After a three year hiatus from this blog, Kristin and I decided to start it up again. Glancing back through some of the posts I wrote in 2016, I can see that a lot has changed…. and very little has changed. I was just launching into the next step of my career and now I’m launched, but still climbing into the unknown. I know more, but still have so much to learn. I’m more confident than ever in my voice and what I have to offer the opera world, but now have first hand experience with imposter’s syndrome. I think it will be good for me to take the time to look at my life, where I am, how I feel, and take stock.
The analogy I use a lot for what it’s like to do this career is the Narnia Wardrobe. I go away for a gig, have a whole experience, meeting new people, singing new roles, speaking new languages, discovering new things, facing new challenges, success, failure, and a lot in between. Then I return home, where it seems like nothing changed (even though plenty has… I just wasn’t there to see it) and no one there experienced the past few months with me in the wardrobe. Then I’m home for anywhere from a couple days to a month, before heading back into the wardrobe for the next adventure. This makes the year fly by and I wonder where it all went!
It’s fitting that I decided to pick this blog back up while singing the same role I was doing the last time I wrote in this blog — singing Jenufa in English for the 2016 debut in London.
I’m currently in one of my favorite places on earth (Santa Fe, New Mexico), singing with one of my favorite companies (The Santa Fe Opera), performing one of my favorite roles (Jenufa), this time in Czech.
From day one of this show, all I wanted was for time to slow down. I came home from the first day of rehearsal with both excitement and melancholy. I honestly felt a twinge of sadness that this experience would be over in 7 weeks. Now, after 3 years of the gig opera life, I know how quickly wonderful experiences go. I’m already finishing the 3rd week and I feel as though we just started. Every day is a joy when you are doing what you love, feeling good about your work, and loving the people around you.
This year, especially, has been teaching me the joys of my job and the perils of doing this job while being human. Back in college, I remember the day my friends and I discovered a YouTube video of the epic tenor crack. We listened to it over and over, laughing at how hilarious it sounded, not connecting that it was probably that man’s nightmare coming true on stage AND being recorded. We discovered and fell in love with famous opera singers. The further we got in school, the more we felt we could criticize. She scoops too much! His straight tones! He was so flat! She totally botched that high note! Young artists could be some of the worst, watching principals sing the roles they cover, quietly talking about how much better they could sing it.
Ignorance is bliss.
Now that I’m a of couple years into being the principal, I regret any feelings I ever had like that. I do tend to be a singer who likes others voices and looks for the beauty… but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have times when I floated around with a critical ear and judgements of how I would sing something. There are healthy levels of critical listening, learning, and developing your own style… and then there is youthful ignorance or arrogant pride.
When you aren’t the one doing the job, you haven’t yet experienced what it is to be a human being in a career that doesn’t account for you being human.
This season has been heavy and stressful. I will have debuted 6 brand new roles in a row. (And yes… I’m counting Jenufa in Czech for the first time, because Czech is a beast and it basically felt brand new.) I’ve had to be learning and memorizing the next role, while trying to get the current one on its feet. For example, my first time singing the challenging role of Fiordiligi from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte was in Stuttgart, Germany this past spring. I was speaking German in daily life, singing a new role in Italian, and furiously learning and memorizing Jenufa in Czech. My brain simply stopped working by the end of the day.
I’m a very ordered person. I plan out how long it will take me to learn and memorize a role and have always felt 100% prepared when it was time to start rehearsals. However, the human element has started messing with my best laid plans.
I had a month home in Chicago to memorize my Fiordiligi role before flying to Germany to begin rehearsals. Anyone who knows this opera, knows it is A LOT and not an easy sing. It’s long, high, and takes lots of endurance. According to my plan, I would have the whole thing learned and memorized by the end of the first 3 weeks, leaving one week to sing the opera through every day to learn how to pace it and build endurance before leaving home. Foolproof.
But then, the WORST singer calamity happened….I got sick. Really sick. A horrible combo of Strep throat, sinus infection, and laryngitis. It was the first time I lost my voice since college. So instead of pacing and endurance building, my final week of preparation was spent in bed with a high temp, taking drugs, and foggily packing for my month and a half in Germany. The day I flew, I wasn’t contagious anymore, but still didn’t have my voice and had two very plugged ears, causing my eardrums to almost burst on my flights overseas.
I finally made it to Stuttgart, where the real frustration began. Since this opera was not new for the opera house, we had only 10 days of rehearsals before opening. I still didn’t have my voice. The company was incredibly supportive and patient as I healed and tried to gauge if my voice needed rest or endurance training during rehearsals. I imagine it was like trying to run a marathon while still recovering from an injury. I knew this role would be good for me and that I could sing it. But I had to make peace with the fact that I was a human, who couldn’t control getting sick. I simply had to figure out how to do my job to the best of my abilities in whatever circumstance was thrown at me.
Thank goodness, I had a wonderful director and conductor, colleagues and administrators who trusted that I could do what I was often doubting in myself. And they were right, it’s a good role for me. I was able to figure out how to sing it by opening, and got even stronger as the performances went on. But I had to face my own judgements and the imposter syndrome of knowing I could sing much better than I was currently able to. I knew the audience and reviewers had no idea what I had gone through leading up to opening night, but I had to have grace for myself anyway. I know my performances were far from perfect, and I will, Lord willing, be much stronger the next time I sing the role, but I’m proud of what I was able to do, considering the circumstances.
My teacher used to say: “You will only have a handful of performances in your career, where your voice feels 100% going into it”. Young Laura nodded seriously, but secretly assumed it would be different for me. NOPE. Between sickness, allergies, hormones, sleep, dryness, jet lag, reflux, exhaustion, stress, and emotions, I am finally making peace that I will simply only ever have what I have that day. I’m now at the place with my technique, where I’m not ONLY at the mercy of those factors. I’m getting to know my voice better and better with each new role, and am able to be present in the moment to adjust and let go, even when things don’t feel great.
I can now see why most regularly working singers are more gracious to their colleagues than young singers. We understand that we are all human. While the world of reviewers haven’t quite figured this out yet, I’ve come to value the opinions of the wonderful people around me, who have been on the ground, working to do their best in the face of being human.
This quote by Theadore Roosevelt speaks to all of this perfectly:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.