Originally published by Classical Singer magazine in November 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Chances are very good that at some point in your singing career you will find yourself in a homestay situation—housed with opera patrons, board members, or volunteers from the community. Homestays have the potential to be delightful or disastrous, and it’s up to you to set the tone and prove an excellent guest. Not only will you be more comfortable, but you will make a great impression with (and on behalf of) the opera company. Here’s how.
Before entering into a homestay arrangement, remember that the opera company has gone to a great deal of trouble to set these up. It is not easy to find appropriate and adequate housing for a cast of singers, directors, conductors, and tech personnel. Usually there are volunteers making the arrangements and usually they are bending over backward to accommodate your needs and wishes, so be sure to be appropriately and vocally grateful for their efforts.
Be up front about your needs and wishes—and make a distinction between the two. Companies that regularly house their artists in homestays frequently have a questionnaire for you to fill out with your preferences. Is a house with kids and/or pets OK? Smoking/nonsmoking? Does it need to be within walking distance of the rehearsal space? Do you have allergies or special dietary needs? And so on. You should be as specific as possible about your preferences, but there is a big difference between a deal-breaker and a desire. Allergic to cats? Staying with Velma the Cat Lady is out of the question. Want your sheets changed every day? You should spring for a hotel.
With any luck, the company will provide you with information about your homestay before you arrive—but in case they don’t, ask. It’s good to know how far you’ll be from shops and the rehearsal and performance spaces, what the accommodations are like, how many people you’ll be staying with and what their ages are, and so on. It can make a difference in what you do and don’t pack. And these days, with stingy airline luggage allowances and the expense of extra bags, that’s a significant consideration.
Make sure you let the opera company know well in advance when you plan to arrive so they can let your hosts know to be ready for you. Do the same for departure.
When you arrive and are introduced to your hosts, if they don’t offer “house rules,” be sure to ask. More experienced hosts will give you a tour and show you how things work, but if you don’t get this, ask. Ask which areas/appliances/items are off limits. (My personal practice is to never touch something I haven’t been specifically invited to use). Ask where you can store food and if/when you can use the kitchen. Ask how to turn the TV on and off (hey, some of these things can get complicated these days!) and whether it’s OK to give Fido snacks and let him outside. Ask where to park your car and when you can sing in the house.
Ask for what you need, but never demand! You are not in a hotel. Clean up after yourself immediately, do your own laundry, and do your own cooking if allowed. Empty the dishwasher and take out the trash once in a while. Do not ask to borrow the car or ask your hosts to run errands for you unless there has been a prior arrangement with the opera company. Your hosts may offer to do some of these things for you—in which case, enjoy the pampering! Just don’t expect it. You should also be careful to respect the hours your hosts keep—you may keep very different hours, so do all you can to not disturb them, especially when they’re sleeping or working. Always remember that you are a guest in a private home, and no matter how at home your hosts make you feel, it is not your house. Ask permission for anything you’re uncertain about, especially for potentially intrusive things like bringing guests over—especially overnight guests.
One of the biggest issues for traveling singers is what to do with visiting loved ones. Some opera companies may offer long-term homestay accommodations for singers’ partners, but many are not prepared to do so. However, very frequently once you are in the home and find that you get along with your hosts, they will extend the invitation on their own. This is an important issue for singers, who spend so much time on the road and often have loved ones joining them. Be up front with the company about your needs. Usually they will try to accommodate you if they can, but it is not something you can take for granted. As for your hosts, always ask permission before inviting your significant other to stay. Be prepared to spring for a hotel if they don’t have the room or the desire to host an additional guest.
If you break or mess something up, report it immediately. Fix it or replace it if you can, and be sure to apologize profusely. Things do happen and they aren’t always your fault, but you must offer to make it right.
Take your dress and behavioral cues from your hosts. If they don’t wander around the public areas in their bathrobes, neither should you. If you don’t see alcohol in their home, you might want to ask before you crack open a bottle of wine. And it’s probably best to keep your religious and political opinions to yourself, at least until you are certain which way your hosts’ predilections lie. Certainly there are some things you shouldn’t have to put up with, such as bigotry in any form or repeated attacks against your own belief systems. But you may well have to smile and manage when your hosts repeatedly issue unwelcome invitations to religious services or hold forth on political issues. On the other hand, if they are the sort who welcome an exchange of ideas, feel free to engage—politely and respectfully, of course.
Speaking of engaging your hosts, part of your “job” as a guest, especially an operatic one, is to be a charming and entertaining ambassador for your art. Chances are they will be curious about your career and want to chat with you about it. You will need to be social, at least sometimes. No one wants a guest who skulks in their room the entire time! Of course, there’s a happy medium. If you’re tired and don’t feel like chatting, you may need to plead la voce and retire to your room. And you should never, ever feel obligated to actually perform for your hosts. If you want to do it, feel free, but don’t allow them to bully you into singing.
What if you find that you and your hosts (or simply your housing) have irreconcilable differences? This should be a serious issue, a deal-breaker—we’re not talking about disliking the color of the wallpaper. This is something you just cannot live with, that is impacting your work. Obviously, if you have an agent, speak to her first. Part of her job is to run interference for you. If you must handle things yourself and you don’t feel comfortable addressing it directly with your hosts, go to the opera company and ask for help. Let them know that you understand the difficulties in finding suitable housing and you would never ask if it weren’t absolutely necessary, but . . . and detail the problem. The house has a mold problem. Your hosts are vocal opponents to marriage equality and don’t realize that you’re gay. There’s some sort of illegal activity going on.
During one of my homestays, my lovely hosts held radically different political opinions from mine and were not shy about expressing them. They also were anxious to share their religious beliefs with me. They were, however, respectful. Though I may have been a bit uncomfortable at times, I could certainly co-exist. These, therefore, were not deal-breakers. On the other end of the spectrum, a friend once found himself in a home with a man who, it transpired, had a 14-year-old runaway he had met on the Internet staying with him. This was both distasteful and a potential legal nightmare for my friend. He packed his things, left immediately, and then called the opera company. In the unfortunate (and rare!) event that you find yourself in a home where there is illegal or questionable activity, your best bet is to vacate the premises immediately and contact the opera company.
When you depart your homestay, follow the Boy Scout rule: leave it cleaner than when you arrived. Your hostess will probably let you know what she wants done with bedding and dirty towels, but in case she doesn’t, it’s nice to strip the bed (and even do a load of laundry, if you have time!) and clean the bathroom you’ve been using. Empty your trash. Don’t leave anything other than foodstuffs behind for others to dispose of. And, of course, it’s nice to leave a thank you note and a little parting gift. Hopefully you will have learned enough of your hosts’ interests to leave them something they will like, but if you’re uncertain, flowers or a nice candle are always appropriate.
Homestays are a fact of life for our business. Love them or hate them, keep it in perspective—a homestay is an opportunity to make friends, be an ambassador for your art form, and make a good impression on the opera company. It’s in your own best interest to do all you can to make it a positive experience for your hosts and for yourself!