Sunday, October 17, 2010

why we sing

Even though we've only been rehearsing for 6 days (and that's pretty much it - Monday is the final rehearsal and Tuesday is the opening) I've had time to speak to my colleagues this week and get to know them a little better. What I've discovered is that the South African tenor was an accountant until he was 30 years old, and switched to singing, and the Italian baritone singing Bartolo was a surgeon who performed liver transplants until he decided to pursue his passion for singing. I was comparing in my mind the decisions of those two, versus my incredibly talented boyfriend, who, while he has an absolutely fantastic voice and exceptional stage presence, and was singing a lot of great places, decided (before I met him) that singing was not the career he wanted to pursue and chose to go into the corporate world instead, where he could explore his passion for technology. It has really got me thinking this week about how there are some people who might never achieve critical success as musicians or artists, but who keep trying for their whole lives, while there are some people who do succeed, and could continue to do so, but decide that the career and life of an artist is just not for them. What makes some people give up perfectly good jobs as surgeons to become opera singers, and what makes other people give up perfectly good jobs as opera singers to go to work in the "real world"?

For me, the question of why I remain an artist is constantly developing. When I was younger, I think I developed into a performer first, because I loved being the center of attention, and because I discovered something I was good at naturally (singing). If I look back on my years in childhood and adolescence of singing lessons and performing in musicals and operas, I have to say that a big driving force for me was that a) I wanted to be a "star" and b) I liked doing something that I was good at. I think I also liked the challenges of performing in operas because it really does use all the parts of your brain and your body, and there is always a huge margin for error and therefore a never ending outlet for improvement. It wasn't until much later that I discovered the artistic pleasures of music and drama and began to explore the challenges of being a true musician and not just a performer. For opera singers who come to singing because they are natural performers, the trajectory of their artistic selves seems to be different than for opera singers who come to singing from having been instrumentalists first. But the thing about opera that seems to be endlessly appealing is that one has the opportunity to explore both sides of oneself. The musical part of the brain can almost be equated with both the mathematical side of the brain (in the learning and executing of pitches and rhythms) and of course also the creative side of the brain (with the interpreting and phrasing of the music). Plus there is the very creative art of physicalizing a character and finding dramatic intentions. And then the more technical element of communicating in another language and properly producing and pronouncing that language and translating what you're saying in your brain as you say it. And of course, the endlessly fascinating challenge of vocal technique and production. The possibilities for creativity and challenge are endless, and thus we can see exactly why someone would be drawn to a career in singing.

But the difficulties with having such a career are almost equally compelling. First of all, there's the difficulty of doing all the things I mentioned above, all at once, and then adding the pressure of trying to do all of those things in front of thousands of people. That right there is enough to make some people run screaming in the opposite direction. Add to that the fact that you have two people basically in charge of what you are doing while you are doing all those things - the director and the conductor - and more times than not, one or even both of those people seems to be conspiring to make that job infinitely more difficult, and yet they may have the power to make you feel like a turd on a log if you don't execute everything exactly as they imagine it. Then there is the unsteady and insecure nature of trying to make your living out of a job that has no stability, and doesn't allow you any job security other than a year or two in advance - and that's if you're lucky. Then there is the not so tiny element of always having to be on the road - often in very foreign places - all time time, just in order to pursue the job at all. Never having any kind of normal schedule. Missing major holidays and functions, weddings and funerals, and having absolutely no choice in the matter. Oh - and how about having to face terrible, harsh, toe-curling criticism, both publicly and privately, even when you have worked as hard as you possibly can and given every last ounce of your soul to a project. Have I mentioned the being away from your loved ones all the time? God, that's probably the suckiest part of it for me.

And yet people choose to pursue it anyway. There are people who would give every last one of their toenails to have just one of the opportunities that I've been given, and there are singers with whom I've worked in those situations who are dying to have a normal life again, and dream every day of finding a new way to make their livelihood. I honestly fluctuate - there are days when I am so fulfilled by this work that I am unbelievably happy, and other days when I sit down and start brain-storming about my other career options. But I have a very unique position - I have had the opportunity to pursue this career at a very high level, and have accomplished most things that people hope for - singing in some major places, working with famous directors and conductors, even making recordings. So now that I've had those experiences, I'm in a different position to judge whether this is something I choose to pursue, as opposed to people who only dream about those experiences. Then again, having had those experiences, I see exactly how wonderful and how terrible living the life of an artist can be. This makes the decision to keep choosing this life both terribly easy and terribly difficult, depending on which day you ask me. When all you have are dreams, everything seems possible, and when all you have are experiences, everything seems both possible and impossible at the same time.

There are no definitive answers. Only gratitude and thoughtful contemplation. Thank you for allowing me to indulge myself in both.


Anonymous said...

Yes, and what will you be for Halloween? "why we sing" was especially empowering. Your concept of possible impossibility takes the pressure off the need to fulfill dreams. 'That it's OK to try for something and allow the dream to morph into a richer life experience. "Better to have loved in vain than never to have loved at all"

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I've included this in my roundup around the operasphere on Operatoonity this week.

Anonymous said...

This was a very moving blog in that it reveals the human quest for answers. Why art, why the great need to express ourselves? How do we follow the path of being true to ourselves and not get lost along the way?
Thank you for expressing all of these thoughts so articulately. You are really good at writing as well as singing.

Anonymous said...

This post is one of the most brilliant things I have read. Anywhere. Ever. Everyone needs to read this, no matter what profession they have chosen. If you ever do decide to change jobs, you will make a helluva professional writer. Thank you for continuing to share your thoughts and experiences.

Unknown said...

Professional writer indeed! Jenny, you are an inspiration! There are so many tough trade offs one has to make in life. Keep thinking and writing. I so enjoy reading your posts.

Sibyl said...

Excellent distillation of one of the harshest decisions life forces us to make: who to be and how. The luxury of choice is also a burden, that's for sure. Thanks for writing about it so clearly.