Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Path of Least Persistence: Dog-racing for Singers

Run, Christine, Run!

If you’ve ever been to the dog races, you’ve seen the fervor and determination with which greyhounds chase their goal. Not looking right nor left, they run like mad around the track until crossing the finish line. The ‘winner’ is the first one to realize that what he’s been chasing all along is not a tasty rabbit, but a mechanical lure with a furry tail at best. But the dogs keep chasing this unfulfillable feast until going into a sad and miserable retirement. 
But that’s another story. It’s a dog eat dog world.
Chasing the operatic dream is not dissimilar to a dog race, except for the fact that the lure is real. But you have to chase a lot of false rabbits and bark up a bunch of wrong trees before capturing it. Obviously the greyhound isn’t aware that the rabbit is a fake. Otherwise, I can’t imagine that he would run so fast to catch it. The concept of ‘discouragement’ is foreign to a dog.
When I first set foot in the race to become an opera singer in Germany, I was running at the swift pace of a greyhound. I sent 70 letters to agents, opera houses and young artists’ programs, happily licking each stamp and not being bothered by the “No-thank-you” replies that came pouring in (in fact, I made a collage out of them -- I call it “Mit freundlichen Grüßen”). Of those 70 letters, I got one invitation to audition, flew out, sang for them and was immediately offered the job. I hit the ground running, so to speak.
Since I’ve been here, I honestly don’t think I’ve put as much effort into getting auditions as I did back then. Instead I concentrated my efforts on singing for agents so that they could do the footwork, and of course on the matter at hand -- my job. While you’re working, it’s easy to take your eye off the rabbit and forget that, even though you have work, you are still in the race. Plus, no matter how hard I try, other contenders still get ahead. Despite having sung for several agents who seem to like what I do, I often find out about auditions happening without me.
Just recently, I sang a formidable Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, I also have Zerbinetta in my repertoire (and got a great review in Opernwelt for that performance), and I’m just about to play Mozart’s famous Queen of the Night. So when I read on another singer’s blog that she was getting ready to audition for exactly those three roles, I wonder why it is that I don’t even know about this audition, much less why I haven’t been invited. Or when I saw on yet another coloratura’s Facebook page that she’d only last week landed a fest contract in a smaller house in the east, again I am baffled as to why these auditions pass me by.
Things like this happen often enough to make me stop running so fast and instead take leisurely walk on my self-denominated Path of Least Persistence. This can be a very pleasant experience, just as I’m sure a greyhound dog enjoys haphazardly chasing a frisbee probably even more than frantically running after a wanna-be rabbit. On the Path of Least Persistence unexpected things come to you unexpectedly. Problem is, it’s not enough. While it can be fulfilling to sing Bach in a church with an amateur choir, or fun to improvise over electronic music on a boat as part of an art exhibition, it does not quite satisfy the urge to prove your worth and serve the duty of portraying a character through music on a stage with your peers -- and be able to pay the bills, to boot.
...ain't never caught a rabbit.
I hypothesize, however, that I may have gotten that very first audition back then had I sent only 20 letters instead of 70. That particular recipient probably would have been on my addressee list in both cases. So why should I bother with the rest? Now I know through experience that there are some trees I needn’t bother to bark up in the first place. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I probably could have done a bit more this season as far as promoting myself goes, although sometimes I wish it would suffice to be an über-talented and reliable musician who does her job well. At least I know that my competitors’ successes have nothing to do with my shortcomings -- especially if I wasn’t even there to be a contender.
Sure it’s discouraging to repeatedly face rejection, but we have to keep the greyhounds in mind.* What if they are perfectly aware that the lure they are chasing is not a real rabbit? Perhaps they’re in the race for the sheer joy of running. Maybe it’s time for me to shed all my discouragement and leave it behind on the Path of Least Persistence and get back into the race -- full speed, come what may -- if only for the sheer joy of licking stamps.
* By now, I hope you’ve figured out that this is only an analogy, and not a factual representation of the sometimes abusive practice of dog racing, which I do not purport to support (unless, of course, my dog wins).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

OPERAHOLICS: An Existential Look at an Addictive Career

  Ever since moving to Europe my tolerance for alcohol has increased considerably. Depending on the company and the food, I can easily finish off a bottle of wine in one evening without feeling drunk. Watching a soccer game, I can knock back a six-pack and still be able to remember which team I’m rooting for. Although I drink a lot more frequently than I used to, I still wouldn’t call myself an alcoholic. Much the same, although I sing on a regular basis, can’t say no to an opportunity to perform for money, and thereby earn my living by doing so, I still have trouble calling myself an opera singer.

When I meet non-music people for the first time and they ask me what I do (or more often, what am I doing here in Germany), it is almost with shame that I give them my reply. It’s not that I am embarrassed about being a singer, rather that I know I have now confronted them with information that is probably just as perplexing to them as it is to me. I have opened a door into the unknown and at the same time erected a wall between us. Quite a strain on a new acquaintance, don’t you think? Unless we have something else which binds us, the disconnect is almost audible. They have their preconceived notion of what an opera singer does, and I have to struggle with not living up to their expectations, or even admit that I’m not living up to my own. 

“Hi, I’m Christy, and I’m a professional opera singer.”
“Hi, Christy.”
Like alcoholics at an A.A. meeting, I am usually most at ease when I am in a room full of people just like me, or among friends and family who have grown to understand and accept who and what I am. One such time was just last night, when I sang in a beautiful Pentecost concert (for those of you who don’t know -- like I didn’t, until last night -- Pentecost basically celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, and ergo the birth of the church). After the concert, we were celebrating with pizza and wine, compliments of the church’s ambitious choir. My friend and bass colleague of eight years told me in bewilderment, “I can’t believe that someone who sings as divinely as you has to work in a café. I just can’t understand why you’re not famous and/or getting more work.” (Soon I will be starting my new job as a barista to make ends meet -- funny that my ‘pay-my-way-through-college’ job is now serving as my ‘pay-my-way-through-my-career’ job).
“Well, it wasn’t that divine,” I said. “I think that one F# in the W.F. Bach aria was a little too high.”*
Raising his hands to the ceiling, he exclaimed, “Thank you God, she’s not perfect!!” Then he told me about Persian rug weavers who intentionally leave a “mistake” in their rug, which creates a hole through which the Holy Spirit can enter; or as the Navajos do, leave a string hanging to serve as the “spirit line” so that the Great Spirit can find its way.  Not to brag too much, but it did indeed feel like some holy spirit was entering me during that aria. First the credit goes to W.F. Bach for creating it, but I must say, I sang the holy bejeezus out of it.
After hypothesizing about what I could possibly be doing wrong regarding furthering my career, we came up with two basic theories. One: the competition is just overwhelming.  Two: I am not a typical opera singer. This, of course, brought us back to the aforementioned conundrum: just what is an opera singer supposed to be like, anyway? I’m sure even if I did find out what one should be like, I don’t expect I would attempt to change myself in any way in order to fit that mold.
None the wiser, we finished our pizza and wine and went home. I was alone on the platform, waiting for the train when a strange, probably alcoholic man came up to me and asked for some change so he could make a call to the Ukraine. I don’t usually give out money to strangers, but I had a big wad of earnings in my wallet from the concert, so I figured I could share some of the wealth. I handed him a one-euro coin, and he mentioned he would try to change it, since the call might only cost around 70 cents and he didn’t want to be wasteful. I looked in my purse again and gave him one euro in smaller change. He asked if I wanted the first euro coin back, and I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve had a good day, I was just in a concert,” which was pretty obvious considering my formal garb.
“Oh, what instrument do you play?”
“I’m a singer.”
“I used to be a musician, too,” he told me. “But not your kind of music. I played rock and roll.”
“Oh! So you know what a hartes Brot (literally, hard bread = tough living) it can be.”
“Yes. And what I also know,” he continued, “is that the people making real money are mostly just a bunch of untalented Zwitscher-Heinis and the really good singers often get left behind.”
“Zwitscher-Heini”, I can only assume, is one who constantly chirps in a not-so musical manner. The strange man thanked me profusely for the two euros, and for some reason -- perhaps we were both moved by the Holy Spirit, or just connected by a common miswoven thread -- we both had tears in our eyes.
“Good luck,” he said, as he turned to go. “And I mean that from the heart.”
“I know you do,” I said, feeling an enormous sense of gratitude for the gift I’ve been given. “Thank you. Good luck to you, too.”
I trust that, despite the late hour, he did indeed spend my two euros on a phone call to the Ukraine and not on a beer. I reckon I could give up drinking if I had to. But the singing? Not a chance.

*Here's the link to hear part of that W.F. Bach aria