Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Singing is for Suckers"

I read an article today in my rather embarrassingly flimsy local paper about aspiring local opera singers. There's an apprentice program at a small opera company in the region, and, as with all such programs, young singers relocate from far and wide to participate in it. During the off-season, they continue to meet three times a week to workshop their repertoire; in the meantime, like singers everywhere, they work bread gigs, also known as day jobs. One is a receptionist at a local law firm; one stocks shelves at a liquor store; one, who had the unusual perspicacity to gain skills in another field, is a certified ESOL teacher and is able to work in area schools. They have come from Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia, among other places, and during the fall-winter audition season, they also travel to New York City, which my new home town is nowhere near, at least once a week when other regional companies are hearing auditions there.

Some commenters on this blog have suggested that success in the arts (such as it is) is evidence of talent, and that "unsuccess," as one commenter dubbed it (referring to my life and career), is evidence of its absence. I don't know this commenter personally, and I don't believe she's heard me sing, but the truth is that I had a lot more "success" during my more active performing life than many singers who probably deserved it more. One year I made $16,000 from singing -- a record for me, and, though it may be a paltry sum to you, is princely to most of us (most years it was about half that). But people, let me tell you, if you don't know it already: there is essentially no work in classical music, and yet the market is flooded with applicants. This isn't just true for opera. If a regional orchestra has an opening, say, in the clarinet section (and vacancies in orchestras are extremely rare, in spite of low job satisfaction among orchestral players), every clarinetist of a certain caliber in America spends his or her own cash to fly there to audition for it. This adds up to hundreds of people auditioning for one spot, and then flying back home to face once more the frustrations particular to workers who are highly trained in a specialized field in which they may never hope to find paid work.

Poking around the web a bit, I found that the young Canadian bass Campbell Vertesi had summed it up succinctly: "Singing is for suckers." I remember making a vow with my friend Soprannie to never say die, but both she and I, for many reasons and like so many others, eventually retreated from the wearying uncertainties of an opera career. As longtime readers of this blog know, I went back to school and got my doctorate in voice, finishing just this year, though now I can't find a teaching job. I'm currently turning my dissertation into a book and, ironically, have some singing jobs, including a rather high-profile one, booked for next year. Right now, however, I just don't have the drive that kept me, as a young singer, practicing until 10 PM every night (the unwritten cut-off time for musicians to stop making their infernal racket in New York apartments), spending every dollar that came in on coachings, and eventually switching bread gigs to work at night so that I could give my best energies to my singing during the day.

A few years ago a book was published that explored these subjects, and in the process stirred up a lot of controversy in the New York City classical music world: Mozart in the Jungle, by oboist-turned-journalist Blair Tindall. The book is one-half (actually, the weaker half) racy memoir-cum-exposé -- its subtitle is "Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music" -- and one half well-researched analysis of the demise of classical music in America. Tindall was vilified by many in the classical music community when the book came out, with some of her former colleagues calling her abilities as a musician into question (I don't know Tindall or her playing, but a friend of mine does, and was in the string section on almost every gig she describes in the book; he calls her "an awesome player"). For anyone interested in these things, her book goes a long way towards explaining why classical musicians can't make a living at music (and, pace my commenters, it's not because they lack talent).

What it does not explain, however, is why anyone becomes a classical musician in the first place. I think I speak for many when I say that it's because we fall in love with beauty, we perceive that music begins to speak the truth where ordinary language falters and fails, and we want to share its message with others: the message that God's world is beautiful, and that it's yet only a dim reflection of the beauty of God.

Above: Soprano-comedienne Anna Russell.


Anonymous said...

Well, I'll comment. I sing classical music as an avocational singer. Do I regret not singing professionally? Well, it's a wash. I wasted years not singing; but at this point I sing what I want where I want, and my rather good day job means I can pay for lessons, etc. Audiences are local - you will never see me up in HD from the Met. But I am spending my days filling my head with the best music and best poetry ever written, as I practice, and fill the occasional evening, for other people, with good music.

It doesn't make economic sense, but this is beauty we are talking about here.

Maybe it's a case of the weak things being chosen to confound the strong. If someome very talented and well-trained sings or plays from the heart, billionaires will hush and stand still and tears will come to their eyes. Beauty, if shared among people of good will, simultaneously humbles and lifts people up.

I can't say it any better than you did in the last sentence of your post.

Pentimento said...

"It doesn't make economic sense, but this is beauty we are talking about here." This has long been my mantra. As Babette says in the movie "Babette's Feast," "An artist is never poor." And we know that success in the eyes of the world counts for nothing in the eyes of God.

The best music and the best poetry -- are you focusing on German Lieder?

When I dropped out of opera I actually went on to have some success giving concerts in more intimate settings. I always preferred it; the connections made between musicians and audience were much more profound.