Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Opera Singers

I've been scarce here lately for more than the usual reasons. In fact, I spent April doing something I never thought I'd do again in this life: rehearsing and performing a small principal role in a Mozart opera with a reputable regional opera company. To make a long story short, the music director of company in question, which is about seventy-five miles from where I live, called me when the singer who was originally cast was offered a more career-making sort of role with a different company, creating a scheduling conflict. I didn't know this conductor personally, but another conductor had recommended me. I demurred at first, because it just seemed crazy. I'm not in the game anymore, and it really wasn't the kind of role I would sing if I were; it's usually cast with an up-and-coming singer, whereas I am more of a down-and-outing one. I explained to the conductor that I don't do opera anymore, that I have children, and that it would be very difficult for me to make rehearsals because of the distance. I also told him that I could recommend two excellent colleagues who had sung the role. But it seems the referring conductor's recommendation counted for a lot, and in the end I was offered the job, and, after my initial protestations, I figured I should take it, because . . . . well, I'm not sure why. I had been strongly prevailed upon; the money was good; and it was the chance to sing in a Mozart opera. And I had been told that I would only have to make it to three rehearsals, which turned out not to be true. I think I had to make the trip back and forth from my home to the city where the opera company is located twelve or thirteen times, and as a result I had to make some creative child care arrangements, and I spent most of the month more sleep-deprived than usual, since I was getting home well past midnight and my children wake up well before six a.m.

During the production process, I felt like an undercover anthropologist. After so many years away, I was overwhelmed by how vastly different my life was from the lives of my colleagues in the show, and, indeed, how different my life is now from the way it used to be when I was pursuing an opera career. I didn't have the chance to get close to any of my colleagues, because they were all in residence at a hotel for a month, while I was driving back and forth, so I missed out on some of the best things about being an opera singer: the camaraderie, the jokes, and the friendships that form in the inevitable Canterbury-Tales/Gilligan's-Island-type scenarios that arise when strange singers find themselves together in a strange city (incidentally, there's a wonderful novel on this topic, Now Playing at Canterbury by Vance Bourjaily). My colleagues were uniformly the best singers I've ever worked with; out of the cast of nine, three had already sung at the Met, underscoring the current dire economic climate for opera, in which, because of multiple regional-opera-house closings, A-level singers are working in C-level houses, which is both a boon to those houses and a disaster for singers less-well established.

None of the other female principals was married. Only one besides me had children: a three-year-old, whom she'd brought along on the gig, and who was being cared for by babysitters in the hotel room. "I don't know how much longer I can keep doing this," the singer-mother confided in me. Two of the male principals did have children, but they also had wives to care for them back home while they were out on the road. I overheard one of the unmarried, childless female principals ask one of her male colleagues, upon learning that he was going to New York to see his wife on our day off: "Can I live vicariously through your sex life? Because it's going to be a lot better than mine, no matter what." 

I'm sure I've mentioned this here before: you can't really be a mother and an actively-careerist opera singer. Well, you can, if you time your childbearing perfectly, and if you're commanding fees that allow you to pay for nannies, two conditions which almost never happen singly, let alone simultaneously. Some haters who used to read this blog a few years ago left comments suggesting that I quit opera because I lacked talent. While I don't think that's entirely true, it doesn't really matter that much, because once you get to a certain level of the profession, it's not even about talent. I'd like to say that it's about hard work, and that's certainly part of it; but it's much, much more about a confluence of things that are out of the singer's control, including the stars aligning. And of course, you have to really want it.

One of the principal singers in my production -- one of the unmarried women who had sung at the Met -- is enrolled in a doctoral program in voice at a prestigious conservatory. Since I loved my own years of doctoral study, I was surprised, when I asked her how she liked it, to hear her say that it was a total waste of time, but that she needed the piece of paper to get a good teaching job. I realized that our reasons for getting our doctorates were very different: I had already transitioned out of opera when I enrolled, and was performing concerts of material I'd found in my own archival research, and I wanted to learn how to be a better researcher. She, on the other hand, is coming up against a wall in the business beyond which, since she's a lyric-coloratura soprano approaching forty, she cannot go, and she does not have a husband, and she realizes that she needs to make a career transition in order to continue to eat.

It is an unhappy profession, peopled by lonely, unhappy people.

When I told a friend, a Wagnerian soprano who left the career in order to have a family, about my recent experience, she wrote me:

I can't even imagine trying to go sing with the diva girlies now. I really think opera is a dying sport/art form, so it is probably worse now than it was when we were out there.

The best colleagues I ever sang with were Wagnerians, since they are too busy trying to get all their shit together to be prima donnas . . . and I generally found that they want you to know the stuff so that if they stumble, someone can help!

I think I acquitted myself without shame, and I'm glad it's over.


Sally Thomas said...

Well, congratulations! Wish I could have seen and heard it all.

Pentimento said...

Thank you. :)

Anne-Marie said...


¨you can't really be a mother and an actively-careerist opera singer.¨

I sometimes think this is true of almost any career, though opera is no doubt one of the more erratic and demanding careers. You can have a job and kids, but active careerism and childrearing, will always be in tension if not in opposition. That was certainly my experience the year I taught math at the local university--and I wasn´t even expected to do any research.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Anne-Marie.

Erratic and demanding are apt descriptors. I don't see how my current life could ever square with those demands, even if I still did want to do it.