Monday, March 15, 2010

pep talks

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, for details.


Anonymous said...

It does seem like a lot of young American singers share this notion that the career path you described at the start of your post, or something like it, is the one that defines "success" in opera nowadays. The truth, which you acknowledge, is that very few young singers make that kind of progress in an uninterrupted way. In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of singers right now who are even close to accomplishing this, and I have some doubt about the wisdom of some of their career paths, honestly. They are getting opportunities which they may not truly be ready for, jobs at high exposure which if not completely triumphant will ultimately represent a fleeting experience which didn't lead to lasting and sustainable success. And it won't be attributable to anything other than their youth and inexperience - they probably just needed more time to develop. Now that's when a career in opera can become frustrating and potentially discouraging, and it's unnecessary. I just want to say that singers who take a bit longer, not performing steadily in the top US and European houses until they have quite a few seasons under their belts, are usually the stronger ones in the final analysis. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. Back in the day, young singers were told to take it slow. Now it seems young singers don't want to hear this for some reason, as if they are running out of time before they've even begun. Perhaps people in the field are making them feel this way. No matter how annoying the old time advice may be, though, it's still the truth, so young singers should take heart and enjoy the journey.

Anonymous said...

I faithfully read your post during my receptionist day job in Paris, in between calls. I have had time to reflect on career paths also, pursuing singing after a degree in harpsichord. I'm personally concerned with the age limitation of YAPs; I'm finally ready to audition for them, but I'm one or two years too old. Of course, I won't let this stop me, but it just made me realize that there are fewer resources for singers that are over the 30 year mark and fresh out of school. Maybe though, in the end, it's a good thing, because it forces you to throw yourself in and take risks, instead of waiting for someone to hand you a job.
It's always interesting to read comments from people who work inside the industry. I've noticed lately that there's a common consensus that things need to change in the opera world. Which makes me wonder: what, exactly? I'm curious to know...

Fay the Wannabe said...

Thank you for the post, Jennifer. I'm a long-time reader, but I wanted use your blogging-month as an excuse to actually comment and say thanks for the wonderful stories and all the inspiration :-)

And Anonymous, thank you for the bit about taking it slow. I'm a young (HA, what a strange businesses we're in where 27 is considered young...) mezzo, and I spent a couple of years hung up on career or lack thereof... but then I realized that don't even have solid technique yet. Now I'm back to the drawing board.

Here's a fan question for Jennifer: when did you know your technique was ready to hit the road and really pursue this as a career? Did it solidify in school, or did you have to do further work to bridge the gap? If not yourself, do you know anyone who actually managed to successfully transition between the rat race and the stage? I'm struggling to perfect technique and work a full-time job, so any words of wisdom would be truly appreciated.

And one last thing: I LOVE that Black Max song. Kim is indeed awesome, but the funny thing is, I had previously always associated the Bolcom songs with opera singers. I knew a mezzo who rocked Carmen and Black Max in the same recital :-)

sestissimo said...

Hi Fay - sorry it took me so long to respond to your question. For me, I actually started taking voice lessons very young (9 years old) so I had a pretty solid technique when I started undergrad, although I was singing as a coloratura soprano all through undergrad until the second year of grad school, so I made some pretty big changes at that point. I think that americans tend to make too big a deal of "technique" - it's very important, but artistry is equally important. Working in europe I've experienced some singers that don't have the technique that americans would deem up to par, but who are incredibly interesting artists, and in the end it doesn't matter so much. I mean, you want to be as good as possible at every aspect of what you do, but I really think we are obsessed with technique in a way that can interfere with our development of the artistic side of what we do. My two cents.