Saturday, May 29, 2010

Personal Lives

You know, I usually never discuss my personal life on my blog. The subtitle of my blog is "the life of an opera singer equals comedy", but it also equals drama, and boy, do I have some stories. Not just about myself of course, but about all the friends and colleagues I've encountered over the years. Now, that would be a book - maybe when I retire I can write a tell-all. Not just yet though.

That being said, I was inspired recently by my dear friend Nick Phan's blog post on being gay and open about it in the entertainment industry. He is brave enough to discuss one element of his private life in a public forum, because it's important and it helps other people overcome their own fears and promotes understanding and empathy. So I figured I could to write a blog post, not about the specifics of my personal life, but about some of the challenges of being a woman who is a traveling artist and who is working regularly. It's going to be a difficult post for me to write, but one that I think will be interesting and hopefully thought provoking, so bear with me.

I'm 34 years old and single, with no children. The perfect age and status to be having an opera career. I'm at an age where my voice has fully matured, but still has room for growth, where I've learned enough emotional lessons to make me strong enough to battle the demons that this career inflicts, and secure enough in my vocal technique to make it through a variety of crazy situations. Being single and childless also allows me the freedom to take any job I want, be on the road as much as I need to, and take every opportunity that comes my way. I don't have to worry about making money to feed my family, and can take any job that might be artistically fulfilling, even if it means I barely break even because the cost of the housing alone eats up most of my fee. I can jet all over the world from St Louis to Austria to France to Berlin (just to name the next few places I'll find myself) and I can set up apartments in both the U.S. and Europe, and find out which place I might like to call home for the next period of my life. I can go get a massage when I'm stressed and buy myself a new pair of shoes, because I'm not saving for my child's college fund. I can get enough sleep and I can learn music at any hour of the day or night. I can make deep and lasting friendships with all the extraordinary people I meet because I'm not spending hours skyping with my family back home. And I even have time to write a blog, a hobby I find fabulously cathartic.


But it can get super lonely. And the more you work, and the more successful you become, the harder it gets to find someone who is willing to deal with your insane lifestyle and settle down and have a relationship with you. Unless someone is in the business and therefore has a deep understanding of what you do (and not even then, in come cases) most people find it impossible to imagine trying to sustain a relationship with someone who could be on the road for 10 months. Women seem more wiling to cope with this - I even know a lot of couples where the woman travels with the man to all of his gigs. I don't know any couples however, where the man travels everywhere with the working woman. I'm sure there are some, I just don't know any. And so many of the couples that I know in the business who got married in their twenties are getting divorced now - this lifestyle really takes it's toll on relationships. And unlike some lucky women singers, who have no desire to have children, I have always known that I was a mother, and that I would one day have some kids. I'm just not entirely sure how that's going to manifest itself within the confines of the reality I have created for myself thus far. And as wonderful and fulfilling as it is to have a career as an artist, I can tell you, your career isn't going to kiss you goodnight, or come visit you in the hospital if you're sick.

I don't mean to be overly pessimistic - I certainly also have friends who are singers who are married and have fantastic relationships with their spouses, and who find ways to make everything work. But I do have to say that even though it's 2010, and our society has come a long way in the last hundred years, it's still really difficult for a woman to have a successful career, and have a family. How do you keep your relationship together when you never see each other? Maybe you travel with your kids until they are of school age, but what about when they need to start going to school? I'm curious what Anna Netrebko is going to do when her son needs to start first grade - is she going to be away from him for 10 months or bring him on the road with a tutor? How are she and Erwin Schrott, another incredibly successful and busy singer, going to make it work, I wonder? And although her career is obviously on a very different level than mine, I think she was just a couple of years older than me when she got pregnant, so I find myself wondering how she plans to make it all work.

I can honestly say that at this point in my life, overall, I'm pretty happy. I've had my share of successful and not so successful relationships (although I haven't been married yet), but the time that I have been on my own, I've been able to focus on my career and get it off the ground, and to make some incredible, life long friendships that I will always have no matter what romantic relationships may come in and out of my life. But having chosen the life of a nomadic artist poses some huge challenges to one's social life that I haven't quite found the answers to yet. And I guess, like everyone else in this business, I'll have to cross each bridge when I come to it, to find the solution that works best for me.

In the end, I think the best way to find a relationship of any kind and make it last is to know yourself, and have confidence in who you are as an individual. That way, you are not necessarily relying on the other person to give you strength, but instead, you are choosing to share the best of your individuality with one another. And if this career does anything, it allows you - no - it forces you - to see who you really are and what you are really made of - something that can only help you be a better partner. And maybe, just maybe, assuming you find the right person - this makes opera singers excellent spouses and parents, not impossible and difficult ones. Learning to overcome obstacles is, after all, kind of our specialty.


Victoria said...

Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Your words are filled with so much honesty, and they really encompass every corner of this very personal spectrum. You've really given your readers an opportunity to examine this issue with a lucid realness that doesn't exclude optimism.

Katypracht said...

Great and very brave blog, Jenny! I miss you!

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, you are so wonderful. This is the heart and soul of an opera singer's life, in the final analysis, and you are a dear heart to share so much. I could go on and on with my own thoughts in response to yours, but I will try not to take up too much space :-). I know you realize that your hopes and fears are shared by professional women everywhere - and men - regardless of their field. How to have it all, if that is even possible... How to find balance, that's the challenge.

More than anything, I would say that once you find the right person with whom to share your life, much of these details will take care of themselves. Your life will unfold before you, and you will find your own unique path. If you want to be a mother someday, that also will become clear as time goes on. There are many different kinds of arrangements that can work. Anna Netrebko is faced with these same concerns, trying to find a way to be a good mom to that cutie pie Thiago, and trying to create a stable homebase for her family. I think you will see her spend a bit more time in Wien and also Russia in the years to come, though obviously she has a massive international career. It is in many ways not something to envy. As for male opera singers who have families, though they enjoy the benefit of a double standard in the sense that they seem to be free to come and go, they also endure pain when they miss special occasions, when they see that their absence is causing their children any pain, etc.

The one thing that is true is that given the nature of this work, all opera singers and their families will be faced with compromise and sacrifice, no matter what. There will be painful choices to make. We do what's best for the children, hopefully, but there are no easy answers. You mentioned couples who travel together, which is not uncommon. However, when little ones enter the picture something usually has to give. I know a wife who pretty much tended the homefires while the children were growing up for 18 years while her husband traveled. This was difficult on everyone, but the richness of a life in music has its rewards even so. Their children are incredible young adults now; they were privileged to have amazing experiences around their father's career.

It is critical to have supportive associates around you, as in managers, coaches, and the like. The business has become far more family-friendly, and that is a positive development. And, as you know, the current communication technology has made a world of difference, though it doesn't change the inevitable lonely reality of life on the road. Can you imagine, it used to be one could only place an international call from Europe by going to the neighborhood post office and standing in a phone booth?! And then there were the time zone differences and work schedules to reconcile before a call would even be attempted! Crazy. We've come a long way.

The main thing is to stand your ground at all times and do what's best for you, even if it doesn't follow the "conventional wisdom", if there is such a thing, of the business. I don't think this business is very wise at all. As you say, none of these folks are going to be there to walk through life's joys and troubles with you later on. And, even career-wise, it is important to remember that you are the one getting the reviews and having to live the life, and people in the business have singers waiting in line should you falter or need to pull back at any time. This shouldn't discourage you, it should empower you to trust your own instincts and resist pressure of any kind if it makes you uncomfortable.

I will shut up now, but know that you are not alone in your thoughts. You will find a way to your happiness, I am certain.

Anonymous said...

PS The greatest relationships in this business, the ones that survive, as you say, are only made stronger by a life in opera. Probably not too different from non-opera relationships that suffer other kinds of adversity over the course of a life together, and triumph. That is not to say that divorce rates are in line with the national/international average, though. Your point about finding someone who really understands the work is critical. Often that needs to be a person who is also connected to the field in some way, but not necessarily. Hopefully they would share your passion for it, at least.

sestissimo said...

Dear Anonymous - Even though I don't know who you are, I recognize your "voice" immediately when you make comments, and I really appreciate the support and wisdom you share with me, asking nothing in return. It means a lot - so thank you!

Anonymous said...

It is my pleasure, ma'am ;-). You'll do the same for your "next generation", as well, I have no doubt whatsoever. You already are. Your parents must be very proud of you!

Sibyl said...

Very insightful post. You hit the nail on the head in your analysis of differences in marriage in one's 20's and in one's 30's. Anonymous (who I suspect is nearer my age than yours) is also absolutely right; when the time comes life will make space for what you need. Just be ready to find out that what you need may be different than what you want!

Unknown said...

You've also hit the nail on the head on how best to negotiate relationships - when you know yourself best. Good luck in love, life and opera!

Andra Dan said...

Wonderful blog, wonderful post and marvelous voice! You have all my admiration and love and respect.
Myself, I am studying in order to get into the Music University in my country, but right now I'm in Law School and I have to finish it first. I study opera for 4 years or so and I have a long way to go but I feel that this would be every-day explosion of my heart in a million pieces of joy and love and passion and I am ready to fight for it. I am sometimes thinking how it will be, how hard it will be for me to have a family, how prepared am I, actually ? Your post made me think about this again. Maybe, you never know if it's the right way to go or the right things to do but it's a certainty that the the dream, music, art- makes miracles and makes flowers and blessings pop up in your way.
May you have a lot of success and love, and may you find the inner path to settle down even if you are always running from America to Europe to enchant people with your voice. I send you my best regards from Romania!

Gretchen Saathoff said...

Jennifer, 1st of all, I LOVE your blog. Your relationship to readers thru your posts is wonderful!

2nd, although I don't have kids, I've read about a musician or two taking their kids on the road with a nanny. Home schooling might be an option...