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First published in Classical Singer.

Dear Erda,

How do I write a great bio, start to finish?



Dear Stumped,

First, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. How many bios have you seen that read like a laundry list of roles and venues? BORING. Your bio should be like a miniature feature article with you as the star subject. It should do for you what a good headshot does --- at a glance, it should intrigue the reader and make him want to find out more. Also, a good bio should give the PR person at your venue something with which to work --- a complete program bio that requires little or no tweaking.

What does this mean? You need to put the punchy stuff FIRST --- a “hook” to get the reader’s attention and make him want more. Describe yourself in accurate but interesting terms. Open with a great quote from a review, an creative description of your unique repertoire or voice, or your most recent fabulous accomplishment. Whatever you do, do NOT write that you are "one of the fastest rising stars of opera today" or any equivalent thereof. It’s hideously overused; and anyway, if it were true you wouldn’t need to mention it.

You may think you have nothing that qualifies as a splashy opener, but everybody has something. Maybe it’s just a little splash --- a mere raindrop. That’s okay! Everybody starts somewhere. Make that the most intriguing raindrop anyone has ever seen, and don’t be afraid to make it entertaining.

For example, I had a consultation client who had very little other than school performances on her resume, and when I asked her to describe herself as a singer, she mostly talked about her training and listed people she had worked with. But after a little prodding, I discovered that she had intensive musical training as a child and had been enchanted by opera after hearing a performance of The Magic Flute. She rededicated herself to opera and even moved to the United States to pursue it. We were able to work this information into a wonderful opening for her bio, which not only had human interest but showed that despite her relatively short time in the opera world, she was an accomplished and experienced musician.

Still not sure what to do? Here are some examples:

With a voice that “charms and thrills” and a “sparkling stage presence”, soprano Saucy Soubrette has proven a favorite with audiences in her hometown of Chicago and across the United States.

Soprano Saucy Soubrette is noted for her electric dramatic readings of challenging contemporary repertoire. Most recently, she thrilled Chicago audiences as Ophelia in Christopher Composer’s new version of Hamlet.

At the age of four, Saucy Soubrette already knew she was destined for the stage. As a girl growing up in rural Minnesota, she honed her skills by singing for farm animals and later toured with a contemporary Christian rock band before a chance encounter with the Metropolitan Opera broadcast turned her on to classical singing.

Okay, the farm animals bit may be over the top, but you get the picture. Coming up with the opening lines is the hardest part of writing a good bio. After you've done that, list or even describe your most recent showy roles and venues and your upcoming engagements. There's your first paragraph, and this is the part that will probably be excerpted for programs. If you have it already all together, there is less chance that some opera company PR person with too much work and not enough time is going to get the details wrong --- they will just use what you've already written, more or less. And you've gotten all the most important and impressive stuff right there in the first paragraph.

In your second paragraph, you can branch out a bit more and describe your repertoire in more detail. Decide what your four or five most important roles and venues are. You probably don’t need to include more than that.

In the third, you can go into a brief background of your career -- where you studied and who with, and any other interesting details such as living overseas and being fluent in Mandarin Chinese or having been part of some special projects. It’s fine to include non-operatic experience here as long as it’s performance-related, but showcase the opera.

To close, if you wish, you can include a line or two with personal details that reveal something about who you are as a person --- but not too much, please. If your hobby is making cute outfits for the fake plastic goose on your front lawn or spending your weekends playing survival games with your local homegrown militia, you might want to use a little discretion.

Once you’ve gotten it all down on paper, it’s time to review. Do so with your thesaurus in hand, because you want to use lively and colorful action verbs and creative adjectives to describe what you do. For example:

Bad: "Soprano Diva has done over ten roles, both dramatic and comic. Most recently she sang Zerbinetta with Notsogrand Grand Opera."

Good: "Soprano Diva's repertoire displays her versatility in a range of comic and dramatic roles. Most recently she charmed audiences with her sparkling characterization and vocal fireworks as Zerbinetta with Notsogrand Grand Opera."

If you're not a good writer, then figure out what the important things to include are, and get a friend who DOES write well to put something together for you. Look at other singers' bios and figure out what you like and don't like. You can borrow phrases and rewrite them to suit you. Then shop it around, the same way you ask all your friends to look at your headshots and help you pick out the best ones.

Last but not least, remember that bios, like your wardrobe, need a little sprucing up now and then. Update frequently. Keep the basic structure, but add review quotes, change stuff around, keep it fresh. And don’t be surprised if someday a colleague asks, “Hey, who’s your publicist?”