Inspirazione! : A Different Kind of Family: Singers and Their Pets

In the musical Edwin Drood, there is a moment when the woman playing Drood enters not as Drood, but as her true self, a theatrical diva. When I played that role, I found a white, fluffy toy dog that would yap and lift its head when I pressed a hidden button and on stage even looked like a real dog. I made the entrance with the yapping dog in my arms, and got a big laugh.

This quintessential image of the diva, bustling into rehearsal with a fluffy Pekinese in her arms, implies that in a busy life in the theater, a traditional family is often out of the question. The tiny lap dog is a baby substitute. The adoration the singer shows to the little animal contrasts sharply with her tyrannical treatment of those around her.

Many singers today, and I include myself, don’t have children, or don’t have children yet, but have pets—dear, beautiful, loving creatures we consider members at the heart of our families. As this issue of CS demonstrates, a work-only mentality is as out of fashion as the stereotypical tyrannical diva I just described. All of us are seeking a sense of balance and wellness in our lives—and just as parents consider the needs of their children when making career decisions, pet owners consider their animal loved ones when making plans and decisions. Whether you have a pet, or are considering having a pet, here are some things to consider in balancing the needs of a career and an animal companion.

Time

If you are considering getting a pet, be realistic about the time commitment. Dogs, in particular, cannot be left alone for extended periods. They need outings to do their business, and they need company and socialization to keep them happy. Also, depending on the breed, they need varying amounts of exercise. Experts recommended that you choose a dog comparable to your own activity level. In other words, if you are a couch potato, don’t get a border collie. (For a complete list of criteria for choosing a pet, and for more helpful information on the subjects below, visit the Humane Society website listed in the sidebar.)

Money

I’ve nicknamed my dog, Sammy, the “six-million-dollar dog” because of the many complicated medical issues and procedures he has endured. Beyond food and vet bills, there’s boarding and pet sitting when you’re away. If you get a pet, budget for it and consider getting health insurance.

Allergies

This is certainly an important topic for a singer to consider when getting a pet. The Humane Society of the United States says that about 15 percent of the population is allergic to dogs or cats—and that all cats and dogs are allergenic (allergy-causing), even hairless breeds or breeds with growing hair such as poodles or bichon frisé (though I have known an allergic singer who lived comfortably with two hairless cats). Even with the more allergenic breeds, you can lessen the problem with things such as air filters, more frequent bathing of the pet, and receiving allergy shots. As a teacher of students with allergies, I use a vacuum with a HEPA filter frequently. If you have allergic students, you should also move the dog and his bedding out of the studio—and keep the cat out as well.

Travel

You can find many excellent books on how to travel successfully with pets. (See sidebar and “The Traveling Pet,” p.52.) Certainly, the issue of travel is of great importance to singers. Thinking about the issue of your pet and travel is also an opportunity to reflect on your own needs and feelings about being away from home.

If you think you would feel heartbroken to leave your pet behind, a smaller dog is a better way to go. Even hotels that take dogs often have size restrictions. (My 72-pound “lab” is often not welcome. The cutoff is often 40 pounds.)

If you need to leave your pet behind, make sure you make arrangements well in advance, especially at holiday time. In choosing a pet sitter, go with someone who is bonded with liability insurance and has good references. Again, visit the Humane Society website for more complete guidelines.

If you cannot take full responsibility for having a pet because of career, finances, or your living situation, that is no reason to deprive yourself of an animal’s company. One of the most satisfying things I have ever done was to volunteer at an animal shelter while working out of town. Animals staying in shelters are often deprived of attention and exercise, and shelters welcome help in walking dogs, playing with animals, or simply petting and cuddling with cats. This is a wonderful way to warm up to a new city, and feel less alone while on the road or away from your own pets.

Lastly, in my earlier description of the stereotypical diva, I omitted one common image: that of the singer in a fur coat. While we are on the subject of animals and singers, I’d like to say that the tradition of the fur-clad diva is, in my view, a black mark on the singer’s image. Once you know even a little bit about animals being raised for fur, the idea of a fur coat being glamorous is no longer valid. Just as the image of the lonely, workaholic diva without a family is outdated so—I hope—is the image of a diva in fur.

I am happy for my fellow singers who are seeking and finding such balance, and defining for themselves what’s most important. After all, are we singers with families, or are we family members who sing? For my part, I am sure I would have made different career choices if I didn’t have Sammy—but at the end of the day, what’s a career compared to the love of a really great dog?

Resources for Pet Owners

The Humane Society of the United States
www.hsus.org
(202) 452-1100
This website is a fount of information on everything from dealing with pet allergies, to choosing a pet, to finding a pet sitter, and just about every aspect of having a pet in your life.

www.Pets911.com
A very easy site to navigate, with a quick page for finding a vet or shelter in your area.

www.letsgopets.com
A great site with information and tips on all aspects of traveling with pets, and easy links to major airline pet policies.

Companion Air
www.companionair.com
A new airline specializing in traveling with pets. Not cheap, but worth it to those who can’t stand the idea of the pet as cargo.

National Association of Professional Pet Sitters
www.petsitters.org
800-296-PETS

For travel guides, it is always best to be as specific as you can, so consider the “Dog Lover’s Companion” series, which has editions for California, the Pacific Northwest, Chicago, Florida, New England, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. If you want a general guide, see “Traveling with Your Pet” from AAA.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.