We’re people, not products, and you don’t get to control what we do.
When I was in undergrad at the University of Michigan, Jessye Norman came to give a masterclass, recital, and Q&A. With all due deference to the queen, she said something in her talkback that has been deeply messing with my mind for ten years, and it was this:
“If you have a gift, you have a duty to share that gift with the rest of the world. It is not yours– it was given to you to share with others.”
Now, on the face of it, that’s a nice enough sentiment, ostensibly based in the idea that our lives should be motivated on the success of humanity at large. Unfortunately, when you’re talking to performing artists, it gets a little more complicated. What I heard when she said that, was that my own happiness was not enough– and more than that, that it didn’t matter. That my voice, gifted to me as it was by God, or chance, or genetics, was something more important than my own self, and that I needed to honor it. That the choices I made in my life had to be about my gift, and I needed to suppress my own selfish needs and wants in order to serve my instrument.
I’m sure that many people have heard similar things, and not reacted the way I did. I’m also sure that in no way was Jessye Norman telling me to knowingly choose to be miserable for the rest of my life. And I also know that there are plenty of well-meaning mentors in this field who say things like this because they want “what’s best” for the artist, and they think they know how to get them there. But these words are part of a very problematic mentality in the arts community, which I have seen perpetuated by not only producers, directors, voice teachers, administrators, and audiences, but also fellow singers: and that is, the idea that if you have a gift or a skill, it is not just encouraged, but INCUMBENT upon you to use it, and anything less is somehow “sad” or “disappointing.”
There are many, many stories (in this, and other fields) of “burnout,” where a singer who has been very successful for a number of years gets tired of it, has some kind of epiphany about the career, or has something embarrassing happen, and stops singing. There are still more instances where a singer will have a very small discography, or a career spanning just a few years, and then disappear, with no explanation.
The response, among fans and fellow musicians alike, is so often “oh, it’s really too bad. Well, I guess they just couldn’t cut it,” or “what a shame; such a talent, wasted.”
But why is that?
Why do we assume that choices that artists make about withdrawing from public art making are always “sad,” or borne from inability, or the cause of some personal trauma that made them no longer value their great gift?
In the last few years, I have started to struggle with balancing the need to be constantly travelling for my career as a singer, and the need to be in one place for my career as an administrator. I have struggled, at every turn, with the feeling that no matter what choice I make, I’m disappointing someone, somewhere.
It’s bad enough when it’s my mother, or random audience members I don’t know. But I’ve heard, both to my face and through the grapevine, from people I considered mentors in my field saying things like “you know, it’s really too bad she’s wasting her time doing [such-and-so]” or “you know, if she would just go to [New York, Germany, etc], I know things would be better.”
Here are just some of the real reasons I, and other people I know, have not “lived up to the expectations” of what other people demand based on our talent:
- hated living in New York and decided it wasn’t worth it
- weren’t making enough money, even working year-round with back-to-back gigs
- met someone, had a family, and decided to be home more often out of choice
- had a death/illness in the family and moved home to deal with it
- had a vocal/other physical injury
- decided the psychological demands of the career weren’t worth the payoff
- did everything everyone suggested and it still didn’t work (very common)
- discovered that teaching/directing/doing something else in the same field was personally much more fulfilling
- discovered something in another field that was personally much more fulfilling
- just didn’t like the work anymore
- none of your damn business
Notice, that not one of these items is “decided to personally spurn Aunt Helen/Coach Don/some random guy on the New Forum for Classical Singers, who was intending to live vicariously through you” or “decided to destroy the establishment of opera out of spite.” Also note the last potential reason, which is ultimately the most important.
If you don’t know us and our lives intimately, you don’t get to judge us for our choices. Real art is made by people, not machines, and humans have individual needs beyond serving, at their own peril, something that became part of them by chance.
So maybe, instead of demanding we sacrifice everything for your entertainment, you could start doing some work to make sure that the people who really want to keep doing this work can afford to. If you’ve got the money, donate to a local arts organization or sponsor an artist directly. Buy their work. Buy tickets to things. If you don’t have the money, volunteer for organizations whose mission you respect.
But mostly, keep your mouth shut about our life choices unless you’re invited to speak. And when we speak, listen.