The Lonely Path of an Opera Professional: Part 1–A desire to belong!

…Yo creo que el canto es mucho (para mi, no se si para los demás) pero mucho trabajo en solitario. Mucho trabajo…tu, la habitación, el piano y buscar soluciones…(14:45-15:05)–Juan Diego Florez–16/12/2015

I believe that singing is a lot…(for me, I don’t know if for everyone else)…I mean a lot of work in solitude…A lot of work…you, the practice room, the piano, looking for solutions…(14:45-15:05)–Juan Diego Florez–16 December 2015, Liceu Barcelona.

This was Florez’s response to the question of whether his amazing talent is a gift or the product of a lot of work. It was refreshing for me to hear this four years ago and I’ve used this clip for students during my time teaching in Härnösand, Sweden. I know a few understood it but most did not!

But if you think this blog is going to go in the direction I often take, hammering once more the importance of work ethic in opera, you would be mistaken.

This is one of the most difficult blogs I will ever write because it is extremely personal. But I think it is important to write it!

As with anything that is important, I did not plan to write this at 5:19 in the morning. I was tired tonight before midnight and thought I was finally going to get a good night of sleep after a few days of not doing so. But the forces of the universe converged and conspired to inspire this blog.

I am very engrossed in the American presidential race because I am an American citizen living abroad. This is significant. I have lived in at least two places at a time over the last 15 years, whether New York and Berlin or New York, Berlin and Sweden or Berlin and Sweden. I am not expressing this in terms of glamor but rather the opposite. Before I explain the significance of the presidential campaign, I will take a moment to go back in time for some historical context.

I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as many of you know. When I was 4 years of age, my father joined my mother in the United States. Saying goodbye to him at the airport is the most vivid and painful experience of my childhood. My mother had left a year before and I don’t remember that day. For reasons both personal and political, my parents had to leave. I have had a loving relationship with my parents and my sisters since the family reunited 5 years after my father’s departure. I hold no ill feelings against them whatsoever.

But as I listened to Pete Buttigieg, late in the night while he spoke at the University of Southern California, I realized why I understand him and why I gravitate towards him. His favorite all-time television character is Captain Picard (who is one of mine) and mine is Mr. Spock.–Both Stark Trek characters–In some ways the two characters are very similar. Intensely emotional but mentally disciplined. I used to pride myself on the ability to keep my feelings in check. But they often came exploding out when I least expected them. I never gave much thought to the tragedy of essentially losing my parents at age 4. I also remember horrific night terrors in my childhood when I lived with my extended family. I had a huge extended family that took great care of me: My grandmother, loving aunts and crazy uncles and my cousin, Gary.

They helped me survive, to the point that I forgot that I ever experienced tragedy. Then my parents returned and the family reunited.

I moved to the United States at age 10 and a half, which means I had already developed a Haitian identity. In all of the 6 foreign languages I speak (besides my native French and Haitian Creole), people who have refined ears will often ask me if I am French, because they hear a slight French lilt to my speech.

When I started the 6th grade a year later in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the first day of school was like walking into a war zone, compared to the orderly school experience I had in Haiti. I spoke English somewhat but with a bit of difficulty. When I was asked by the teacher to introduce myself, I stood up (as was customary in schools in my native country). The entire class burst into laughter! I panicked and since that day, I began to stutter horribly. I was now living in a foreign country. My parents were loving but home life was often turbulent between them.

Having lived in Haiti and remembering the extreme poverty that some people experienced without complaining, I never thought to consider my own life as anything but a luxury. Who was I to complain? But suffering is suffering!

Just as I acclimated to the absence of my parents, I acclimated to this foreign country and what seemed to me a chaotic lifestyle. Through it all, I had a chance to develop the seeds of talents that were planted in Haiti: sports (first soccer then tennis and baseball), music and the expectation to excel academically. I was eventually accepted on scholarship to a very small private school, where I became soccer team captain and leading scorer, playing leads in plays –I learned through singing to overcome stuttering as much as was possible. That is the root of my interest in singing. I could sing fluidly because that is controlled by a different part of the brain from the part that controls speach– sang in choir, edited my senior yearbook and graduated valedictorian. The Vail-Deane School shaped me! But it also hurt me. My graduating class was comprised of 9 students and word was out that most of them hoped I would stutter through my entire valedictory speech. By excelling, I alienated my classmates.

This pattern would continue! At Westminster Choir College, where I did my undergraduate work, I had the greatest teachers! But I was a minority. Being heterosexual there, in some respects, meant I was an outsider even though I was very supportive of my gay colleagues in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. I was not an enemy. But I was not a friend either. At the University of Michigan, there were race issues. I was not perceived as Black because I am a light-skinned Haitian.

One Black colleague said to me, after I got the lead role of Count Almaviva through fierce competition, that I was chosen because I could pass as white.

Another told me I was not allowed to sing Negro Spirituals because I could not identify with Black American suffering. But through it all, there were supportive teachers and inspiring people (and a few assholes too). I excelled not only developing my voice, but studying orchestral conducting and composition. I thought they would help me in my interaction with conductors and in my understanding of the composer’s process. They did! But my colleagues saw that as pretentious.

My life in Academia was no different. The values of excellence that I learned through all my schooling was not appreciated in the institutions that hired me. I had to rebuild a program in Utah. Apparently I did too well! My predecessor who ran an opera company in town threatened to sue me for defamation although I had never met him (but I did fire a teacher that he had hired because several of her students had developed diagnosed nodules, with the support of my colleagues). I was not Mormon in a town that was 99% Mormon.

In Florida, my Dean told me I was doing a great job but I should not teach my students so well that they become better than the scholarship recipients, because there was no more scholarship money if it was not awarded at the beginning of the student’s admission. Then a colleague who wanted his wife in my position started to write negative tenure reviews to the point that another colleague told me that it would probably be a difficult tenure process and that I probably should find another job.

It continued thus from job to job! I was hired for my excellence but no one told me that I should underperform so that colleagues would not see me as a threat to their territory.

If you think I’m feeling sorry for myself, that is not where I am going with this!

The commonality in all of this is the following and something I learned in an article recently about Pete Buttigieg. When you feel unaccepted, out of your element, mistrusted, rebuked just because you are different, foreign, you will try anything to belong! You try to create an impenetrable shield of excellence and achievement, not realizing you are alienating others:

Senator Amy Clobuchar in a recent debate said to Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “Not everyone is as perfect as you, Pete…”

At that moment, I heard the snickers of my classmates in high school and at University and academic institutions. She seemed so petty! But how can she possibly understand Pete’s desire to belong? He hid his homosexuality! When I was young in New Jersey, I hid the fact that I was born in Haiti. French was more accepted! Is it a wonder that Buttigieg’s campaign is about belonging?

Whether it was marrying a girlfriend I was about to break up with because she became pregnant or taking a job in the cold north of Sweden, it was about two things: 1) In the case of my ex-wife, I wanted to do the socially correct thing. I wanted to be there for my child even though all signs pointed to a very unhappy relationship. I did not want to be looked upon as an absent father. In the end, I became exactly that! 2) Taking that job in Sweden was about making a difference. I had forsaken academia for 10 years after my last job and was happy as a freelance teacher. But after doing masterclasses there, I was convinced to take the job with the promise that I could have an effect on young students by promoting excellence. It was an empty promise. In Sweden, novelty is a valuable commodity. An American teacher with a doctorate and 30 years of teaching experience, with professionally active students and an international profile is already a boon. But one who looked like me? And who incorporates Tai Chi in his teaching? What better to attract more students to a program that is at least geographically challenged?

These two situations exemplify 1) my deep desire to please and 2) my even more profound desire to belong. My naiveté was such that I would allow myself to see only the good and looked away from the obvious clues to the many deceptions that would follow! And they always followed!

How much do opera professionals need to belong? What will we do for a job, a role, a contract? What will we do to be accepted? Will we lose weight? Will we buff up to get a six pack? Will we offer ourselves sexually to someone? Will we marry someone? Will we take terrible pay? How much do we devalue ourselves just to be accepted? How much sorrow and deep trauma do we carry with us from all the disappointments?

So much!

Through it all, Providence gave me a piece of self-preservation! Through my multitude of poor decisions just to belong and be respected, I did make a few good decisions. Not for anyone but for me:

1) I chose to become a musician when I had the grades and offers for a much more practical career path. I thank my parents and family for having been my greatest fans through it all.

2) I quit academia after 11 years of investment. Then I took it again in Sweden and quit it for good this time. That is for my soul!

3) I took the challenge at age 42 to accept myself as a tenor and released myself from the false baritone trappings of a singing career at all costs. I am becoming the artist I always dreamed to become. That was always my soul’s desire.

4) For once, I moved to a place, not because of work, but just somewhere I am happy to wake up to. That too is for my soul. Thank you, Valencia!

5) I practice almost every day…My work in solitude…me, the practice room, the pianolooking for solutions.

I am in the process of healing from a lifetime of offering myself for the good of others and at my expense: financially, emotionally, physically, psychically. I am in another foreign country, but this one is kind to me. I chose it because it welcomed me with sea and sand and sun. It is MAS (more in Spanish). Mar, Arena, Sol (sea sand and sun). It has these essential elements of my country of birth. It reminds of my adopted country. I am a New Yorker at heart and I love being able to talk to people in the street because it is human and natural to do so. Natural for me! I enjoy teaching my students because they are passionate about singing. It is a work that give me great energy. And I am singing happily (except when I get little sleep). I haven’t fully built my environment of belonging yet, but this city is the place and I am slowly building my local network of friends. But while I am building, I have an extended family that includes amazing people all over the world, even in Sweden.

For the first time, I believe (not just think) truly that everything that happens to us is meant to shape us into the best version of ourselves–if we learn from our experience!–Because of my few special friends in Sweden, I can begin to release the memory of the suffering that occurred there. I can begin to release the deep anger that I harbored for former relationships because I invited them into my life (Doesn’t mean I wish to relive any of it, hehe). Being able to share these feelings openly is proof that I am healing.

Even while I was going through my own deep suffering, I found great joy in my work. Singing and teaching opera singers is what I was put here to do. In working with them, I get to experience the very vulnerable people they are when they sing and also the challenges the operatic world in its intense dysfunction puts them through. Domingo is only one symptom among so many.

I believe this article is the first in a series. That is why I label it Part 1. I feel depleted after nearly three hours of this stream of consciousness and yet remarkably refreshed. I will now sleep a little before going to my very enjoyable Tango lesson. I found a wonderful teacher here (See, I’m building my environment)!

Before I sign off, I must close with Pete Buttigieg. This is not a political commercial! I kept wondering why I felt such a deep connection to this man I don’t know. Judging by my blog, one would think I would be more aligned with Bernie Sanders. And in a way, I am. But I feel a kinship with this man, Pete Buttigieg, that is unlike most experiences I’ve had from afar. He is far from perfect but he is a profound human being who knowingly carries his passions with discipline. He is a Star Trek fan like me. So that earns him points. He is an overachiever and I appreciate him for that. He’s audacious! And that reminds me how audacious I can be and that I need to take advantage of this new day of clarity and have vision again. Vision with a new maturity. He lost his father to cancer and so did I. He’s definitely much more balanced than me. But he is a complex, paradoxical human being in the best sense of the world. He struggles! He’s difficult to define! He is rejected by what seems like a plurality of LGBTQ voters and young millennials, who on paper would logically be his natural constituents. Despite that he is committed to an idea of inclusion of belonging! And he is so right:

There’s nothing more fulling than to feel part of something!

But be sure you chose what it is you want to be part of.

© February 27, 2020

3 thoughts on “The Lonely Path of an Opera Professional: Part 1–A desire to belong!

Add yours

  1. I guess just talking it out immediately make you feel better, like they always say. Great for you for having found your own way and places.

    About all the technical questions in those earlier blogpost, i guess it sorta put you in an awkward situation where you felt like you have to answer all of them. And i understand if my questions my bother you too much. I can’t expect you to answer to every of my question. So don’t worry too much about those questions. I won’t be asking you those question again!

    Just want to let you know that your blogpost has helped me a lot. Those post inspired me to take singing more seriously than before. Thank you for just being you!

    Cheers!

    Like

    1. I enjoy your questions but I don’t always have time to respond immediately but I like to. Keep asking!

      Like

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