December 08, 2022
By Haley Dittbrenner ’25
Since entering graduate school, Lee Steiner ’09 said his dream job has always been to work as a chorister, or member of the choir. He still recalls his surprise upon realizing that full-time opera could be a viable career.
“I heard about one of the opera singers at Illinois getting a full-time job at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and I thought, ‘Wait, you can do that? Full time?’” Steiner said. “From the time I heard that you could be a full-time opera chorister, that’s what I wanted.”
Steiner’s Susquehanna education serves as the bedrock for his entire career in music, he said.
“There’s a community aspect to learning that is unique; I think I worked with almost every teacher in the music department in one class or another, and they each played a role in my development as a well-rounded musician and professional,” Steiner said.
After graduating from Susquehanna with a degree in vocal performance, Steiner earned his master’s degree from the University of Illinois. After marrying his wife, Sandra Taylor ’08, also a Susquehanna graduate, and welcoming twin girls, Steiner accepted a position at Columbia University in the Office of the President. It was then that Steiner first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014 during a production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
“It’s a mammoth, six-hour-long opera, and my call time for the finale of Act III was something like 11 p.m. I remember walking back to the subway after each performance at 1 a.m. buzzing and smiling like an idiot,” he said. “After that, I was in 19 productions as an extra chorister from then until fall 2021, when I was hired for a full-time position in the chorus.”
Sharing Opera Music More Widely
Alongside his work with the Met, Steiner created Opera Database, a website that allows users to search for operas in the public domain via voice type, language, time period and keyword. The site contains over 5,000 PDFs, nearly 35,000 opera listings and additional resources for opera singers. Each month, the database sees an average of 2,500 visitors from across 90 different countries.
“I started the Opera Database after grad school. It was a way for me to collect all the aria PDFs I could find in one place and also learn some programming,” Steiner said. “I’ve always loved computers and dabbled in programming, but starting that project forced me to learn some of the basics of database architecture and backend languages that I had been avoiding. A few years later, I transitioned into a full-time IT role at Columbia as a result of that work.”
Much of Steiner’s job at the Met involves rehearsal and memorization. Over four days in October, he performed and rehearsed for eight different operas: Medea, Idomeneo, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Tosca, Peter Grimes, Don Carlo, Rigoletto and La Traviata. Many of the workdays can be up to 12 or 13 hours long.
“I get to sing with some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard, and that’s before the principals even walk through the door, most of whom have a generosity of spirit and love for their work that keeps me motivated,” Steiner said. “At some point, everybody around you will be as good as or better than you. The easiest way for you to distinguish yourself is to do things that professionals do — show up on time, respond to emails, know your music and instrument better than your colleagues, be a team player, be nice, and communicate well. All of those are in your control and will get you work.”