Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Green-Eyed Diva: Dealing With Professional Jealousy

Reason Singing is Tough #3,652: It gives an especially challenging dynamic to our friendships. Our friendships with singers, that is, and it’s a very good bet that after one or more music degrees, numerous summer programs, not to mention all of the auditions, a good number of your friends are singers. Add to that the hugely competitive nature of the singing business, and what do you get? A depressingly perfect environment for professional jealousy.

You know the feeling. Your bestie gets contract after contract, while you come up empty. You meet a fellow soprano freshman year and you totally click, but then she gets the lead in the opera every single year and you’re stuck in the chorus. You always end up at the same competition as a former colleague who you actually really like, except she always wins a prize and you never do. Sound familiar? I thought so.

The thing is, professional jealousy is a reality for all of us. Yes, this includes those singers you are jealous of: you can bet your lucky lipstick they are jealous of someone else. I wouldn’t be surprised if Anna Netrebko is jealous of Maria Callas, or if Joyce Di Donato is the slightest bit envious of Marilyn Horne. After all, there can be no “best” in singing. Whereas in running or swimming there might be a single athlete who is the best (at least for a little while). In singing there are always shades of gray. No singer, alive or dead, is the best at anything in the eyes of everyone.

So where does that leave us? If professional jealousy is something we’ll never escape, how do we deal with it and not go completely, irretrievably insane?

First of all, come to terms with reality. This business is hardest for sopranos. Full stop. I apologize to any mezzos or men who happen to be reading this if I’ve offended you, but this is simply an inescapable fact. There are more sopranos competing for university spots and for jobs than for all the other voice types combined. If you are a soprano, you can absolutely be guaranteed that you will have non-soprano colleagues who are, frankly, not as good of singers as you are, who will rise higher in the business. Of course you’ll have plenty of non-soprano friends who are phenomenal singers and deserve every ounce of their success, but I promise you there will be at least one who will leave you scratching your head, thinking, “huh?”

Because there are more sopranos, that means more comes down to luck. If you are a great Scarpia, Tristan, or Rodolfo, you will work, regardless of what you look like or who you know. You’ll have to be great to rise to the top, but your rise is certain, even if you’re just pretty good you can count on getting work. However, if you are a great Mimi or a great Violetta, you may not work anywhere because there are so many more great Mimis and Violettas running around. This means, unfortunately, that a lot of success for sopranos comes down to luck. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might get that break that opens doors for years to come. Success builds on itself, and often a singer’s trajectory can be traced back to one moment when they were heard by the right person at the right time. That’s the good news: it might take just one thing. Of course the bad news is: that one thing might never happen.

This is all sounding pretty depressing isn’t it? Thing is, I think it is helpful to be honest with yourself about the reality. Of course you should work hard to be the best singer and performer you can be. Don’t expect that all that hard work will guarantee a career because for sopranos it absolutely does not. I take comfort knowing that if I don’t “make it”, it’s not because I’m a sub-standard singer, a poor actor, or that I look repulsive. I simply didn’t get lucky, or not lucky enough.

How to deal: First of all, redefine “success”. If success for you means back-to-back contracts for leading roles at international houses for a career spanning twenty years, you will probably be disappointed (sorry). Of course, it could happen, but it’s far more likely that it won’t. I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim high. Of course you should! Life is too short to stunt your dreams. Reframe your outlook so you celebrate every success you achieve along the way. Nailing a high note you used to waver on, mastering a foreign language, landing a gig where they pay for your hotel—these are all phenomenal successes! Whether you get that international career or not, you’ll have all of these wonderful accomplishments to look back on and celebrate.
Secondly, be very, very careful with Facebook. I cannot be the only one who kind of wants to barf when I read the status update: “Thrilled to announce that I’ve been offered a contract at the Met to sing my dream role for a bazillion dollars!” If you see such a status, ask yourself: do I actually like this person? If not, un-follow them immediately. You don’t have to de-friend, just un-follow. It will do wonders for your mental health, I promise you. Now, what about the people you actually do like? Honestly, I think it’s still a good idea to un-follow them if they frequently post about their singing success and it upsets you. If you’re truly friends, you’ll talk, in person or on the phone eventually, and you can catch up with them then.

Lastly, find some joy outside of singing. Singing, as we all know, is a crazy roller-coaster ride; sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. You need to have something in your life, be it hobbies, exercise, pets, church, nephews, whatever, that draws you out of your singer self and into who you are as a whole person (surprise! you’re not just a singer, you know?). Singer edifying activities, like working on conversational French, are not eligible, even if they are enjoyable. For me, nothing comforts and pleases me like reading, practicing yoga, snuggling my kitty, and ok, watching (good) TV. I would do these things whether or not I was a singer and they give me something to look forward to on the inevitable days when I face professional disappointment. Find something, preferably multiple somethings, you love to do that can comfort you when you’re feeling blue (or green-eyed). Then you’ll be able to return to your singing with a full heart and an open mind — after all, your lucky day might be just around the corner.