Thursday, February 27, 2014

“If you want to be a great receptionist, just get a degree in theatre"

          At the risk of coming off as new-agey or "woo woo”, this post is about one’s path or one’s calling. It’s about the idea of a job vs. a career. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately for myself, but also something my friends and colleagues seem to have on their minds as well.

          Just what defines a career? I think of it as the thing that we work toward and define ourselves with. I think, for myself, that my reception position is my job, but my passion— the career that I work toward— is my singing, (and perhaps more and more these days, my writing). In a chat with a friend who is actually a published writer, he said he didn't consider his writing to be his career. His nine to five job is for a local newspaper. He didn’t think the writing, which is not his main source of income, was his career, even though it is more fulfilling for him and he considers it his passion. So if we do other things for income, or get caught up in other causes, does this mean we aren’t our passion somehow? It no longer is part of our personal definition? Why do we devalue all the things we do accomplish just because they aren't included in our idea of the dream? We all do it. For a long time I’d see a friend with a traditional traveling singing career and think; That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But just because we aren’t sitting at a typewriter in a beach house living the supposed life of a novelist, or showing our artwork at a gallery opening, or backstage prepping for a Met performance, we aren’t successful? Sometimes I think our “calling” is much deeper than that. It can bend and flex with our lives and our spirit.

          I have so many singer friends who do amazing work singing, teaching, fundraising, and marketing opera and classical music in Boston and beyond. On a regular basis, they are an important cog in the larger wheels that expose new audiences to what I consider to be one of the greatest expressive art forms. These colleagues are doing that whether they are the performers, rehearsal pianists, stage techs or administrators. They are doing this even if it takes place after their nine to five jobs. Some of them truly work their tails off with their combined weekly activities. For so many of us though— and this is the way of the artist— this isn’t good enough. That drive to constantly create and improve can sometimes be our worst enemy because it can make us unaware of all the good we do already.

          Just the other week, several friends did an amazing concert at a local church. The program had great singing and playing and a wonderful musical variety. It had its light-hearted, entertaining moments and its incredibly moving moments. And because they are professionals, they were paid as part of a recital series. Was it Carnegie Hall? No, although one of the singers has sung there. It was a small church even, but I know for a fact that several people in that room had never heard live singing like that before, and they were really delightfully surprised, as well as captivated.

          Another friend was recently quoting a famous tenor in a masterclass. While a student at BU, this friend remembers said tenor telling students that, there was no way of telling, they may all be lucky and make it as opera singers full-time. (And there were likely few singers in that class that day who suspected they might not make it as full-time, in demand performers.) But he also said he knew opera singers who were in finance, education, HR, development, and the list goes on. He emphasized that these people were always opera singers even if it didn't become their main source of income someday. There are unlimited examples of this in artistic history. The composer Charles Ives was a high-earning insurance executive in Connecticut. His colleagues, I would guess, probably had very little idea of the impact and influence he was to have on American classical music and the American canon, all in his spare time. Phillip Glass was a plumber and Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams were physicians. I’m sure they had a rigorous schedule for creation and it makes me wonder when they slept of course. We can’t forget that accomplishment does take hard work after all, but our everyday triumphs, however small they may seem at times, are worthy.

          I worked with this fabulously talented and experienced conductor in Italy. He had an unbelievably deep understanding of opera’s music, language, and text. He conducted without scores in fact, because he had committed the major works so perfectly to memory. He quite memorably reduced most of us to weeping puddles with poignant, illness related stories the first time we staged the final act of Bohème. One of his other stories that I found very moving was about his own early career. One night he was talking to a group of us young singers at the local café. We all knew his uncle was a very famous conductor— a favorite of Maria Callas’. He was talking of his struggles as a young man to get work. He had since gone on to conduct at every major house in the world except the Met and LaScala, but at that time, things were looking bleak. His uncle told him; “Talent and skill are like a gem in your hand Joseph. You have a gem in your hand. I know it. I have seen it. Just because the world may not ever have the chance to see it does not mean it is not there. You will carry it around with you your whole life.” I think we get to choose every day whether that gem is a heavy burden or whether it is a shining light.