Last week we joined four young talents to discuss the realities of a performing career. As is clear from Part I, I am not in the business of dream-weaving.
How can I lose? I’m a triple threat!
Can you do any kind of dancing—jazz, tap, Broadway jazz?
A dancer is a dancer.
Well, no, actually. A lot of ballet dancers can’t adjust their techniques any more than classical singers can carry off “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Be prepared to take a lot more classes. Can you sing?
My voice is a little small, but I’m told it’s very pretty.
Singer/Dancers are usually belters. In other words, they want your voice to have lots of brass. We’re not talking Shirley Jones. Are you prepared to sound brassy and nasal? Because that’s the sound Broadway wants these days. They don’t want “pretty.”
Up till now I’ve simply listened. But hey, why should I fail? I’m a bass baritone, handsome, and I’ve already won three major awards—in fact, every darn contest I’ve entered. I love performing, am never nervous and never sick. I love life, love all my teachers, and have been helping out at the Boys Club on weekends. I’m quite personable and tall. Everyone tells me how talented I am. I speak three languages, I play piano, and I can learn a piece of music overnight. I can sight-read anything. Why would you try to discourage me?
James, go for it. You have a major shot at a career. You’re also a man. And with all the hormones in food, low voices are becoming more and more of a rarity.
What about me? I’m just as good as James!
You have a shot, along with hundreds, maybe thousands of others. You, however, unlike James, face the fight of your life. You will have to brave cruelty, rejection, the jealousy of your peers. Then if you do make it, you will realize that it has become a business like any other, with some incredible moments and a lot of boring, frustrating hours. Ninety percent of your audience won’t really appreciate what you are doing. Two percent will gnash their teeth in envy, wishing they were you, perhaps obsessing over you. Eight percent may appreciate what you’re doing; they will respect you but not think you are extraordinary, just a talented person doing her job. But no one will give you the reaction you hoped for, idolize you as a celebrity, appreciate just how difficult your profession is.
When you’re feeling great, you will have a blast. But that will be about ten percent of the time. The rest of the time, you will be performing with a fever, with PMS, with post-nasal drip, and then some mysterious thing will invade your voice, making everything more difficult. The ENT you visit will cost $600. (One I called told me he charged $1,200.) You probably won’t have health insurance, so this will be a major blow. Your voice teacher will cost $150/hour plus and your coach (the one you’re going to because he casts small roles at Podunk Grand Hotel) will cost $75/hour plus. You will have to learn to live very frugally, unless you marry a rich man. That’s what my teacher told me to do. Unfortunately I just wasn’t attracted to rich men.
Okay, but that’s you. That won’t be me. And for me performing is better than sex!
Well, you’re young. Sex may not be that great yet. However, the more you perform, the less performing will give you that rush. It will become like any other job—any other job, that is, where you must constantly watch your Ps and Qs. You can be a lawyer with a head cold, write a column with the flu. Performers—especially classical singers—can’t go to that party, stay up late, have that extra glass of wine. Your friends will wonder why you are never free in the evenings, and the more success you have, the harder it will be to have a real life, to nurture a relationship. You will be on the road ten out of twelve months, babying yourself, trying to rest your voice, putting up with opera general managers who parade you around like prize cows in order to squeeze another $1,000 out of patrons. Resisting the efforts of managers and agents to push you into accepting roles you know you’re not ready for or will never be ready for.
I don’t need a relationship. My career is me!
Then perhaps you are one of the chosen few. Because your social life will always come second.
Sally Spinto, Aaron Actor, Darcy Dancer (in unison):
Don’t you have anything nice to say?
There are lots of people out there who will encourage you. You are, no question, in the top echelon of your age group—full of promise, young, lovely, starry-eyed.
Not me. It’s a business, pure and simple. I have no illusions about re-enacting The Singing Teacher.
Right, the film with Jose Van Dam. The fairytale where the teacher takes you under his wing, puts you through rigorous training, and helps you perfect your art and vanquish your rival. James, if you have no illusions, this is the profession for you. The only ones who make it to the top are the ones who approach it like a business. They realize that they will be expected to always be in excellent health, to be prepared for every rehearsal, to be upbeat, to put up with temperamental directors, conductors, fellow singers, to overlook the evil gleam in the eyes of their understudies.
Sally, Aaron, and Darcy:
You can’t discourage us. We want this!
Yes, I know that. I just hope that each of you has a backup profession. Because each and every one of the singers, actors, and dancers I have known, in New York and Seattle, eventually gave up and had to start over or turn to teaching. The more successful they were, the later they started over. These are people who had careers at the Met, who did three apprentice programs, who were accepted into San Francisco’s Merola Program. The only ones still doing it have flexible professions outside of performing or spouses with money (and health insurance). Most of them are very good at living on a shoestring. All those who stayed in the profession eventually became teachers or directors. If they were lucky or bothered to get their doctorates along the way, they scored positions at universities. But a doctorate alone won’t get you a position like that. You have to also have had a real career, where you performed in major houses.
Look at the famous singers who have made it. Many married their teachers, their directors, their agents, or the heads of their record companies. Or they had rich parents, parents who were also performers, wealthy “benefactors.” Do you want it that much?
If so, go for it.
But there’s an alternative. Do something else for a living, but never stop singing, acting, dancing. Who are the happiest performers I know? The amateurs. They don’t have to keep topping themselves. Because they know that for professionals, even that one great review, that one great role, can still be followed by three months of unemployment and the review that kills their careers forever.
Now go head and enjoy the next ten years. Dream your dreams, have a few exciting successes, get involved with one new charmer per show. Then throw in the towel when you’re thirty and go to med school. You’ll be the most compassionate doctor ever because you know what it is to suffer and to be humbled.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to discourage you. No one could have discouraged me. And I had fun; I can’t say I truly regretted anything. However, I am now watching my more practical friends planning their retirements, kicking back and enjoying themselves. They have health insurance, nice clothing, luxury vacations. My fellow performers—even the ones who “made it”—face uncertain futures. They had late starts in their professions, have poor or non-existent health coverage, no investments.
As one friend says, “We had our retirement first.”
If you can—who can?—then try to picture yourself in twenty-five years. You have a respectable performing résumé, you look much younger than your actual age, you have a lot of cool stories … but no investments, bad health insurance (if any). You had an investment banker for a husband, but he/she divorced you for someone with money. Is all of this okay with you? If so, then maybe this profession is your true calling.
As Agnes Gooch says in Auntie Mame, “I lived. I gotta find out what to do now.”