Never say this to a Singer Please

As the main stage operatic season is winding down I thought there was still time for me to save you, dear reader, from making a major mistake when you meet the diva or divo at the post performance party.

I know that you have sat in your plush velvet seat, and gazed up at us with intense interest for the last three hours or so.  And I know that you have read our biography in the program which condenses our lives into some 250 word maximum glittering travelogue experience.  So it seems natural that you would want to come to us, you who sleep in the same bed most nights of the year, under your deliciously fluffy duvet, with your special neck formed pillow and your favorite mug waiting for you over breakfast, and ask us about our exciting life of travel, hotels and opera houses and never ending performances in exotic and glamorous cities around the world, and ask : Where are you singing next?

However, for a great number of singers that you will meet, we don’t have a glittering itinerary to share.  We are struggling along with a few gigs a year, keeping our heads above water as artists, with either a noble capitalist spouse/partner helping us keep this singing thing going, or we work a few other jobs in between.  I know the you love us, but our field sees government cut after government cut.  Many singers don’t have much work, but they love singing, so they keep at it despite it being a low income job.  A study published by The Canada Council in 2004 stated that :

-Artists’ earnings are very low, with average earnings of $23,500, less than 75% of average earnings in the overall labour force.

-A key factor in the low earnings of artists is the situation of self-employed artists, who earn 40% less than self-employed workers in the overall labour force. Self-employed artists also make much less than artists with a paid employment position.

http://www.hillstrategies.com/docs/Artists_in_Canada.pdf

When the first question I get asked is “So, what’s next for you” my heart begins to race and my brain desperately tries to come up with something fabulous to tell you.  I want you to be excited and thrilled with my life, but the truth is, usually I’m flying home to do laundry, dishes and groceries for my family and I’m teaching some voice and I’m coaching some clients and in four months I might have a concert gig with the local symphony.  The next opera is 6 months away and isn’t public knowledge yet so I can’t even name it.  I call it ‘resume-ing’.  Singers even do it to each other and it is painful if you don’t have an exciting resume to share.

Trust me, I try to give you my resume and make it sound like it was worth the time and money you spent coming to see me at the opera.  Even after 25 years of this career, I still feel a little bit like I have to prove that I am a real artist.  When I get asked that question, it still ignites that inner battle of “Are you really an Artist?”

 

If you want to honor the singer you meet and have a great conversation, throw the resume question in the trash and instead, ask us:

“Have you enjoyed your time in our city?”

That question allows us to involve you, as we share the ins and outs of your town.  It also will open up the backstage discussion, which is often of great interest to those of you who grace the front of the house rather than the back.  You’ll find out we were so busy on that finale that we rehearsed endlessly  and we never saw your town really.  And you know what, if that singer is having a mind blowing, great career with terrific stuff upcoming, they’ll tell you. Never fear.  We don’t hide that news.  You’ll get our resume and news of our exciting life upcoming if we have one to share, and if not,  asking us other questions let us connect to you in a personal way without feeling embarrassed or as if we are a disappointment.   Oh yes, and always lead off with “You were fabulous” no matter what you thought.  It means a lot to us who make ourselves vulnerable night after night.

If you are in Winnipeg, maybe I’ll see you April 21st at the after party for Daughter of the Regiment!  I have lots to tell you about how I’m enjoying your town.

 

 

24 Comments Never say this to a Singer Please

  1. Nancy

    This is a real eye-opener for me. I know several excellent young opera singers who constantly struggle to get that perfect gig, and I’m always asking them what’s next for them. I never really thought it could make them feel awkward. Thanks for posting this. It’s good to hear opinions from “the other side”.

    Reply
  2. Rachel

    Thank you thank you thank you for this article. As a young singer, I always feel like I am not doing enough. I work 40 hours a week to be able to live in a city that might or might not offer me more opportunities. I spend enough time thinking “what am i doing with my life next” to be then have someone else enquire. Nicely worded!

    Reply
  3. L. Ciekiewicz

    Amen! I definitely understand that the question is generally asked in good spirit and that it can be hard to know what to ask in the circumstances. However, I once was asked at a reception, “So…..things are going well? You’re able to make a living at this?” I beg your pardon? Do not misunderstand me. I love meeting people after a show – hearing their thoughts and reactions. I am comfortable speaking about many things with perfect strangers. How much money I make just happens to not be one of them. So, please keep coming out. Please, come say, “Hello!” after the show. We can’t do this without you. Please, however, let common sense and general etiquette rule when we meet. I promise to wear pretty shoes so we have at least one ice-breaker topic! See you after the show!

    Reply
  4. MAry LOu Fallis

    Dearest Rebecca,

    This is one of your very best posts!

    I remember after winning the CBCthen called “Talent Festival” many moons ago..(of course it doesn’t exit anymore) we were all at the post reception party.

    The president of the CBC asked -HOw’s the career going? ” I was truly at a loss for words. I had spent all of my time after doing a Master’s Degree to prepare for this comeptition and had won it.. HE had NO idEA of the reality fo singers in the country at the time.. There were only 2 opera companies and no other concert series than community concerts! And NO professional agents. I felt completely flattened and was so angry but at that time I didn’t know why.. I certainly do now.. This is after 35 years of a “good” career in this country as a singer–and raising a family and teaching, and singing chamber music and being in a professional choir and doing oratorio and little comedy spots that ended up lengthening my career at least 10 years.. Sometimes a career is just to keep on keeping on.. even if others look on and think it is tremendously glamourous. xoML

    Reply
  5. TheCardinal'sNest

    A-FREAKIN’-MEN!

    Love it!

    So nice to know we’re not alone in this crazy biz. It’s like you read my mind. : ) Keep up the great work and enjoy my home town…or…well…earls. The “where can we eat that’s close to the hotel?” restaurant.

    Toi, toi for La FILLE!!

    M

    Reply
  6. Robyn

    Rebecca, this is so very insightful! You put into words what I think all the time. It’s hard not to think less of oneself in these moments. I have to say that there is comfort in knowing that 99% of singers feel the same as I. Thank you!

    Reply
  7. David Browning (@taminophile)

    Oh no! I ask this question all the time! I love my friends who who are making it and those who are struggling, and they know it, and it hurts me to think I’ve caused them this kind of discomfort.

    Thinking about it, there are lots of similar questions I get as the singer who didn’t make it. (Hmm…..possible post for my own blog….)

    Reply
  8. Brian

    I’m a singer myself, so on those rare occasions when I get to sit in the audience and hear others in performance, my first comment to them is generally, “Thank you for a wonderful gift.” Come to think of it, I need to give myself that gift more often. Thanks for an insightful post!

    Reply
  9. Jim

    Your post/blog is fantastic. As the father of a singer I know of all you talk about but still fall into the category of which you complain. I will not do it again even though I am sincerely interested in all the careers since I have known most of the singers I talk with since they were in grade school! Only question i have is about your statement. “but our field sees government cut after government cut.” What does that have to do with anything? You are a professional striving to be even more successful in a commercial endeavor. Government should have nothing to do with or about it!

    Reply
  10. Jen McGregor

    An excellent post! That said, I really think it would be quite beneficial for people to realise that most artists don’t flit from one glamorous gig to another.

    I train actors, and I’m constantly hearing horror stories about the things people say to them – for example, “if you were really talented you’d be working all the time”. Do people honestly think that? Apparently they do, because they don’t realise how few artists of any kind are constantly in work. Even the long-established and award-winning ones have their dry spells. I wish the publicity machines did less to conceal this. Perhaps then people might realise that the gaps between performing jobs are a normal part of the industry and no reflection on our talent or artistry. Then maybe, just maybe, people would ask other questions or the sting would be taken out of that particular enquiry.

    Reply
  11. Linda Feasby

    Thank you for this insight. As a chorus member, I have the luxury of being able to share the stage with world-class performers, but we don’t really think that much about their personal lives. I will definitely not ask you where you are singing next at the opening night party!

    I agree that the arts are deplorably underpaid and underfunded! Congratulations for telling it like it is!

    Reply
  12. Peggy

    As the Mother of a young singer — in fact, that same young singer who forwarded this article to me via Facebook —– thank you for educating me. I have often asked her these questions and been sorry the very moment the words left my mouth! Now, I understand a bit better.

    Reply
  13. Ruth

    Ms. Hass,

    Your post is not only an apropos lesson on opera etiquette; it is an example of the kind of tact that we should bring to all semi-social/quasi-career situations. In addition, it is a lovely, well-structured bit of prose that manages to make a compelling point with a light touch. It has obviously resonated with a lot of people (my brother forwarded it to me).

    Reply
  14. K Lab

    There is always value in understanding more the challenges each of us may face in our chosen professions, as duly noted some are a string of delicately sparse opportunities that may not pay much, tenuously acquired, bringing much uncertainty. But Jesus! As a singer am I that fragile and delicate that people need a list of things not to utter in my presence? No. It’s very common that we don’t understand the realities of each other’s struggles. That’s a valid point from this. I’m not a wounded child, however, and I do not require a person wear kid gloves to talk with me after the show.

    Reply
  15. Nina Scott-Stoddart

    This is a brilliant post, Rebecca. Right on! I feel exactly the same way you do — I always try to find upcoming things to tell people (although, more and more, they involve directing and not singing) and it gets a little anxious, sometimes. And if I had a dollar for everyone who’s ever said “So, what do you do for a living?”, or “So, do you actually make money at this?”, I’d have way more money 🙂

    Great post.

    Nina

    Reply
  16. ducadiposa

    With all due respect K Lab, would you be asking a lawyer/a doctor/a teacher or any other professional questions like “when’s your next case”; “wow, must be tough as an intern working all those hours and getting paid nothing” etc. etc., you get my drift. This incredibly well-written post speaks to many peoples’ ignorance about the reality of being a performing artist. Too many people view it as some kind of glorifed hobby which is “nice” but can’t be considered serious…only because you may not make a lot of money at it! This may sound trite, but our society (in general) puts value on things/people/careers that make a lot of money and views anything else as unworthy of hard work and years of study. I don’t think Ms Hass’s editorial has anything to do with trying to protect fragile artists, but merely asks people to use a little tact and think before they speak!

    Reply
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