Notes From the Field : Let’s Discuss Lanes

A life of singing is an exhilarating adventure through a long and winding highway. On your journey you’ll be inspired by those you meet along the way and you’ll face frustrating obstacles. The biggest keys to success are to follow your GPS, stay in your lane, and remain focused on your own destination. Buckle up, start your engines, and enjoy the ride of your life.

Real life is not like Super Mario Kart. I couldn’t choose which vehicle (my voice) I was able to maneuver along the road. Some of my colleagues have much more powerful machines that could easily run me over, but I can’t let that distract me. My objective is to faithfully maintain my own instrument and keep my eyes focused on my own path. In one moment it may seem that others are zipping by me with major breakthroughs (winning a big competition or landing a major debut), but just a few miles later they may find themselves on the side of the road with a speeding ticket or a flat tire.

Their progress shouldn’t concern me, because the only thing I can control is my own performance. It’s important for me to stick to routes that favor my speed and agility, such as Rossini and high-lying 21st century repertoire. A heavy-duty vehicle with four-wheel drive is much better suited for climbing the challenging peaks of Verdi, Strauss, and Wagner. That’s OK, because we have different destinations.

Knowing when to take an exit is imperative. On numerous occasions my emotional gas tank has been running on fumes, and I simply needed to veer off the interstate, refuel my tank, and nourish myself spiritually and mentally before I could return to the highway and resume my optimal performance. Unexpected detours are often necessary, and it’s important to remain flexible. Fortunately, there isn’t only one route to your destination.

Soprano Carrie Hennessey took a break from her early career to spend time with her husband and children. Her 20s weren’t filled with singing engagements, but now she’s zooming in the fast lane with constant concerts, recitals, and operas. Her unconventional route has prepared her for peak performance in her current journey. She embraces her unique path with the hashtag #operamom, which she proudly utilizes on social media.

Despite our best-laid plans, we can’t foresee hazardous conditions such as the storms of financial or familial disasters, or the traffic jams of a vocal injury or an opera company that cancels its season. I deeply admire singers such as Adrienne Danrich who don’t remain despondent and paralyzed behind the wheel. Danrich felt like she was encountering a few roadblocks, so she found the courage to build her own highway.

She began writing her own songs and producing her own shows. Now, in addition to recent contracts with major companies like Lyric Opera of Chicago, she has recorded a new solo album, won a Midwest Emmy, and sold out dozens of shows featuring her own material. The old cliché is true: “The elevator to success is out of order. You’ll have to use the stairs!”

Recently, my own journey led me to a major crossroads. After many miles of success, I felt like I was losing speed because of various factors outside of my control. I could continue along the same path—or I could take a turn and join a team creating new highways for others.

After much soul searching, I chose to temporarily hang up my driving keys and join Opera Saratoga as their development and patron services manager. I’m playing a different part, but I find great joy in building a better future for everyone else on the road. Thankfully, I can still hop back into my car for an occasional concert, workshop, or recording.

Whether you choose to follow the flow of traffic or chart your own course, it’s important to bring your loved ones with you. At times you may feel like it’s easier to go it alone, but what fun is an adventure without someone to share it with you? You may need someone to take the wheel when you’re too tired to go on, and you’ll often need assistance with directions as you pass unfamiliar regions. A loved one will help to keep you grounded when you feel like you’re flying in the clouds, and they’ll help to lift you up when you’re deep in the darkest valley.

Only you can define which path is best for you, but remember that it’s not about the endpoint. The thought of reaching my destination (big goals like major debuts) used to consume me, but I was missing a sense of wonder as I passed each beautiful landmark. I was so busy barreling down the highway toward the West Coast that I didn’t take a moment to enjoy the view of the Grand Canyon. Eventually, I realized that satisfaction was waiting for me not at the end of the horizon but along each challenging and rewarding mile I traveled. I only had to be present enough to notice it, soak it in, and be grateful for the ride.

Jonathan Blalock

Jonathan Blalock recently earned critical acclaim as Prince Claus in Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus with the Dallas Opera. A specialist in 21st century music, Rossini, and Mozart, Blalock has performed with companies and symphonies including Washington National Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Pacific Symphony, the Opera Orchestra of New York, the PROTOTYPE Festival, Opera Hong Kong, the Santa Fe Opera, West Edge Opera, and many more.