Editor’s Notes : General Directors and You - A Good Team

This month we feature interviews with two general directors: Ian Campbell and James Caraher.

General directors can have a great influence on the kind of experience you have singing with a company. They are one of many sources of feedback—which is something singers are never short of in this business!

Many of you are in summer programs right now and may be getting more feedback than you are used to getting. Cindy Sadler’s column offers some great tips for handling feedback, especially the negative kind.

Campbell and Caraher have positive impacts on the singers they work with, but this isn’t always the case with all general directors. Directors can beat singers down with negative, harsh, even cruel criticism. If this is happening to you at a program you paid to attend—if the director of the program is telling you that you need this type of treatment to toughen up, that this is the real world of opera and if you can’t take it, you’ll never succeed in the field—don’t believe him.

Often, these negative directors are ruining their productions. Negativity makes singers pull their artistry around them like a cloak; it strikes blows as real as if the director were throwing stones. Don’t put up with it! You have the right to expect to be treated as an adult who has great talent and ideas. Learn to be assertive when you need to teach someone how to treat you.

It is true singers who are very tough-skinned will be a lot happier in this field. Learn to turn off your “believe” switch! But plenty of thin-skinned singers have enjoyed huge careers! So if you shed a few tears after being hollered at, know that there are a lot of singers just like you! They’ve had to learn to take it—and so can you.

Singers can do many things to build positive relationships with general directors and opera companies. Take time to notice that some assistant somewhere gathered up everyone’s contact info to give it to those who want a copy. Notice when the companies arrange babysitting for you so you can sing your best without worrying about your children. They do so many things that go unnoticed. Being more aware and saying “thank you” can go along way!

Ian Campbell works hard to make sure things are working well for singers. He was a singer and knows the game well. I remember a Falstaff (Meg Page) I sang for him. It was one of my early jobs, and he treated me so well—like family. Mr. Campbell hosted a cast dinner at his home, complete with children. Because he was stage directing, we had the opportunity to work with him both onstage and off. He treated even the smaller roles as if they were important, and he listened to the cast’s ideas, building more camaraderie. He came backstage during every intermission of both the dress rehearsals and the performances to give us a read on how we were doing. He built my confidence and skills during each intermission.

Mr. Campbell also gave me several clues about my career, which I followed as often as possible. He told me to always ask for an “exit interview” when leaving a show to find out how my work had been received. And then, once I had created a bond with the staff and the general director, to call back to find out if there was anything coming up in which I could sing.

I have a soprano friend who had quite the opposite experience with another general director. He kept telling her she didn’t sound right, that she wasn’t acting the role well. Stung by a barrage of such criticisms, all probably offered in the wrong way, the singer began to be so demoralized she called her manager about leaving the production. She couldn’t sing and cry at the same time. No one was giving her any positive feedback.

You can’t always expect positive feedback, of course, but it is so much easier to sing for people who like your work. To be effective, correction must be helpful and end on a positive note.

Singers can also find effective and creative ways to reverse negative energy. In one rehearsal in which I was involved, a stage director was actually making fun of the singers. One of the baritones piped up and said, “Hey! We are working hard here, and I don’t appreciate your tone of voice. If you’d like to come up here and try to do better, you’re welcome to”—a comment the other singers onstage greatly appreciated! The criticism slowed down markedly, and the production got a terrific review.

Sometimes you have to take a stand—as diplomatically as you can!

CJ Williamson

CJ Williamson founded Classical Singer magazine. She served as Editor-in-Chief until her death in July, 2005. Read more about her incredible life and contributions to the singing community here.