Photographing the opera singer

Photographing the opera singer

Jenna Simeonov

Part of our job is looking at lots and lots of photos of opera singers. We see their headshots in the programs at the opera, lighting up the home page of their websites, and making the rounds on Facebook after a particularly good photo shoot. So, it’s hard not to notice, in the photo credits of all these headshots, that a few photographers seemed to be pretty popular among opera singers. Three of these popular photographers are Dario Acosta, Bo Huang, and Emily Ding.

Dario is based in New York City, and has photographed singers like Anna Netrebko, Diana Damrau, and Plácido Domingo. Bo Huang is based in the Toronto area, working with the likes of Adrianne Pieczonka, Simone Osborne, and Krisztina Szabó. Also in Toronto, Emily Ding is an opera singer herself, and she photographs Canada’s rising operatic stars (Claire de Sévigné, Jessica Muirhead, Gordon Bintner).

We reached out to these three photographers, to ask them about the unique melding of art that happens at their opera singer shoots.

What kind of presence do you find singers bring to a photo shoot?

Dario: Everyone brings their own particular presence and aura to a shoot. My goal is to find the essence of that person, whether it’s the smile, the directness, the eye contact, the hands, the body position, etc. I think that’s how I never duplicate anything, I have been blessed to work with so many wonderful people and their trust in me is what makes the photo shoot successful.

Bo: Compared to other musicians, most of the singers I work with are more lively and they love to talk!

Emily: I try to make them comfortable, so they have time to bring out their personality out and into their portraits. Mostly, I want to bring our their confidence and friendliness into the camera, all the while looking effortless natural.

Soprano Anna Netrebko, photographed by Dario Acosta

What does good photography do for a singer’s career? Do you adapt your work to the needs of a singer, versus a pianist, etc.?

Emily: As a trained singer myself, I think good photography reflects a lot on the seriousness of a singer’s ambition and confidence level. Our face is the stage where we play out our emotions, and we will be judged, whether we like it or not. I try to make singers look less “serious” and less model-like with a blank canvas, but more like someone you want to meet and have a conversion with, and someone so nice that would want to hire.

Bo: Just through my pictures alone, without ever having the experience of their sound, I want to inspire curiosity and desire in you to go and experience live what each of my subjects are capable of doing on stage.

An instrumentalist has an external instrument which is absent from a singer. Therefore, it is more important to capture their state of being by watching their face and body.

Dario: Well, I think it’s important to acknowledge that above all it’s the singers’ singing that is most important to their career, but a bad photographer can really make a singer look bad. The general audience is very very photo-savvy now. Even if they don’t know exactly why a photo is bad, they can pick out a good photo from a bad one. It only benefits the singer/instrumentalist to always have their best foot forward. We all have bad pics of ourselves and good pics of ourselves, and the singer/instrumentalist should only show their good side, just like they wouldn’t want to give a bad performance.

Yes, singers and instrumentalists are a bit different in needs, but fundamentally I look for their personality as I approach the session. Instrumentalists might need to have their instrument with them, so I need to figure out a way to convey what they do and their instrument in the photo without being “cliché” and boring and expected.

Canadian soprano Simone Osborne, photographed by Bo Huang.

Bo: A singer is most confident when singing. What I look for in the photo shoot is that same confidence and presence which can be hidden when they are off stage.

Dario: There is really nothing in common with a photo shoot and a stage performance. Usually on stage they are performing a character and have not only the music and technique but the staging and acting to think about. On a photo shoot (unless we are going for something character-driven), it’s all about the person, the movements are much more fine tuned, the placement of the hands, the tilt of the head, the angle which I shoot at is all highly fine tuned and not broad.

On stage they try to make everyone in the hall feel their presence, and in the photo shoot it’s really all about them and the one person at a time that’s viewing the photo; the connection is much more intimate, the approach is much more intimate. We end up really connecting by the end of the shoot.

Emily: Some people like their photos taken, and some don’t. The latter may take longer to feel comfortable at a photo session, but more often I have worked with clients who are really pleasantly surprised that they liked their photos. I do see a parallel in term of performing on stage as a singer and “performing” into the camera, the common thread is that how we judge ourselves and our body often reflects how we judge our performance and body. Perhaps I am wrong–and I hope I am wrong.

Sometimes it takes a different perspective to tell us that we look great (that’s my job, and I do think that, and each can look and feel fabulous, even if it takes a little of teasing). I think that’s the same conclusion I can take away in a performance–don’t judge yourself too harshly.

Claire de Sévigné, photographed by Emily Ding

What do you enjoy about working with opera singers?

Dario: Opera singers and classical musicians and conductors and everyone involved in the art form are, above all, artists. There is a wonderful appreciation of each other at the photo shoot. They come in understanding that we are collaborating, and they truly trust me; that trust I cherish and feel highly responsible to create something meaningful. I admire the hard work that they put into the art form. When we meet for a shoot there’s a mutual respect, it never feels like we are working, but like we are playing. I am never dreading going into the shoot. I’m always anticipating what the day will bring, and I am honored to work with the worlds greatest singers and musicians. I know at the end of the day we will produce amazing work together.

Bo: Each one is filled with unique charisma! Being in their company makes me happy!

Emily: I love opera singers, in general I think we are a rambunctious bunch. We are warm and outgoing people, and the end of each photo shoot I feel that I have spent an hour with a new friend.

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