Scribblings of a Mad Soprano

Singers who do other things?

A friend of mine (an immensely talented singer, artist, and maker of beautiful things, as well as an advocate, activist, writer, and actress) reminded me recently in her blog that many, if not most, of us singers do more than one thing to earn a living. Whether it’s temping or restaurant work to keep us afloat in our student/apprentice years, teaching and part-time jobs during slow patches once we’ve had a little luck later on, or running a second business or ‘side hustle’ parallel to our singing career, even quite successful artists find that singing doesn’t always pay the bills; and/or doesn’t completely feed our need to be creative, fulfilled and in charge of something in our lives (being a singer can make a person feel very dependent on others: for employment, direction, career guidance etc.)

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But. (There’s always a but!) We have also been made to feel that admitting to this fact is admitting failure. That a ‘real singer’ (whatever that means) would never need to do anything else, and would definitely never want to do anything else. Sure, write your memoirs (or have them ghost-written) after you have retired from the stage. Ditto for teaching: be asked by the most prestigious conservatoire in your country to be on the faculty, or barring that, do some well-publicised masterclasses. 

Being an entrepreneur somehow doesn’t fit the popular image of being a Diva. 

My friend exhorted all us moonlighting warblers to ‘fess up, proudly, to what we do ‘on the side.’ So, I’m coming out of proverbial closet: I’m a singer, and also a teacher of singing, a writer, a business/personal coach, a keynote speaker, artistic director of Femme Lunatique Productions, and, most recently, a jewellery designer and maker. (Check our the Merch page on this website!)

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Much is being said about the new ‘gig’ economy arising for the next generation. We singers have been surviving that way for a very long time!

Getting out of the Zone

Business and personal coaches are always advising clients (and the general public) that it’s important to ‘get out of the comfort zone’ to allow change and growth. I’ve often wondered how those of us in the performing arts can apply this advice, seeing as our very choice of profession is already way outside most people’s zone of comfort in the first place…

What, me? Comfortable?

Then again, after a reasonable amount of experience, singing in front of an audience gets easier (although the nerves never entirely go away.) It can even start to feel like part of the routine. It is our job, after all!

But even those of us out here on the high wire need to keep growing: as artists, as people, as professionals. So what can we do? We’re already scaring ourselves daily, auditioning, entering competitions, putting our performances up for scrutiny by critics, audiences…other singers (yikes!)

I have been at this for a number of years (ahem) and had settled into a certain level of comfort: singing rep I’m confident of (and seemed to get asked to do fairly consistently.) Then, for myriad reasons, I have started to step outside that ‘zone’ (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.) New music is not particularly unusual for me, but a contemporary piece that requires me to perform as a cabaret artist? That was different.* Working with a composer? Fine. But a JAZZ composer? Gulp.** Moving into heavier rep? Well, fairly normal progression for a singer, but I never, NEVER thought I would be singing Wagner.***

Bye bye comfort zone, nice knowing you.

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*One Art: an opera/cabaret, most recently performed at Tête à Tête Festival 2019.

‘Fantastic show, perfect marriage of form and content, and…a pitch-perfect lightness of touch that was devastatingly poignant.’

**Wonder Woman, May 2019.

‘…a soprano with an open, expressive face, and an off centre stage presence…she was never less than engaging. A tremendous singer…the audience were held, almost not daring to breathe. The contrast of a trained soprano and a jazz(y) backing is something I’ve seldom encountered, and it’s sensationally successful, certainly on this occasion.’

***I will be singing Irene in Rienzi at St Johns Smith Square, July 2020, and covering Brünnhilde for Longborough Festival Opera’s Ring Cycle 2020-2022.

ONE ART at Tête à Tête: the opera festival


ONE ART: an opera/cabaret made its London debut on Saturday night at the Tête à Tête festival 2019. Below is some early audience feedback:

‘Thrilled’

‘This was brilliant! I really loved how you – with well-judged amounts of humour and pathos – told this story.’

‘Extraordinary’

‘Fantastic show, perfect marriage of form and content, and I loved your voice. A pitch-perfect lightness of touch that was devastatingly poignant.’

‘Daring’

‘Wonderful…a great achievement.’

Careful! Opera might change your life.

An opera changed my life.

In 1994, I was a fledgling opera singer, fresh out of grad school and temping in New York City while I tried to fit in gigs in the evenings and weekends. One organisation that occasionally offered me performance opportunities was American Opera Projects, who support living composers by showcasing new operas and works in progress. They asked me to be part of an evening of opera ‘readings’ – that is, concert style, barely rehearsed, nearly sight-read, public run-throughs of short scenes from new operas, many not even completed yet, so that the composers had a chance to hear their music performed live and (perhaps more importantly) potential sponsors could hear the works as they developed. On this particular evening, I had a few lines to sing in a scene from Patience & Sarah, an opera based on the novel by Isabel Miller. After a quick rehearsal in the afternoon, a group of opera singers stood, photocopied scores on music stands, in front of a small audience in a dance studio in SoHo, and read through our scene.

Two fortunate things happened that night: Patience & Sarah got picked up by a sponsor, which led to the opera being completed and premiered, four years later, at the Lincoln Center Arts Festival. And I met my future husband and father of my eldest son.

OK, so far, so romance novel…but wait, there’s more. My husband (he is no longer with us, but that’s a different story) wasn’t a New Yorker. He wasn’t even American. He just happened to be visiting New York that weekend, and just happened to be friends with a woman from my temp job who I had begged to come to see my performance. If it hadn’t been for Patience & Sarah, I wouldn’t have moved to England, I wouldn’t be living there now, and I wouldn’t be mother to my eldest son (who I was pregnant with during the premiere performances of P&S four years later, but again, another story…)

Why am I telling you all this? Well, in 2014, I commissioned the composer of Patience & Sarah, Paula M. Kimper, to write some art songs based on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. I premiered these songs in 2016, and will be premiering two more as part of an opera/cabaret monodrama about Bishop’s life. It is called One Art, after her famous villanelle, and a line in that poem ‘Places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel’ reminds me of that life-changing moment in 1994, and the parallels between my life and Bishop’s. She never intended to spend 15 years living in Brazil, and her relationship with Lota de Soares would never have happened if Bishop hadn’t had an allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew. I wouldn’t be living in the UK now, if it hadn’t been for Patience & Sarah.

Miranda Otto as Elizabeth Bishop in Reaching for the Moon

The reason I chose Elizabeth Bishop poetry to set into art songs was that villanelle, One Art. Like many fans of her work, it is my favourite, and like many others I feel I read deeper into it each time I encounter it. The art of losing certainly isn’t hard to master, and I can see many parallels in my own life to the cities, continents, etc that Bishop catalogs in her verse. We all can, which is why it is so widely admired. But along with the universality of loss is also the knowledge that we never know what events in our life will lead to, what is ‘just around the corner.’ In the end, it doesn’t really matter where it was you meant to travel, just where you ended up, and where you’re going next…

ONE ART: an opera/cabaret will receive its London premiere on 27 July, 8 p.m., at RADA Studios, 16 Chenies Street, London, WC1E 7EX. Tickets from https://www.tete-a-tete.org.uk/event/one-art/

Be there if you dare!