perrault returned to San Diego to be with her family while she figured out what to do next. “We’ve lived in the same house since we moved here when I was five,” shared Perrault, who has one younger sister named Kelsey. “After I graduated I thought I wanted to be a nurse. I moved back home and went to a community college to take prerequisites for nursing school, but the classes that I needed kept filling up. I ended up taking a music class to keep my schedule at full time.”

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Credit: Matt Haney

Then a class assignment required her to perform. “That was the first time I sang a solo by myself in front of people,” Perrault explained. “That was the beginning of my catching the performing bug. I started studying music about a year later and never went back to nursing.”

Perrault completed her degree in music and moved to Kansas in 2015 to study opera performance at the University of Kansas. She graduated this spring with her master’s degree. “I actually started out thinking I was going to go into musical theater,” admitted Perrault. “The two have a lot of similarities. Musical theater borrows a lot from opera, and it just kind of went off on its own track. But as I kept studying and taking voice lessons, my teacher and I both realized that my voice was well suited for classical singing. I still love musical theater and I’ve recently been honing my skills in that genre so that I can incorporate it into my career at some point. I went with opera as my primary focus because that’s where my voice was going and I ended up falling in love with it.”

Perrault sang in performances at the school and for the Chorus of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. “I’ve loved working there,” said Perrault. “The people are amazing. It’s always a fun experience with high production value. It’s a great place to sing.”

She also has had several opportunities to travel abroad. Currently in Italy for the month of July, Perrault also completed a choir tour in Spain while an undergrad and traveled to Germany after being selected by a panel to sing during the Eutin Summer Opera Festival in Eutin. “That was actually a tough experience for me,” admitted Perrault. “There were a lot of great things about it. Every time you get to go overseas and spend any amount of time in another culture is amazing, but it was also really interesting working in another country and experiencing a different work climate, a different work structure. It ended up being quite challenging. But I did get a lot of good things out of it as well, like cultural insights and learning how to deal with adversity.”

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Credit: Lauren di Matteo Images

Perrault is no stranger to tackling difficult roles and embracing learning experiences. “I think I’d have to say my favorite role so far has been Hansel in Hansel and Gretel,” Perrault shared. “I did that while I was in my undergrad. We had a music director at the time who was very demanding and gruff, and the rehearsal process was often a bit scary. But as a result, I learned a lot and I grew so much. … I got a better sense of what it actually takes to be well prepared for a role. And the role itself was such a blast. I was playing a pre-teen boy. I’m a mezzo-soprano, one of the lower female voice types, and we frequently get cast in the roles of young boys or young men. When I was first starting my vocal studies and found out about that, I was kind of upset. I had all these stereotypical ideas about playing tragic, romantic heroines. Why would I want to play a little boy? But I actually really love it. It’s intriguing to play someone who is completely different from myself. I love digging into the psyche and physicality of a boy and having a blast with it. I hope I can do that role again many times.”

Ultimately, Perrault would like to be accepted into a young artist program, which, she explained, is an apprenticeship for opera singers. Typically, aspiring opera singers apply to programs at opera houses around the country. “They’ll typically hire four singers or so, one per voice part,” Perrault added. “They’ll use those singers for outreach events and sometimes they get cast in small roles or cover (understudy) lead roles for the company’s main stage operas. They’re all a little bit different, but ideally, that’s a possible next step I’d like to take. It’s one of the few ways young singers have some stability. It’s typically a two-year contract with a regular paycheck, which doesn’t happen very often in this industry. It’s not much and it’s not for long, but it’s steady. And it’s a great training ground to learn from professionals who are further down the path than you are, and to focus on your craft without the distractions of worrying about your ‘day job,’ or where your next gig will be. There are a lot of ways to become a successful opera singer, and a young artist program is not a requirement, but that’s an experience I think I would enjoy and benefit from.”

She’s aware of the personal challenges that the career holds. “I’m under no delusions that this isn’t a tough industry, and at the beginning, it’s especially hard,” Perrault said. “You have to do a lot of start up work yourself on the audition circuit. It’s a costly process in terms of time, money, and energy. Some people go the competition route, and if you’re good at that and win a lot, it can help with your many expenses. Application fees, recordings, accompanist fees, coaching, lessons, travel expenses… It adds up quickly. It’s really helpful if you can get management to represent you and open some of those doors for you. But the work never really stops. An opera career is still a business, and you still have to maintain relationships and connections and stay on the radar of producers, conductors, and company managers. I’m not quite there yet. They say you have to have something to manage before you can get a manager, and I’m still working on the ‘something’.”

Then there are difficulties with societal perceptions. “It seems like every few months, someone publishes a new article about how opera is dying,” said Perrault. “I can see how people come to that conclusion, especially with the culture we live in now. Everything is instantaneous. Opera is hard. It’s a difficult art form to consume. Even for people in it, it is challenging. For one, it often takes a lot longer to say things when they are sung. You have to be patient. The story takes a little longer to unfold. If you don’t know the language the opera is being sung in, or even if you do, you have to rely on translations projected above the stage. It takes a little more work than sitting in front of the TV. But because of all of that, it’s rewarding. Because things take longer to say and because the story takes longer to unfold, it builds a greater sense of dramatic tension, and the payoff is greater. You get to experience stunningly gorgeous musical expressions of human emotion that words alone can’t convey. I think opera has a lot to offer and I think it’s presented in a way that any human can identify with because it goes right to your soul. I don’t think the problem is that opera is irrelevant, I think people are reluctant to consume it because of the effort that it takes.”

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Credit: Villa Medicea di Lilliano Wine Estate

Perrault has noticed that opera houses are trying different series and offering music in different venues, like libraries, museums, and restaurants. “I think the new performance trends are helping people realize that opera doesn’t have to be stuffy and boring like they thought,” she said. “Is it for everyone? No. Nothing is, really. But I think it’s for a lot more people than those who realize it. Opera is fighting against culture notions of what opera is, but I think it can thrive. … I have a lot of hope for the future of opera. People can help by just trying it out. Companies are doing what they can to make it more accessible to more people. A lot of them are active on social media, so you can get regular updates on what they’re up to. Just find something that looks even slightly interesting and go! Worst case scenario, you don’t like it; there are worse things in life than not liking something. It’s no big loss. But then again, you might be surprised and enjoy yourself.”

Full opera performances are available on Spotify or Youtube, Perrault explained. “You don’t even have to leave your house. There are so many ways to learn about opera these days. Operas are even broadcast in movie theaters now, so you don’t even have to dress up. It’s best live though, so check out what your local opera house is doing and go support it. It’s such a beautiful art form that expresses humanity in such a beautiful way. I think it’s something that needs to stay, and it can if people are willing to take a second look at it.”

Perrault continued, “Another hindrance is a general lack of appreciation of opera as an art form and the people who do it. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into it. I’m not trying to tell a sob story. It’s just a reality that many people don’t know about. One of the biggest critiques I hear is that it’s too expensive and that’s why people don’t go. For one, that’s becoming less true. Yes, if you want orchestra seats you’re going to pay a lot. But a lot of opera houses now offer special rates for students and young professionals. And most of the time, balcony tickets are very reasonably priced.”

Finding the right venue for the right price can help. Sometimes, opera houses will offer tickets between $15 and $20 for great seats. “It’s financially accessible for a lot of people in different income brackets,” shared Perrault.

Perrault also explained the prices. “Opera is very expensive to produce. A lot of people are involved. You have the singers themselves, and you also have a whole orchestra of anywhere from 20 to 100 people. You have the people in the costume, wig, and scene shops, the stage managers and stagehands, the lighting technicians, everyone working in the main office, etc. It takes a huge village to put on a opera, and all of those people need to be compensated for their time and expertise. We don’t make a ton of money. Maybe international super stars make a good living, but most opera singers don’t. You may get a nice big check for a six-week performance and rehearsal run, but then you have to make that for last several months until your next gig.”

Perrault added, “When you think about supporting opera, it’s helpful to think about the people behind it. It’s not paying into some elitist thing that executives are using to line their pockets. It’s helping to support people who really love this, want to keep it around, and are already making a lot of sacrifices to do so.”

Follow Danielle’s adventures online at her website or on Instagram. She’s currently performing in Italy.

This is the second of three articles about appreciating, studying, and performing opera.

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