When Harry Didn’t meet Sally : Singers on Being Single

I assumed from the age of 16 when I chose to have this career, that one of the prices I would pay was to live a single life. I figured that the amount of devotion and travel required for a singing career wouldn’t mix with a relationship. I have yet to find someone who doesn’t feel threatened by this.”

Kay Cornwall* is a successful regional singer, fresh from performances at several top American opera houses. When asked how she feels about being single, she was honest and a bit philosophical. “I feel that much of my personal growth has happened because I am single. I know, now that I have faced it, that loneliness is not such a terrible thing. Loneliness can be an indication of how much of a stranger you are unto yourself. Relationships can be a way of avoiding the most important relationship–the one with yourself. I believe it happens more often than you might think.”

I wanted to do an article for single singers this month, because I’m single, and I know plenty of singers who are single, too. In February, a month filled with romantic assumptions and tons of hearts and flowers, it can feel as if you are wrong for being alone–that something is missing. When you’re single, the perception can be that you must be lonely at least some of the time. For many people in relationships, the idea of not having that relationship can seem like a dire prospect, and the happier that relationship, the worse the idea of being alone seems to become. But for opera singers, who often travel extensively and may not be home for months at a stretch, the state of being sans relationship can be hard to remedy.

Another singer who preferred to remain anonymous said, “Any relationship is difficult, but with a singer I think there’s an added burden, with the travel and the constant rejections that are de rigeur in this career.”

“If you have a spouse or a partner, you figure that they are closer to you than your own family,” said mezzo Cindy Sadler, preparing to return to the U.S. after an audition trip to Germany. “They understand you, and you understand them, in ways that no one else can. I have at least one or two people whom I can call up and say, ‘I sang like a pig today,’ and they are SAFE. They will say, ‘Did you really sing like a pig, or are you being too hard on yourself…’ It’s not the same as having a partner who loves you and is there for you. I couldn’t live without my friends, but it’s not the same thing as having a partner.”

Moving around frequently, traveling often, a life busy with lessons and rehearsals and auditions and performances–meeting someone new can be terribly difficult, and sustaining that relationship beyond the short-term can be even harder. In her book, A Woman Alone Can Be Contented, author Lynn Underwood says, “When one lives alone, the world seems to be made up of couples but, in fact, it is not… There is nothing wrong with living alone and hoping that one day you will share your life with another person. But such hopes should not overshadow any time alone to the extent that they lead to depression.”

“The idea of being single and what you do with your life is one I discuss with my friends frequently,” Cindy Sadler told me, “and we always come up with this conclusion: you have to live your life now, in the present. For singers in particular, you’re always thinking about the next step–there’s always someplace you need to be next. You’re never in the present. And you can’t build a life that way. At some point you’re going to look back and say, ‘I was always going someplace, but I never stopped and lived.’”

Alone doesn’t have to mean lonely. There are advantages and disadvantages to being single, just as there are to being in a relationship. Asked about the advantages of a single life, Kay Cornwall replied, “You have control over what you do with your time and money, and the freedom to take any job that comes along. There is nothing vying for your attention. You can sublet your apartment while on jobs, and save money.”

Money is one big consideration for singles. It can be tough to live frugally in a world that sometimes seems designed for couples: a single hotel room costs as much as a double, if not sometimes more; groceries often come in such large containers that waste is almost inevitable; and even though it seems easier to eat out, the cost can add up.

Kay Cornwall disagreed. “I actually save money from being single. It is when I am in a relationship that I end up spending more. I think this is because most people spend much more on entertainment.”

Mezzo Susan Graham maintains a long-term relationship with a partner who lives overseas for the moment. “I spend a bundle on phone calls and travel,” she said ruefully to me. “My bills are outrageous. As they always are.”

Beyond the cost of being single, however, is something deeper. How happy are single people? Do they pine for a relationship, or marriage? Or are they glad for the relative freedom being single gives them?

Maybe a little of both. “There must be some way to have your life the way you want it,” Cindy said. “It’s not impossible. But our society is set up to pull people apart, not bring them together. And when you’re a singer on the road all the time, it’s harder.”
“I know that what I am looking for is a rare situation,” said Jill, “but I do know that I have a lot to offer in return. My ability to be alone means that I will not have to compromise in this area of my life.”

Whatever the reasons for being single–divorce, career plans, other circumstances–one idea crops up again and again. Single people aren’t waiting for a relationship before they have a life.

“Not every single person is looking for a partner,” Cindy said. “Even those of us who want to find a partner can’t focus on that. The focus has to be on creating a rich life and living it NOW. I can’t think of a better way to say it, and I know I sound New-agey. But I think sometimes of who I’m going to be when I can’t sing any more, and what will happen to me. I feel that I have enough interests that I will have something to do. It will probably be singing-related like teaching. But in terms of personal life, will it be ‘Aunt Cindy?’ I don’t anticipate having children myself, and I wonder what will happen as my family gets older. What is my place in my family, if I’m not married?”

People have to find their own answers, and what works for one person may well not work for another. There’s no doubt that the stakes change when you’re a singer because your lifestyle is so unusual. You travel frequently and your income is sporadic. The pressures of doing your day job while simultaneously juggling the various aspects of a singer’s regular life–auditioning, performing, rehearsing–can mean there is little energy left over to head out to a club or join some friends at a noisy restaurant. All of this combines to make long term relationships hard to find and hard to keep.

Cindy summed it up this way. “Make your life as rich as you can. Hope that the things that you want will come to you when you’re concentrating on just living your life.”

I’m single and this is my life. Life isn’t going to start when I finally get something I want. It’s happening right now. Happy Valentine’s Day to me, and Cindy, and Patricia, and all those single singers who are plugging away at their careers, who would like one day to meet that particular person, but who are going right ahead with the business of enjoying what they have right now.

Alone doesn’t have to mean lonely. It’s just a word.

*Not her real name

Emily Brunson

Soprano Emily Brunson was senior editor for Classical Singer from 1998-99.