Working with Difficult Conductors and Directors

You’ve learned your music, you’ve prepared for your role. You arrive, excited to work with new colleagues and make some great art. And then, at some point in the rehearsal process, the director or conductor calls you out for something in an insulting manner. Then it happens again. And again. It starts to feel as if you can’t please them or that your work is insufficient.

Most people think the divas are the ones up on the stage, but sometimes it’s the director or conductor who is difficult. How do you maintain your dignity and professionalism as a singer when faced with frustrating or negative attitudes from those running the rehearsals? Veteran singers share their experiences, emphasizing the positive outcomes from their reactions to diva directors or conductors.

Keep Calm and Sing On
Take a deep breath. At a break, go somewhere quiet. Call your mom—who may just say that there are difficult people in every industry and that how you react is of the utmost importance. She’s right. It doesn’t reflect well on the singer to respond in a negative manner, even if the director or conductor has been disrespectful. In a perfect world, everyone would treat everyone with kindness and respect. In such a world, there wouldn’t be torrid stories to make up opera plots, so sometimes we have to accept that professionalism can be one sided.

“Singers have a very difficult job,” says tenor Robert Brubaker, whose internationally successful career includes the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and Santa Fe Opera, among others. “We need to make everyone around us comfortable and happy. Project healthy self-confidence.” Brubaker even once met with a “performance psychologist” whose sessions helped him to create confidence in the presence of directors and conductors.

He also agrees that staying calm is of utmost importance. “First and foremost, you don’t want to get into a confrontation if you can help it,” he advises. “You want the job. Put on your cloak of ‘positive self-esteem’ and just try to deal with it. Try and remain strong and self-confident. Conductors and directors like this seek out weak cast members.”

“There will always be situations where the director or conductor has a concept that you don’t necessarily agree with,” says soprano Amy Burton, who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Opernhaus Zürich, and Opéra de Nice and also teaches at Mannes College. “Even though you should arrive at the first rehearsal bringing something interesting to the table, an important part of your work in rehearsal is finding a way to integrate what you do with what they want.

“Artistic issues aside,” Burton continues, “there are occasionally difficult personalities in all workplace situations. When you have a tyrannical or destructive conductor or director, what you have is simply a bad boss. What to do is not always so clear, and what works in one case may not be the right thing in another.”

Yes, Maestro!
Now, this may conjure up an image of the movie Animal House, with fraternity pledges saying, “Please sir, may I have another?” but an enthusiastic “Yes!” can help you in the long run. Running up and down stairs while singing challenging passages? “Yes!” Taking a markedly slower tempo than you’ve practiced and that makes breath management more difficult in that duet? “Yes!”

“When asked about dealing with directors and conductors, I always tell students and colleagues: try everything once!” says soprano Jennifer Rowley, whose triumphant Metropolitan Opera debut in March 2014 inspired universal critical praise for both her voice and her fine acting and has marked an exciting new career phase for the soprano, who will make major debuts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Semperoper Dresden, West Australian Opera, and Opéra de Lille in the coming seasons.

“Being open and honest and polite with the creative team is the best way to get things accomplished,” Rowley continues. “People are more willing to help you if you are kind and approachable. You really need to let them see that you have tried to do what they have asked but, for you, it didn’t work for one reason or another. When polite fails and you still have a director or conductor who wants it his way or the highway, I believe in the ‘Yes, Maestro! I will try, Maestro!’ method. Even if you never fully get it perfect, at least you tried and you are still being polite.”

Burton shares this story from one of her experiences. “In the first read-through of a bel canto opera, one legendary older conductor took this young soprano (me) to task for every possible infraction: bad phrasing, sloppy Italian, unimaginative dynamics, lazy rhythm—you name it—were all ‘Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!’ No matter how hard I tried to do what he asked, nothing was right. The harangue continued at some length.

“At a certain point, a voice in my head said, ‘Do whatever he wants and don’t cry.’” She continues. “And though I am an easy weeper under stress, a kind of boot camp mentality kicked in instead of tears. Once I realized that this was a game to him, the challenge was on! I determined to stay unruffled no matter what he said. I’d do everything he asked, to the letter, so my behavior would be beyond reproach.

“It worked. And at the end of the rehearsal, he approached me and, to my surprise, affectionately patted my cheek and smiled,” Burton concludes. “He then asked me to sing at a benefit for his biggest donors. I’d passed his test—but, more important, I’d kept my ego in check, learning a lot about singing a bel canto phrase in the process. The man was, after all, a legend, even if his methods were unnecessarily harsh.”

Talk Privately
When this method fails, talking privately to the conductor or director in question can be an alternative. If you approach them as a colleague—on professional footing and with the same goal of a great performance in mind, you can find clarity in what they have asked of you. Sometimes it is a communication issue, and having them explain it in a different way solves the problem. Saying, “I’d love to do what you are asking, but I’m not sure how to achieve it. Can you help me?” will often satisfy both your issues and the ego of the person in question.

On some occasions, the tension comes from their having asked you to do something you are not comfortable doing. “There is no magic answer but, generally, if they ask for something you really are not comfortable with, or become belligerent, try negotiation (in private, if possible) and always in a calm tone,” recommends Brubaker. “If they ‘step over the line’ and say something that is professionally insulting or demeaning, you could push back in a way that is calibrated to the moment, depending if it is in public or a private coaching, and your status in the cast. And always, try and deal with it in private!

“Obviously if you are singing a leading role, you have more leeway to push back; if in a supporting role, less so or none,” he continues. “It seldom comes to this, but in extreme cases, and only if you have ‘money in the bank,’ you might even go to him or her and say something like, ‘If you are not happy with me, find someone else. Otherwise, let’s work together.’”

Burton seconds the idea of speaking privately. “I have always tried to handle difficult professional situations with diplomacy and grace, but sometimes it’s impossible,” she says. “When a director or conductor is disrespectful, I usually get very quiet rather than making a scene. I’m a professional and, as such, I try to do everything I can to hold up my end of the dignity bargain: I’m prepared, collegial, game to try new things, and try to voice any qualms privately—that is to say, not in front of the whole cast and chorus.

“However, on the rare occasion when you find yourself on the receiving end of a disrespectful tirade in a public situation, you have the right to stand up for yourself, however you see fit,” she continues. “This is bullying, and the choices are no less agonizing than when you were a kid: take a punch or give a punch. There’s no ‘right’ course of action, and you may lose your lunch money (the job) no matter what you decide.”

Is It Me?
If you find yourself in the public confrontation situation often, Burton says, “Perhaps you need to look deeply at your own behavior.”

“Is it me?” is a good question to ask yourself in the process: is the difficulty really the director’s demands or the conductor’s admonitions? Are you really blameless? Be honest with yourself—did you really come as prepared as possible? And not just in the fully memorized type of preparation, but the preparation to be flexible and make changes as needed. Are you really willing to try everything the director or conductor has asked for?
“One of my favorite stories involves a well-known baritone who claimed he couldn’t sing with a hat on,” relates Sarah Fraser, a stage director and agent associate. “The director asked him to enter with the hat on and keep it on for a few phrases after his entrance as a sign of disrespect to the soprano character—this is the Germont/Violetta scene. He would have had to sing with the hat on for approximately four measures, but he blatantly refused. The director had to settle for him entering with the hat on and removing it before he sang. Sometimes you just have to make a small sacrifice and find another way to get the same point across in a way that pleases everybody!”

While it is tough to acknowledge our own difficult behavior, it is important to recognize it and grow as a person and as an artist. If you come to the conclusion that you have not given it your best effort, make time to speak to the director or conductor about it. Ask what you can do to improve the situation. They will appreciate your professional approach!
“Some directors and conductors are difficult in a productive way,” says Rowley. “They know that you can accomplish what they are asking! Whether it be that a conductor believes in the voice and he wants you to have the best performance possible or that a director knows that you can show a particular intention more clearly—they will keep on you until you get it right! It is difficult for a singer and sometimes very emotional, but in the end you know the reason why. They want you to succeed and they know that you will give a great performance.”

Fraser recommends reading the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg. “I think it’s something that could be useful to people in our business,” she says. “Artists and other creative types (myself included) often get caught up in their feelings and have a hard time looking at a situation objectively. This book helps you to determine the difference between making judgments and observations. When you can objectively examine a situation and how it affects other parties involved, it helps you to really listen to what they are saying and determine an outcome that works for everybody.”

Don’t Gossip! But Do Reach Out to Your Colleagues
Perhaps the worst choice you can make is to gossip with other singers about the situation. If you really need to vent your frustrations, do so away from the rehearsal space. In the car, in your room, wherever the space may be, express negativity away from your colleagues. Nothing is less professional than speaking unguardedly. Vent to a family member or friend who is outside the situation: their support can make a negative situation less stressful. It is not professional, however, to do this same kind of venting with colleagues. Put on a proactively positive smile of steel and watch as your colleagues, including the director or conductor, respect you for your professionalism.

That said, you can find support in your colleagues, including your rehearsal pianist and stage management team. “The difficult conductors and directors I have encountered have had one thing in common: they did not have the best interest of the singers at heart and were not interested in the quality of the music in the production,” says rehearsal pianist and coach Cathy Venable, who has played for opera and musical theatre, including Broadway shows. “I consider my role as accompanist/rehearsal pianist to be one of support for the singers. I am there to make their job as easy as possible, trying to be a one-woman orchestra in the rehearsal room and to sing any of the roles of people who might be absent from rehearsal that day.

“Conductors or directors who do not care about their artists,” she continues, “whether it be principals or chorus members, are not going to ever change my standard of professionalism—so in those situations, I continue to do my job of supporting the singers to the best of my ability, even when the conductor or director mocks me or openly resents my professional attitude. Of course, a solution is to never work with these people again—but while you are under contract, all you can do is continue to do your best work.”

Go to Management
At some point, you may decide that the behavior of the conductor or director is inappropriate. Smiling and saying, “Yes, Maestro!” is not the solution to sexual harassment, for instance.

Burton tells her worst “war story” from a production. “Both the director and conductor were tyrannical, disrespectful, and downright misogynistic jerks. All three leading ladies (myself among them) walked out of rehearsal. The next day, we met with the company’s general director and told him calmly about what had been occurring in rehearsals. Nothing was accomplished, as both men were company favorites, and would be hired there again and again. Speaking up probably cost me any hope of being rehired by that company, but I was—and am—fine with that. My only regret is that I spent valuable time away from my family for a mostly negative professional experience. But I made a friend—a war buddy, you might say, and for that, I’m grateful.”

Rowley agrees that singers must learn to draw the line at abusive behavior. “Most often, if you can keep an open dialogue with the creative team, you can work out the majority of difficult situations,” Rowley says. “But other times, when a director or conductor is being emotionally abusive, you have to take it to a higher level. The line is very clear. It is a conductor’s and a director’s job to get what they want for their production. It is not their job to beat you down in the process.

“While I am a massive advocate of 5,000 layers of thick skin, sometimes there are situations that go past that thick skin,” she continues. “Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. We are all hired to do a job. We are all on the same team. Opera is not a dictatorship. It should involve a collaboration to realize a vision for presenting a piece of art to the public. Have the strength and courage to speak openly but politely—and if that doesn’t work, know who your artistic liaison or company manager is and seek help when it is needed.”

It may be disappointing as an artist, especially when you’ve attempted to be agreeable and open and work to make great music, to encounter negativity and a lack of respect. Realizing that not everyone will like you, no matter what you do to try to change their mind, and that no industry has a sunshine-all-the-time employee policy will help you to develop that thick skin. Even in a situation where a director or conductor treats you poorly, you can regain control of the situation by maintaining your internal calm and outward professionalism.

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.