Okay . . .
Take a deep breath . . .
Here we go . . .
I don’t drink alcohol . . .
I am not saying a never drank alcohol. I definitely drank more than enough for several people’s lifetimes. Now, every day, I don’t drink alcohol. I say it like that because some days that’s how it feels, like every day I have to make the decision all over again not to drink.
Welcome to the first official post of my new blog. As I said in the introduction post, I am here to try and get down in the dirt of the opera business, and here 429 days into my sobriety (I’m not obsessed with counting days. I swear. I have an app that counts for me), I can’t help but thinking about what it means to be sober in life, but especially what it means to be sober in opera. So, buckle up because I’m about to tell you what I think. What you do with that information is up to you, and I’m equally excited and anxious to see what happens.
What happened? Did I fall apart? Did I get myself into trouble? Did I physically hurt somebody? Unfortunately, this story is not nearly that interesting. I’m just simply a drunk, and a very highly functioning one at that. Nobody knew I had a drinking problem until I told them. Nobody held an intervention. Nobody saw what was going on at all, but it was there. The shape of my drinking looked totally square and harmless to the outside eye. I drank every day. Now, there’s nothing wrong with drinking a little every day, but that’s not what I was doing. I was getting a buzz on every day, which also doesn’t sound too bad, but for my tolerance, getting a buzz on required drinking more on a daily basis than the average person would find tolerable.
Did I drink happy? Yes. Did I drink sad? Yes. Did I drink stressed? Yes. Did I drink relaxed? Yes. Did I drink in crowds? Yes. Did I drink alone? Hell yes. You see where I’m going with this. As a young singer, I could get away with this lifestyle pretty well, singing mostly small roles. But as my career began luckily to pick up and the roles started getting larger, having a regular hang over became something that was probably not the best idea. Yet again, I never let it go too far, but the question was how long I would be able to get away with it. I wasn’t an angry drunk, I wasn’t a depressed drunk, I wasn’t a dangerous drunk, and I wasn’t a sloppy drunk (well, most of the time, at least). I never drank before or during work or felt the need to, but the moment work was finished, nothing could stand in the way of my getting a drink. I know that most people have a drink after work, but for me it was a compulsion. I felt a sense of stress that told me I couldn’t actually consider my day successful until I was on my way to a buzz.
So, there’s the confession. The confession isn’t that I am a drunk. The confession is that I don’t drink anymore. After a substantial time being sober, I’ve learned that being a drunk is acceptable. Being sober requires constant justification and apology, and that is what I really want to talk about. The opera world is demanding as hell, as we all know. It requires dedication, sacrifice, and a steel nerve, and that’s just the building a career part. Nobody tells you how hard it is to be an established person in this business. Sure, we all talk about the isolation of travel, missing special occasions, etc., but nobody talks about how difficult it is to spend your life surrounded by people with whom you honestly have only one thing in common, and it just so happens that that one thing is your job. People in other careers don’t spend all their time with people from work. They have lives. Once you take alcohol out of the picture, it becomes quickly apparent how little you have in common with these people you spend so much time with. And that’s not a bad thing necessarily. I have built some of the most important friendships of my life from the interactions I have had with my colleagues. You have to find ways to relate to your temporary family on the road, but at the same time understand that there is more in the world than our little opera corner, and you can make a life outside of it. The real problem arises when our erratic schedules and freelance lifestyle make it so difficult to get out there and make friends who are not singers, and that’s when the pressure to conform can swoop in. Often it is pressure you put on yourself. Sometimes it is blatant. It’s very easy for us to forget that the things we say to each other often have further implications than we are aware of, so I am not angry with people for being insensitive about my sobriety. I know I am in a minority, and I can’t ask everyone to adapt to my lifestyle. It’s not like I’m a vegan! But, I have finally just lately begun to understand their reactions to my choice. I’ve had people imply or tell me outright that my sitting in a bar with them sober while they drink made them uncomfortable or feel awkward. I’ve heard, “Quit being a pussy, and drink with me!” I can tell you, hearing something like that is like being hit with a ton of bricks. Here I am slowly learning to be proud of and comfortable with a radical decision, and now I’m supposed to feel guilty for making other people uncomfortable? Of course I’m not, but when we make these comments, what does it say about who we are and what we do to each other? I have a colleague, let’s call him Dr. C., who said it very well. He said, “If they have to anesthetize their own personalities in order to make your sobriety bearable, that says a lot more about them than it does about you.”
Now, I know it sounds like I’m pointing fingers at you all here, and that is not the case. I swear. The larger issue is the pressure to conform. We all have to do it to a certain extent, of course. If I had my way, I’d never leave the house in anything but pajamas and a hoodie, but I have to, at the very least, scrounge together some jeans and a t-shirt without holes in it. That’s just the price of doing business, whether I like it or not. But, when does conformity take us away from who we really are as people and turn us into stuffy little opera bullshit machines? It comes down to so many little details every day that we don’t even realize. So what if you’re a nerd who likes role playing games online, so what if you can name every single person who ever played shortstop for the Yankees and can list their batting averages in chronological order, so what if your passion for horses seems borderline unhealthy to others, so what if you plan to vote for Donald Trump for president (oof!), so what if you like to spend your evenings in fetish bars, so what if you are a devout Christian who has decided to devote your life to god and your chosen method of doing so is to make art with a group of condescending people who are notoriously non-Christian, so what if you’re a vegan (sorry for the line earlier, guys. It was just a joke. See, I’m guilty too). The pressure to be somebody you are not can become paralyzing, and when we are paralyzed, we cannot make art. YOU ARE YOUR OWN PERSON, and everything you have done or thought is informing what you do on stage or in the practice room, whether you realize it or not. Feeling shame for those things will only restrict your creative process.
So, what can you do? You must find the way to feed the beast. Do your job. Please the people who are giving you the opportunity to create art for a living because you are not entitled to the privilege of participating in this, the most glorious art form on the planet. You have to earn it, but you have to find out how to do so on your own terms. That does not mean that you should let your ego fly. I’m not talking about believing that what you have to offer is more important than what anyone else has to offer. You must be a generous colleague, and you must always do your work with humility. Take the art seriously, but do not take yourself seriously. Don’t be a dick, but understand that going through life feeling like there’s something wrong with who you are is a one way trip to a meltdown. Believe me. I’ve been there, but I can tell you without question that once you accept the fact that you will never please everybody and that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that, you will be set free. You will find the people who appreciate the unique vision you bring to your work, and you will lead a more balanced life. And hopefully, just hopefully, you’ll be able to look at the people who try to make YOU feel uncomfortable for THEIR insecurities and say, “Kiss. My. Ass. This is my life, and there’s nothing you can do or say to make me feel inadequate about it.”