At some point in a singing career, withdrawing from or quitting a gig will be inevitable. Whether it is for personal illness, a serious illness or death in the family, or vocal issues—or because the singer experiences some kind of abuse from the company—withdrawing from a gig is a tough decision to make and even tougher to execute without negative repercussions.
Professionals in the field share their personal experiences and what expectations are in place for singers leaving a gig.
Canceling Affects Everything
Whatever the reason, canceling affects everything. “It places the artistic staff in an awkward situation because usually replacements are more expensive,” says stage director Eric Gibson. General/Artistic Director of Chautauqua Opera Jay Lesenger agrees. “It affects the production where you have to find someone else,” he says. “If you make a commitment, you do everything you can to keep that commitment.”
“I’m less mad at the singer who quits than I’m mad at the situation of having to pay more for the replacement and going over budget,” adds Gibson. “Unfortunately, that sentiment often gets attached to the singer.” For this reason, many singers are in fear of quitting or approaching administration about the situation.
Lesenger mentions that he has had people withdraw a week before for health reasons. As he notes, you don’t cancel, withdraw, or quit, you “discuss it with the administration, and they’re usually willing to help you.”
“I Need Your Help”
No matter what the reason, it is important to establish communication with the administration of the company as soon as possible and to approach them with what, according to Lesenger, are the most important words in our business: “I need your help.” If the situation is a death in the family that requires leaving immediately after a performance, or missing rehearsals for illness, or having trouble with another artist or the director or conductor, “go to whomever it’s appropriate to and ask for help,” advises Lesenger. “If the situation is untenable, it needs to be fixed.
“There are no rules for anything like this; it’s really a case-by-case basis,” continues Lesenger. “We’ve had young artists whose grandparents die the day of the performance—they do the performance and then we help them make the arrangements to get home. Our first question is usually, ‘What plane do you need to be on?’” Lesenger feels it’s the company’s job to help the singer in unfortunate family circumstances, such as a death. “Why would I fault a singer for something completely out of their control? It’s a major life thing. . . . Life is always more important than opera. Your closest personal relationships are the most important things in your life.”
On some occasions, the singer will choose to carry on and sing a performance and then deal with the situation. Some singers ask family to schedule a funeral after a performance is complete.
“Always start by presenting the situation and asking the company’s ‘permission’ to withdraw,” says Metropolitan Opera veteran Robert Brubaker. “Do it as early as possible before the start date of the contract and be honest. If it’s for illness, get a note from your doctor and forward it to the company. In Europe, they will insist on it if you are withdrawing from an entire contract.”
When You Just Can’t Perform
Brubaker has canceled several contracts and performances in his career, “mostly due to illness, but once due to exhaustion and ‘burnout’ and once to stay home and care for my wife after hip surgery,” he explains. Most times, he says, “I was relieved that I did not have to perform ill and risk damaging my voice. Each time, I was comfortable with my decision and moved on.” While he agrees that it is never good to cancel, “there were times when it was troublesome to my career in the short run—but most times it was not that negative and, in the big picture, [was] beneficial.”
Both Lesenger and Brubaker agree that companies understand when you are ill. “They are sometimes even grateful that you have been honest about the situation if you truly feel you will not be healthy enough to give them your best, or at least solid performances,” says Brubaker.
This is not always the case, however. Brubaker returns to the case where he canceled due to exhaustion. “The company was very upset and I was never asked back,” he says. “The lesson here is think carefully about how many new roles you take on each season. Learn to know your capacities and stamina and don’t overbook yourself. No one wants to turn down work, but if you take on too much and perform when you are tired and mentally exhausted, it can be detrimental to your voice and your career.”
Pianist Laura Moore, who teaches at University of South Alabama, has been on both sides of the issue: having to withdraw and also dealing with singers who withdraw. Due to a car accident, she suffered a wrist injury that affected a concert performance. “Because I had never quit a gig before—as a pianist, singer, conductor, or music director—I probably waited a little longer than I should have to notify the other musicians,” she says. “I kept on hoping that my wrist would feel better and that I could ‘catch up’ on my preparations. While they might not have been able to line up another pianist even if I had told them in a more timely fashion, I felt guilty, frustrated, and a bit ashamed at having to cancel. . . . The silver lining of the episode was that the other musicians decided we could substitute pieces, and I was able to participate in the performance. All participants agreed that the concern was legitimate and were gracious enough to work with me to program more accessible repertoire.”
Concerned colleagues who know your work can be particularly helpful in a situation where health is an issue. They will help you to make the best choices. Moore also recounts a university production where a singer suffered a vocal hemorrhage during tech week. “We scrambled to find a singer who could learn the music quickly, stand in the pit, and sing the songs while the original actor mimed the movements,” she says. “In the second weekend of performances, the substitute had received enough coaching in the acting component to cover the entire performance on stage. Both the director and I (music director) understood completely the legitimacy of protecting a singer’s voice in this situation.”
Protecting Your Voice in the Long Term
Brubaker has withdrawn from a contract “once while preparing a role, when I realized it was not working for my voice and to carry on could have been detrimental to my voice and career.” Tenor and voice professor at Friends University, Paul Smith, had a similar experience. “When I was in Essen, I refused to sing a role outside my Fach,” he says. “The result was that my two-year contract was not renewed. I did work freelance for a few years, actually making more money per year, including work at the house that did not renew my contract. The downside is that it included much more travel. Eventually I took another fest job. The action did not show a negative effect on my career. If I had accepted the role out of my Fach, it would have affected it.”
“The only thing I would change is to have obeyed my instincts and not taken certain contracts even while my agents were telling me, ‘You need to do this’ in the middle of an already busy schedule,” Brubaker says. “Just because it’s a high-profile offer doesn’t automatically mean you should take it. Remember, the majority of agents only want to collect their commissions. They don’t care if you burn yourself out or ruin your voice. They will simply move on to new singers. There were a few times in Europe where I was ill and should have canceled. The quality of those performances did haunt my career for a time.
A “Worthwhile” Gig
There are situations where it is not an emergency, or an illness, or a vocal issue but rather one of professionalism or pay. There is a running joke in the business that a company can pay you poorly and treat you wonderfully, pay you wonderfully and treat you poorly, pay you wonderfully and treat you wonderfully, but can’t pay you poorly and treat you poorly. While paying people poorly and treating them poorly is a recipe for a long-term disaster for the company’s solvency, it still happens. Contract negotiation is another issue that can come up for a singer, and withdrawing for monetary reasons is an important problem to address.
Brubaker’s withdrawal from a performance in Connecticut because of pressure from the musician’s union over the use of digital orchestra was highly publicized. “In the case of pressure from musicians, I could understand both sides,” he says, “and the company understood and accepted my decision, but ultimately the production was canceled.”
Smith left the London production of The Phantom of the Opera after being offered a contract renewal that didn’t meet his expectations. “The original contract included a housing allowance,” he explains. “The company removed the housing allowance but gave me a raise. The new contract resulted in a pay cut. I felt I was justified in not returning to the show. My family decided to leave England and return to the States after.
“The decision did not affect my career negatively, partly because we left the country and partly because I returned to school to finish my degrees, which allowed me to go into academia. I could have accepted the contract for less money to keep the secure position, but I still feel it was the right thing to do for me and to show the company that this is no way to handle people. I learned after leaving that the company had used this tactic before but gave in to the singers’ requests to honor the original contract structure.”
Housing issues are often an issue. Every singer has heard a horror story from a friend or colleague about terrible housing. Lesenger says it is the company’s responsibility to deal with housing problems. If those problems are not addressed, they need to be raised with the union (if it is a union gig).
“Stay off of social media—it’s a great place to vent, and the worst thing you can do in our business!” Lesenger also strongly advises. “Never complain on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media.” Also, if you complain to other artists, it will come back to you. Complain to a spouse or a parent or sibling—someone outside of the situation.
In the moment, it’s difficult to adequately determine whether the situation is serious enough to leave. Other singers complaining can snowball. “Talk to at least two people you trust not associated with the company and ask if your issues are legitimate,” Gibson says.
“The irony is for singers who are trying to get going—they don’t have representation, frankly, at the point where they need it the most. They don’t know what the rules are, they don’t know what the level of treatment should be,” says Lesenger. An agent could say, ‘Yes, this is inappropriate’ or ‘No, it’s you.’ Call a mentor or someone who is a professional who you know if you don’t have an agent, someone who is in a position to advise you and who is a working professional—they can tell you what is appropriate or not.
Lesenger suggests looking at the bigger picture, “It’s not that if it’s a smaller company, it’s ok to walk away—but in the case of some small companies, you can’t accept abuse in the rehearsal room or from staff. If you are paid poorly and treated poorly, get out! . . . If you’re not getting paid much money, you’re being treated horribly, or the housing is inadequate, you need to go to the administration and say, ‘I need your help.’ If they can’t or they refuse to help you, you have strong grounds to make a fuss or pack your bags.”
When looking at that bigger picture, Lesenger is quick to point out that not everything is always rosy. “Even the biggest professionals work in places where they’re not happy,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s 5–8 weeks of your life, and you make a note to try not to work with those people in the future.”
Gibson agrees. “Gigs are usually four weeks, maybe six? Is it that bad that you can’t stand it? Now if it is a season (6–8 months), that is different. By week two, if you know you’re going to be insane, pray and ask two people you trust.”
Protecting Your Reputation
By keeping your complaints to a minimum—or at least in the ears of a trusted spouse, friend, or agent away from the situation—you are in a better place to protect your reputation. All of the professionals interviewed for this article noted that legitimate reasons for quitting, especially family reasons, are the most understandable of all. They are also the reasons most abused.
“I have also seen the negative reactions when a company finds out that an artist quit because she or he simply lost interest or got a better offer but made up a story about a medical issue,” Moore says. “The music world is simply too small to hide those kinds of actions, and they will come back to haunt you.” Brubaker’s suggestion to approach administration for permission to withdraw is sound advice.
Even with legitimate reasons, quitting sometimes does come back to haunt the singer. Having a reputation as someone who withdraws often, especially for “better” gigs, will return to bite the singer in the proverbial derrière. In general, however, quitting is not the end of the world—or the end of a singer’s career. Have the difficult conversations as early as possible to address emergencies that are out of your control.