Opera Singing Mamas : The Career (Part 2)

Part two in a series on motherhood in the classical singing world concludes with information on how to balance a singing career with this new role, the changes that can affect the career, and advice for those wishing to expand their families.


Following part one of an illuminating interview with six established opera stars whose individual experiences with the pregnancy, labor, and postpartum processes and the impact on their instruments were laid bare, the discussion turned to their careers. In part two, Anna Christy, Kiera Duffy, Jennifer Feinstein, Cecelia Hall, Susanna Phillips, and Amanda Woodbury explain the impact of motherhood on their occupation as opera singers. 


What was your performing schedule like during your pregnancy? Did you need to make changes to the schedule to accommodate what you were going through? 

Anna Christy: My manager and I sat down over lunch and discussed my schedule: where I had gaps, where I could pull out, where I really couldn’t, which roles I could sing four to six months after delivery, and which I maybe shouldn’t. Planning around my schedule wasn’t that difficult, and I didn’t have to cancel anything. Around four months pregnant, I tumbled down some stairs onstage, which ground the rehearsal to a halt so everyone could collectively freak out. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to tense up and was unhurt. 

Amanda Woodbury: I continued to sing all of my scheduled gigs until my eighth month, but I had to cancel a gig that was to take place at eight months. I sang Musetta at LA Opera at six months pregnant and had a lot of action involved in the production. I informed every one of my condition, and the director and choreographer were so in sync with my needs every step of the way that I felt completely safe the entire time. 

Jennifer Feinstein: I sang the orchestra dress rehearsals of the title role in Carmen at two months pregnant, did a run of pops concerts at three months pregnant, recorded the title role of Bizet’s Djamileh at eight months pregnant, and performed an eight-hour recording session day with the orchestra. I am very lucky that I did not need to make any changes to my performing schedule to accommodate my pregnancy and that my next gig was four months postpartum. 

Susanna Phillips: During and after my first pregnancy, I wish I had been kinder to myself about my work schedule. I worked until two weeks before I delivered and resumed work one month after. I think I was nervous to lose a career that I loved: a career that I had spent years building. I probably pushed myself too hard and could have made some decisions that would have been better all around. With my second child, I was able to manage that much better. 


How soon after giving birth was your first professional engagement? Did you feel prepared? 

SP: One month following my first pregnancy, and I did not feel ready at all. Six weeks following my second [pregnancy], I felt more ready than with my first, but still could have used some more time. 

JF: My first professional engagement postpartum was at four months, and it was Laura in La gioconda, so a large, demanding verismo role. I felt prepared vocally because the week before leaving for that gig, I had an audition for the Met and was flipping out about being ready for it.

At three months postpartum, I sang at a fundraising concert which was my first performance in public after having the baby. It felt like walking through mud a little bit. The responsiveness that I’m used to feeling in my abdomen wasn’t there, and it felt like everything was much more effortful, as though I wasn’t able to support as I normally could. 

AW: My first gig was four weeks after I gave birth. I was covering and singing Juliette at the Met, and I found out a few days before rehearsals started that I would be doing rehearsals for the first two weeks. I did not feel vocally, mentally, or emotionally prepared. I wish I’d [taken] those recommended two extra weeks, but I’m glad I made it through. 

Kiera Duffy: I had a number of gigs on the books in the months after my son was born. I had singer friends who told me that they did big gigs two weeks after having their baby, so naturally I thought I’d be doing that too! Well, I ended up needing to cancel virtually everything until six months postpartum. 

I did attempt one small-scale engagement when my son was 10 weeks old, during which I did not sing until 9:30 p.m. and I could barely keep my eyes open. I was trying to pump in a tiny little bathroom, and my nerves were fried. Needless to say, it was a disaster! 

Cecelia Hall: My first engagement back was three months postpartum, and it was a big challenge. I flew back to the U.S.A. alone with my son, as my husband was performing in Germany at the same time. That whole trip is a bit of a blur, as I was nursing and waking up at night every few hours. 

My next engagement was six months postpartum, and that was wonderful. I was back at my home theater in Germany, and my husband was able to stay at home with our son. While I was still nursing and not sleeping through the night, I did manage to get a lot of rest and really enjoyed being able to perform again. I remember crying with happiness after the opening night—still filled with joy from performing, I got to come home to my beautiful family. I felt, and still feel, so grateful to be both a performing artist and a mom. 


Looking back, would there have been anything you would have done differently before becoming pregnant, during your pregnancy, or postpartum? 

JF: I really don’t think so. I am glad I had pressure to keep singing until very late in my pregnancy, though I listen to recordings now and cringe at some of the phrasing choices that I was forced to make because I was running out of breath. But I’ll always also be able to listen to the recordings with my daughter and tell her she was in them, too. That’s something I don’t think I’d trade. 

KD: The only thing that I might have done differently in my pregnancy was to give myself more grace in the postpartum period. As every mother knows, when you have your first child, everything in your world is turned upside down. Your body has endured dramatic changes, your hormones are all over the place, and you’re trying to figure out this new identity of “mother.” Not only was I struggling with all of these seismic changes, but I was also struggling with the fact that I was struggling. 

AW: There are things I would do differently in the future, but when I look back, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. As messy as things were at times, I was still able to debut Juliette at the Met after everything, and it was a dream. But next time, I will just go ahead and take the recommended six weeks to recover. 

AC: We are grateful to be in a position to be able to make choices with my work because my husband works as well. Now our rule is that, for any [nonlocal] contract, I only take work I really want, is worth briefly leaving my children for, or is suitably aligned with their school breaks and is suitably spaced apart from any other contracts. This is what is best for our family. 


How have things in your career and/or approach to performing changed with the title of “Mama”? 

CH: The first thing I noticed change in my singing while I was pregnant were my nerves. It was as if my body was saying, “I’m sorry, I’m very busy right now making a new person, you’re going to need to perform without as much adrenaline tonight.” It was great! I got used to that feeling as I still don’t get as nervous as I used to. 

AC: I attribute much of my career success to the single-minded, very driven ambition I possessed from the time I was in college. When my first child was born, I basically shifted that single-mindedness of purpose to her. It took a few years to get that mojo back—to remember who I was. The gift of communication and connection I’ve been given, manifested through the channel of my voice and manipulation of energy onstage, is all part of me. I can’t go too long without it or I am not myself. 

KD: I think it is important to recognize that each woman’s relationship between her identity as a singer and as a mother is unique. There are times when I identify more strongly with one than the other, and that is OK. Our culture places pressure on all women to have it all, and being a singer and mother is no exception. But I also think that there are special benefits to being a singer and mother. You bring that much more depth to your artistry, you bring more empathy to the characters you play, you gain tremendous perspective as to the relative importance of the career in your life, [and] your children will grow up being surrounded by music and musicians. 


Do you have any thoughts or advice for ladies who may be considering the delicate balance of pregnancy with a singing career? 

AW: I believe in living the life I want to have, outside of opera, to its fullest. The shock of being a mother and parent has enriched my life and informed my singing in a way I couldn’t have imagined. The very real experience of a sleepless night tending to my precious child, while being covered in spit-up for my first rehearsal, threw into drastic light the reward of being able to then sing glorious music while throwing myself into a new role. 

It is very hard to explain how life as a mother can give life to one’s singing. I have grown so much as an artist through becoming a mother. 

KD: First, there are people in this business who will make you feel bad, either implicitly or explicitly, for opting to have a child. Ignore them. Singing careers are fickle and they are temporary. We should all strive to live a life that is fulfilling in all regards—and if that means having children, do it and do not apologize for it! 

I should say that, in my case, most people in the business were incredibly supportive of my choice to have children, which was a relief. 

CH: During my first few months of motherhood, it was hard for me to imagine getting back onstage. My advice to others would be to trust that the desire to perform will come back and, if you can, allow yourself a bit of time to adjust to your new role as Mama before jumping back onstage. And make sure you have a lot of support around you—it truly takes a village!

JF: It is entirely possible to be a singer and have a child. Don’t let the physical challenges put you off. So long as you are committed to maintaining your voice through the pregnancy and are willing to put in the work on the other side of it, you’ll learn just how resilient and strong your voice really is. 

One of the things I’m proudest of in my career is growing as a singer while becoming a mother. The experience was absolutely empowering and fulfilling in a way I didn’t know it could be. 

AC: I know this happens with most women, but artists dedicate parts of their soul to their work. It’s not a desk job. So the ensuing confusion and heartache is all part and parcel of giving your all to your art. But then having a child—best described as a part of your heart walking around outside of your body—comes and upends everything you’ve known about yourself to that point. 

SP: My only advice would be to go into it with optimism—you never know how it will go! Choose your professional engagements with care. Consider making your first or second or third postpartum professional engagement in a safe, small environment. 

Be kind to yourself. Having children in this profession is incredibly challenging, especially as a woman. It is getting easier with each generation, but we still have a very long way to go. 

Kathryn Leemhuis

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Dallas Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Teatro Colón, Fort Worth Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Florentine Opera, and Chicago Opera Theater, among others. Her significant roles include Dorabella in Così fan tutte, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Dido in Dido and Aeneas, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel. She is an assistant professor of voice and opera at Temple University.