I Sacrificed Everything To 'Make It' As A Singer. My Dream Came True — But It Wasn't What I Expected.

"Life was a train with cut brakes, moving at such a high speed that the only way to stop was to crash."
The author in 2023.

“How about you spend some time by the sea?” he said.

I was sitting across from the artistic director of one of the largest opera houses in Germany, simultaneously relieved and dumbfounded. His suggestion sounded like a prescription given to a female character in a 19th century novel who had just suffered a devastating loss.

But I suppose, in a way, that’s exactly what I was.

Six months into my European apprenticeship — a position I had dreamed of my entire life — an emotional struggle I worked so diligently to suppress was thrusting to the surface. It was pleading to be heard, and after years of fighting at high stakes, I had finally splintered.


It was early 2020: A pandemic had a chokehold on our industry, and I had just won an international competition that put me on the fast track for a contract to sing opera full time in Germany. It was the dichotomy of a lifetime: My professional world had burst open as the rest of the world was cautiously shutting its doors. By the time I was called upon to finally leave the U.S., I had spent over a year fantasising about my life overseas.

“You have to go to Europe to have a career” is a phrase familiar to most young American opera singers. Over the years, Europe morphs from being a continent on the map to being more of an ideology — an obscure entity into which we begin to funnel our dreams.

A career in Europe is one of the largest symbols of success and offers the most prosperity for operatic performers — the “American dream” at a 180. We become fixated and highly inventive — all to do whatever it takes to bridge that gap across the Atlantic. All for the hope that we will be able to finally make a living doing what we love. All for the dream that we will be happy.

After years of anticipation, months of preparation, and only seven hours in the sky, I touched down to begin a new chapter. Life in Berlin was Instagram-worthy: midday sun-soaked walks past the famous Victory Column on the way home from rehearsing Mozart; snapshots of the current opera score next to morning cappuccinos; the Landwehr Canal in the background of each photo. I had everything I always wanted.

Everything I thought I wanted.

From the outside looking in, evidence of a charmed life could be seen, but submerged inside were the rumblings of upheaval stirring within me. I was alone at a cafe, yet I felt I was sitting across from a version of myself who I had neglected for years, and her stare was getting more and more urgent.

Hers was the voice in my journal: My facade is beautiful, grounded and strong, but beyond the threshold is a precarious place. Upon entering, the floor is unsteady, the walls are crumbling, staircases are in need of repair. All of this with a surging undercurrent of frustration and anger from having to slap on some paint and welcome tourists constantly.

Beneath the surface, an ember that had been glowing for years finally started to catch fire: I was coming apart at the seams.

The author with her grandfather, Poppop.
Courtesy of Gina Perregrino
The author with her grandfather, Poppop.


As far back as my memory goes, I performed. I sang on the karaoke machine we purchased from the thrift shop. I typed up and “distributed” physical programs to the show I produced in our living room. Summer evenings were spent practicing the newest routine on the front steps for any neighbor looking out their window.

I was a completely untrained, one-woman show — playing singer, choreographer, director and producer. No job was off limits. Though at home we were very appreciative of music, opera was not something I was exposed to growing up. Dancing to Motown in the kitchen with my father was the extent of my early artistic training. But it was in my blood.

The Perregrinos have been artists for generations — quiet craftsmen in needlework and woodcarving. My grandfather, a master watercolor painter, spent his life perfecting his art as a hobby. He turned down commissions and offers to have his own gallery — something my young, ambitious mind would not understand until just a year ago.

“Having to produce would take all of the joy out of it for me. But you — you’re special, girl,” he said behind sparking eyes. I could feel the calling of my heritage, a tangible connection to my ancestry, and I was intent on validating it.

My joy of singing traveled with me from my small town to a New York City conservatory. In the first class of my freshman year of college, the voice department told us to look around — only 1% of the students in that room would make it.

Formal training slowly rid me of my childhood naiveté and clued me in to the reality of what I was signing up for. As the pressure gradually intensified during my 20s, singing slowly morphed from a sparkling, expressive place of safety to a narrow path along a precipice where one wrong step could send you over an edge.

To stay tethered, someone in my position has to find something to hold on to, however ambiguous, and establish a vise grip. For me, my insomnia was placated by the sweeping fantasy of what it would be like to live and work full time as a professional opera singer. What began as a seed brought into existence by pure love, germinated by a young girl who craved an outlet for her expression, became an escape as she grew — a place to seek anaesthesia. Paralysis cloaked in excellence: I could use my success to justify the pain I felt year after year as so many life experiences passed me by while my friends outside took hold of them.

Voice is the essence of opera, which is why it is even more perplexing that I learned to ignore my own. Years went by, and with an inflexible grip on a dream and an immense fear of mediocrity, I continued to strengthen my reflex to ignore any desires and needs that didn’t directly push me further toward the goal I’d already poured so much of my life into. The stakes were too high to slow down. Nothing in my life seemed to hold any importance outside of singing opera, and for so long I had been determined to ignore the stubborn questions that kept me awake at night with the hope that one day I would be in the driver’s seat:

Don’t you maybe want to have a dog?

Don’t you maybe want to make a home?

No, no. Someday this will all be worth it and then, Gina, you can sit in the driver’s seat.

I spent years telling myself this — years of knowing, deep down, that by the time “someday” arrived, it would be too late. I had missed countless weddings, family funerals and friends’ birthdays. And at the rate I was going, I would miss countless more.

Life was a train with cut brakes, moving at such a high speed that the only way to stop was to crash. There’s nothing more frightening than seeing an impending implosion as your only way out, and worse, consciously asking for it.

The author backstage before one of her performances.
Courtesy of Gina Perregrino
The author backstage before one of her performances.

Then, after 10 years of silencing my own needs — believing that I was paying my dues and that some future return would eventually make all of the procrastination of joy worth it — my inner voice burst forth one sleepless night:

When was the last time you did anything for the sake of just doing it, without your singing or athleticism attached to it?

When was the last time you sang a different style of music? Sang a song for the sake of singing — without thinking of technique?

Do you even want to live here?

What else do you like to do?

The questions swirled around me like a hailstorm, and my already chipping facade completely crumbled. I succumbed to the overdue inquisition of my inner voice and sobbed into the morning, each passing hour loosening my iron-fisted hold on the fantasy I had clutched on to for so long — a release that felt so energetically charged that I was sure anyone within a 10-mile radius could feel it.

I was witnessing in real time the death of my childhood dreams — the death of an identity, the death of the vision that I fiercely anchored myself to. That night, the pressure cooker finally exploded, and with that warm surrender, feeling relief, I fell asleep in the late hours of the morning.


As I sat in the artistic director’s office, I thought he might be right. Maybe I could use some time by the sea.

I booked a flight to Spain and stood in the ocean. I turned off my phone. I looked up at the sky. I dug my hands into the sand. I smelled the salt and soil. I was completely unwound — unraveled. And I had never felt more at peace.

Everything was quiet for the next few months. Since all I had ever known was a nonstop, screeching train, once it crashed, I was peeking out of rubble into quiet stillness. I was finally able to see the beautiful detail in the landscape. It’s amazing how even lush, intricate wildflowers look like one block of color if you’re moving fast enough.

When I returned to Berlin, silent hours passed in my apartment and those walls became a chapel. It was a sacred space of baptism where I was meeting myself for the first time.

I often categorise my life as before and after Berlin. There is a photograph of myself that I snapped with a Polaroid camera in my apartment the afternoon after I wept into the morning hours. I refer to that Polaroid as the first photograph where I was ever truly joyful in my entire life.

The author writes that this Polaroid is "the first photograph where I was ever truly joyful in my entire life."
Courtesy of Gina Perregrino
The author writes that this Polaroid is "the first photograph where I was ever truly joyful in my entire life."

I lived my life for so long in an obligatory fashion with the highest of stakes, controlled by what I felt I had to do. The daily, simple, small callings within us (“I need some quiet,” “No, I actually don’t want to move there,” “I feel undervalued,” “I’ll do that later when I have time”) can become silenced so quickly that we forget that the small details actually make up the bigger picture of our lives. In ignoring these simple appeals, many artists condition themselves to weed out of their own spirits the very things that make us the artists we so deeply long to be.

It’s easy to blame the conservatory’s methods and the universal lack of artistic support systems. Although that blame is often warranted and justified, that is only one part of the story. Exclusively blaming institutions dilutes the dignity of our own agency. Joy is a choice — a daily, sacred practice that sets the course for every event for the rest of our lives. There is no arrival point — in putting off joy, we are subconsciously resisting it entirely.

As I began to listen, my joy of singing returned — unexpected and quiet at first, growing louder and more powerful with each calling I honored. Once again I began to feel like that fearless young girl on her karaoke machine, and I realized that she had never left me. She was always there, persistent and dignified in her agency, asking the hard questions.

It was unquestionably a deep privilege to take time off in the midst of my despair, and I acknowledge that not everyone has the ability to simply step back from a job or a situation that begins to feel oppressive. Spain was certainly not the reason for the change in my spirit — each empowered choice, no matter how small, led to another and, consequently, I slowly became the curator of my own life.

Responding affirmatively to those seemingly inconsequential appeals for a midday nap or a walk outdoors led to much larger life adjustments: initiating important conversations, releasing relationships — personal and professional — that were no longer serving me, and even assembling a group dedicated to music I loved outside of the operatic genre. Then, I experienced the momentum of the joyous avalanche: I found myself suddenly excited to practice and to write like I had as a child. I sang more auditions, basked in the challenge of new repertoire, programmed concerts, composed for the first time, and channeled my new life experiences into my musical teaching of the younger generation.

Like my grandfather, I discovered that only when I took off the pressure did I feel the magic. Now fully unbridled and unapologetically my own, I give myself the gift of choosing this career on my terms — grateful for my instrument and its history, and enthusiastic about my voice in the world, especially the notes that have yet to be sung.

The author singing in 2023.
The author singing in 2023.
Gina Perregrino is an American opera singer, teaching artist, and writer. She has performed in operas across the globe, and collaborated with authors such as Salman Rushdie and Khaled Hosseini to translate their work for the stage. Her experiences in the high-pressure world of operatic training and performance have led her to advocate for more transparency around the emotional, financial and geographical realities of being a full-time opera singer. Along with having her master’s degree, she credits discomfort and the nervous system as the teachers who have taught her the most. A daughter and granddaughter in a family of quiet artists, Perregrino is determined to make some noise.

Along with her active performance career, she founded FORTE, an innovative musical mentorship program for those interested in pursuing a career in the arts, using music as the catalyst for social, emotional and somatic awareness.

For more information on her bio, performance schedule and teaching/mentorship, visit www.ginaperregrino.com. Follow her on Instagram @ginaperregrino.