So today I am in bed with the flu. This is an unusual position for me to be in – currently with the job to pay the bills I get sick pay, which is great. But I am the type of person who would rather eat my own toenails rather than give in to any sort of illness. However, with all the changes in the weather etc I have felt on the verge of sickness a few times in this past week and finally, last night, was forced by my body to take a break. In fact, my body spoke to me like the voice of God this morning: “TAKE A BREAK”. So I finally obeyed.
There is another reason behind this. I am singing in an opera on Friday, in a role I have wanted to do for a long time (Gertrude in Hansel and Gretel), for a company I have wanted to work with for some months as well. The opera is small scale and in a private venue, but it is this operatunity (see what I did there? Ok, I am SICK, give me a break!!) to sing this role that really excites me. I finally feel like I am becoming what I always wanted to be – an opera singer.
Here’s the thing: when people have said to me: “What do you do?” I have always felt a bit shy about saying “opera singer”, because for the longest time I felt like a fraud. I have been training for literally half my life as a singer, and for a long time it really seemed as if it was never going to happen for me, at least not in the way I wanted it to. I went off to train as an actress in a bona fide drama school, and consequently have always felt more comfortable with the moniker “actress”. But not creatively satisfied. And, though the dream of singing opera professionally lay dormant for a while, it never left me.
For a number of posts I’ve talked about things outside the performing world that interest me, all with a political edge. But the arts can be the most political arena of them all, in my experience. None more so than music. I’ve had a number of false starts in this profession, which started when I was 17 and went to sing for the local conservatoire, who offered me a place on the spot. However, because life intervened, I spent a long time going from teacher to teacher, believing everything they told me. At 19 I went to a singing teacher in Dublin who recognised that I had a talent, but didn’t know how to teach me. So one week I was destined to be Maria Callas; the next week I was nothing, useless, never going to amount to much. I went from her to a teacher that was wonderful in my first year with him, but with whom I stayed about 4 years too long. I’ve gone to a couple of international opera singers, some teachers whose specialty was classical musical theatre (where I thought I was headed for some time), and even a teacher who taught in a prefab on a building site! The teachers that I remember going to before I found my current teacher total 11. And although nothing is wasted so they say, the difference between these teachers and my current teacher is like the difference between night and day.
Choosing the right teacher can get quite political, especially in the hot-house environment of music colleges and conservatoires. When I was attending the Cork School of Music I had the opportunity to change from my then teacher to another rival teacher in the school – and I opted not to. The fallout would have been too much for me to handle at that time, and although I regret my lack of fortitude, there was a realpolitik at work that may have affected my exam results. But even more recently, I was in a situation where I was being coached by a wonderful repetiteur who was retired, had worked in the German opera houses and was teaching me for free. At the same time, I was going, unbeknownst to him, to my current teacher. I truly felt like I was having an affair; and it came to a point that I knew I couldn’t progress with my current teacher while being influenced by the repetiteur. When I broke the news to him, it felt like the closest thing to a break-up that I have experienced, and indicates the deeply personal nature of what we do as singers, and how this is both a vocational path and a business, which can make any decision very complex indeed.
Which brings me on to my next point: the necessity always to have a sense of one’s own direction artistically, and how to balance that with listening to what your music director/director/colleagues say without losing your own sense of self-worth, and remaining true to what you are about as a singer. I know this more than most. You see, I am in possession of a “big voice”. The first thing people say when they hear me sing is “Wow! That’s a big voice!” The second is “Very powerful”. Not beautiful, or gorgeous, or pretty or anything like that, but “big” and “powerful”. And in my experience in the UK and Ireland, it is a rarity to find a teacher that (a) likes big voices and (b) knows how to teach one. In fact, it is a rarity to find people even in the opera world who truly love big voices – which sounds crazy, because, by necessity, in the absence of amplified sound, opera needs big voices. And so I am learning to read between the lines, and this is a very interesting part of my journey for me. There is the constant call from people to “sing quietly”. Well, my quiet is not the same as soubrette soprano’s quiet, and MDs/directors seem to be blissfully unaware of this. We can all only sing with the voice we have; and I feel strongly that although we should do our best to attain what the powers-that-be want, we should not compromise ourselves.
As I mentioned, prior to working as a singer, I worked (and still do to a certain extent) as an actress. I remember doing a production of The Playboy of the Western World in Ireland, in which I played Widow Quin. I was only 23 years old, but it was, and still is, a part with which I have a strong connection. The director at the time requested that we speak a lot quicker. The rest of the cast grumbled but obeyed his request. I nodded and spoke the lines as I wanted to. The review that came out in the Irish Sunday Times made note of my clarity and superb delivery. The director then said “You see? She was the only one who did what I asked of her!”
The moral of the story is: Courage, mes amis. It takes a lot of courage to stick to one’s guns, and you don’t have to make a song and dance about it (unless the occasion requires it) but to thine own self be true. And always paddle your own canoe.