Emotional extremes & bringing your work homeOp-ed
One question I’ve asked a lot of singers is some variance on, “what’s it like to live in such an extreme world?” That “extreme world” is the emotional highs and lows that are the stuff of opera. Singers spend a lot of time in those highs and lows, and even though it’s all make-believe, that time spent is focused and thoughtful and deliberate. Every day they embody a character who is dying, or abandoned, or rejected, or evil, or ecstatic; they think hard about how these characters end up where they do, and how it makes them feel. Actors often claim to identify strongly with their characters’ story; similarly, could an opera singer really avoid getting personally invested?
So far, the answers to the question of living in an opera-sized world have been unsatisfying. Not because the singers are bad interviewees, but just because they seem so nonchalant about it. Roles like Violetta and Don José can emotionally cost a lot, and, some singers feel the need to shake off a character’s heaviness after rehearsal is done. Women who sing Cio-Cio San (not to mention those who have kids of their own) can have an inevitable sympathetic resonse to that final scene. Singers playing villain roles might feel guilt or disgust after staging a particularly nasty scene, despite the obvious fictional element to the whole thing.
Singers can be pretty extreme people, too; it’s not hard to see why they’re often stereotyped as “crazy” or “high energy”. They wear scarves all the time, and often they’ve got big, loud personalities; they’re also artistically-inclined, and artsy folk come with quirks. In all seriousness, singers really do spend more time than the average person imagining themselves on the best and worst days of their lives. Ironically, I think that’s why they can be nonchalant (professional, even) about their emotional highs and lows at work.
Being an opera singer means travelling all over the world, reading Shakespeare and Greek mythology and French novels, and learning new languages. Each gig is another wave of new colleagues, and both their social and geographical worlds continue to grow. Singers learn to deal, in their own ways, with a lifestyle that means a lot of alone time, a lot of rejection, and very little that’s predictable. And unless they’re alright with adding to that the stress of getting too close with their tragic characters, they learn how to compartmentalize. Plus, they have a job that allows them to play make-believe, get outside of themselves, use their imagination, weep, laugh, all that cathartic stuff.
So, we’ve got singers who are: well-travelled, well-read, multi-lingual, independent, thick-skinned, and self-aware. Objectively, this is a list of traits that make people strong and balanced. It’s no wonder that I can’t get a singer to admit they go a little mental at work while they’re playing characters like Salome or Peter Grimes. No one who wants to maintain their career can actually go around being simply a kooky artist, and singers can’t afford to take on the emotional weight of the operas they sing in. Maybe the real joke is that singers aren’t crazy, but a product of being things like thick-skinned and well-travelled.
It’s a triumph for opera and the arts (and the artsy-fartsy folk) that the singers who are most in-demand, and who are engaging and thrilling to hear, are by necessity very grounded human beings. Humility and a desire for food and drink are what I encounter most when I talk to a singer after a performance. No dramatic hermiting of oneself in a dressing room, no lingering crazy after a mad scene. Just a really beautiful balance of work and life, and how to let one inform the other in a healthy way.