By: Sara Duchovnay
As opera singers, we depict some very traumatic events in our characters’ lives. We communicate their loss, betrayal, pain, fear, and profound sadness in rehearsals and performances day after day. That alone can be emotionally draining, but what happens when events in our lives imitate our art? While it may feel like our world is ending, life around us still goes on. Performances still happen, rehearsals still take place, and roles must still be prepared. How do we manage to work through the difficult times and show up to get the job done?
This season, the busiest of my career so far, also happened to coincide with the shocking implosion of my marriage and my subsequent divorce. Less than a month after my heart was broken and my life as I knew it turned upside down, I was packing up to start my next gig. I remember driving away from my house and being struck by the fact that I didn’t really have a home anymore. My life was never going to be the same again.
For me, pouring myself into my work and being surrounded by wonderful, creative people was the best thing imaginable. Even in the darkest times, my career and my wonderful colleagues inspired me, excited me, and filled me with hope for the future. That being said, there are some unspeakable tragedies that occur in people’s lives that are far worse than anything I have been through. If you feel that you need to take a leave of absence from school or cancel an upcoming gig, listen to your heart and take time for yourself to heal.
If you do feel that you can work through your grief, here are some tips to help you do your best work during this difficult time:
1. Make physical self-care a priority:
Grief can take a toll on your body and your immune system, so if there was ever a time to take ridiculously good care of yourself, this is it! Routine is key. When everything around you has been upended, finding a routine can be a really wonderful comfort.
Nutrition - We all notice different patterns when it comes to food and our emotions. This is a time to stick to a schedule and to think about food as a utilitarian necessity. Fuel your body with healthy foods that will give you consistent energy, keep you full, and help you do your job. You have enough to deal with emotionally, so you don’t ever want to feel lightheaded, spacey, jittery, or hangry.
Watch your alcohol consumption during this time too. What’s worse than a hangover? A hangover accompanied by a broken heart. If you are on a gig, be mindful of keeping your conduct professional and classy at all times, and remember that alcohol could bring out emotional responses that you don’t want your colleagues to witness. Alcohol also weakens your immune system, so if you feel yourself already depleted or fighting something, best to avoid it.
Exercise - Getting up and moving your body is a great way to clear your mind and get endorphins flowing. If you can get outside and go for a walk or a hike, nature and fresh air can be extremely healing! During my first post-divorce gig, the opera company provided us with a free yoga pass and I went to yoga much as possible. During the subsequent gig, I bought myself some weights and worked out in my room while listening to early 2000’s pop. Both of these things were crucial in keeping my mind focused and calm for rehearsals and performances, and helping me sleep better at night.
Sleep - Grief can make you extremely tired and mess with your sleep patterns. If you can, try to get into a routine of getting into bed and waking up at a somewhat reasonable time each day. Even if you can’t sleep right away, just setting a time to turn off for the day will help you feel more rested.
2. Make emotional self-care a priority:
Adjust your method - If you were a screen actor, you might be able to use your pain to create a compelling performance. You would be able to let it all go in front of the camera and then collect yourself after the director yelled, “cut”. We can’t really do that as opera singers. Crying from a place of true grief during a performance is usually not the best thing for our singing or focus onstage.
If the dramatic situations we are portraying are triggers to us, we need to practice some level of emotional detachment. This gives you a great opportunity to grow as an actor and musician and add some new approaches to your performance practice. For example, you might try approaching the role from a more physical aspect. Above all, let the music guide you. The composer has already taken care of you dramatically! You just have to really perform what is on the page.
When some time has passed, you may want to draw on this experience for future performances. Keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings you can draw from when you’re feeling stronger. For now, protect your heart so you can do your job. Let the audience feel the feels! You might be surprised by the emotional impact your performance has on others.
Rely on your team - Know who your people are and don’t be afraid to reach out when you need them. These people are there to support you and offer you the guidance and advice that you need! Phone conversations with my teacher and my agent were crucial to me during that first gig. You can also take this opportunity to add new people to your team and try new things. I was overjoyed to find that hypnotherapy worked wonders to help me remain calm, focused, and emotionally protected from triggering situations.
Be aware that while you may need additional support during this time, not everyone you deal with is going to be sympathetic to what you are going through. That’s ok. It may be hard to come to terms with this while you are already emotionally vulnerable, but it’s not their job to care about you or your feelings. Remain professional and emotionally protected from these people and rely instead on your team and the wealth of family and friends who love you.
Exercise boundaries - Try to put aside people-pleasing tendencies and put yourself first. If you make your emotional well-being your top priority, you will be the calmest, kindest, most focused, and most professional singer that you are capable of being during this time. If that doesn’t make people happy, then there’s likely nothing you could have done to made them happy in the first place. If you want to be social, be social. If you need to go back to your room and sit in silence with Netflix, don’t be afraid to politely bow out of social obligations. Everyone wins when you do what you need to do.
Celebrate your strength and resilience - This experience continues to teach me that I am absolutely capable of delivering under the least ideal of circumstances. There is nothing like performing during a personal crisis to make you realize the little things you used to worry about, hold no real power over your ability to perform. Previously, I believed everything in my day had to go perfectly leading up to an audition or performance. During this process, I learned even in the face of emotionally draining and stressful life circumstances, I could do my job well. We all go through hardships in our lives at one point or another, and the knowledge that we can survive and thrive is really empowering.
If you are going through a period of grief, please know that I am sending love and healing energy your way. Take good care of yourself and feel free to reach out if you need someone to talk to. For real. I will respond!