Oh, the life of a performing artist.
You want to succeed. You want to give your very best and, when your best isn’t enough, you try to dig deep into yourself to find something untapped, some reserve of strength you didn’t know was there.
All through music school we were encouraged to let our guards down and find those reserves, to be open to criticism for our own betterment, to be all that we can be For Our Art. We learned to be addicted to feedback, since none of us could objectively judge ourselves and our potential, and our own teachers weren’t telling us either. We waited uncomfortably after auditions for any precious feedback and turned every comment over in our minds, be they sensible or stupid; we cringed through listening to our recorded lessons; we made fun of other singers just to make ourselves feel more worthy. Having nothing else to cling to, like a healthy self-esteem and a career path with recognizable milestones, we hung onto any little sign of approval, such as who gets this or that role in a show, or this or that solo in the chorus, who sings opening night, who gets to study with that popular teacher, who wins this school prize.
Is it any wonder, then, that some of that follows us into our working years?
“What they do here in Europe isn’t opera. It’s full of singers with little voices who can’t be heard over the orchestra.”
This was said less than three feet from where I was sitting, by other singers. Probably they weren’t even thinking of me (I was looking at my smartphone and partially in the conversation), and the accuracy of that statement is dubious, but nevertheless, it stung.
Ensemble life can be both rewarding and difficult in the best of circumstances, in any theater. Singers get stressed, from the demands of being stretched in all sorts of directions. Having been trained to rise to the challenge, we try to do it all. Perhaps I am doubly cursed in being female and North American, for whom saying “no” comes with a price, even if it is internally applied. Standing up for myself takes all of my energy, not standing up for myself quietly saps it away along with my self esteem.
Which is how I find myself here now — in the middle of a successful run of a really great show, after singing a lovely concert last night of very interesting music, including a world premiere of a song cycle, with wonderful, talented people involved — fretting and wallowing in thoughts of I can’t do all this, I really can’t sing, I have no real talent of any use, I’m a failure, I’m an amateur, a dilettante, a wannabe tipping over into has-been-never-was, a workhorse who’s only good enough to fill small roles. I can do a little of everything, and nothing in particular. I’m too old. I’ll never be what I think I should be.
Of course this is so much bull. Who among us musicians is exactly where they think they should be? Who among us can objectively, clearly, see one’s own talents and limitations and say “I’m OK with that?” (This was not brought on that comment above, it had been brewing for a while.)
Why am I writing this? Maybe because young singers, looking for information and advice about working in Europe, will find in a google search all sorts of stuff about How To Get Work Here, as if that’s the culmination of all your efforts, congratulations, you landed a job, Happy End. But that’s really only the beginning, and not all of it is the Great Adventure. You bring with you all of your work habits; how you deal with adverse situations; with frenemies; with being unable to express yourself perfectly in your own language, let alone a new one. You bring with you the reasons behind your drive to be a performer — are you seeking approval, and if yes, from whom? Can you appreciate your own talents and strengths when they seem to differ from “What We Are Looking For Right Now”? Can you share joy in the successes of your colleagues, or do you have to hide their Facebook posts? Is it enough to have singing work, when you sacrifice everything else to have it?
I ran into a former colleague on the street yesterday. He’d trained as a school teacher but began a career in opera shortly after his first teaching job. He has a beautiful voice, excellent stage presence, a good attitude, the desire to learn and work hard, and the rare gift of comic timing. He worked in a few opera houses for about ten years, successfully, and then left it all behind him in order to have a private life and some peace of mind. He’s teaching part time now, and singing concerts, and he sounds very happy. I have thought a lot about him over the last several months, because I will be doing something similar at the end of this season. The full-time ensemble life is no longer for me. All I know right now is that I have to sing on my own terms, or else not do it at all. Singing is something that should bring one happiness. I might find that happiness again, or maybe in something else. It’s time.