This week we have a guest blog from the talented young baritone Jan Capiński. Read his refreshing take on how the portfolio career of the modern day opera singer can have a positive affect in and out of the audition and rehearsal room.
There’s more to life than singing
Here’s something they never told me in college - the chances of you making a living solely as an opera singer are very slim. Sounds ominous, but it’s true - most of the people I know in the business supplement their earnings through other avenues. This applies not only to the ‘struggling young artists’, but also a substantial proportion of established professionals. Teaching, church work, film extras agencies, computer programming, being a real-estate mogul (yes, I’ve actually met 2 of those), temping in offices, dog-walking, you name it - there’s probably a singer that does it. Now to the budding young singer this may seem like a sad state of affairs, but I’m here to tell you that as far as I’m concerned it’s quite the opposite.
For one thing, having a second income stream takes a bit of the pressure off your singing ‘career’. And if there’s one thing a singer doesn’t need in their life is to be desperate for the job they’re auditioning for. It just isn’t helpful. So while sitting at a desk may not be your dream, think of it as facilitating that dream. Then there’s the oft-overlooked fact that many of these ‘regular’ jobs mean you get to hang out with people who aren’t singers. I’d say that’s a very healthy thing to do in any circumstance. I love singers, we’re wonderful people (in fact my own ‘other job’ still has me working with singers), but we can be a bit highly strung at times, and the risk you run by only socialising with other singers it that you’ll suddenly wake up with opera as the only thing in your life. That may appeal to some, but I’d argue it’d be dull, stressful, empty, and actually negatively impact your performance.
As artists we draw on experience and observation to create our work. Human stories are our bread and butter. But if you confine yourself to just being an artist, starting at the conservatoire age of 18/19, where are you going to get your stories from? How will they relate to your audience, the people you are trying to communicate with? How long before a solely operatic life leads to you becoming a self-indulgent caricature of a true artist? It’s like the snake eating its own tail, it’s not going anywhere.
To be a good singer, performer, artist, you need to live life. And that second job that some would maybe see as failure is actually a door leading into the world of real life and real people, where all the real stories are.
Far left: Jan white water kayaking. Far right: Jan trains up for those axe wielding baritone roles!
But what if you don’t actually need a second income? Well, then I’d argue it’s still a good idea to find something to do with your time that isn’t singing-related. Find a hobby, even if you’re bad at it, because it’ll stretch you as a person. It’ll also help fill some of the dead time that this job inevitably brings. Sir Thomas Allen in his book ‘Foreign parts’ describes how painting keeps him on an even keel. I’ve recently taken up street/backstage photography to keep me busy on tour (and force me to look at the world differently - see? stretching!), on top of some outdoorsy stuff that I do semi-regularly. I have friends in the touring company who enjoy board games (and we play Carcassonne incessantly). Our dressing room regularly sees blokes miming their golf stroke. Look at the singers you admire as performers (not just voices) and I’ll bet behind the costume and character you’ll find well-rounded human beings. Probably nutters in one way or another, sure, but well-rounded nutters with full lives. While this may not be a hobby per se, I have noticed that singers who have kids tend to just naturally up their game a notch, because suddenly singing isn’t the most important thing in their life any more, so they get a new sense of freedom in both their voice and performance.
I mentioned being bad at a hobby, and I want to finish with a thought inspired by Paul Carey Jones once upon a time when I was finding singing particularly depressing. We can’t be bad at singing, if we are, we’ve failed. So while singing may be our love, it’s hardly a hobby any more, because the bar is set too high. We’re pro sportspeople, not just a group of friends kicking a ball around for fun. So finding something that we can be bad at (and still enjoy) is something worth treasuring, especially as new hobbies tend to benefit from a very rewarding learning curve - you suck at first, but the basic skills are within reach, so you see rapid progress as you grasp them, allowing you to achieve something tangible. That’s a great feeling to have. To learn a new skill, or complete a task in a job. Those are actual achievements, they feel good. That feeling is especially rewarding if you’re feeling like the singing has stalled a bit in one way or another (which happens to pretty much everyone every now and again). If singing is all you have in life, then your life stalls. If there’s more to life than singing, you can just get on with living.