A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Community

With Christmas approaching I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the bizarre social life we singers seem to lead. As I'm home in Poland at the moment, and in the rare position of being here for more than a week, I'm looking forward to catching up with all my non-singer friends. Having moved to the UK to sing, I suppose I'm subject to the realities of singer life more than most, as almost everyone I have met in my 5 years in Britain is from 'the industry'.

So what are these realities? Well, for one thing you meet people either in college (or some other long-term educational course) or in productions. Music colleges tend to be quite highly strung environments, even though the order of the day is to pretend that's not the case. But we're artists being judged on a daily basis, and even if it's all done with the intention of helping us grow (or forcing us to), we will take it all quite personally. So your college colleagues will either be the ones that support you, undermine you, or just steer pretty much clear of you. Obviously the only ones worth hanging out with are the former, and while you still have a choice, just leave the rest to do their thing. The bond of college experiences faced and tackled together is usually one that lasts, and given a bit of effort can make for a lasting friendship. I'll come back to the effort part later on. The key thing for me about college was that (while I like to think I got on with most people) you can choose who you spend your time with. Call them cliques, or groups of well-meaning like-minded people, they are an inevitable fixture of a highly-strung environment full of neurotic arty-types. Just go with it and try not to take it personally is my one bit of advice if you're at music college, want to be friends with everyone, but are finding it a bit difficult.

Once you're out, the game changes a fair bit. At the start of your career you meet many new people. You meet them in rehearsals, and everyone is there to put on a show. You soon figure out that as you're all in it together, for hours on end in one room, there's not much scope for picking and choosing. You have to get on with everyone. Luckily, you are united by a common goal (the show), and perhaps even more so by common enemies. There is always adversity in any rehearsal process and nothing binds people together more effectively than being able to complain about what bothers us. It could be anything: a clueless director, overbearing conductor, impossible set, tricky music, boiling hot costume, poor coffee... Whatever it is, you all bond over it and quickly become a company, once you get past what Chris Gillett calls the dog-like bum-sniffing and posturing phase of the first few days (if you want an insight into what the life of a singer is really like, read 'Who's my Bottom'), and the unifying glue of adversity manifests itself.

The thing about 'friendships' forged in the face of adversity though (or forged through making something truly special, that also happens), is that once the show is over, you find yourself with little to talk about. To most people you say 'hope to work with you again soon' (in many cases you do actually mean it) but know that you won't be seeing them in a pub any time soon unless it's by chance. If you're fresh-faced and a bit naive, you'll say 'let's make sure to stay in touch', but I've found that most times, you just don't. Sorry. I have very many friends/colleagues who I love to work with, they're great fun to be around in rehearsals or in show runs, we regularly go to the pub while we work together, sometimes cinema trips and BBQs happen, I even trust them with bits of personal drama I may be going through... But the moment the last night afterparty is over, that's it. Until next time...

Sometimes you do stay in touch. It's hard to predict, most times it's with people you can have non-singery conversations, but that's not always enough. Friendship takes effort. In many ways it takes more effort than a romantic relationship, which of course needs nurturing, understanding, empathy, etc; but becomes a regular part of your life, one which you work at every day, hopefully growing closer and closer to that one person who can stand to listen to you retelling rehearsal stories that are only funny if you were there, or will be there to silently hug you when you've just got another rejection, or will understand when all you want to do is stick a soap on and order takeaway... Friendship on the other hand doesn't usually have the benefit of daily contact (once you're outside college), so it takes thought, willingness and sometimes a kick up the bum to just get on with it and meet up.

But here's what non-singers rarely understand. Even with all the best intentions in the world, if I'm rehearsing a show for 7 hours a day, I'm most often thinking about it almost 24/7. I sometimes carve out a bit of my weekend to catch up on admin (a horror that deserves its own blog post), but if I then go on to attend a social function, I'll have to use up valuable energy reserves to steer my mind away from the show I'm working on, or the catatonic state it wants to be in to regenerate, and force it to deal with conversation. And I would never call myself an antisocial kind of person, it's just that 'the job' takes over and one wants to be selfish with ones time...

Maybe it's a skill I need to develop. I'm getting better at admin (not constantly feeling I need to reply to everything ASAP), I worry less than I used to about things I can't control... And whenever I'm not in show mode I do try to catch up with my friends. Because without them, in the absence of a show, my life would be pretty empty. It's often said that the life of a singer is a lonely one. Certainly empty hotel rooms, solitary dressing rooms, or those moments you realise you're in a roomful of people you can't talk to about something really important to you; they are lonely. But most of the time you're actually being a singer you're having fun, laughing, joking, solving problems as a team, etc. It seems far from lonely. But I look at all the older, wiser singers who disappear the moment the stage manager releases us, because they have a home life (complete with friends) that they've figured out how to save their energy for, that regenerates them so much better than the pints some of us are heading out to get, or the mindless TV others of us are going to watch in order to clear our heads... I hope I figure out how they do it, because while I love my job, and I love my colleagues, I do find myself constantly apologising to my friends for neglecting them (and as many of my friends are singers themselves, they neglect me right back, with the same heartfelt and honest apologies).

And I find myself missing some kind of community and the permanence that comes with it. Because when I'm not being a singer (which I urge all singers to try), when there is no show, that's when it gets lonely. At least I'm lucky and I get to be home with my family, and see some of my oldest friends, have pointless conversations, sing old songs around a fire, and be part of what I left back here: community. And I take comfort in thinking about all those slightly older, but so much wiser singers who managed to figure out a healthy balance between the joy of being a singer and the happiness of having a life outside singing. There's hope for me yet ;)

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