labor of love

This weekend, I won a prize in the Clermont-Ferrand International Singing Competition. Many competitions award cash prizes, but what I won is a contract for Konstanze in a big new touring production. So that picture up above, taken from a dressing room at the theater of Clermont-Ferrand on a rainy evening, will become a very familiar sight next season. I’m feeling grateful, excited, and validated.

Also: exhausted. Here’s what the week was like. On a Sunday afternoon, I got into a bus in Brussels and spent the rest of the day getting to Clermont-Ferrand. I went by bus because I had waited too long to book my travel, and the flights cost a fortune. You never know, when going to a competition, if you’ll come away with a prize or not; if not, you spend a lot of money on a disappointing week. So I try to keep my costs as low as possible to minimize the blow if things don’t go my way. That’s also why I ended up in a perfectly adequate but not terribly comfortable Airbnb with the smelliest bathroom “air freshener” ever; when I finally identified the source (a very innocuous-looking little envelope printed with yellow flowers), I banished it to the open-air stairwell. I discovered on the second day that there were at least three other singers in Airbnbs in the building, including one, sharing a wall with me, with whom I was in direct competition for the role of Konstanze. It made me feel weird, so I didn’t practice there very much. The bed eventually gave me back pain and the shower was so small that if I dropped the soap, I’d have to turn the water off and do some mental geometry to be sure my ankle didn’t graze the blazing hot water pipe before bending down to retrieve it.

There were three competition rounds–I sang on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. I had brought a substantial amount of work to try to do that week, whether I got through to later rounds or not–on paper, it looked like I’d have lots of time to kill. But in reality, I was stressed and nervous for a lot of my waking hours, and my concentration suffered. There is beautiful hiking in the Auvergne, but public transport in the winter is nonexistent and the week was sopping wet with rain. So, I read, shopped a little, ate simple meals, thought about Mozart, worried, slept, and fiddled half-heartedly with web design. I rehearsed with the competition pianist, practiced, cajoled myself not to over-practice (a risk in these very challenging and virtuosic arias), put on and took off lots of makeup, stressed about my choice of dresses and shoes, and spent a lot of time mindlessly web-surfing when I couldn’t focus on anything. The last two days were a blur of nervousness and weird eating, followed by elation, a fun evening out with new friends, and then, after five hours’ sleep, another all-day bus ride to return home. No one who saw me on the bus that last evening, cranky and bleary and probably looking dreadful, would have guessed that the day before I’d worn a gold gown and won a competition for opera singers.

I hadn’t gone expecting to win a prize. I’ve learned that in this business, I most often get new work from developing a relationship during a project that’s then ported over to another job by way of a recommendation. I thought winning might be nice, but the main reason for going was to really brush up the arias of Konstanze. I’ve been working on them for years but have never been cast in this role, which is legendarily difficult. So, I thought, this could be a sort of referendum on whether it’s truly a good fit, or whether I should leave it gently on the shelf after this point. I noticed with relief as I worked intensively on the music that my body indeed was slowly developing the strength, stamina, and particular agility needed for the arias. In that sense, I would have accomplished my goal even if the result had been different–I’m sure now that I can sing the piece well and that I have something to say musically. But, in the end, I also won the job. So, now I have a chance to work on it over a longer period of time–just as I had wished for myself in this post from a few weeks ago. I think I’m going to need the whole year to develop the vocalism, the facility with dialogue, the depth of sympathy and understanding I’d like with the character, and the range of colors I’d like to bring. It feels really good to have my work rewarded in this way–this is the most significant single contract I’ve ever gotten and it will be the most challenging piece, vocally, I’ve ever performed. I’m thrilled.

I’m also finding myself in a reflective mood. One of the many nice moments in the days after the competition came when I got an email from a former voice teacher who is still a friend. These were her words:
Your long road to this well-deserved prize of a major contract has been an artist’s journey. You have never NOT been an artist. Your calendar over the years has been rich with one beautiful performance after another, which were mostly labors of love, and this is just another one. The difference here is that it comes with a fat paycheck (I assume) and prestige. It’s no accident or fluke – you are just ready for this now, and here it is!

I read these words while drinking a coffee in Paris during my bus connection, and I instantly burst into tears. The years we’ve known each other haven’t been easy–there were vocal crises, personal crises, a new identity crisis once every few months. There were years that I was singing well but nothing was working out, and years when I was singing badly and meanwhile had to cope with high-profile jobs that I maybe wasn’t ready for. There was a lot of crying, a lot of doubt, a lot of trying to shore up my inner sense of why I wanted to be a singer… a lot of comparing myself with other people’s progress and wondering why someone else had gotten an apprenticeship or an audition that I hadn’t gotten. These are pretty common feelings among young singers. I often wonder how any of us manage to make it through those years and come out on the other end still wanting to do this work.

But I was one of the very lucky ones, as this teacher/friend pointed out, because I always had a strong sense of myself as a musician, and I always had interesting projects that gave me a reason to keep working–to try to put the egoism on hold and just DO THE MUSIC, to stop worrying about my own fears and insecurities and just dive deep into someone else’s artistic world and help other people experience that. During my studies in New York, I was doing high-level work in a professional choir that I cared intensely about. This work conflicted sometimes with the physical work on my solo singing, and that caused its own problems, but at least I was always still performing, still renewing my joy in the music itself and the incredible highs of collective music-making. After my studies were finished, I had a chamber group I loved and I had a good amount of oratorio work; while I’ve lived in the Netherlands, I’ve had a huge variety of lovely projects including many (especially Damask) that are self-directed and artistically satisfying. With some small gaps, I have worked consistently and with a good amount of artistic autonomy since about 2007. But the financial reward for this work has often been so laughably low–or nonexistent–that my engineer husband shakes his head in amazement. My whole career has been a labor of love.

I’m feeling forcibly at the moment, thanks to this email, that this contract–this Mozart engagement, of a sort that I’ve been hoping to have for a long time–actually is NOT so different as I thought it would be. It will be better paid than some, and hopefully it will open other doors professionally, and mostly I hope and expect that it will allow me to achieve a higher artistic and vocal level than I ever have. But it’ll still be a labor of love. I will do it because I have chosen to spend most of time and energy on being a musician, an investment that my tax return doesn’t register. For so many years, this goal–a major engagement like this–seemed like an endpoint in my mind: if only I could achieve this, then blah blah blah happiness success fame financial security. Now that it’s in view and in the calendar, it’s so clear to me that it’s just another one of my projects… work, time, artistic fulfilment, artistic frustration, joy, crying, tedium, funny quirks of my colleagues, adrenaline highs, lots and lots of searching Google Flights and arranging other logistics. And probably also some really awful days that I would rather be working 9-5 and having weekends free.

I am so grateful for this realization. We are all, after all, a sum of how we spend the hours of our days, every day. Every little choice counts, and no one day, year, or gig is innately more valuable than any other. The work I do can be so deeply fulfilling and motivating, and it can also be tedious and so tiring. None of that will change with one big contract. I think I’ll go into this gig with the same insecurities as ever, but also with the same rooted sense of belonging that comes from wanting to do the best music I can. I’m grateful to the Centre Lyrique for giving me the chance, and I’m grateful for those friends who have known me a long time and can remind me that 1. I’ve worked hard for this and 2. the work will continue before, during, and after.