Low Voice, Big Opportunities
I started singing, and being recognized for doing so, while I was in high school. A teacher, Lee Hanchey, recognized my talent, and directed me towards a local voice teacher, the late Martin Strother, who at the time taught at Virginia Union University. I had a lot of support in high school. My first big validating moment came at a chorus festival – I won an award for a solo that I performed. I was pretty shocked; at the time I didn’t even know there was such an award.
After high school I had a run of winning just about every audition I took. I got into every college that I sang for, and chose to attend Carnegie Mellon. CMU seemed to give me a lot of attention prior to my college decision. I was very impressed visiting the campus; it was just one of those things that felt right. I even made it into the advanced Concert Choir as a freshman. (The director, Robert Page, gave me a stern warning during the audition, since he knew I couldn’t sight read my way out of a wet paper bag.)
Throughout this whole process, however, I didn’t really “get” what I was doing. I had a big voice and I could put words, notes and rhythms together, but I was no musician – I hadn’t figured out how to really inhabit the art. (I do feel like I achieved this professionally on a few occasions in collaboration with great directors and singers, but even then I probably wasn’t sure what the difference was.) With the help of good teachers, knowledgeable friends and a growing interest, I started learning about opera. I listened to different styles and the great singers (my go-to voices were Sam Ramey and Cesare Siepi), and started emulating those things that were “good.” And for a while this served me well: I got practically every gig that I auditioned for…Chautauqua, Glimmerglass, Santa Fe, and the Merola Program at San Francisco Opera. After my time in Pittsburgh I started a M.M. at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and started an Artist Diploma before my professional career took off.
While I was in school, I really didn’t have an overarching vision of where my career was going, or even of what it meant to have a career in opera. I approached the work in a job-to-job manner, taking the work when I could, looking for it or temping when I didn’t have anything lined up. Everything was defined by potiential on-stage opportunities, and I didn’t know how to focus on what was required of me to achieve and maintain an operatic career.
Things changed for me between 1999 and 2001. In 1999 I accepted an artist apprenticeship with Virginia Opera, which allowed my wife (Laurie – married since 1995) and I to move back to Virginia and be closer to family. The workload was pretty heavy, and few allowances were made for me to keep auditioning, so I dropped off the radar for a full year. That lack of momentum seemed to take some of the air out of my sails. We moved to Richmond, my hometown, after that year, but I was still struggling with breaking into the larger scene.
After 9/11, I noticed that singers with bigger names were taking smaller gigs, and the effect was trickling down and bumping me out of more and more opportunities. Everything dried up for me. I was already temping and it was getting longer and longer between gigs. I had a friend in the business that I believed was “in my corner.” He was a great person, gave me great advice and sent work my way, but when I had no work I called him searching for what to do and I didn’t get the “hang in there, you’re a great singer” message I was looking for. So I found myself with no prospects and no perceived value in the industry. That was an extremely difficult time in my life. I felt that the industry that had once been so welcoming and supportive had turned its back on me, so I decided to turn my back on it. I entered the conventional workforce with two very impractical music degrees.
Fast-Forward to Today
I am an Insurance Agent in a small independent agency. I work for a family friend. I am close to my family, my wife’s family and I’m in the city where I grew up. While some with an artistic bent may find the 9-5 workday stifling, it turned out to be pretty comfortable for me. I enjoyed having a regular schedule. I was home on weekends. I could actually go to church and I made enough money that church no longer was a job. The industry is secure, my position is secure and my income is secure. I have a fair amount of flexibility. I go home every night and my work stays at the office. I also have the advantage of working with a very nice group of people.
Another unexpected benefit was realizing how self-centered I had become. With all the constant striving for self-improvement and struggling for the approval of the industry elites my focus was completely on myself and my voice. Everything was secondary. No small wonder that I saw many performers’ marriages fail. I even heard of a world-traveled singer I admired lament that he does not see his family enough and he may settle down and teach somewhere. This was someone who was at a place I was once trying to claw my way up to! Throughout the process, my wife Laurie was extremely supportive. While I found out later she harbored some resentment from time to time that I was hanging out at a bar in Shreveport or by a pool in St. Louis while she was back at home hard at work, she never let it show. Because of my early success in the business, she had some confidence in the future of my career. When singing opportunities started to decline it was a financial necessity for me to pick up the slack by finding other work…had I resisted that, we likely would’ve had issues.
I have found quite a few “retired” opera singers like me even in a relatively small city like Richmond. Many of them are often inspired to put together concerts and find various other means of artistic expression. I have even met a few people who have never been professional but have pursued their interest in classical singing; school administrators that produce shows, music ministers that conduct community choirs, an IT guy who has a huge operatic voice and his wife that run his own extracurricular music school for kids including a remarkable program for autistic students. They make their own opportunites, and while opportunities for performance together are rare, they happen often enough and they’re a great pleasure. My own approach to singing has changed from trying the grab the next gig to doing my best, and personifying my own creativity and inspirations. I am empowered by this, of course, because I’m not shackled by the fact that I have to worry about my next singing gig.
As a result of this soul searching and career change, I can say that I am a lot happier. I believe one has to have a special desire to live the life of an opera singer and that is ultimately something I do not fully have. It was fun for a while, sure! But I found I could not build my life around it. I’d much rather go out to dinner with my wife, help my kids with their homework, volunteer at my church consistently and play volleyball and softball when I want. Then when I sing, I sing for fun. I sing only music that sparks my passion and curiosity. The people I strive to impress are my audience. If I make an odd choice or make a mistake, who cares?! I don’t – just as long as I’m still having a good time.
My Two Cents
Talk to someone who is where you want to be. I believe this applies whether you are in med school, law school or a music conservatory. Find someone who has achieved what you want to achieve who will tell you what inspires them and what brings them happiness in their career and also what are the negative aspects that have to be overcome. The more clearly you can define the vision of your aspiriations the more effectively you can decide what you want and the more easily you will be able to deal with obstacles as they arise. AND leave yourself open to the option of taking a different path if that’s what it turns out you really want.
As I get older, it seems to me that people will always do what they want to do. The funny thing is that they often, very often, don’t know what they want. (Example: When I was 19 there was no way I could know that I would WANT to be home on Thursday nights to help my daughters study for tests because it’s thrilling to see them learn.) That’s a little different than having what they want to have. Everyone wants to HAVE a million dollars, but only a few really want to MAKE a million dollars. If that’s what I wanted I’d have a financial degree and would be a hedge-fund manager that works 100 hours a week and never sees his family and probably has a heart attack before hitting 40. Some people want that, most don’t though. So many people strive for things they think they want and want they think they should want according to other people and if they actually get it they are confused and don’t know why it doesn’t make them happy. The only way sometimes to figure out you don’t want something is to try it. I tried opera and thought I wanted it. It was hard for me to be open to something else at the time, but I figured it out and learned a lot about myself (And I’m still learning.) If I had continued my singing career, there would have been so many more things I would have missed.
Questions for James? Hit the comments!