There are glorious aspects of the life of an opera singer, but personally I wouldn’t class foreign travel, hotels (however luxurious and often they aren’t!) and aeroplanes as my favourites. The logistics of my life involve a lot of sparrow’s fart starts, lists (passport, dog’s passport, dog, wallet, Yorkshire teabags), and airports. I hate airports. I hate the humiliating way we are all herded and corralled, our forced handing-in of water bottles and hand cream only to be bombarded with the items we’ve just handed over at twice the price once we’ve gone through security, and most of all I hate the plastic air. It gives me a headache. The lights are too bright, maybe in an effort to wake up zombified passengers all blundering about in states of sleep-deprived bewilderment and buying things they didn’t realise they’d forgotten from shops that don’t sell anything useful. I also hate the fact that personally, I always forget a charger for one of my essential bits of sanity-saving tech (phone, iPad, Kindle, smartwatch) and have to shell out £20 to Currys every time I travel anywhere because I am addicted to being plugged in at all times. Airports suck.
Doing what would otherwise be my hobby for a living doesn’t suck. Singing is great, but usually there is something which stops it being really fun. Either it’s somewhere high profile and scary which means I have to be very stressed about being rather better than medium, or there will be a muppet directing, or a conductor who does 1 in exactly the same way as 2 or stirs his arms around in wild circles while shouting that no-one is following him (seriously, I think they should have to pass an MOT every year demonstrating that 1 goes DOWN and the up-beat goes UP), or there will be a costume or prop trauma (the red dress which I had to wear concealed under my army uniform which had an unfortunate habit of descending while I was digging Florestan’s grave while I was still supposed to be a boy, and the hairpiece concealed under my hat which Marzelline had an unfortunate habit of knocking off during the trio in Act 1 both conspired to make Fidelio a very stressful experience), or we’ll be told that Peter Katona might be coming to watch (N.B. We are almost never told which performance he is coming to, so we have to try to be better than we are for all the shows in the run).
I jest of course. Those people who know me well know that I am a passionate believer in trying to make every performance as good as it can be because a) why wouldn’t we? and b) the audience only comes once (apart from the people in Basel who met me at the stage door saying they’d come to Elektra seven times and when was I doing it in Karlsruhe because they wanted to come to all of those too- LOVELY PEOPLE!). But if you’re a bit of a perfectionist, there is always an element of pressure about performing. It’s also rare that you’re having a day when you feel 100% in good voice and like you can do anything – usually you’re getting better from something or you have hay fever or the air conditioning in your hotel room has dried you out or you are jet-lagged, and if you are having the best day ever and feel like you are superwoman you are almost certainly going to wake up with a stinking cold the following day (something about the pre-snot inflammation in its early stages does amazing things for your resonance I think).
During our recent Siegfried with the Hallé, a colleague expressed perfectly what I’ve been feeling for the whole of my performing career. He said he doesn’t get paid for singing. He sings for free. He gets paid for the nerves he suffers, the travelling, missing his family while he’s away, the pressures of keeping his voice in tip-top condition all the time, and for being a sitting target for the critics. This is it, and purely financially, many of us would earn more and possibly have less stress doing something else. We’d certainly have a bit more security. I know of lots of singers who temp in the quieter times, or have sidelines and second jobs. Sometimes it seems we’re all subsidising our very expensive hobby of opera singing with other things. I have always taught alongside performing, because I want a safety net. I’m very lucky because I’ve been constantly in singing work for 20 years- I have a fantastic agent who is very proactive at finding me opportunities. My husband’s record is even better and longer than mine. Somehow he’s managed to do it for 30 while working almost exclusively in the UK and while being his own agent. Admittedly there are usually 2 or 3 parts to suit him in every opera (Q:Andrew are you a bass or a baritone? A: Which do you need this time?) but during our time treading the boards, we’ve both lost wonderful, talented colleagues to other more lucrative careers. Best of all possible luck to them, but I suppose for both of us, even with the pressures, the nerves, the insecurity, the time away from home and the hard, hard work that it involves, we both love it too much to give it up.
This love of my job was really brought home to me yesterday when I ventured to St Albans to perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
Choral society concerts have always been part of my professional singing life and I have always loved them. 20 years ago when I was starting out, most of the people in the choir were my mum’s age. Now, although we’re told that it’s hard to get young people to join, a lot of them are my age (which goes to show that I obviously don’t count as a young person any more). I love that we are always greeted by helpful, enthusiastic choir members (yesterday one of them got into my car and directed me personally to my special parking space because I was in a panic about the one-way system). I love the effort many of the choir ladies go to to make their choir uniform unique – I am never wearing as much jewellery or makeup as anyone in the first sopranos. I love the team spirit and pulling together and the good-natured response the choir has to being shouted at by the conductor who is desperate to pass on last minute potentially concert-saving instructions. I love the “are we still in tune?” vibe after the unaccompanied bits, and the smug smiles or smiley shrugs when the orchestra comes back in depending on the answer. I love that we are offered hospitality between the rehearsal and the concert. Usually the phrase “You won’t want anything heavy before you sing, will you?” which could theoretically make a hungry singer’s heart sink, precedes the unveiling of a veritable feast. There is ALWAYS quiche. I love quiche.
And then there’s the music. Many of my European colleagues are simply astounded when I explain that in the UK we’re used to putting together a piece which lasts nearly three hours in a three hour rehearsal in an afternoon with a group of musicians who we’ve never met, and performing it together in the evening. Our rich tradition of amateur choral singing of which we’re rightfully very proud, and our brilliantly trained, fearless, sight-reading- proficient musicians, enable large-scale choral works to be put on in our beautiful Cathedrals and concert halls in towns up and down the country with the tiniest amount of tutti rehearsal. For what sounds like a gentle day out in a pretty Cathedral town, it’s actually high-octane stuff. We only get to sing through everything once. In the concert we have to be cool under pressure and it’s just as important to get it right as when we’re singing a main role at ENO. The choir has rehearsed for months in preparation. Their subscriptions are paying our fees and they deserve our best singing, and for us to wear really spectacular concert frocks.
Yesterday’s concert was genuinely one of the best I’ve ever done. We had a professional orchestra (the excellent Sinfonia Verdi), the choir was fantastic (the joint forces of St Albans Bach Choir, the Cathedral Choir, the Abbey Girls Choir and the Abbey Singers) and the conductor, Andrew Lucas, was musical, incisive, clear (he did 1 going DOWN and the up-beat going UP), well-prepared, calm, polite and just such a pleasure to work with. The mezzo who sang the most beautiful rendition of “Woe” I’ve heard, is someone who I privately tipped as one to watch when I first heard her, and whose voice and career have blossomed over the last few years. The tenor, a friend who I’ve worked alongside for a great many years, gave a spectacular and charismatic performance- technically so assured and just so classy- and last, but by no means least, the baritone was simply the best young low voice I’ve heard this decade, and managed to sing the whole of Elijah out in the rehearsal as well as the concert without getting remotely tired.
Add to this the genius of Mendelssohn’s choral writing- if you don’t believe me please go and listen to Blessed are the men who fear him immediately- the low evening sunbeams peeking through the stained glass of the cathedral, the swell of the orchestral sound and the organ, the glorious voices of all of those singers raised together, all riding on a wave of the most enormous enthusiasm and what you get is an absolute treat for the audience, and also for every single person involved in the concert. Singing your heart out with no thought for the baggage associated with being a professional singer is pure exhilaration. If we as professionals can get swept up in it, just for an afternoon and an evening, we are tapping in to something which reminds us why we got the bug for singing in the first place. Music making is a wonderful thing and singing, amateur or professional, has many compensations.