Ten years ago, Colin Lee applied to be a financial controller at London's Royal Opera House. While the accountant didn't get the job, he was recently hired by that same institution—this time to play the role of Tonio in Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment. The former auditor is now one of the few tenors in the world able to deliver the nine top C's that the role demands.
As a boy, Lee studied at South Africa's Drakensberg Boys' Choir School, but after graduating from college he decided to get a "proper job." In 1990 he joined the auditing department at Ernst & Young in Cape Town. Three years later he was transferred to London, where after 15 months he took a job as a finance manager at Canada Life, an insurance and financial management company.
Yet Lee, now 41, hadn't outgrown his boyhood fixation. In London he began taking voice lessons and eventually hired an opera coach. As the lessons continued, he says he began to wonder, "Could I make this a career?" In 2000 his coach helped him score a job for the singing circuit's equivalent of the minor leagues: a three-month gig performing on Cunard cruise ships. To the shock of friends and colleagues, Lee promptly resigned from Canada Life. "People said I was brave," he says. "I wasn't. I just got to a point where I had to go."
While he had set aside enough money to live for 9 to 12 months, Lee's first few years as a fledgling singer were dicey. He earned less than $10,000 in fees during 2000 and approximately $30,000 in 2001. He even did tax returns for a dozen clients to stay afloat. However, a part in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's staging of The Mikado in London helped him gain entrance into the English National Opera Young Singers Programme. Soon, the bel canto roles began to pour in.
While Lee won't reveal his current earnings, he says he recently matched the income he made while in accounting. Meanwhile, he's learning how to manage in an expensive profession. Lee spends 30 percent of his earnings on travel, coaching, and administrative costs. "I'm earning at least what I need to get by," he says. "I wouldn't be a good accountant if I wasn't."
SINGING FOR HIS SUPPER
• Annual cost of Lee's voice lessons, vocal coaching, and accompanists: $3,200
• The number of hours each week that Lee spends working on his singing: 20-30
• Number of impossibly difficult opera directors with whom Lee has worked: 1
• In 2000, Lee earned less than $10,000; Gross fees in 2001: $30,000
Data: Colin Lee