When I read this extremely well-researched article from The Middle Class Artist on the systemic bias against women in opera (not to mention people of color in opera), my initial reaction was to want to run away from its stark truth. No one likes to see their life and career so neatly summed up in black and white, and I am no exception. I balked at feeling like a data point that is nothing more than part of a larger trend, hated to think back to those moments where it seemed like maybe, just maybe, I could have defied the odds and 'made it.' I simultaneously read the report with a sense of innate comprehension and relief at finally seeing numbers and hard data backing up what I have long known in my gut to be true about my career trajectory as a singer.
I started singing when I was 11 years old and, at the age of 30, that means that I have been committed to the path of a professional musician, in one form or another, for roughly 20 years, a fact that still astounds me. From ages 11 to 18, I was part of a prestigious girls’ choir that rehearsed, performed and made recordings at an extremely high level. I went on to sing professionally as an ensemble member and soloist throughout the US and in Europe, earning my Masters with Distinction in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy at a prestigious music school along the way. I list these things off, yet again and somewhat wearily, not to boost my ego or to prove my status, but instead by way of establishing that I have put in the hours, gained the experience, and demonstrated the talent that, in most other fields, ought to have led me to a successful career in my chosen field. Please note that my definition of success does not mean exclusively singing at the Met, but rather ability to sustain a living wage from year to year with the hope and expectation of improving one’s professional and financial status in the future. In other words, measuring everything against what seems a fairly conservative metric for career fulfillment.
And yet, year after year, I found myself staring at a dwindling bank account and fighting off feelings of panic, all the while looking around for evidence that there was something I just wasn’t doing right that could explain my situation. All I saw were people at various rungs of the career ladder and with various amounts of experience, virtually all of whom seemed to be performing the same precarious dance. I sought out advice from teachers, coaches, fellow performers. There had to be a key, I thought, some magic formula for how to translate my passion, ability and training into the career I was convinced that I so wanted. All of them well meaning, they would smile at me and recommend various things: more school, more auditions, more pay-to-sing programs. It often boiled down to recommendations of the paths that they themselves had taken or seen successful individuals take. But I couldn’t see much, if any, connecting thread between the suggestions. All that seemed to unite the success stories I heard and saw was indefatigability, a willingness to take on financial risk and personal instability, suck it up and live with bullying conductors, and sheer dumb luck. And most all of my mentors still encouraged me to keep going. “This is just the beginning of your career,” some would say, perhaps hoping their words would act as a talisman and clear the way for me.
Some were more honest. While performing as a graduate student at Carnegie Hall in the chorus for Mahler’s Second Symphony (‘Resurrection’), a member of the horn section in a well-known US orchestra turned around and chatted to a group of us seated behind him on choral risers. “Enjoy this performance,” he said. “It probably will end up being one of the most enjoyable ones you ever do here.”
Despite the years, hours, passion and dollars I have invested in music, I am currently not a full time professional singer, and that is not due to any failing, lack of talent or lack of hard work on my part (or my parents, family, and friends all of whom supported me in various ways and to whom I am forever grateful). I am one of countless singers and artists, a group growing by the day thanks to the current COVID-wracked landscape, who has been forced to quit the profession due to a lack of financial security and clear path towards a fulfilling career.
I’m writing this not so much to wag my finger at the sorry state of the industry, including its privileging of those with economic resources from families and spouses, but instead, I suppose, to share my personal sadness that this is the point it all comes to for so many aspiring musicians and artists.
Recently, I was talking with my partner about singing. He has an attitude I admire: singing has always been a passion for him, one he excels at, but it has never been his profession. And so when the topic of my journey with music arises, he is inevitably confused and concerned.
“How could you leave something behind that had so much meaning for you?” he asks. And, in those moments where I express doubt, sadness or grief at the roads not taken and the parts of the self left behind, his next well-intentioned question is, immediately, whether I wouldn’t like to try for the brass ring again.
The answer is, quite frankly, no.
And no, I don’t want to teach.
And no, I don’t think I will be as happy singing in a community or volunteer group, though it's certainly something I may try.
And yes, I suppose those final statements might seem to some to reveal small mindedness or a lack of imagination on my part, but I also want to be honest and proffer that such things would be at best consolation prizes and would not be enough to replace what I have lost.
I’ve recently finished reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. His thoughts on aging and death in our modern society and our denial of those inexorable processes have sparked a question for me. How can we mourn productively and accept mourning as a necessary part of life? In our quest to be constantly moving from strength to strength and height to height, it feels as though we have lost the ability as a society and as individuals to acknowledge, and I mean really acknowledge, loss outside of the confines of a therapist’s office. It makes us uncomfortable. I’ve seen it in the eyes of well-meaning friends when my parents split up after 20 years of marriage. I’ve seen friends who have lost loved ones feel completely isolated from practically everyone because of this invisible wall that we refuse to let come down in the face of loss, even though it is one of the few universal experiences that we all share. I’ve noticed myself falling into the pattern when a friend shares a sadness with me and my response is immediately perky. Perhaps I am hoping that by focusing on the positives and avoiding the pit of despair, I’ll help them to stay afloat. But none of us can be truly afloat unless we take the time to suss our wounds.
And so I am committing to mourning. Mourning the loss of a dream. Mourning the loss of an identity, a goal, a self. Mourning the countless talented individual voices that we have lost and continue to lose from the industry. Fortunately, I have come a long way in the past few years thanks to the aforementioned therapist’s office and no longer see this admission of loss as a death sentence: I am more than my musical ability, and I know that another potential experience we all share as humans is that of a second chance, seeing an unpromising twist in the road lead you to a place you could have never imagined.
But I will commit to mourning the loss of spaces where I felt free to engage my brain and my emotional self in service of beautiful music. I will mourn the loss of flow and creativity, that pulse of electricity that let me know I was fully alive. I will cry when I remember looking out into the sea of faces in an audience or into the face of a dear friend who was dying and knowing that my singing was channeling something from the beyond into the present and making a difference. And then I will wipe my tears and have a cup of tea.