My friends, I have a question for you. What does a sustainable musical practice look like?
I’ve been bowled over by many conversations in the last month around that topic. And this isn’t simply a fear-based “opera doesn’t look like it used to” kind of thing. People who are doing well in this career have a lot to say about how they’re struggling.
My colleagues have a lot to say about how the pressure of constant readiness and availability affects personal well-being and family life. Many are beginning to seriously consider the cost to the environment of our constant travel. People are talking about how training needs to change in order to prepare artists for multi-faceted careers. People are talking about what access and assistance looks like in the age of the personal computer.
Some people are asking how they might respond differently to a system whose gross inequities are more on display than ever as we try to address historic and current abuses of power with often minimal success. (If you think the above is hyperbole, consider that a young person in the industry was recently told that she should complain less about her working conditions expressly because she’s a woman, and as such is more replaceable than a man. Hashtag change is slow.)
At the same time, I’ve been privy to many conversations that show how much work is being done on these topics. I’m impressed with how our Opera America Singer Training Forum has planned for our upcoming meeting with discussion topics centered on inclusion and accessibility. Projects like Betsy Bishop’s Potomac Vocal Institute are working to shape both training and the creation of professional opportunities around the needs and schedules of the local musical community. Multiple opera companies are trying variants of the company ensemble as the core of their casting and planning.
Even with a lot of fabulous minds and big energies centered on all these questions, there’s an unmistakeable weariness around the edges of so many colleagues. So what is it that we’re missing, what is it that we need?
Who says what a career looks like, a sustainable artistic life? Does that answer get handed to us from The Industry? Or do artists decide what makes an artist? If we decide, what do we help each other say and remember? What do our communities need to look like? What does our work look like?
Ah, work. We’re all so afraid of not working. Like that young women I mentioned earlier, we all have that voice in our ear telling us we can be replaced (and it’s all a voice from a person we remember, not just our own voice in our head). This fear makes us fail to call out inequitable behavior, even when we enjoy protections like success or tenure. It makes us continue to chase travel and heavy schedules and to swallow costs both personal and financial in the name of a full calendar. It makes us spend a ton of time on social media making sure we look busy, melding our marketing with our personal lives until we wonder how to unplug at all.
(I am super guilty of the above. But I am not dissing a full calendar! I’m not even dissing workaholism! But you know, these days I’m not finding myself in conversation after conversation about how great it is to be super busy.)
I’d love to hear from you and know what you have to say. What is a sustainable life for you, as an artist? What does it mean to be an artist in a place? How do you engage with the wide world? What’s home?
I’m thinking a lot about where I put my energy and why. This writing is some energy sent your way, in the knowledge that any response from my colleagues and friends will repay my balance to overflowing.