Dual-Career Artists: Ingenuity and Inspiration

The pandemic exacerbated existing financial struggles for many singers and provided many singers with opportunities to lean in to other career areas. Learn more about how dual careers allow these singers to be financially stable and more confident in their artistic endeavors.

 

Was there ever an easy way for opera singers in the U.S. to simultaneously achieve artistic fulfilment and financial stability? Even the most talented and fortunate young vocalists find themselves saddled with crippling student loans after finishing graduate school, and compensation in young artist programs generally ranges anywhere from zero to barely above minimum wage. 

Pursuing a professional career as a classical singer has never been ideal for the risk averse or the faint of heart. Many artists have found unusual avenues to earn income in between paid singing gigs—and this unique acumen for financial survival was critical as COVID-19 destroyed countless singing opportunities.

After completing her undergraduate and Master’s degrees from Manhattan School of Music, soprano Bryn Holdsworth launched a burgeoning career. She earned acclaim for her roles as an apprentice at the Glimmerglass Festival and as a studio artist at The Atlanta Opera, where she returned for multiple engagements. Holdsworth was poised to make the leap from young artist to mainstage singer when the pandemic halted performances across the globe. Bryn quickly pivoted with a move to Atlanta, where she joined St. Luke’s Episcopal Church as a soloist and began teaching in a local music school. 

She shares her experience as a vocal instructor: “Not only does it help to make me a better singer but also to bring joy and show individuals what they are capable of!” Online lessons present unique challenges for Bryn as a teacher: “The biggest difference in having to teach on Zoom is that the energy I give to a lesson needs to be even more than normal, since we are connecting through a screen. I want voice lessons to be a fun and safe space, and conveying that energy over Zoom takes a lot!” 

Though Bryn feels that “in-person lessons are always better,” she enjoys the flexibility that online coachings can offer: “The virtual aspect of a lesson is a great option, especially if I am on the road. Currently, I am performing La Cenerentola with Nashville Opera and just had my own voice lesson this morning. Virtual lessons can definitely be convenient when needed, and that aspect of this COVID era will be a wonderful option for us moving forward as needed.”  

Similarly, baritone Zachary Altman was stranded in Sweden, where he was rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Malmö Opera, when COVID closures began. Since returning to the U.S., he has fed his creativity by teaching voice and landing work as an actor in one of the year’s most anticipated television series reboots (not yet formally announced). 

Zach Altman

His crossover to the silver screen was borne out of necessity more than a strategic plan. Zach explains, “The TV stuff happened because my friend and former opera agent Kathy Olsen suggested I might want to try it during the pandemic since opera was all but shut down. I never thought it was a world I could even consider, but I’m realizing it’s a bigger world than I understood it to be.” Altman felt as comfortable in front of the television camera as he did on the opera stage: “I loved theater and acting before I even knew what opera was, so when I get to do [acting on television], it feels like returning to my younger self—which is both surreal and lovely.”

Like most musicians, Altman moved his students to online lessons for safety reasons and he notes the unique challenges teachers face: “It’s important for me to understand a voice outside of Zoom. It doesn’t have to be in person. Even hearing it through different microphones and recordings can be helpful. I want to make sure I understand the difference between tinny microphone hardware and a voice that’s particularly ringy, etc. I also try to remember that it’s not the ideal dynamic for the singer or the teacher, and a little extra patience is necessary.” 

Bass-baritone Calvin Griffin also found a unique income stream through technology during the past year. Though his Metropolitan Opera debut was canceled abruptly, Griffin found his way forward as a web developer: “I was hungry to learn more, so I enrolled in a three-month-long web development bootcamp with The Georgia Institute of Technology. It was pretty intense, but it gave me the skills I needed to begin working in this new field.” 

Griffin continued performing through the pandemic as a member of The Studio Players at The Atlanta Opera, where he sang roles in The Kaiser of Atlantis and The Threepenny Carmen. This season sees him in roles at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Wolf Trap Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and The Metropolitan Opera—but he still isn’t completely letting go of his work on the side. “Now I am able to take on web development freelance work from anywhere and on my own schedule, which provides a perfect supplement to my opera career.”

Soprano Mithuna Sivaraman was ahead of the COVID curve of forging a secure career while feeding one’s artistic craft. She explains her unique journey: “As both the child of immigrants and as a South Asian ‘model minority,’ the expectation was always that music would be something ‘on the side.’ I never questioned that my path would be to get into the best university I could and pursue degrees that would lead to financial stability—my undergraduate degree is in International Political Economy from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and my law degree is from Emory University School of Law.” 

Sivaraman now splits her time onstage as a coloratura soprano and offstage as a seasoned transfer pricing specialist within a global tax advisory practice. She describes her journey as “straddling both the immigrant mandate of having a ‘job that is stable’ and the siren call to immerse myself in art.” 

Calvin Griffin

Historically, singers who maintained a job offstage may have risked the perception of being less than fully dedicated to their artistry. Most singers in 2021 say this stigma is thankfully no longer an issue. Zach Altman quips, “I think everyone understands that diversifying is helpful. It can be confusing with different agents and schedules, but it’s worth the hassle. Now is the time to pursue anything and everything. If you want to do something, try it! The old rules were out of date even before the pandemic.” 

Calvin Griffin also encourages singers to broaden their career horizons: “Learning new things can be frightening, but they can be so fulfilling and can give you more financial freedom to continue pursuing your passion of singing. It can give you more stability and security, which can open your mind to becoming a better artist and a more well rounded individual.”

Mithuna Sivaraman asserts that a varied set of experiences makes professionals more successful on both sides of the opera curtain: “To others who pursue other careers to supplement their musical endeavors, I would say, lean into the fact that you can balance two very different lives and excel at both! Your life experience brings you a deeper arsenal from which to draw when you embody a character onstage, and your ability to prioritize and perform under stress makes you a dependable professional who can take risks and stick the landing. Our respective journeys into the art form inform our drive and our performance practice—indeed, in the present moment, our journeys are the most valuable asset we bring to the table.” 

Bryn Holdsworth as Clorinda in La Cenerentola, Atlanta Opera, 2019

Sivaraman goes on to express that while her path has brought her success on many levels, she does not fit into the preconceived mold that certain opera leaders expect: “The financial stability I have built for myself allows me to fund lessons, coachings, and recordings on my own. Furthermore, the balancing of two parallel lives makes me a quick study with the ability to be well prepared at short notice and adaptable both on and off the stage. However, I’m acutely aware that audition panels do not always see me in this light.”

As industry trends continue to evolve, could it be possible that the opera audition and competition gatekeepers might consider a new approach? If established singers are no longer judged harshly for pursuing other career opportunities, might young artist programs expand their horizons to include artists who made a few extra professional stops along the way from music student to mainstage artist? Perhaps singers around the world would agree with Mithuna Sivaraman, who opines, “As COVID has forced us to think outside the box and reevaluate how we make art, I hope that our industry comes to realize that talent isn’t found in a cookie cutter mold.” 

No two voices are identical, and no two professional journeys are parallel. For enterprising artists seeking to make a living while making art, creativity ought to extend far beyond the rehearsal studio. Singers must be nimble, innovative, persistent, and patient. Let us hope that opera companies and young artist programs are not too far behind in their willingness and ability to adapt to an exciting and uncertain future.

Jonathan Blalock

Jonathan Blalock has sung with The Santa Fe Opera, The Dallas Opera, Washington National Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, The Pacific Symphony, Memphis Symphony, PROTOTYPE Festival and Opera Hong Kong. He currently serves as Individual Giving Officer at The Atlanta Opera, and he is a member of the Classical Singer Magazine editorial board.