Monday, November 22, 2010

Are You Chorus or Against Us? Three Essays on Identity and Existence

As I was walking down the Freßgass’  (Frankfurt’s fancy-schmancy pedestrian zone), I overheard a conversation between two teenagers on a date. The boy was frustrated that his girlfriend wanted to update her facebook status on her smart phone: “Why do you need to tell 500 people where you are right this very second and what you like or don’t like?” 
I can totally understand this dilemma -- facebook gets out of hand sometimes. One positive thing the facebook status has done for us, however, is force us to check in with ourselves from time to time. Take a quick peek under the hood - how’s everything running? 
What’s on your mind? Christine Graham doesn’t feel like singing.
From my current perspective - lounging on my fabulous corner sofa, the night sky aglow with light of the full moon, the last little bit of Nero D’Avola ready to sip, all cozy in my flannel shirt, sweats and fuzzy slippers -- the last thing that would occur to me to do right now is sing. Granted, it’s late at night, and the last thing my neighbors would want me to do right now is sing - and I won’t disappoint them. 
I sometimes feel guilty calling myself an opera singer if I don’t always have a song on my lips, buzzing to be sung. But I was relieved to find out, when reading an interview with rising star Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, that he never sings when he’s at home. “Why not?”, they asked him. “I don’t feel like it,” he answered.
And why should he? 
Even though I spent an hour today coaching my audition arias with one of  Oper Frankfurt’s finest pianists, even though I had fun watching the video of my recent Gershwin recital, and even though I enjoyed rehearsing some music for an upcoming concert, right now in this very moment, I don’t feel like a “singer”. I’m just a woman sitting on the couch trying to put some ideas down on paper.
This is very hard to explain, and probably a stupid topic for a blog article (which also makes me doubt calling myself a ‘writer’), but it’s most likely something you’ve experienced yourself:
Oh, you’re a pilot! Well, that must be exciting, traveling so much. 
Oh, you’re a doctor! Well, you must feel so powerful, having people’s lives in your hands. 
Oh, you’re a cashier! Well, that’s .... interesting.
Chances are, the latter is the most interesting of them all. But because of his or her job, pun intended, the cashier may get short-changed. 
I guess I resent having a title, and having that title define who I am. True, true, I may be absolutely fabulous, charming, witty, and at times even glamorous, but it has nothing to do with me being an opera singer. That’s just how I am. Even if I were working the till at Aldi.
Christine Graham is glad she doesn’t have to work at Aldi. Yet.

Incognito in La Traviata, Seattle Opera 1996 (I'm on the right)
Of all the existential crises one has to endure as an opera singer, probably the most damaging to the identity is being labelled as a chorister. There is a legendary stigma that goes with accepting a job in an opera chorus, the fear of a huge letter ‘C’ stamped on every résumé you send out, if not directly on your forehead. I have heard it to be true - once you sing in an opera chorus (beyond your initial years as a student or apprentice, that is), theaters will be hesitant to give you a job as a soloist.
Singing in the chorus forces you to give up many things:
• The characters you play don’t have names. 
• You play as part of a collective, and therefore have little or no say in rehearsing with a director (unlike the soloist who stays up half the night with the director, knocking back shots of whisky and talking about character development...).
• Your schedule prevents you from doing much else (hence no time to audition for those solo roles that you won’t get anyway because of the scarlet ‘C’ on your forehead).
• You give up hearing the sound of your own voice, because there will be some bitter diva-wanna-be standing next to you (or more likely, square in front of you) singing your same part in your ear.
But there is one thing that the chorister has that the soloist does not have:
In Germany, the most opera-friendly country on Earth, the theaters realize what they take away from a singer once he or she is given a position in the chorus. So to compensate, they are given a decent salary - sometimes up to twice as much as that of their soloist colleagues. Ergo, the chorister has one more thing that the soloist relinquishes in exchange for applause:
A life.
The girl in the chorus has those boots you’ve always wanted but couldn’t afford. She’s making a down payment on a car, and not worried about the monthly costs that follow. She knows that she’ll be done with rehearsal at precisely 1:00 p.m. and that she has every Monday off. She can schedule appointments in advance. If her dream of singing that two-line solo in Der Rosenkavalier is fulfilled, she’ll get that extra bonus to put in her kid’s college fund. Oh, and she can afford a kid, because her slot in the chorus is guaranteed to her, even after a paid maternity leave. The theater just hires someone to take her place until she gets back.
For about 5 minutes, I considered applying to be one of these substitutes. I mean, if I’m just a substitute, I won’t have to have the ‘C’ for chorus tattooed on my forehead, will I? And I certainly don’t think any less of the friends I know who have gone into the chorus for financial reasons, or even artistic ones. The chorus is just as much a part of an opera as a solo role is. Goodness knows it would be nice to sit back and relax and not have to think about money (or anything else for that matter) for a while.
Aside from some scheduling difficulties which may ensue, I just wasn’t able to warm up to the idea to auditioning for the chorus. Despite the fact that it would only be temporary, in a way it feels like giving up. Giving up the dream of doing what I already do, just more often and for more money. Giving up the time to organize more recitals like the one I just did with Gershwin music. Giving up the fight to prove to all the theaters who have turned me down that I’m damn good at what I do. But most importantly, giving up the way in which I prefer to experience opera theater - as a soloist.
Who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t get any other offers during that time, but I just have the feeling that, as soon as I sign on the dotted line, that’s when the soloist offer of a lifetime is going to present itself - and I would be contractually obligated to decline. Even worse, what would happen if I auditioned for the substitute job in the chorus ... and didn’t get it?
Sometimes, we do what we have to do to earn money.
And sometimes, we do what we have to do to keep our pride in tact.
After an audition.

Of all the opera singers I know, only about about two or three of them no longer have to audition. And that’s just an assumption I’m making - I’d have to ask them to make sure that that’s true. I figure once you’ve sung at the MET, no one’s really expecting you to show up with 5 contrasting arias and a résumé.
This assumption is also one people make of me at this stage in my career (‘people’ as in regular people, not opera people). It’s true to a point - I no longer have to audition for the Kammeroper Frankfurt. And the last couple of guest contracts I’ve had have been almost handed to me. The audition was just a formality to make sure I didn’t suck. For the most part, however, potential employers won’t be familiar with the extent of my artistry, or know me well enough to trust that I’m reliable and capable. There’s no reason I should not have to go audition in person. It’s just part of the process, like any other job interview. 
There are, of course, a few differences in this job. It’s not like working at the bank for ten years and being rewarded with a gold watch and two more weeks of vacation. It’s not like working your way from dishwasher to restaurant manager -- and tell me honestly, how often has that happened, really? Unless you really fight your way to the top, no matter how exceptionally good you are, you never have to stop proving it.
For the ‘regular’ people out there, before you ask me why I still have to audition,  here are some of my previous blog entries which might help you to understand the job-hunting process of an opera singer:

Running to Stand Still


  1. Brilliant. Simply brilliant.
    I was nodding throughout all these essays. The first one is particularly revealing...It struck a chord with me, and I think with a lot of singers. A friend of mine said to me once, "How do opera singers go about their regular lives knowing they can do something so extraordinary?" He said this as I was stuffing pad thai in my mouth, on in the couch in sweatpants watching The Golden Girls. Yeah. Extraordinary.

    (And props on the chorus piece. That's a difficult topic to talk about for a multitude of reasons.)

  2. as we say in Spanish "En casa de herrero, cuchillo de palo". You translate it ;)

  3. The cobbler's son is always barefoot. There, I translated it (I know the literal translation is 'in the blacksmith's house the knives are made of sticks). Great post!

  4. I was with you on the second post until you said you would decline to sing in chorus to keep your pride intact. Are they ashamed to be in chorus? Are the choristers less proud? Well, maybe, I guess. But doesn't that then negate the choices people make -- to have kids, be in one place, make more money, be part of an ensemble. These are legitimate choices, and it should be sufficient to say that you want to remain a soloist -- because you want to remain a soloist -- without the snark about pride.

    On the other hand, your post could be about the unfairness of perceptions leveled at choristers who are competent soloists in their own right. I grant you the stigma exists, though it is ridiculous. But in early music for example, the expectation is that you will do both. And many have thoroughly rewarding careers switching back and forth between the two. That's how it should be, no?

  5. Not that I ever have to justify what I write, I still want to ensure that this is not a put-down for choristers. On the contrary.
    When I made the snark about pride, I was referring mostly to this bit:

    "Despite the fact that it would only be temporary, in a way it feels like giving up.... Giving up the fight to prove to all the theaters who have turned me down that I’m damn good at what I do."

    And when I say "all the theaters" I'm actually referring to one or two people. Tempted to name names, but will remain discreet.

    I just cannot give them the satisfaction of winning. Nor would I be satisfied. So even if pursuing a career as a soloist is a lost battle, it's win-win for me!!