When Opera Singers Go it Alone

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WASHINGTON, DC -- On February 4, I read this post on Facebook by the excellent American countertenor Bejun Mehta:

“Solo touring is surely a strange life. In-between days are spent on travel and business. Performance days are generally alone days. Then the show, and usually a dinner with the presenter and friends from the city you're in. That part is great. Then there are the days like today, in a smaller town where one doesn't know people: you give everything you've got onstage, the audience is happy, they clap, then you sign things, and then, suddenly, you're ALONE alone in the hotel nursing a beer, waiting for room service, reaching out on Facebook.”

Mehta is an artist I have great respect for in that his talents as a singer and his keen intelligence work in tandem. His understanding of his roles and of the singer’s life bring great immediacy to his performances and his candor informs his life both on and off the stage. And he is an outstanding singer, as this performance of “Fammi combattere” from Handel’s Orlando reveals. Note how long and hearty is the audience’s response to his singing.

When one reads Mehta’s biography in opera house programs, it is clear that he is very much in demand and constantly on the road. His core repertory, including lots of Baroque and contemporary operas, is very much in demand in Europe and, while increasingly popular in North America, artists with these specializations must per force go where the work is. For Mehta, these include theaters in Paris, Amsterdam, Milan, much of Germany and Austria, and major festivals such as Edinburgh, Verbier and Aix-en-Provence.

Mehta (right) is now in London, where he is singing until March 22 in the Royal Opera’s production of Written on Skin by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp – a work he's sung elsewhere. His frank comment on Facebook reinforced something I have thought about for decades. I have known many singers who have turned down juicy roles because they did not want to be away from home for long. Many singers have very patient, supportive spouses and life partners who sometimes put aside their own ambitions to provide emotional and practical support to the singer. In other cases, these people are unwilling or unable to accompany the singer, who must then spend a great deal of time alone in hotel rooms when not in theaters.

Why? Singing is a demanding physical act. When a singer is tired, it is more difficult to sing well. They cannot always eat out in restaurants, in part because it is harder to control how food is prepared and in part because they are noisy and, even today, can be smoky. Singers must avoid these settings, and inclement weather, to preserve their voices. You might see a singer in performance, but you forget that he or she must also devote a great deal of time alone to study as well as days or weeks in rehearsals with colleagues. That process is often thrilling (unless a production is stupid), but it also is wearing.

Hotel rooms can be nice if you do not travel often, but can get old very quickly. As it happens, I am writing this article very late at night in a hotel room in a major American city. Regular readers of my dispatches know that I travel a lot for various kinds of work and pleasure. I do a great deal of public speaking and that too entails long preparation, travel, constant changes of time zones, airport security, cramped planes with bad air, noisy environments, vocal rest, and hotel rooms that often seem to resemble one another. And yet the demands on me are minimal compared to what singers must endure, which only increases my respect for artists of all kinds who are willing to defer or deny themselves many pleasures in life that most people take for granted.

I know more than a few singers who, technically, are homeless. When they are on the road, they live in hotels or sublets. When they are not singing they go home to their parents, even when they are in successful careers. It simply does not make sense for them financially to maintain a residence if they are seldom there.

Quite a few singers who are parents themselves feel terrible pangs when they are away from their children, missing important events such as first words, first steps, or achievements in school. I know a singer who sings her children to sleep using Skype, sometimes wearing the makeup and costume of the role she is about to step onstage and perform. The British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker famously chose not to have children because she felt that she could not give them the attention they deserve.

While Baker became one of the great artists, other singers—no matter what their personal lives are—make notable sacrifices one way or another. I knew a lovely mezzo-soprano, now dead, who seemed to have it all: A handsome, wealthy husband, a beautiful child and all the trappings of success. She was quite beautiful, had a great voice and was a very fine artist. Unfortunately, her husband made her feel guilty for wanting to accept excellent offers from faraway theaters, and she turned them all down. Because she did not have to earn a living and her conventional spouse insisted that she stay home, her career consisted mostly of performances in the city where she lived and was only a shadow of what it could have been. It makes me sad to think of her, especially because she died relatively young and did not realize her potential.

Things are better in some ways now and in other ways not. Singers jet about constantly while, in the past, they traveled more slowly, on trains, ships or cars, and spent more time in individual cities. They would sublet an apartment and set up housekeeping, doing their own cooking and determining their own sleep schedules. But they could not really go out if they were tired or the weather was bad. 

A singer friend, now retired, often stayed in hotels. To protect her voice, she did not use the phone much, except to call her child. For everyone else, her chief communication was hand-written notes sent by fax. I had frequent fax exchanges with her. I wanted to call, and would have, but I knew that the call would not be answered.

Most singers I know have patient friends (as opposed to fawning fans) in most cities who are there when the singer needs company or help, but also know to stay away, not calling but being willing to take a call at any time.

The advent of e-mail changed things for the better. One of the first singers to embrace it was soprano Jane Eaglen, who often counseled other singers to become early adapters. E-mail protected the voice but also enabled a singer to keep up on business, family and friends in an electronic epistolary way. 

In the past few years, most singers have joined Facebook. Some post all the time, quite wittily and honestly. Others make rare appearances, preferring to simply announce a project or send a shout-out to friends and colleagues. Sometimes, we get too much information about a singer, and that occasionally can harm their images and careers. But, without question, the positives outweigh the negatives. Social media has enabled singers to feel connected and loved in ways that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago but, when the computer is turned off, they discover that they might be alone once again.

The late Leonie Rysanek had a wonderful husband, Ernst-Ludwig Gausmann, a former journalist who devoted himself to her. She made enough money in her career to support both of them. He was a very loving man who understood that Rysanek’s sense of well-being was essential to her performing at the remarkable level that audiences expected of her. Rysanek’s fans expressed gratitude to E-Lu, as he was known, because they realized that he sacrificed a lot to help Rysanek excel. 

Here is Leonie Rysanek singing “Allein! Weh, ganz allein!” (“Alone, all alone”) from Strauss’s Elektra, in which the title character bemoans her fate. Her father Agamemnon has been killed by her mother and the mother’s lover. She believes that her brother Orest, who could help her, is also dead. As you listen to the music and look at the words in German (even if you don’t understand that language), you will understand how alone alone can be. (Remember, opera characters don’t have social media, at least not yet!):