I never felt it was necessary for me to live in New York. It was more important for me to be near an airport when my career began and I was traveling more and more.
When I started my career, I was living in Virginia. In 1990 my husband and I moved to Chicago; he was born and raised there, so we decided to settle in that area. Anyone that has a career that requires traveling just needs to choose somewhere near an airport. It really doesn’t matter where. It used to be that if you wanted a big career, you went to New York City and lived there. It is not a requirement anymore, but proximity to an airport is.
The first agent I had was in New York, and whenever there would be an audition, I would just hop on a plane and be there in a couple of hours. It never seemed to be an obstacle in any way. I never felt out of the loop. My teacher was in Virginia where I was living, my husband and friends were in Virginia, so New York was just a place to go for auditions!
I also felt that New York was expensive, and I didn’t want to have to work all the time at a waitress job just to make ends meet. When you’re a young singer, you don’t have a lot of money, and you’re trying to figure out how to pay the rent, the voice teacher, and make ends meet without coming home so exhausted that you have no energy for your singing. Young singers get pretty good at juggling jobs, time and attention.
That may be one reason some singers feel it’s necessary to live in New York. They’re there already, and if an audition comes up they can run across town and just do it. My husband always advised me against open auditions, or “cattle calls,” as we used to call them. He told me that if it was for a specific part that I knew I was right for, then spend the time and money flying to New York. Go and sing the aria from the opera and give it all I’ve got. That was great advice for me. I don’t think I was ready to go and live in New York full time. I just wanted to know when the auditions were and I would do the rest.
I’m spending more and more time in New York now, and hope to spend even more time singing there, so we’re now looking for an apartment. We’ll keep our house in Chicago, but it would be nice to have a place in New York where I can have all my familiar things around me and feel at home.
My European career began when I was selected for seven leading roles by the Nice Opera. It’s rather well-known that at this same audition I was simultaneously rejected by two provincial American companies, but it does point out that no two people hear things in the same way. My husband, bass-baritone William Powers, has always told me that it is simply a matter of numbers, and that a good singer can expect to land 10 percent of the auditions he sings for. Therefore, in order to get three or four decent roles a year, one has to sing 30 or 40 auditions and not be discouraged by the 37 refusals. I can only suggest to young singers that they don’t lose focus or belief in themselves and their talent. They are going to hear criticism from zillions of “experts.” When it gets right down to it, you’ve got to believe in yourself with an unfailing conviction.
Without a doubt the best decision I ever made was to go to Europe. That is where the art form was born. Europe is where a young singer can learn the languages needed to be successful. We always say “they don’t play baseball and we don’t sing opera.” If you aspire to have an operatic career, you must go where they “play” opera on a regular basis or you will never become a great player.
My path took me to France where I was able to gain the experience of singing several new roles every season; in my first five years abroad, I learned and performed 40 operas! This was an invaluable experience, because without being required to learn these roles for scheduled performances, I would never have had the fortitude to just learn all that repertoire. I wouldn’t have gone to a studio every day and learned 40 roles. One just doesn’t chase a carrot if there’s no point to the chase!
I learned what was good and healthy for me to sing, but most importantly, I learned what I should not sing. I honed my languages and stagecraft. While we have some of the most wonderful opera companies in America, they are hardly ever willing to give an unknown a chance to do a leading role. In Europe, where there are ten times more opera companies, each with a complete ten-month season, there is just that much more opportunity for a young person to gain his or her experience. Looking back, I am so glad that I had this European exposure; without it, I would not be where I am today.
…the struggles of a young singer
In the beginning, when you’re doing auditions and basically feeling insecure, the last thing you need or want is for someone to throw discouragement in your face. I sang several competitions as a young singer, and although many judges and other people involved with these competitions told me they thought I was the best singer that evening, I still didn’t win.
In addition, I was given some of the most amazing reasons by the judges. One told me that I was going to have a great career anyway, so I really didn’t need the prize! Another told me that he was afraid to give me a prize because I was too pretty, and people would have thought I won because of my appearance. Again, right before I walked on to sing in a prestigious East Coast competition, one of the judges told me that I had no business being there because I was too young. It shook my confidence, but I still won third prize. I was told by a well-known opera director that I would never be able to make a career because I had a fast vibrato!
…being married to a singer
When people find out that I am married to another singer and have been for 18 years, they invariably exclaim, “Considering your incredibly intense schedule, when do the two of you see each other, and how do you make your marriage work?” The answer is just that: I am married to another singer, someone who understands just how dedicated you must be and the incredible demands such a career places on an artist.
There is no question that sacrifices have to be made by both of us, and ground rules laid down. For example, we try never to be separated for more than four weeks at a time. We make efforts to join each other even if it means flying across the ocean to catch the other one’s performance. And we put no restrictions on telephone calls, speaking often four and five times a day even internationally. We strive to be incredibly “adult” in shoving petty jealousies and confinements aside. We take great pride in each other’s successes, most often more so than in our own.
We strive always to see the big picture ahead of daily needs and wants. We see ourselves as being in it for the long run, and attempt to live our lives in a way that fulfills that dream. We have our failings, just like anyone else, but the bottom line is that we love each other, respect each other’s needs, and are the best of friends. One’s success is the other’s.
Rather than looking on the down side of the business, we consider ourselves incredibly fortunate.