All the stuff that has gone before in these Gobs – getting the work, doing it, and the logistics – those are in so many ways the easiest aspects of singing abroad. The hardest task when singing abroad is stopping yourself going out of your mind with boredom and loneliness.
“How can this be?” you are probably asking yourself.
Let me give you a scenario. You are in your early thirties. You career is moving along and you are in demand on the opera circuit. Your agent feels you should no longer be aiming at regional British companies but at the more lucrative world stage. It’s all part of the half-formed plan you have in your head which probably features good roles in good houses, posh concerts with the major orchestras, and some recordings thrown into the mix. Nothing wrong with that ambition. If you weren’t ambitious the chances are you wouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place.
But, as your are in your early thirties there’s also every chance you are in the depths of a very important personal relationship. You may even be married. I was, and had two young children to boot.
Scenario: You go abroad on a job, let’s say to Liege. You have five weeks rehearsal and then shows every third night over a period of three weeks. What does your partner do? Come with you? Have you ever spent eight weeks in Liege? Come to think of it, have you ever spent eight hours there? Eight minutes just about wraps it up. Believe me. And seven of those will be spent cleaning dog poo off your shoes.
Have you spent eight weeks anywhere while your partner goes off to work and you have to find something to do to amuse yourself?
Say you have children, are they in school or are they young enough for your partner to bring too? Again, I ask, what do you do for eight weeks in Liege with two young toddlers and no-one else you (or they) know in town? Beside the shoe-cleaning thing.
This is assuming your partner doesn’t have their own job which keeps them tied to your home. There’s a good chance your partner is also a singer. Which of you gives up the important job that’s on offer to look after the children? Eh?
What tends to happen (though there are some exceptions) is that someone stays behind at home with the children and the singer flies home as often as is humanly possible. This isn’t without its own set of problems. Because everything is scheduled day-by-day you won’t know until the eleventh hour when you’ll be free to fly home during rehearsals (let alone what day you are needed back), by which time the enormous fares will make you wonder how you’ll ever again afford to buy clothes for your dear offspring, and when you do get home, one of your dearly beloveds will complain of a sore throat and then cover your mouth with adoring and slobbery kisses. You get the picture.
Chances are you will fly the family out to join you for a week or so once the show has opened and you have more free time. So then you are faced with a dilemma when you first book your digs as to whether you book a large enough apartment (at a much higher cost of course) for the entire gig or whether you make special arrangements just for the time your family is with you. And that’s complicated too.
When your family is with you, you probably have shows in the evenings and won’t get to bed much before 1 a.m. Then your kids are bouncing on the bed at 6.30 the next morning, a good four hours before you normally haul yourself out of bed the day after a show. You spend the next two days trying to be SuperDad (or SuperMum) to make up for all the time you haven’t seen them in the last two months and when it comes to the next show you are surprised to find yourself utterly knackered.
But at least your are not lonely. That will kick in the moment you wave the family off at the airport, the day they return home and you are left behind to finish the job. That is the day when you say to yourself – and believe me, you will – “remind again, me why do I do this job?” It doesn’t become long before you find yourself depressed at the idea of every upcoming job that takes you away from home, and that’s not the right frame of mind in which to rehearse and perform.

So how come you will be bored? Quite simply because you spend so much time in a virtual waiting-room. You’re waiting for your next rehearsal, you’re waiting for your performance. You might like to think of yourself visiting all the galleries, sites and cute restaurants (but can I just play the Liege card here one more time…) but when push comes to shove you are in town to work, to perform at your best, to earn your fee and pretty-well any activity on your days off that doesn’t involve lying prostrate on a sofa gazing at something mindless on the laptop or telly quickly seems far too much like hard work and something that will detract in some way from the hard task of singing opera. It’s nothing to feel ashamed of. You don’t see Olympic athletes or Test cricketers pottering around the National Gallery on their days off. They’re in their hotel rooms playing Nintendo.

There has been a significant number of singers who try to escape their loneliness and boredom by resorting to rampant affairs, heavy drinking and even the odd but of drug abuse. Guess what? It doesn’t work. I could name names but on one hand I’m far too discreet and on the other it saddens me too much to think of once-great singers who have ended up on the scrapheap or even dead.

Here’s my solution, but it’s one that can only work in a relationship which allows it to work and it only works if you are making the effort to be present, and I mean truly present, when you are at home and not working. Use your time away as “personal time”. As Billy Connolly once said, and we have it pinned to our fridge at home, “you cannot spend your whole time away missing the ones you love”. So don’t sit around moping. Get up and do something that interests you but for which you don’t have time at home. Write lengthy emails to friends with whom you’ve lost touch. Paint. Draw. Read. Build your own website (I did, in between rehearsals in Milan). Start a blog. Knit. Be indulgent in something that interests you but which is perhaps of no interest to your partner. It doesn’t mean you are ignoring their needs. It means you are taking care of your own. And by doing so, you are probably making yourself a much happier and more pleasant person to be with.
There’ll be times when the stay-at-home partner may envy your freedom to do what you want for yourself while he or she is left at home in domestic drudgery. Make sure you do your best to ease that drudgery when you get home, but please don’t think for a moment that sitting in your grotty rented apartment desperately trying not to enjoy your time away will actually make your partner feel better. Uh-uh. Let’s face it, that’s absurd and doesn’t reflect very well on the health of the relationship. It’s an easy trap though and I fell into it in my first marriage. See? I speak from experience.
Of course most of the pastimes I mention are fairly sedentary. Some people use the time away to visit a gym regularly and get fit. Many opera houses have arrangements with local gyms. I do a lot of walking and, in Amsterdam especially, cycling. Cooking is another thing I enjoy, especially in Italy and France, though it can be deflating to be constantly cooking for one in a poorly-equipped kitchen. Have colleagues round for meals. If you get into the habit of eating and drinking out with your colleagues, just be aware that you probably won’t have an understudy. Very few opera houses employ them. No-one, but no-one, is going to be impressed if you are too hungover to work or if you fall sick due to what your co-workers or management interpret as the result of over-indulgence. There’s also nothing worse than finding yourself hoarse from shouting just to have a conversation in a noisy bar or restaurant, something of which, bizarrely, opera managements are woefully ignorant when they plan cast parties.

I said it to the young-uns at British Youth Opera and I’ll say it again: a lasting career in this profession we call opera depends less on those little cords in your throat and more on what is in your head and your heart. Keep the latter two happy and your voice will thank you for it. However if you have the greatest voice in the world but neither the will nor the wit to stick at it and to endure this difficult lifestyle, all those singing lessons will have ultimately been for nought.

That’s the last of these Gobs, though there’s every chance I will think of something I’ve forgotten to wag a finger about. So who knows. I have a notion to set up a website as a singers’ resource, full of specific info about as many cities as I can, but this is a huge task. I could only do it with lots of input from other people and also if I can find a cunning way to pay for it!
Meanwhile do read “Who’s My Bottom?” which not only lifts the lid on my personal experiences as a jobbing singer but which is also now on Amazon and order-able in all good bookshops!
Oh look, here’s a link for Brits: Amazon.co.uk
And for Americans: Amazon.com

Anyone else will have to google and figure it out for themselves.

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