Raise your hand. How many of you have heard this notorious phrase come from your most beloved relatives and friends.... or even from yourself.
"GET A JOB."
What exactly is a "Job" for classical singers? Do they mean a "Job" that isn't singing? I tried that and it didn't feel like me.
For our purposes today, let's define it as a full-time occupation with health and retirement benefits. Sounds secure. Sounds stable. Why does that not align with being a freelance opera singer in the U. S.?
In my early twenties, I loved the six months I had spent on the road with my country music superstar aunt, Suzy Bogguss. I was a nanny to my cousin and sang back-up for thousands of her adoring fans. I got to travel to 48 out of the US's 50 states and see what life on the road could be like. I knew then, it was in my blood to travel and be on the stage.
A few years later, after finishing a Bachelors and Masters and discovering a new passion for opera, I started my own jet set career. I was discovering what it meant to be an opera singer; being away from home for sometimes 10 months a year. When I had a gap in contracts, I would work in the mortgage industry or teach voice lessons. When I was back on the road, I enjoyed my time getting to know new people and new cities. I enjoyed the thrill of being the principal soprano; the exhilarating rehearsal to stage process, the opening night parties, and then.....it was time to do my taxes.........upfront the money sounded like it would be enough, but expenses always were well... expensive.
I realized, I was not making a great living at my freelance job. Doing all the auditions, prep work, coaching, voice lessons, paying for travel, car rental, and then singing a few meager performances after weeks of rehearsals was not enough to make a living. I was booked, but I was struggling to make it financially. One year I only netted $2,000 after all was said and done. It was demoralizing.
Then, as I was feeling down, but optimistic for the next year's contracts, my usually very supportive husband would say...
"When are you going to get a real Job"?
And let me tell you, most of the time I just grinned and turned to my usual optimism. And a few times, I just walked out of the room, pissed as hell.
I mean.... I was successful, by the definition of being mainly a full-time musician. My reviews were glowing. I was being re-hired by great regional companies. What more could I do? But... I felt like I was unsupported on the whole by the American opera industry, funded mainly by patrons. Always needing to cut their budgets to survive, which meant their talent took pay-cuts first. I pray this might change with the new and inspiring generation of leaders, now coming into their own, many of them singers.
In those days, I was always on shaky ground of not contributing enough to our household, reinvesting any savings into another expensive audition season, always hustling for the next years work, and at the sacrifice of never being home and not being able to start a "family". I couldn't stay on this Ferris wheel another year, going round and round.
"Get a Job!" still vibrates in my ears.
The truth is, in retrospect, there was another path that I needed to be on. Feeling the discomfort was what I needed to grow. My husband sensed it too, but was so frustrated that he defaulted to what he knew. Just like when I ask him what he wants from the grocery store and he says "a million dollars'. Yep, never gets old. I relied very heavily on my husband's steady work as a mechanic to support our home base, but I think he started to feel the burden of that after a while. Opera singer spouses really are saints in many ways and our biggest patrons. Saying "Get a Job" was his way of pushing me when I was floating from show to show, grasping at offers with no sense of direction.
On a side note:
Let me say, I loved all the roles and shows and people that were in my life. These companies and people made me the artist I am today. I am forever thankful, but I knew it wasn't enough for me in the long run. I was looking for a place where I felt supported, safe, and secure that lasted longer than a freelance contract. I did have a taste of what that could be like with Opera San Jose, when I was a resident artist. They continue to support artists in a very special way. If you get a chance, check them out!
So here comes the part of my story where Cinderella gets to go to the ball.
Wait.... that's a different story. But it was a bit glamorous. I was doing another expensive round of auditions in New York City. I had the opportunity to sing for several houses at the same time and I paid a good fee for the opportunity. It paid off because I had just come off of a wonderful training summer with the Merola program at San Francisco Opera and my arias were solid and were ingrained in my DNA. I knew exactly who I was and what I could perform on the stage. The combination of my preparedness mentally and musically, the opportunity, and the open position on the receiving end were one of those magical alignments, that happen only a handful of times in a singer's auditioning experiences. Everything clicked and I got an offer to sing two performances of "Cosi fan tutte" with the opportunity to be heard by the casting hierarchy of the Hannover State Opera for a full-time Fest position. I ended up getting the one year contract! Hallelujah right?! Well, almost. I still didn't know what was on the other end of signing that contract, but I knew I would finally have a "Job" that paid me for what I loved to do and gave me benefits.
Moving to Germany was a steep learning curve. I moved on my own, for the first year, to make sure it was the definite path that was going to stick. I had to learn German. I was homesick in a new way. I was used to being away from my husband and family, but when you're in a new country, it feels more expansive. I navigated through the changes of living in Germany. Applying for a work visa, learning the rhythm of the people, the closed stores on Sundays, the love of walking and ice cream whenever the temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I relied on colleagues and the patience of many helpful individuals, who taught me what I needed to know in order to live and function in the Fest system. There was a lot to learn. There is an amazing rhythm of a theater that functions like a well-oiled machine, with performances of Opera, Ballet, Symphony, Youth Opera, and community programs every day of the year. I was adjusting to less financial anxiety when going to a Doctors appointments, or calling into work when I was sick and knowing I would not lose my job for missing a few days of rehearsal. I realized in the past, I was singing in Fear of having to cancel and not get paid after months of hard work, every time I felt a cold coming on. An anxiety that was a grey cloud over my otherwise usual joy of singing. Suddenly, that pressure was less. I would recover quicker and more relaxed and get back to rehearsal and performances without added stress. I felt support and security. I was adjusting to the emotional benefits that come with a "Job" in the Fest system.
Thank you for reading about my journey.
Stay tuned for Part 2
Founder & CEO SoftlyLoud Artist Consulting