It’s very late. I can’t sleep. I just finished one of those performances which makes all the crap we go through worth it. If you haven’t experienced that feeling, I hope some day you will be lucky enough to. You may find yourself in that place where the darkness of uncertainty and the pain of rejection seem like they will never go away. But, I can tell you, to borrow a line from another far more worthy cause than this, it gets better.
Humble-bragging aside, I bring up my mental state tonight to tell a bit more of my story. When I discovered opera, my life changed in the blink of an eye (more like the time it takes to sit through Pagliacci, but “blink of an eye” has a nice ring to it, right?). That night I discovered a world previously non-existent, and I knew immediately that I must be a part of it. I did my homework, talked to the people who might have an idea about how to embark on such a journey, and I was off with the first of many unsteady, terrifying steps. I didn’t look back, but I can tell you, I definitely looked sideways many, many times. But, this isn’t another story about how a kid from somewhere found himself training to be an opera singer. It’s a story about a kid with a unique point of view who was determined to find a way to jump into a world he knew nothing about and to make people take notice of what made him different from the rest.
I’ve never been normal, and I am so grateful, after years of raging against that fact, to have come to the realization that not being normal for me has been the engine that has driven me to where I am now, and I wouldn’t change it for all the money or fame in the world. There is nothing wrong with opera. It is the art form that hooked me all those years ago, and people have been doing it for a very long time in very much the same way. I do not think it needs to be fixed. I do not think it is dying. I do not think we have to find a way to make it more relevant. It is relevant and glorious in its scope, honesty, and power, and that is enough. To me the problem is not with opera. The problem is when it becomes about image rather than humanity. If real people make real art, it will always be popular, and there will always be an audience. So, we as the artists must give ourselves to the work, not our voices, not our faces, not our likenesses, not our personas, our SELVES. There are definitely objective standards which we must strive to achieve, but we all know that already. Those standards are part of what make us who we are as artists, but they are far from being the only thing which audiences long for. The people in the seats want to feel something, and robots cannot make people feel. And that brings me to the topic of this post: experimentation.
I know it’s a very broad topic, but that’s because experimentation means something totally different to each and every person, and that’s where the fun begins. I’m talking about getting out of your comfort zone. Hell, I’m talking about burning down your comfort zone. To paraphrase a quote I heard once from the monumental American comedian, Bill Hicks, “The more unique your point of view, the less competition you’ll have.” Who are you? What do you want to say? Who do you want to impress? Most importantly, why do you want people to listen to you? These are questions that simply cannot go unanswered if you really want to make an impact in a business that is built upon life-changing theatrical experiences. So, I’ll give you my answers, and maybe there are some people out there who feel like me and might get a little help moving forward from reading this.
First off, I have a career that is better than I could have dreamed. I’m not saying that to brag. I just really want to make it clear that I am very aware that my perspective is that of a person who is working happily, and I don’t speak for everyone. I am not trying to dismiss anyone else’s desires, dreams, or paths. That kind of goes against my whole thing on this blog, so hopefully you will understand I am just relaying my feelings, which do not need to be your feelings. You have your own brain and heart for that, hopefully a little less cluttered than mine. I did all the stuff we’re supposed to do. I went to school, I was rejected by and participated in many young artist programs, I was rejected by many and hired by several American opera houses, all while working in restaurants and coffee shops to pay for my singing habit. Now I have a full time position in a German opera house and I freelance as much as my schedule will allow. Every experience I have had has been an ingredient in the gumbo of my career, and none of those experiences is more important than the others.
Who am I? I am a person with fear, anxiety, confidence, love, anger, patience, perseverance, etc. You know, a person. What do I want to say? I want to express every possible feeling I can on stage in the hopes that the people watching might get whatever they’re looking for out of a fulfilling life, whether it be deep, meaningful introspection or plain old entertainment. Who do I want to impress? Myself mostly. I want to be able to look back on my life and career knowing that I gave everything I had to give. Why do I want people to listen to me? I know in my heart that I have things I need to share, and I am the only person in the world who can share them in exactly this way. That doesn’t mean I’m important or special, or that what I need to share has any kind of mass appeal, but there is at least somebody out there who is looking for what I’m offering, and if I can connect with that person alone, it was worth it. I’m a snowflake, damn it! And so are you.
So, how do you find out what you need to offer the world? Experiment. There are plenty of you who are very lucky in that you get total fulfillment from traditional opera done in a traditional way. I envy you in some ways. I know this contradicts my earlier statement that I wouldn’t change my path for anything, but I’m human, so sue me. But, I can only assume there are many people out there who need something more. Find it! Don’t waste a second. Try things, whatever you can. This opera business is changing at the speed of light, and there are opportunities of which five years ago we couldn’t even have dreamed. Throw the paint against the wall and see what happens. When people tell you that your passion is invalid, find different people. Be polarizing. Be hot and be cold. Lukewarm is lame (my brother’s gonna like that one).
A couple years ago, I was forced to choose between a performance of a classic piece in front of a large audience with an important conductor in a role I had done before confidently and the total crap shoot of doing an atonal piece stomping around in blood in a loincloth on top of a parking garage. Seems like an obvious choice, right? Well, for me it wasn’t. I found a colleague who was an artist I greatly respected and asked him what I should do. He said simply, “Do you want to be big opera house guy or experimental theater guy. You can’t be both.” When he began his career, that advice would have been correct, but that’s how fast our business is changing. The old rules don’t always apply. I said, “No, damn it. I want both.” I made my choice, and that experiment yielded results I could never have predicted. The success of my stomping and frothing changed the way my company looked at me, and it led to a whole string of important traditional roles. Yet again, I know that I am so incredibly lucky to be working in a house where both options exist, and most people would never be able to have the chances I’ve had to express myself. The point here is that if I had simply told myself that my perspective didn’t fit in or need to be heard in the opera world, I would still be doing comprimario roles in this house. That would still be a fantastic life, but, it wouldn’t be the life I was meant for. There is no greater feeling in the entire world than changing someone’s mind when they don’t believe in you, and there is only one way to do it. You must, I repeat, must know what makes you unique – not special or important, unique – and you must share that through your performances, no matter the piece and no matter the size of the audience. I have been on big stages in big pieces in front of big audiences, and tonight I poured all of my heart into 100 minutes of experimental opera in a black box for 200 souls. It doesn’t matter how much money you’re getting paid. It doesn’t matter how “important” the theater your working in is (every theater is important, by the way). It doesn’t matter if 90% of the audience doesn’t even notice you are there. It REALLY doesn’t matter how many people want to meet you after the show. The only thing that matters is whether you stretched yourself and pulled something out of deep inside and flung it out into the universe, not caring where it landed (gross). Seriously, there is no reward in the end. The joy is simply in the doing.
So, just get up and do it. Look around at what is happening. There are outlets for every artistic endeavor. I’m not saying everybody can be an opera singer. I’m definitely not saying everybody SHOULD be an opera singer. This isn’t one of those “everybody gets a trophy” things. But the only way you will be happy is if you walk away from the comfortable and try to find the scary, risky, and thrilling world hiding inside your heart and mind. How are you going to know if you don’t try? I want to see it. I want to take that journey with you, unless of course, that journey is towards a vegan lifestyle. That’s just ridiculous!