I love when old articles, blogs, or discussions make their way back around years later. It’s a great sign that the “discussion”, whatever it may be, is still happening. Even if it seems like the topic on hand is still being discussed because nothing has changed, the fact that it is still being discussed means progress and understanding is happening.
The particular “discussion” I am referring to right now is a post on the blog SCHMOPERA, a blog run by Toronto based opera pianist Jenna Douglas and Andrej Simeonov. In this particular op-ed titled “In Defence of Singers” from April 2014, Ms. Douglas addresses the psychological manipulations and in some cases, abuse, singers endure as they try to develop themselves on this path; the ever persistent criticism, the constant fear of doing ANYTHING wrong lest you get blacklisted, the maddening paradox of “fit the mold but be unique”, what to sing and what not to sing. She straight up says opera singers just can’t win. And for those of us in the business, we know that is a very astute claim. I myself had an entire program tell me I had no potential and deny me a degree in Vocal Performance (claiming “it wouldn’t be fair to let me receive a degree in something I’ll never use”, direct quote). I had a MONC adjudicator who was the artistic director of a very prominent B house tell me had no basic vocal quality. Even today I have a colleague telling me unless I do everything he is doing, I will never make it to the A level, never mind I have been working regularly for almost 3 years now and it’s been a year and a half since his last YAP. Among all the back and forth with that particular colleague, one thing I said to him was whether I’m singing at the A level or bottom of the barrel, I just want to do what I know I am meant to do. And that is the spirit that has kept me going all these years, to persevere through the negativity and criticism. Well, that and three pieces of advice I have received over the years.
Learn as much music as you can.
The first person who told me this was tenor Stephen Costello. My first professional gig was in the chorus for Austin Opera (nee’ Lyric) in a gala concert where a young up and coming Stephen Costello was our tenor soloist. Being that we are the same age, I was floored by his success at this point and spent time with him, talking to him, picking his brain, trying to learn as much as I could from someone who was achieving what I only dreamed of at the time. Stephen had a lot of things to say about the craft and the business, and not necessarily all pleasant. But of all things he told me, the one thing that stuck with me was “learn as much music as you can”. This threw me back to a situation I had in undergrad. I had checked out a score of Falstaff from the library, just because I wanted to see what Verdi was like, having never studied any Verdi before. I was sitting in the hall when my teacher came walking up (he is a whole other story that does not need to be rehashed). When he saw what score it was, he got very sharp with me, ordering me to take it back to the library right now. He told me not to even bother with Falstaff as I will never sing it (news to him, I do!). I was just flabbergasted by this, albeit not surprised. Young singers are always so wary about learning new music. There is this mentality of not wanting to learn it wrong, fear of learning it with bad habits. As was represented by my teacher at the time, It’s like we are told only learn what you will use. Absolutely not!!! First off, why would you limit your knowledge to simply what you will perform?? And second, who knows what you will actually perform throughout your life. Take a look at Lise Lindstrom for instance. She started out singing coloratura and light lyric. Turandot was not something she considered in her early years. Then she considered it, and we see where that has led her. As a character/lyric baritone, I have never shied away from learning rep across the board, from experimenting with something. I will sing Va, Tosca and Cortigianni in the privacy of my own home. And though I know I will not audition with these arias any time soon, if ever, there is something I learn about my voice every time I sing through them. I will test out roles like Leporello and Dulcamara just to see how they end up feeling, if my voice has grown in that direction any. Hell, I even pull out Siegmund heiss ich every once in a while to see if maybe, just maybe I am this tenor people have told me I am over and over again (fellow baritones get the plight). Are all these pieces performance ready? Of course not. But through the process of learning what I have learned from these, I have learned other aspects of the score, the other roles in the show (note to young singers, learn the whole score, not just your role. If that man up front with a stick in his hand can learn 27 parts of a 3 hour work, you can learn 8 roles). It’s amazing just how a work feels and what it ends up meaning to you when you have learned the entire thing. Even a work you may never perform. Allow yourself to learn as much about as much as you can. Be the smartest singer you can be.
Make your own opportunities.
One of my favorite singers who always brings me to tears, British musical theater singer Michael Ball, once said this. I loved it! And in reality, isn’t this how most companies and organizations started? Someone wanted to do something on their own. Currently in NYC, we are seeing a major influx of what is being called “start up” companies. Companies started by people in the business who want to create something, reach a new audience, provide opportunities. Examples of these are LoftOpera, On Site Opera, Apotheosis Opera, and OperaRox. These companies are very commendable and in my experience, both as an artist working with them and as an audience member, they are putting out quality and credible work worthy of the business. All these came from someone; a singer, director, or conductor wanting to create their own opportunities. Of course, these can be labeled as a vanity company, but I am going to leave Cindy Sadlers blog post about “vanity companies” right here to quickly dispel any negativity about that label. We see many good artistic ventures come up over time because of someone who created the opportunity ,whether it was for themselves or simply facilitating others. But even if you don’t have the energy or expertise to start your own organization, you can put your own performances together. Those may be recitals, collaboratives (like my friends at New Camerata Opera), or just a read through where you learn a role and perform it parlor style with piano. Even putting on a little rinky dink La Boheme in a church basement for that matter. Basically, the idea is that you do what you need in order to find your artistic satisfaction. I have been fortunate that with my willingness to sing, no matter where, I haven’t had to create my own opportunities often. But I did have a period where that suited me well. When I lived in St. Louis, I had a hard time breaking into the music scene. I wasn’t coming up with gigs, solo or chorus. Fortunately, I found a place called Tavern of Fine Arts. The Tavern was a café/wine bar that served as a performance venue as well. Their focus was on providing performances of classical music; chamber, vocal, experimental. They also put on jazz, cabaret, held drawing and painting classes, poetry readings, and book parties. It was your quintessential bohemian café. Their process was pretty straight forward; the space was free and you bring the audience. Receiving a portion of food and drink sales, the more people you brought, the more you made, hopefully. Over the course of two years, I did nine shows there. I put my own programs together which gave me the opportunity to perform various arias, art songs, and song cycles I hadn’t had the opportunity to perform before. This was a very prosperous time for me, artistically. I became a more knowledgeable singer and artist; I learned how to cultivate my stage presence and my personality. And I gained a bit of a following! It’s a time I would not trade for anything.
Just keep singing.
I don’t think this needs any real explanation, but truth is, sometimes we need to be reminded of this. In talking about my worries in my own path, soprano Sari Gruber said to me “just keep singing”. That was all I needed to hear! Sometimes we get depressed and hopeless over the rejections time and time again. Sometimes we get to a point where things just stop. Sometimes we burn out a bit. But the key is just keep singing. Just keep practicing, keep studying, keep learning. And beyond that, keep networking, keep researching, keep collaborating. And one thing I can pass off to others, keep going to see performances. I know we are all busy and often can’t go see things because we “have rehearsal” (that adage is real!!). But do the best you can to see other peoples work, to show your support for your colleagues by being there for their work. It does no good to our business and our craft if we don’t patronize it and support each other.
We all have a journey and we all have obstacles to overcome. Some of us aren’t cut out for this life. Some of us just don’t have the passion and the desire to go as far as one needs to build a career. And that’s okay. There are many avenues in this business to take and we all don’t have to be on the same one. We all have strengths and weaknesses that shape what we do. It’s a tough road and we will all ride it differently. So whether you are trying to be a singer, be in arts admin, nursing, culinary, whatever it is you are setting your mind to and where your passion lies, I will simply say learn as much as you can, create your own opportunities, and JUST KEEP SINGING.