Tag Archives: opera

Many happy returns

The Opera America conference was a whirlwind of faces and topics and information that was, quite frankly, a lot to digest. I’m still processing most of it, I have to admit. But spending several days talking about Creative Resurgence and the ways in which people and industries reinvent themselves has my mental hamster on the ol’ exercise wheel in a significant way.

The model for opera in the US is changing – not many would dispute that. Companies are folding, chamber opera is being championed (a lovely thing for my own venue) to an extraordinary degree, and there’s a serious push towards adding to the American operatic canon…all these are part of the changing landscape. But I’d argue that there’s a huge swath of singers that are struggling with these changes…there’s a group of fantastically talenter singers who aren’t young artists, but who also aren’t Terfel or DiDonato or one of the handful of singers with name recognition, who are being squeezed out by economics. (In a related comic turn, a baritone for whom I have a great deal of respect and adoration – and who falls squarely in the Working category –  has a black biography on his website…in beautiful marketing-speak, and in his case belying his significant career.)

The big take-away that I find from many of these discussions is that our educational institutions must find a way (and I realize, budgets and time hardly allow for the learning as it currently stands) to not only help students discern their skills outside of vocalism but also help them figure out how they might leverage said skills into careers…onstage or off. As the field becomes more entrepreneurial, so must both the artists and the institutions that train them.

Specific reflections on the conference coming soon, as well as thoughts on the role of higher education in the process… this topic warrants many (happy) returns.

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Career Scaffolding

Rather than posting a personal profile this week, I’d like to direct you towards a post on Creative Infrastructure by Linda Essig, the director of ASU’s Arts Entrepreneurship Program.

(Side note – Arts Entrepreneurship? How awesome is that? While the 17-year-old-Me might’ve been all about performing, the [mumblemumble]-something Me is totally entranced by this program of study.)

She writes, in reference to a chance meeting with an arts worker in a metropolitan sushi bar:

The story of J is a good example of a person who uses his talents, skill and training in the arts to build a career, albeit not one he would have envisioned as an art student. Students enter study in the arts with many dreams and aspirations. […] If J had kept his head down, looking only toward the world of studios and gallery shows, he might not have seen the opportunities that have led to what became an enjoyable and sustainable career.

I can vouch for the undergraduate nearsightedness, and also for the value in keeping one’s eyes open to opportunities. If we think about our undergraduate (and, in some cases, advanced studies) as the scaffolding upon which we build a career, rather than the than the gun barrel through which we cast our aspirations, it free us up to look in any number of directions. Sometimes the straightest, most direct route is simply the easiest route, and not the best. Maybe we should co-opt Lysander’s words of wisdom for this little corner of the internet:

The course of true love ne’er did run smooth.

Amen…whether in love, or relationships or vocation or avocation…sometimes those crunchy places are trying to catch our attention. Listen. Look around, lean into those bumpy, rocky spaces.

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I’ve been searching for and, happily, finding great resources for creatives looking for their next step. There are so many interesting articles and points of view! But at this point it feels a little like my head is a very vast space (I’m stuck on the image of a train station…Union Station in DC, or perhaps Philly’s 30th Street Station…something with lots of marble), filled with many people…there are fragments of ideas bouncing off of the walls, careening into other thoughts, dashing some into pieces and integrating others into a larger, more complex idea. It’s part rock concert, part flea market, part art exhibition, part carnival.

Here are some contributors to my mental cacophony:

I’ve been reading her blog for a while now, but I’ve just picked up Danielle LaPorte’s book, The Fire Starter Sessions.

And I’ve been spending time reading the Communicatrix, who has coincidentally just reviewed Chris Guillebeau‘s (you read him, right?) new book The $100 Startup.

These folks are smart and courageous. They write like they’re speaking to a friend. Some of it’s inspiration…some is tough love…and some are case studies, examples of how others have opted into or out of places and spaces.I have to say that there’s never been a better time to rethink yourself, your path. These are brave, eloquent people who have found unconventional success…and moreover, have defined that loaded word “success” in their own way. I like to think of having one of them on my shoulder, to provide perspective when my inner demons are telling me that I’m not good/smart/kind/industrious enough to amount to much.

But the first thing that I’m seeing in all of these folk’s philosophies? Is that they daydream. They practice cultivating those crazy, out-of-the-box thoughts…much like we practiced auditioning. Daily. Specifically. Focused. They allow themselves to daydream, without a censor telling them that they can’t, shouldn’t, will-never-be-able-to.

They’ve allowed themselves to think about those things that they want…without putting the onus of merit on their dreams. Let’s remove from the equation for just a moment whether you feel you deserve something, or all of the things, or nothing at all. And let’s just go with the thought that someone thinks that you deserve to dream.

(Heck, I think you deserve to dream! Add one person to your mental cheerleader list.)

Now, from that empty place? Dream.

What do you want? How do you want to feel? No judgements. Nothing is too vast or too shallow – it’s dreaming.

I want the metabolism of a 20-year-old; I also want the wisdom and smarts of someone older and wiser and smarter than I. I want respect. I want inner peace. I want to be able to hold my liquor. I want people to love being around me. I want to be on Oprah someday. I want to write a book. I want children. I want to give my friends and family stories and songs to remember me by. I want to stand up for myself more often. I want a big-girl purse. I want to be able to shave my knees and ankles without bloodying them. I want to write letters in longhand. I want to be more creative.

(There’s my top-of-my-head, all of the things I can type in two minutes, daydream list. I could go on. I bet you could too.)

My challenge to you is to take 5 minutes, create a google doc or grab a notebook or send yourself a voicemail. And daydream about the things you want. Do it every day for 7 days. Think of it as getting yourself into the practice room…for your next chapter.

Let’s check back in here next week and see what we come up with…shall we?

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Kim Pensinger Witman – Constant Collaboration

Kim Pensinger Witman is known nationally for being the driving force behind the Wolf Trap Opera Company, one of the premiere young artist training programs in the U.S. But prior to her operatic life she studied in two different, yet ultimately related, disciplines. Here’s her story.

My transitions weren’t clean, and they were of two types – the first early one, from music therapy to the life of a freelance collaborative pianist; and the second one, from pianist to administrator.

Where did you go to school?

Elizabethtown College, B.S. in Music Therapy

Catholic University of America, M.M. in Piano

What drew you to your chosen degree field?

I identified as a musician from an early age – was active in every single musical thing possible in my childhood, from school choirs and bands to being an organist at my church at age 13. But I had no illusions about my ability to be a professional musician. I didn’t believe I had the chops or the work ethic to sustain all of that private practice time. In looking for a career that might allow me to stay in touch with music and still let me be with other people, I found music therapy. My music therapy professors were wonderful role models, and they reinforced my decision to embrace what was then a particularly new and kind of fringey career path in music. My piano teacher in my undergrad was also a composer, and although he wasn’t an R.M.T., he was heavily involved with the music therapy track at Elizabethtown.

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I decided we wanted to get M.M. degrees. Just because. We figured we’d have kids fairly soon, and after that, such a pursuit would be unlikely. I really just wanted to immerse myself in the keyboard in a way I hadn’t before – and at 25, I was finally ready to do it. But I didn’t believe it would lead to a career change – I fully expected to continue as a therapist after getting the degree.

During my M.M. degree, I fell into a graduate assistantship in the opera program. (I filled an unexpected vacancy. I only got the job because the program was desperate, and I had a bag of tricks that allowed me to be functional – awesome sight-reading, a love for languages, and the ability to work easily with a range of people.) The decision to move away from therapy into playing the piano for a living was born of curiosity after I finished my degree. I really didn’t know if I had the chops for it but thought I would spend a few years in pursuit and see what happened. So, the first step into my collaborative pianist career was made for me; had the graduate assistantship not opened up unexpectedly, I would not be doing what I’m doing today. Full stop. But the next step – that of independently filling in the gaps in my opera education in the 2 years after my M.M. degree – was a decision I made on my own.

Even though I learned a tremendous amount at Catholic University, it didn’t have a lot to do with my transition to the opera business. Because I was so ill-prepared for my surprise teaching assistantship, I scrambled to stay one step ahead of my students and wasn’t really able to benefit from high level instruction of my own. The biggest influence at CUA was probably my piano teacher Thomas Mastroianni and my chamber music supervisor Robert Newkirk. Dr. Mastroianni saw me through a scary wrist/hand dysfunction (thought to be RSI but ultimately wasn’t) and gave me the confidence to know that if I wanted to make my living at the keyboard, I probably could. And Bob Newkirk presided over my first legit piano trio experiences, cementing a future love of chamber music.

I know lots of people who would agree that any kind of psychology degree is a boon in the performing arts. 🙂 But how did you make that jump from the piano bench to administration?

When my current job opened up in 1997, I was a pianist on staff at Wolf Trap. I didn’t intend to move to an administrative career (was not looking), but over a period of months I fell into it. (I seem to do a lot of falling into things…) The move into administration was a decision I made somewhat reluctantly. When my job opened up, I made no move to pursue it, for I couldn’t imagine taking a desk job. But when it wasn’t immediately filled, I began to think that such a move would allow me to continue to participate in the opera world, open up new creative possibilities, and (probably most importantly) let me move away from the musician schedule into a 9-5 routine during much of the school year so that I could see my kids more. Spending as much time as possible with my family was non-negotiable.

So here I am – currently the Director of Wolf Trap Opera & Classical Programming for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. Basically, I run an opera company inside a non-opera-specific organization.

How do you self-define?

Initially: I’m a music therapist.

Then: I’m an accompanist. (Well, a collaborative pianist, but such a thing didn’t really exist then.)

Now: I’m an arts administrator.

And simultaneously with all of the above; I’m a musician. (Which has less to do with how I pay my mortgage than how I see the world.)

Ok, speak to us a little bit about that worldview.

This can’t be understated. Everything I learned about people, about the intersection of art and life, had its roots in my study and brief practice of music therapy. I went into that specific field because the abstract study of music felt somehow isolated and irrelevant, and I was only interested in spending a life in music that felt as if it enabled connection with “real life.” (A naïve statement in its frankness, but it was how I felt at the time.) Even now, two career shifts later, my whole approach to the people in this business – the artists, the patrons, the audience – is shaped by those early years of never considering art as being outside of daily life.

And everything I learned and did as a collaborative pianist continues to play into my life as an administrator. It taught me empathy for performers, a respect for the dynamic and nonlinear processes in the rehearsal room, and an appreciation for the high levels of research and preparation it takes to do good work.

What advice would you give to someone struggling with this decision?

Lest any of this seem too tidy, I should mention that while I was a music therapist I was supplementing my income by playing in piano bars and gigging as accompanist for choral societies and theatre groups. While I was a collaborative pianist, I was a church organist/choir director, piano teacher, pit orchestra member, dinner theatre music director, college adjunct faculty and mom. Some of that stuff followed me into my arts admin days but gradually fell by the wayside as the demands of my job increased and my stamina gave out. So be aware that some of the clarity comes with the retelling…

Aside from the obvious (know yourself, be true to yourself, don’t do any of this to please other people), I guess I’d have to caution against black-and-white thinking. This is all so very and so wonderfully gray that it need not be as frightening as you think. I’ve always been terrible at the 5-year/10-year plan thing because it seems so much more legitimate to focus on today’s decisions, next week’s goals, or (at the outside) next season’s dreams. You may be the kind of person who needs to project beyond that in order to move forward. But I believe that it hamstrings us unnecessarily to frame our decisions as part of a linear path in such an extended time horizon.

Life happens.

Plans change.

And this is not always bad.

Be flexible, keep your gaze forward but your feet underneath you, and you’ll know what feels right. And generally, those unexpected things are way better than anything you planned.

And now that I think of it, probably the most important thing is to ignore the voices in your head (or the people outside of it…) who tell you that if you have X years or X thousands of dollars investment in training for a specific career, you have a moral obligation to see it through. If you know it’s not the right path at any point, that’s the time to set a new course. And although the next year or two of transition may be difficult, it’s nothing compared to the desperation you’ll feel if you keep blindly putting one foot in front of the other and end up in a life you hate.

Furthermore, none of what you learned is lost. Seriously. No matter how specific those skills, the only way they’ll go untapped is if you don’t value them.

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