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Death Match: Opera vs Theater

"This is a safe place. I want to you explore, take chances, embrace the character," the coach said warmly. She'd been welcoming me for what seemed ... well, longer than necessary in our introductory session,  attempting to put me at ease.

It had exactly the opposite effect. All this kindness and talk about safety was making me nervous. After a few preliminary comments, I began to worry that I'd given her the impression I was prickly or sensitive. Why else would she be going to such lengths to set up a comfort zone? Why did she think I needed to be handled with kid gloves? OMG WHAT HAD PEOPLE BEEN SAYING? I tried to reassure her that I was excited about our work together, eager to get to it, and a pro. "I'm tough," I reassured her with what I hoped was reading as friendliness and openess. "I'm here to work. You don't need to baby me."

Now it was the coach's turn to be taken aback, just a bit. She wasn't trying to baby me; she just wanted me to feel secure. We got down to a very productive and interesting session.

I left excited about the work we'd done and the challenges before me, but also feeling ... weird. And the experience of the next few days did nothing to dispel that. The director and conductor greeted me warmly at every rehearsal, usually with a sweet kiss on the cheek. They acted like I was important. They were so ... so ... collaborative. It wasn't something you had to ask for, or tiptoe around. It quickly became clear that everything was open to discussion and exploration. The artists' ideas counted. We were free to play and even ... MESS AROUND. Try things that were in bad taste. Take it too far in the interests of figuring out how far was far enough. There was a lot of laughing and silliness and fun in the midst of a lot of hard work.

And people were just so darn NICE.

It was wonderful, but on some level, I didn't know what to do with it. On some level, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It took a few days for me to realize how ridiculously defensive I felt, and why.

You see, right now, I'm working with theater people, at an opera company which is famous for their loving treatment of their artists. And the process is very, very different than what has become the standard in our business.

There's a perception before the public that classical musicians are snobby, exacting, unforgiving, terribly terribly serious, and even cruel. There's a further perception that opera singers are often entitled and snotty about what types of work they'll accept. It's a stereotype, although there are some elements of truth in it;  but you could frame it more positively and say that we are driven, passionate, and committed.  It takes a lot of very detailed work to be a commercially successful musician; and a thick skin. And being an opera soloist requires a rather specific and highly developed skill set as well as an understanding of the peculiarities of the business. I don't see any need to apologize for that and in fact, I'm proud of it.

And it's not that opera people aren't nice, because they are. In my career, it's been very rare to come across opera singers or administrators who aren't really lovely people, who don't care a great deal about the art form, and who don't really want to treat singers well. Of course there are exceptions, but by far the majority of companies go to great lengths to ensure that their artists are comfortable and happy; and by far the majority of opera people are amazingly generous, kind, and supportive.

But our process is less so, especially when you compare it with theater's. You see, opera singers are expected to show up for the first day of rehearsal with a product that is very nearly ready to put on stage as is. The role is not just learned and sung into the voice, it's memorized. It's been coached and analyzed and translated and nuanced already. Research into the source material and the characer has been carried out; you show up with at least some idea of who you want your version of this character to be (because you've learned that if you don't, the director will invariably end up being one of those people who either doesn't know the work very well or is the type who wants you to do your own thing, after which s/he will "shape" it).

In opera, our livelihood is very much dependent on how good we are at coordinating the flow of air between two tiny pieces of mucous membrane. Many commonplace things can affect their ability to work properly, so we spend a lot of time being paranoid about getting sick and what we eat or drink and making sure we're doing everything right. An actor can play Hamlet with a severe cold; a singer might not be able to sing the role under the same circumstances.

In opera, you are expected to show up and show off on day one. The musical readthrough is one of the most important rehearsals, almost an audition after the audition. You're being evaluated by everyone, including your colleagues. It's not really a hostile environment by nature or design; people want you to do well, and are excited to hear you; but there is pressure.

And we have less time. Less time to play and explore, less time to make mistakes even if we dared. Belt-tightening means lean rehearsal periods; instant opera, just add water (or in the case of singers, a lot of vodka).  Orchestra time is premium time; you have to be ready for them and make the most of every moment. Work ethic is the name of the game in opera. If you don't have it, you will quickly be making your Farewell Debut.

Furthermore, unless you are one of the really big divas, you'd better be pleasant and get along with people. Ain't nobody got time for your attitude. So even if you're having an off day, personal issues, or just not feeling well, you have to put on some face and deliver, lest people decide you're hard to work with.

It is indeed a lot of pressure. I didn't realize how cynical and defensive I'd become. AWKWARD. But I wasn't the only one. Over drinks a number of my colleagues admitted they had also been confused and a little wary at first --- not unwilling, not put off, but perhaps ever so slightly nervous. And that really says something about our business.

Needless to say, working with this amazingly talented group of creative, caring artists has been something of a palate cleanser for me, and has made me really examine my own hard-nosed approach to my profession, not only as a singer but as a teacher, stage director, and administrator. Maybe there's a different, calmer, way to approach productions, even those we're putting together under tremendous time and budget constraints. 

I want to be like the people I'm privileged to work with now. Work is being done --- detailed, hard, wonderfully challenging work. They're leading those of us on the stage to create a beautiful, carefully crafted product. And they're doing it with calm, wonder, love, and space. I want to be them when I grow up, starting now.

I can't single-handedly change the way we do things in this industry but I can personally learn to be more Zen. I can, as my colleague tenor Jason Ferrante says, "Calm it!". And perhaps I can rediscover a more open, unguarded approach in my own work, which can only make it better.

This is the invaluable, beautiful, sweet life lesson I am learning here at Portland Opera, and I am endlessly grateful for it.