Mental Health

Mental Health

Kerriann Otaño and Cris Frisco have a conversation about the mental health crisis in the operatic community. They share ideas for self-care and ways to address mental health issues while working as a singer.


KO: As a young singer, I remember the frequency with which I’d hear folks in and out of the business talk about the “starving artist.” Singers are cautioned that a successful career means that they will be without—without money, without support, without community. Suffering and struggle are the price one needs to pay to succeed. But we set ourselves up for inevitable failure when we weave suffering into the fabric of a career in the arts. The starving artist mentality has normalized the mental health crisis we’re experiencing in the arts, a crisis that has been bubbling for generations. 

CF: I think it’s important we start by saying we are not mental health professionals. If you think you are suffering from mental illness, we encourage seeking the help of a professional therapist or doctor. But, we both have experiences that have taught us how taxing this career can be on our mental health and how important it is that everyone in this industry has a plan to stay physically and mentally healthy. Kerriann, you have a personal story you wanted to share.

KO: When I was singing at the Metropolitan Opera in 2019, I experienced a level of anxiety, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and depression that was debilitating. I would cry on the train into the city, wash my face in Penn Station, and go into rehearsal with a smile. No one could know that I was cracking, because that would have meant I couldn’t handle the pressure. I was so certain that I wasn’t worthy of the space, that I wasn’t talented enough or deserving enough to be in those revered halls. It was overwhelming. It was a fear and pressure that I was afraid to share even with my colleagues, let alone the company or my management. I knew that rumors would spread, and one can quickly go from being labeled as “emotional” to “difficult” to a “diva.” 

CF: One of the things I hope we can also talk about is rest. I think it’s a part of what we do that we just don’t think about enough. I know it’s something that I’m not good about prioritizing. 

KO: We honor working and overworking ourselves more than we honor rest. Folks are burnt out at the moment. 

CF: Agreed. I think we are all a little exhausted. I was working with a singer this fall who had overlapping engagements for months on end and, while of course it’s amazing to be working, it’s just not sustainable. The work starts to suffer. I don’t think we put enough emphasis on the fact that what we do requires rest and rejuvenation—mental and physical.

KO: Such a great point, Cris. If you live in the idea that your value is based on how productive you are as an artist, you’re going to stay super busy, which is fun and stressful and exciting. But when you get sick or you need a break for your mental health, you’re often not able to take that time to rest without blaming yourself. “I’m lazy, I’m not hard working. Opportunities are passing me by.” How often have we as artists said this to ourselves? 

CF: Let’s face it, things like rejection are always going to be unique challenges in this profession, but I do hope we’re breaking down some of the stigma in talking about the issues or asking for help when they seem overwhelming. 

KO: It’s also hard because of the nomadic nature of a singer’s lifestyle. Artists are going to face anxiety, loneliness, isolation, self-doubt, and an incredible amount of imposter syndrome and they’re away from home and their support systems. It’s important that we as administrators take a holistic look at how we’re welcoming artists to our companies. We need to create a safe space for artists to be able to work to their fullest potential, which often requires a lot of vulnerability.  

CF: I think we are moving in the right direction—for example, having intimacy coordinators in the rehearsal room. We need make that space safe for everyone.

KO:  You‘re so right, but the entire space needs to be safe, not only in the instances of physical intimacy in a production. We’re representing these stories that are emotionally vulnerable and provocative and should challenge our audiences, so if the artists are not empowered to reach that level of vulnerability, then we’re letting down our audiences as well.

CF: So many of the stories we tell are really traumatic stories, and I don’t think it’s uncommon—especially for women and people of color—to spend a lot of their professional time reenacting trauma. So, one of the things I’ve been asking myself a lot lately is what can we do as an industry and what can you do as an individual to better prepare yourself for the reality of having to go to that space on a regular basis? 

KO: We have to take the suffering out of the equation. Who does it benefit to suffer? We need an industry-wide change from the way that we talk to artists to the way that we train and collaborate with them. If we’re not creating a space where artists can feel empowered and safe to create, what is the point of the art that we’re making? 

CF:  So, what are some things we can proactively do as artists? What should singers do to prepare themselves for a career that prioritizes their own mental health and well-being?

KO: So much of it for me comes down to self-talk and how you think about yourself. I know many artists who are wonderful people who say wonderful things about their colleagues, and then they turn around and say terrible things about themselves. They minimize their success and their worth. Something my mom used to say when I was going through the really dark days of my depression was, “You don’t even see how special what you do is.” We all got into this business because we have something to say and we’re communicators. We’re passionate and compassionate. We’re empathetic and we’re good at connecting to people—but we can’t do that if we’re sabotaging our own mental health. We owe it to the art, but most of all we owe it to ourselves.

CF: I think one of the things that everyone should do is have a really honest conversation with themselves about what they need to keep them healthy. If you’re a person who needs to get outside and walk to clear your head and stay sane, then figure out a way to do that everywhere you are. If you’re a person who needs to talk to their family for an hour a day to be centered and healthy, then figure out how to do that on the road. Same goes for quiet time, or social time, etc. You don’t have to sacrifice those things just to make art, but you might need to get creative.

KO: You have to be your own advocate. No one else needs to understand why you need the things you do, but their understanding isn’t required for you to live a happy life.

CF: It’s all about balance. I think it would be disingenuous of us to say that this is easy. There are always going to be some difficult choices. You’ll certainly miss some weddings, some time with friends and family, some life events. But you don’t need to miss everything. You don’t need to say yes to every opportunity to the detriment of your own health.

KO: I’m such a believer that having a full life is what makes us interesting artists. Those life experiences make your stories worth listening to. It’s what makes your art worth experiencing. And, ultimately, what if empowered artists are more effective storytellers and stewards of this art form than struggling artists? 

CF:  Well done, bringing us full circle.

KO: Meaningful art-making requires radical vulnerability, authenticity, and compassion for ourselves and for each other. Companies should be cultivating a space where artists, employees, and the community have a voice. Mental health and well-being should be a priority, not only as an industry, but for all of as human beings.

CF: That’s a beautiful place for us to conclude. Wishing everyone a healthy and happy season!

Kerriann Otano and Cris Frisco

Kerriann Otaño is the vice president of engagement at Opera Delaware. A former singer, she performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Washington National Opera, and the Wolf Trap and Glimmerglass Festivals. Cris Frisco is the music coordinator and principal coach for Mannes Opera at Mannes School for Music and is a NYC-based coach and pianist.