Making It When You Don’t ‘Make It’

In the February issue, we met “Rebecca” and “Joyce” as they weathered the challenges of family, parents, and children. This month’s interview focuses on the effects of age prejudice in the operatic field as well as the devastating results of childhood abuse.

Meet ‘Anne’

“Anne” began her career thinking she needed to perform like a bright red, shiny sports car. She thought of herself this way because she strongly experienced the parallels between this symbol and our culture’s deeply entrenched love affair with youth. Focusing on this metaphor, she was able to ignore the natural process of her own aging and maintain a perception of outward control over her life through her appearance.

What’s more, Anne felt that she stood out because of her vocal technique and abilities, and felt those she perceived as having all the power deemed her “worthy”—so she shoved down the technique, literature, and artistry of ever-changing Fachs. She became totally dependent upon her belief in how she would succeed by changing her current teacher’s perception of her sound. She had learned at an early age that if she were to survive, what others thought was far more important than her own thoughts or feelings.

Anne was bitten by the opera bug at age 5 when she attended a puppet performance of La bohème. Voice lessons followed at age 12. Even with all her focus on vocal perfection she was unable to be authentically present in her world. She unconsciously changed herself to suit the needs of others in the situation, having no awareness of her self, her needs, or her desires. This behavior pattern soon became second nature.

Anne’s life was an outward blessing, but inwardly hollow. This held her back from finding the joy of singing authentically, from her soul. She had sold hers in the name of making everyone else happy. This pattern continued into adulthood.

Fifteen years ago Anne was auditioning for everything she could. She traveled to New York City weekly to clean her teacher’s home in exchange for lessons. She took two coachings a week in her town. She worked 5-8 different jobs to make ends meet. Anne was going full speed and she enjoyed it—or so she thought—but her singing was suffering. She never could get her teeth into what she was doing—her singing was not coming from deep within, because Anne’s internal worth and power were still in the hands of others. She got a few roles here and there, but nothing on the scale she had expected: there was never a Young Artist Program for Anne.

Then the dread age cutoff—the transition from 29 to 30—came… and went. Anne felt her clock ticking. People and events were changing all around her. Anne was putting so much work into her career, doing all the “right” things, but while everything around her was changing so clearly, nothing was happening for her. She experienced outward changes as she saw herself getting older, but that was all. As far as her career was concerned, nothing was happening.

At this point, Anne began to sing for every church she could find. This experience was beneficial—she had always felt strongly about supporting others in worship, believing that all roads lead to God. She was convinced that none of the traditional female roles were going to work for her, that any future marriage and children would only get in the way of the precious singing career she was in danger of losing. She felt her choices dwindling with every passing month, it seemed.

Frustrated by her inability to move forward, Anne took a class called “Live Your Dreams.” The teacher used many different techniques to open the students’ awareness. Anne volunteered to be the guinea pig to help demonstrate the technique of voice dialoguing.

The first voice to come out was Anne at 3 years old. Anne didn’t say much, but felt very restricted. Then her father’s voice came out, saying some very demeaning things about Anne, which was not typical of the father she remembered. Just as the teacher dismissed the class to try the technique in pairs on their own, Anne suddenly had an image of a toy train coming around on its track, delivering in one of its cars a Polaroid picture of a man on top of a little girl in her parents’ bedroom. In that moment, Anne began to believe that she had suffered sexual abuse for many years at the hands of her father.

From that day on, Anne was unable to go deep into her body for support for her singing. She consistently left her body whenever she sang, floating outside of herself, totally disconnected. Her confidence suffered so terribly that the unconscious tricks she had learned and used with some success before would no longer work for her. During one operatic performance she became disassociated on stage. She had no idea where she was, whom she was with, or what opera she was in. Thankfully, a loving colleague brought her back and supported her through the scene. Meanwhile the clock kept right on ticking. She told herself that she had to just fix this problem so her career could go on.

The month before she took the class on living your dreams, Anne met her future husband. Mark was clearly interested, but she wanted to be clear and free for her career. She also had learned not to trust easily in relationships—but Mark was persistent, and an entire congregation at church encouraged their developing relationship. This allowed Anne to look beyond her fears for the first time in her life and take the next step. The two were married in the spring of 2000.

Anne was hopeful that marriage would change everything—and everything did change, just not quite the way she expected. She had hoped all the challenges surrounding her sexual abuse would disappear, but instead they intensified. She continued to struggle vocally, singing in a Fach miles from what was comfortable, but therapeutically she was finally beginning to peel around her core to arrive at her own authenticity.

Immediately after the “Live Your Dreams” class, Anne began to see a sexual abuse therapist. After several years of therapy, she thought turning 40 would bring back the confidence she had lost. Announcing her age to the world felt perfectly safe and easy, and people who loved her celebrated her for it wonderfully. Instead of the confidence she thought was around the corner, she realized she had suddenly made public another of her greatest secrets: her exact age! Then, just a month later, she went through a depression so severe she spent three weeks in an outpatient psychiatric ward, with Mark’s encouragement.

Mark made the phone call because Anne could not get off the living room couch and was having suicidal thoughts. Anne was filled with shame over not feeling “normal,” realizing that her abuse had truly marked her life. She was experiencing a great deal of fear over being marked with a mental health brand.

After five years of marriage, thinking she would never be able to parent effectively because of her own abuse history, Mark asked Anne to reconsider this issue. Anne wasn’t even sure if she could get pregnant, but she conceived in the summer of 2005. During her first routine ultrasound, doctors found no fetal heartbeat and Anne underwent a D&C (dilation and curettage) that afternoon.

Later that evening, during an operatic performance, Anne began to hemorrhage. Anne believes this devastating experience was God’s way of introducing the idea into her life, asking her to truly consider the possibility of parenthood. Coming to peace with the idea, she chose it with true intent. Mark and Anne are doing one round of fertility treatments and then will consider what next. Anne feels that clock ticking again, and fights the urge to try to add more to her life instead of choosing to be in the process.

Anne has recently decided to tell her family about her abuse. She has discovered that this step has opened her head voice, reconnected her to her breathing, and has restored, perhaps most importantly, her authenticity of soul.

Anne still struggles with fluorescent lighting, or days with no clouds in the sky and a glaringly bright sun. Sometimes she takes scalding hot showers to make herself feel clean. She still experiences moments of disassociation. She doesn’t trust her memory, and so won’t perform solo recitals, although she is starting to wonder whether singing with music is really so bad. Anne sometimes worries that her various issues will cause others to form false impressions about her musical and artistic abilities, which really bugs her, because it means she still cares what other people think.

Anne believes we are here to grow, and this growth requires work. The gift of singing is ours so we can do our work and help others do theirs. Anne’s excitement about singing now is to see how and when her voice will be used. She is no longer waiting for a time when she will feel ready for the big break she once dreamed would be her life’s adventure. She allows her awareness to be her teacher, and she knows now that once you have connected with the emotional stuff of what has happened in the past, you are living in the truth of the moment.

Anne chooses to be present in the moment, in each note, in each phrase, in each piece.

Michelle Kunz

Michelle Kunz is a professional certified life coach, helping individuals reduce conflict, gain clarity, and get more from their lives and careers. She has sung with the Washington National Opera Chorus on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage for over 15 seasons, where she also serves as Children’s Chorus Master. She serves on AGMA’s Board of Governors, representing the Washington/Baltimore Area, and on the Board of Andover Educators. Contact her at www.PELcoaching.com.