The Road is Home

This past fall I sang in the chorus of Appomattox for Washington National Opera’s revised production of Philip Glass’ stirring work. As sometimes happens, I never had the opportunity to really speak with any of the principal cast members until the closing party. I eventually found myself chatting over a celebratory glass of wine with Anne-Carolyn Bird, who sang the roles of Mary Todd Lincoln and Lady Bird Johnson.

It’s always immensely gratifying to work with talented singers who are also professional, kind, and just really down-to-earth, nice people. Most of the time this is the case, in my experience, and Bird did not disappoint. Soprano Melody Moore, who sang the roles of Julia Grant and Viola Liuzzo in Appomattox, agreed. “She’s the type of star that shines without having to be seen. She shines anyway,” Moore says. “She’s a consummate professional while still attending beautifully to her family and to the hearts around her. It was a joy to work with her.”

Having experienced Bird’s positive attitude and sense of humor throughout the Appomattox run, I was eager to learn more about her. As we chatted, Bird shared a few details about just how she attends to a husband and two small children while also pursuing a major singing career, including how she and her singer husband bass-baritone Matthew Burns had recently given up their New York City apartment for life on the road with their young family. Without an actual street address to call home, they describe themselves in their Twitter account (see sidebar p. 19) as “Two itinerant opera singers, two kids, living and gigging in the road. If we’re not crazy yet, we’re well on our way!”

Intrigued by what I learned in our conversation (between joyful interruptions from Bird’s energetic son Henry, who was happy to see mommy), I asked if she and her husband would be willing to share more of their experiences in a formal interview for CS. Here is what they thought you would want to know.

Who were some of your key mentors and how did you find them?

Burns: I spent several summers in the Gerdine Young Artist Program at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and developed a mentor/friend relationship with Stephen Lord. I often talk with him about role appropriateness and career trajectory. [Thomas] Muraco has been a strong advocate since grad school. He laid the foundation for my strength in foreign languages. Before that, Melanie Kohn Day at Virginia Commonwealth University encouraged me to pursue this career. I wouldn’t have started my New York City education [master’s degree in vocal performance from Manhattan School of Music and post-graduate artist diploma from the Juilliard Opera Center] without her guidance, and those years in the city were instrumental for my getting started in the business.

Bird: Early mentors for me included Dawn Upshaw, whom I met at the Tanglewood Music Center. Hers was the first voice I heard that made me want to be a classical singer, and I was lucky enough to be involved in several of her projects in the early years of my career.

My summers at Wolf Trap Opera company led me to Kim Witman, a wonderful woman whom many singers are proud to call a mentor and friend. [Bird received her master’s degree from New England Conservatory and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia. She was twice a young artist with the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program for Singers and twice a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center.]

To what extent do you rely on your colleagues for support? Do you find that the business is friendly or more competitive?

Bird: We both lean on our colleagues who are currently performing and working in the business as mentors of a sort; you can’t make it in this field without a good support system, and your fellow singers should make up the majority of that. The vast majority of singers are good people—supportive, encouraging, and helpful. Build relationships with them and support them in return.

What’s it like being married to a singer?

Bird: I always say it’s not about whether your spouse is a singer or a “civilian,” it’s about the match. Matthew and I were both married before to non-singers. The fact that we divorced had little to do with careers and lots to do with being married to the wrong people. But, that being said, it is nice being married to someone who knows the business as well as you do. We are both teachers, so we often help each other with little vocal technique reminders (never without being asked first, though).

Burns: I would add that I have learned a lot about performing from Anne-Carolyn. She has a strong background in theater. As I have watched her performances over the years, I have tried to learn from her how to bring my acting up to the level of my vocal technique.

Bird: True! We are opposites in many ways, and that gives us a good balance if we pay attention. I am a big-picture, relaxed, “perfect is boring” kind of performer, while Matthew is more detail oriented and analytical. Watching him has encouraged me on more than one occasion to be specific in my preparation, to bring some of that fine detail work to my “just do it” mentality.

Burns: And I have learned to step back and see the big picture at the end of the process.

The best part about being married to a singer is that when one of us isn’t performing, we have nothing but time, so we can travel together while the other is on a gig. While it might be nice to have a steady job with two weeks of paid vacation every year, it is nice to be able to pick up and go any time in order to be together.

How has having a family impacted your careers?

Bird: This is a hard question. I want to be able to say that it hasn’t—that I have been able to step out to have two babies and then step right back in to the flow with no change. And that is largely true. I am currently working the same amount of time as I did before my children were born. We both work about 9–10 months out of the year.

But certain things have changed. For example, I can no longer accept many small-fee gigs, simply because my expenses are higher. Childcare is expensive! (But fully tax deductible when working away from home.) I had to pass up on some really great gigs due to my pregnancies, but it’s impossible to say one way or another whether they would have been game changing for me. We all know that one gig does not a career make. It’s important to keep remembering that.

Burns: My career is largely unchanged, although it is much harder to be away from home now. I am hugely involved in raising our children; we are truly 50/50 partners. So, being alone on a gig for three weeks or longer can get really lonely. It’s nice to be able to sleep in every day—but other than that, it stinks. Missing out on the daily activities, both the fun ones and the challenging ones, can make it hard to be apart.

What made you decide to give up your apartment in NYC?

Burns: Shortly after Gloria was born (March 2015), we were looking ahead on the calendar and realized that we had almost no time at home in NYC in the coming year. It brought up questions of keeping our apartment or subletting it and, more importantly: what to do about Henry starting school? How would we be able to maintain our “spot” in an NYC school with all the traveling we would have to do? Not to mention the fact that everyone in our family thrives best when we are all together.

So we knew it was time to leave NYC. But where would we go? If we were going to be on the road all year, did it make any sense to move somewhere else? What if we just put our stuff in storage and lived like gypsies for a year or so until the next step presented itself?

Bird: I still remember looking at Matthew and seeing a look in his eyes, as I’m sure he did in mine, that said, “This is it. This is the answer, crazy as it seems.”
As a good friend said to me, “Sometimes the right answer just seems crazy until it’s the right answer. Then it just feels right.” Don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else, but it’s pretty much how it was for us. When we came up with this idea, all of a sudden there was no other option that seemed feasible. This crazy undertaking was the right choice for us.

We would save money by not having rent and other NYC expenses. We would dramatically increase our “together as a family” time. And, maybe most importantly, we would have an adventure! I know Gloria won’t remember any of this, but Henry already talks about the night we spent in a cabin at Yellowstone and the deer we would see every day in Idaho. We were driving through an area of Washington, D.C., this fall, and he said, “This looks like St. Louis.” He’s five! I love that he is growing up with an awareness of the world outside his neighborhood. Even if that neighborhood had been Astoria, Queens—which is very diverse—it’s not the world.

How would you describe your current living arrangement?

Bird: We joke that we are living out of a trailer! But that’s only partly true. Most of our belongings are in storage near Matthew’s parents, outside Richmond, Virginia. The rest comes on the road with us as we travel from gig to gig. We have a Honda CR-V and a 4×6 cargo trailer that we load up with the things we’ll need to live on the road. With two kids, it’s a lot of stuff! The obvious clothes and toiletries—but also toys, strollers, cribs, high chairs, paperwork and schoolwork, seasonal items, and music for current and upcoming gigs. We also bring along a mini-trampoline for Henry. Five-year-olds have a lot of energy!

We had to pack for all seasons this fall, as our gigs took us through several climates: swimsuits to heavy coats in a matter of weeks! This season we have gigs in Idaho, Nebraska, NYC on two different occasions, Washington, Hawaii, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, and Washington D.C.

What about school?

Bird: We are homeschooling Henry, our kindergartener, this year. I’ve always had a leaning toward homeschooling anyway, so this was an easy step. We are teaching him to read and write using some simple, low-stress curricula; the rest of our learning is play-based (lots of building toys and exercise). We visit the science museums in every city we visit and we’ve even stopped by one or two that were along our driving route. I could see us homeschooling until middle school—or until Henry asks to go to school—but for now, we love it.

Do you have a nanny?

Burns: We had an au pair last year for a short period of time; unfortunately, it ended up being a bad match, and so we are without a traveling nanny at this point. I always contact the opera company before we arrive and ask if anyone in the chorus has babysitters they are willing to share with us for a few weeks. We have found some truly wonderful sitters around the country! Young singers make great nannies, and we can supplement their meager pay with voice lessons. The barter system is amazing. We lucked out in Omaha and found a retired kindergarten teacher; she was fantastic and gave us some great suggestions about schooling.

How do you handle extended family and holidays?

Bird: We don’t have much extended family that is available to travel with us, but we stay with them in the few short breaks we have between gigs. Matthew’s folks are in Richmond and mine are near Charlotte, NC, so we spent the holiday weeks between them while Matthew traveled to NYC and Seattle for his Messiah concerts. They are happy to have the grandkids around, and we are happy to have a place to land that feels somewhat like home.

How do you make time for romance when you are constantly traveling?

Bird: I don’t think we do anything more than most two-income couples with small children—which is not much! It often feels more like we’re running a business [rather] than a romantic relationship, but we know that these years with young children are like that. We’ve been married for seven years, and with our life like this, we have to focus more on communication than romance.

We do relish the chance to dress up and go out for each other’s opening nights; it’s fun being the “arm charm” while the other basks in their glory. That and putting the kids to bed early enough that we have some grown-up hours at the end of the day are about all we can manage most of the time.

What has surprised you about your decision?

Burns: The thing that has surprised us the most about this decision is how open to it people have been! Almost everyone has been totally supportive and encouraging. Our extended family, especially, recognizes the benefit for us—we all function better when we are together!

Do you have any advice for other couples thinking about making a change like this?

Bird: Make sure your relationship is solid before you embark on something as stressful as this, especially your ability to communicate. Being able to talk about the challenges and concerns on this endeavor is essential to your success.

Burns: Get comfortable with logistics, especially making lists. There is always something to pack or plan. Anne-Carolyn has a notebook that she calls her “brain” that she uses to keep us organized. We try to have semi-regular “business meetings” where we cover upcoming travel and housing, as well as finances.

Bird: Be flexible and comfortable with change. Most singers who are working steadily are already good in this department. The nature of our business requires us to be able to work and perform in a wide variety of circumstances. Add children to the mix and it goes up a level. Our son is a great traveler, but there was a period of about two months when he kept asking when we were going “to our real home in New York.” It was heartbreaking to remind him that we didn’t live there anymore. But even he understands the value of spending this time together as a family, so it is worth it.

Burns: Make it an adventure, not just logistics. We make sure to fully explore our temporary homes, as well as interesting things along our travel routes. It’s better to take an extra day driving and spend half a day exploring a national park than to push through.

Do you have any general advice for young singers?

Bird: It’s more about life than career, but I always tell young singers who ask me about having a family to just do it. If you have a partner with whom you know you want to have children, do it now. There will never be a time when you have enough money, or when you won’t have to cancel a gig, or when you will otherwise be ready. So do it now. Our children are the best things that ever happened to us, save that day we ran into each other on the streets of NYC.

Burns: Find trusted advisors that will be honest with you and then take their advice. Get on stage as much as possible. That stage can be any environment where you are performing; it doesn’t have to be a professional stage. Organize groups of friends and try out new rep. Don’t leave it until you are in the audition to sing that new aria for people. This is how we grew in college but there is not a system of support that exists after school, so create it for yourself. Learn to be your own manager—of your career, your finances, and the logistics of your personal life.

Establish strong relationships both at home and in the workplace and keep them. You’re going to need them in this gratifying and lonely life. Without family and friends, with whom will you share your triumphs and work through your failures? And, lastly, prioritize your life in a manner that satisfies all of the elements of your personality. A well rounded individual off stage is a well rounded individual on stage.

How long do you think you’ll continue this arrangement?

Bird: As much as we’re enjoying the experience right now, it’s important to note that we are not planning to keep this up for long. It’s exhausting! It was the right choice at the time, and we knew when we started that we would know when and where to “land” when the time was right.

Halfway through this first season, we have each made discoveries about our career goals, and together we have made decisions about our family. We have enjoyed leading masterclasses at many of our stops along the road, and both of us are exploring the idea of adding teaching to our résumé [voice and languages/diction for Burns, opera studies/theater/voice for Bird]. We are trying to stay open to whatever direction our life takes us.

A year from now may see us in a very different circumstance, but for now we are loving the adventure!

2016 will see Bird singing with Hawaii Opera Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera, and Miami’s IlluminArts, while Burns will appear with Austin Opera, Arizona Opera, and Opera Southwest (Albuquerque, NM), so no doubt the family trailer will be filled with a variety of clothing options and log quite a few miles once again.

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.