Tennis x Opera: Courting SuccessBy COC StaffPosted in Opera and Sports
You probably don’t think of tennis and opera as natural doubles partners. But worlds are colliding on August 11, when Canadian tenor and COC Ensemble Studio graduate Andrew Haji sings the national anthem at the 2018 Rogers Cup semifinals.
We were curious just how similar these two cultural spheres might actually be. So we caught up with Tennis Canada National Coach Nicolas Perrotte and Ensemble Studio Head Vocal Consultant Wendy Nielsen, to see how the best of the best get to the top of their game. One thing is clear: singing opera and playing tennis are both high-performance acts that call for creativity and coordination, require a demanding training schedule, and take some serious mental and physical chops.
Nicolas Perrotte & Wendy NielsenOn average, how many hours per day does the average professional tennis player/opera singer spend practicing?
Nicolas Perrotte: On average, a professional player has three daily sessions lasting between one and a half to three hours, which, depending on their tour or off-season, focus on fitness or gameplay to maintain and improve their strength, flexibility, and endurance
Wendy Nielsen: Opera singers focus on different things for their on and off-seasons. During a production run, most singers spend up to six hours a day rehearsing. Otherwise, they might sing two to four hours a day with or without a coach, and spend just as many hours researching, translating and memorizing their character.
What’s the toughest physical aspect to tennis and opera?
NP: Adapting to varying weather conditions and court surfaces can be very difficult. One week could be warm and humid, whereas a tournament the following week could be windy and chilly. They can play indoors or outdoors on a hard, clay or grass court, and each circumstance forces players to practice smart and adapt their playing style accordingly.
WN: Adapting our bodies, like expanding ribs and pelvic floor muscles, to make the most of our breathing potential for operas of varying lengths and intensities. We joke with students that opera singers are “professional inhalers,” because that’s how we maximize breathing capacity, particularly exhaling, which improves projecting and sustaining musical notes, especially the high ones!
What kind of psychological hurdles does an athlete/singer have to overcome while performing?
NP: Tennis is a combative sport where players use their strengths against their opponent’s weaknesses to win. Each point can last between two to 45 seconds, so, they can get nervous not knowing how long each point will be. During the maximum allowed 20 seconds between each point, players have to review the last point, strategize for the next one, maintain their emotions and breathe. It’s a big job and hard to focus in intermittent periods, but mental strategy is important.
WN: Each singer’s nerves are affected by competition and their own success. On-stage they may have crippling stage fright, which is hard to shake, but off-stage it’s important for singers to focus on their own development: to be aware of their contemporaries but to not dwell on their success relative to them.
How do they build up the kind of endurance needed to get through a tennis match/production?
NP: Without good fitness, they cannot practice well. After a match, sometimes they have to go back to the court to work on their serves. During the off-season, it’s good to go outside the court. For example, we train our younger players in a fitness camp next to a national park in Quebec with snowshoes, running, cross-country skiing, and team sports like soccer and basketball that develop coordination.
WN: Not all operas are the same, which forces opera singers to ask themselves, “Am I a sprinter or marathoner?” During the off-season, singers may do physical training with a personal trainer or yoga, which has shown to increase stamina and reduce stress. They need to treat their body and voice well, because if they’re in a long opera, they need to be able to focus and draw upon the tools they need in that moment.
What’s the arc of a tennis/opera career – when does training ideally begin, how long does a career last? What do they need to do in order to extend their performance career as long as possible?
NP: They have to be resilient. Young players usually start between ages five and 10 and develop important skills like coordination, swift decision-making, and coping with emotions, which can be difficult for a kid who just lost. They only develop by competing against other players. Some may be older and stronger and they will have to strategize for that. It’s important to have a coach who is a good teacher because they will help develop values of responsibility and work ethics. To last as long as some pros – Roger Federer still plays at age 36, Serena Williams resumed playing shortly after giving birth – they have to develop a lifestyle around tennis. Professional life is full of ups and downs, so they have to be resilient and ambitious.
WN: They have to be realistic. Most young singers start their musical life through children’s choirs and piano lessons. I recommend that they start singing lessons around age 16, when their body and voice are undergoing big changes. A professional coach will help them stay realistic by both helping craft a genuine voice, and recommending how many jobs they can take and periods when they should rest. Young singers can begin working in their late 20s after about 10 years of professional training, and have a career that lasts until their 50s or 60s. To stay relevant and get there, they need to be talented and ambitious but not overbook themselves.
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Photos 1, 2 courtesy of Tennis Canada; photo 4 Danika Lorèn at Behind the Season, by Gaetz Photography; all other photography by COC staff.