No horns necessary
Aja Monet is not what one expects when one thinks “opera singer.” She’s worked in retail and currently does time as a barista, a singing waitress and an elevator operator. She’s also studying to be an aerospace engineer and wants to research the sounds of space and integrate them into her music. In addition to singing, Monet plays cello, flute, piccolo, guitar and drums—but admits she’s yet to master the accordion. Monet, currently at work on her first album Saturnalia, recently talked to SN&R about the craft of opera, wearing horns and staging a music revolution.
How long have you been singing opera?
I started making money [singing] when I was 9. I remember my mom saying, “You’re going to be in the opera,” and I’m like, “I don’t want to wear horns on my head.”
What’s up with the horns?
(Laughs.) A lot of opera singers are smaller and more petite than me. … Usually [directors] like you to kind of be small … so they can fit you into older costumes. [Opera composer Richard Wagner] is, you know, [all about] the horns—the Vikings—[while] the French [operas] take place in the 1800s, so you have to fit into those corsets.
What is your favorite opera?
The [most fun] one I was ever in would be Pagliacci. … [The production] ran out of women’s costumes, so I ended up being a boy. Pagliacci is my favorite [because] I like clowns. Clowns are awesome. They show our more tragic side of life—that’s where art comes from.
How would you classify your style?
I was classically trained, but what I like to sing the most [are] more like gypsy standards, more like old drinking songs—opera’s only fun to sing because it gives you a big range. Not only do you have to think about [singing] in a different language, but you worry about all of the different notes and then all of the different octaves.
What other ways are you creative?
I love to sew. I can make my own patterns, and I’m getting into cobbling and making my own shoes.
Do you make your performance clothes?
Yes, all of them. When you go and see a band, it’s supposed to be extravagant, something that moves you, something that stays in the back of your mind, like when you watch a really good depressing movie and you’re like, “Why did that have to happen?” or, “Wow, that was really cool.” It sounds superficial, but it’s true. People do judge you by what you wear, and people remember you by what you wear.
Do you write your own music?
Yes, and [for Saturnalia] what I do is I map all the stars from Orion each month and then put those calculations straight down onto sheet paper, and that’s how I create my melody. I do it each week for three months at a time, so it’s kind of a tedious process. Then I write my music. Since I’m so used to singing in Italian or French, I’m translating, because I’m not fluent [in those languages]. I actually tap a beat and then I loop it on a synthesizer, and that will be my percussion beat. I’m trying to think of something original.
Isn’t everyone trying to be original?
I think people need to think a little more outside the box when they start a project. I wish a revolution in music would happen, and I wish people would actually make up their own genre of music and master it. I don’t want people to stop at the mediocre and think, “OK, this is good enough for a show.”
Who influences you?
My favorite singer of all time is Edith Piaf. I love her. All the way down to her tragic life.
Tom Waits. I was really into post-punk and goth. I also like the electronic movement. Crystal Castles.
I try to keep a broad range to pick and choose what I like, then I can kind of go off that. I love old standards: It’s like a template where you can take it and do whatever you want with it.
What’s it like to be a singing waitress?
[I worked] at this restaurant [where it has] the waiters sing “Happy Birthday” in opera to people, or if there’s a romantic dinner, blurt out an aria, which seems really so awkward. I had to sing a salad song and a dessert song, and they were horrible. I’d sing about croutons, and [then sing] “Eat your dessert now. It comes from a cow. Take a big bite. It tastes dynamite. Eat your dessert. Eat your dessert. It is good to eat right now.”
(Laughs.) I think it should be against the law.