Siddhartha Misra: Why it's important to always ask, "Why?"
Even though it was over 7 years ago, I remember the day I decided to stop pursuing a full-time career singing opera.
I was a young artist/cover getting ready to do a run-out concert. My apartment was near the concert venue, so a colleague asked to stop there to get ready.
I was 1,000 miles from home on a contract that barely covered my rent and bills at home, let alone any travel expenses. Over the previous several years, I had cobbled together a blend of chorus and young-artist work to pay my bills and stay out of debt, but I was stuck in prolonged career adolescence. Later, I would learn that I had been living below the Federal Poverty level for months at a time, but the aspirations of a singing career and progress in the YAP environment blinded me to that reality. I was a working singer with... opportunities! At that time, that was more than many of my college and graduate school classmates could claim, so I felt I was going somewhere, despite leaving several young-artist programs with more questions than answers about where to go next in my career.
While we were getting ready for the concert, I suddenly asked the other young artist, “I guess...I just don’t know why we’re doing this. We’re going to go sing a concert, then go home, then sing another rehearsal, then go home again. And I’m not sure I know why I’m doing that anymore.” I remember leaving the theater after that production closed and feeling nothing - no nostalgia, no feeling of accomplishment - just time to ship out to the next job.
That was in 2012. I’m still singing professionally, but I stopped pursuing “the career,” at least as conventional wisdom had laid out that concept for me. I stopped auditioning for agents and YAPs - instead, I focused on performing locally to reduce my expenses and spend more time at home with my wife and growing family. I stopped taking lessons and coachings and focused on singing the way I wanted for local performances. As I shed each of these elements and discovered new options, I came back to asking, “Why should I?” and if I did not have a good answer, that item got Marie-Kondo’ed. Eventually, I was able to replace the drudgery of my traveling singing career with new pursuits: a family, a house, savings, investments, and, perhaps most importantly, a set of options for the future.
Asking “why?” can sometimes lead to an unconventional, unexpected outcome, and that can be scary. For example, I feared that I would lose all my vocal technique and training, or that I wouldn’t ever perform with musicians of the same caliber again. I was afraid that a career in arts administration would be viewed as “selling out” or “giving up”. However, I think the opposite happened - my voice bloomed and I became a better, more self-aware colleague.
Looking back, I think there are young singers who, like me, have a relatively modest interest or curiosity about a singing career and, before they know it, have completed an undergraduate degree, graduate degree, and/or artist diploma (and the debt to go with it), along with a mountain of young-artist and competition applications without asking themselves how they got there or why they should proceed.
I think there are singers who are talented enough for a career, but still don’t know why they pursue one. In my opinion, one needs a near-irrational love of singing and performing to be a conventional, full-time opera singer. You might hear veteran singers refer to this as “loving the process” of rehearsing, coaching, vocalizing, staging, and presenting a role. Some singers I’ve worked with love opera, love to perform, love traveling, love the camaraderie with their colleagues, or love the emotional outlet performing provides. Those passions all make for wonderful hybrid careers in arts administration, theater, travel, and so on. For me, I enjoyed being good at singing, but that’s not the same thing as loving to sing and perform. Once I took into account all the sacrifices and repetition of a singing career, I realized I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment more than the career itself. So, with each application, MegaBus ticket, audition waiting-room shop-talk exchange, choice of starter aria, lesson, coaching, Neti pot, vocal rest with a whiskey chaser, and so on - ask why you’re pursuing that opportunity and know the answer before you proceed.
Next up, I’ll look at some real-life examples of the direct and indirect costs to consider when someone offers you a contract. Zach’s already looked at several examples of solo versus chorus work, but I think it’s worth examining young-artist opportunities, such as pay-to-sing, “cover” contracts, and young-artist contracts. When you have a true cost-benefit analysis, it often makes your why all the clearer. Talk soon!
Tenor Siddhartha Misra shifted from a career as a full-time performer to life as an opera admin/regional performer. He currently works full-time at the Opera Philadelphia as their Lead Guest Services Associate and still sings throughout the region. He is deeply familiar with the YAP merry-go-round, as a participant and as a former staff for the Janiec Opera Company at Brevard Music Center. As a side hustle, he invests in real estate properties with his wife, a full-time voice teacher.
Areas of Expertise: opera administration, young artist programs, pay-to-sings, opera chorus, local and regional performing, real estate, financial independence, travel hacking, budgets, personal finance, project management