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


  1. Yeah, this is just the thing I'm currently Angsting over. The hard lesson I persist in not wanting to learn is that life ain't no meritocracy. Sure hard work and talent often pay off, but there's an unfair amount of people out there with the ability/skill to do X, Y and Z, and yet the job (gig, project, etc) winds up going to some nitwit (i.e., less talented/capable/intelligent person).



  2. What? You didn't know until now what Pfingsten is? And Americans say *Europe* is atheistic? But you do know about Easter, don't you?

    (Pity, I missed that performance.)

  3. Ahhh, the Eternal Conundrum, innit.
    (Meaning the great divide betwixt Civilians and Performers....)

    But 'twas ever thus, I think.
    And what an "opera singer" is "supposed" to be like is far too narrow a prism to be looking through. I suspect that anyone who HAS preconceived notions on that score (I'm looking at YOU, mush-head General-Intendants and suchlike!) doesn't want humans, they want easily-controllable singing robots who won't make a mess on the carpet and never ask for much.

    But that's just MY take....


  4. You learn something new every day. Like today: what the word "meritocracy" means.
    Utis - I cannot speak for all Americans. Besides, we only get days off for Christmas and Easter - not for Allerheiligen, Heiligie Dreikönige, Christi Himmelfahrt, Pfingsten, Corpus Christi, and a week off to commemorate the day the Virgin Mary got her period. Sheesh, you Europeans are full of religion!!
    I am not America.... sha-la-la-la-la

  5. Well, next time someone asks what you're doing in Germany I'll just tell them working on your alcohol tolerance. Lovely post!

  6. Who wants to be typical? Embrace your individuality :-) and insh'Allah someone will soon pounce upon your fabulous and unique talents and we'll be able to afford Really Good bottles of vino...

    Thanks for Zwitscher-Heinis - useful!

    Keep the faith, darling - you may not be "typical" but you're wonderful.

  7. Felt the need to post, since I can SO relate. I've been feeling this way about the career lately, and have been thinking of making my one try over in Europe as the US is sucky as hell. (Yeah, I know it's the same in Europe, but a girl can try, right?)

    But it took a recent trip to re-motivate me career-wise. I was starting to feel defeated and thought about giving up. But sometimes it just takes a little nudge to get you going again. And, heck, if I had a dollar for every time someone commented on why I wasn't singing in the big leagues yet, well, I wouldn't have to worry about money, we'll leave it at that.

    Keep up the good fight!