I've been giving a lot of them lately - to myself, but also to a lot of my friends in the business. It's a difficult time to be an american opera singer, and there are so many talented people who are either struggling to make headway in the careers they are having, or who are struggling to find work at all. After one such pep talk today, I started thinking about the way american opera singers in particular define success. On the one hand, we are lucky to have an established "track" that one can follow - if I had to elucidate the path that most people define as successful, I would guess; conservatory (or school of music), summer program, young artist program, competitions, get an agent, regional opera work, Met/Chicago/San Francisco and BAM - YOU ARE NOW A SUCCESSFUL OPERA SINGER!! Other artists, like visual artists for example, don't have such a clear and distinct path to achieving the standard notions of success. But the problem with this "clear" path is that when someone veers off the track, or takes another route, or doesn't arrive at the pinnacle - singing at one of the major "A" houses - they aren't looked on by the general operatic community as successful, and so they don't consider themselves successful. They beat themselves up and wonder why they can't seem to break beyond whatever step they might be stuck at.
When I start getting overwhelmed by this idea of "you are only successful if a, b, or c" I am inspired by a friend of mine who is not an opera singer, but a cabaret artist. My friend Kim Smith came to New York City from Australia only knowing one or two people, but bubbling over with a huge passion for performing. He had trained in musical theater in his native Australia, but he didn't want to be on a sitcom or in a broadway show necessarily - his passion was for writing and performing Weinmar style Caberet shows. Not exactly the easiest field in which to find your path. Because there is no specific "path" for how to make a name for yourself in this particular field, Kim had to do everything himself - he had to find a venue, write his own show, publicize it himself, get an audience in there, and perform it- and the end result wasn't going to make him a millionaire. But the first time I saw him perform, not only was I astounded by his talent, intensity, and passion, but was equally impressed by his commitment to make it all happen completely on his own.
We opera singers can often become complacent - sitting around and waiting for someone to hire us. But Kim inspired me because he took matters into his own hands, and put on his own show, and it was fantastically effective and moving. Since he has been in New York, he has continued to create his own shows, although because he is so talented, people have taken notice, and he has begun to receive awards and have offers from presenters. He has become successful in his field by any standards, but he also still maintains a day job to pay his bills while continuing to perform. The thing is; he never had any doubts about what he wanted to do, and he made it happen. And no one who sees his shows ever has any doubts about whether he is "successful" or not - they are too busy admiring his ability to make them laugh and cry during the same song. We opera singers often ask ourselves - "Am I even an opera singer if I'm not performing in an opera?" but Kim never wonders whether he is or he isn't a cabaret artist. He just is, and we see him, and we know.
Okay, so what we do as opera singers is definitely a little different, and we do have to be part of a team, and we need directors, conductors, and orchestras in order to create the music that we love. But does all that mean we have to doubt ourselves and our own success as artists based on whether or not we're doing what we think is the definition of success? I say NO. I say we take a lesson from my friend Kim, and realize that making your own success is far more satisfying than trying to fit into some mold of what we're told success means. He should inspire us all.
Kim Smith will next appear at the Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Gallerie in New York City on April 1st. Please visit his website, www.kimdavidsmith.com for details.