The Artist is Dead , Long Live the Artist!
Act I — Through the Looking-Glass
“Art intensifies the presence of the world.”
― Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul
In the course of a human life, there are perhaps few realizations more exquisitely awful than the sudden awareness that you are no longer strictly necessary.
For me, there wasn’t an exact moment — a single, dreadful “aha.” Rather it crept in slowly over the years, corrosively eating around the edges of my sense of stability, my well-being, and my hopes for the future. An accretion of dis-ease, difficult to name, it seemed starkly at odds with the sense of self which I’d carefully constructed and for which I’d worked so very hard for so long.
It began a number of years ago, and by early 2018, it became too big to ignore.
For about fifteen years, I was a working professional opera singer. And I had a good career, too. Not the most amazing, nor the most high-profile — and certainly there are countless others who’ve had far more stellar careers. But it was good.
Life as a working singer just made sense to me, and everything about it felt so incredibly right. Satisfying is the word that comes to mind. And, importantly, it really helped that I had successfully found my niche along the way.
SPECIALIZING IN THE IMPOSSIBLE
One of the first things anyone in any industry has to do is identify the intersection of what you want, what you have to offer, and how the market can use you.
The arts are no different. Just because you want to be a star concert performer or a glitzy fashion designer or a leading lady on Broadway doesn’t mean you wouldn’t actually flourish and be happier and way more successful as a collaborative coach-pianist or a theatrical designer — or even a character singer.
Spieltenor, Buffo, Comprimario — these are German and Italian phrases which describe character singers in opera. Just as in your favorite movies and TV shows, so also in opera; these are the people whose faces (or voices) you might recognize, but whose names don’t immediately come to mind. Think: the doctor, the lawyer, the waiter, the secretary, the priest, the sidekick — comedians and villains and counterpoints and dramatic foils. They don’t just fill out the scenery, they raise the stakes for everyone else onstage, too.
Good character performers electrify the room. Great character performers are often one of the best parts of any show. As I found my own way along the various traditional avenues into the opera biz, this is the path I chose. And I loved it.
After about 15 years, things were in principle going well for me: I was working regularly all over the United States, I had a well-established agent in New York, and I’d developed a reputation as a hard-working and extremely dependable hire. Occasional day-jobbery aside, I usually had a least a handful of substantial contracts with opera companies and orchestras to look forward to in any given year. And I was, in fact, doing what I’d actually trained to do. In short, I loved my job.
Now, as hard as I worked — and I worked extremely hard for a very long time — I was also the beneficiary of no small amount of luck:
- My skin is a color which presents no obstacles to me, and I fit neatly into a male, cisgender box.
- I paid in-state tuition for a fantastic education at a relatively inexpensive state school, graduating with very manageable student loan debt.
- I had a fairly stable family of origin that believed in me and my dreams.
- I have an amazing partner who put up with the vagaries of my income for years, even when it sometimes made things very hard for us both.
- I made it into several opera apprenticeships early on which changed the course of my career and my life; the people I met in those places became a substantial, crucial network of industry contacts and a vibrant support system that blossomed and never stopped growing.
- I was often in the right place at the right time.
But while I was enjoying my luck and blissfully finding that intersection of what I want, what I have to offer, and how the market can use me, the entire industry was already changing rapidly around me: I had become an expensive specialist in an industry that ultimately decided it needed inexpensive generalists.
AS GOOD AS IT GETS?
Almost all American opera companies and orchestras are nonprofit organizations. As they’ve been increasingly squeezed by demographic changes, an explosion of entertainment choices, competition for philanthropic dollars, and the general post-2008 meltdown of the U.S. arts economy, they‘ve often passed those losses on to contractor artists like yours truly by way of reduced fees, fewer performances, and hiring far less experienced (read: way cheaper) workers.
That means that individual contractors often bear much of the cost of institutional financial meltdowns. This has been baked into our industry from the contracts on up.
Oh, and did I mention that almost all opera singers in the U.S. are self-employed? Our taxes are, shall we say, entertaining.
Singers like me working in the pre-COVID era faced fewer and fewer projects, decreasing pay, and the rising cost of doing business, while also often hustling in the gig economy for negligible and unpredictable paychecks there, too.
My typical work year? Usually about two to three fully-staged opera productions (sometimes with correspondingly larger paychecks, too) plus a constellation of smaller staged and concert projects plus whatever side hustles I had going.
Not bad in the grand scheme of things. But like virtually all singers, there was almost never a year where I wasn’t working side jobs that may or may not have been related to my training at all. A few gems from my résumé:
- retail customer service
- stage manager
- sales assistant
- rideshare driver
- language translator
- project manager
- audio transcriber
- admin assistant
- voiceover actor
- condo moving supervisor
- law library assistant
- wedding/funeral singer
- fundraising assistant
But even with all that, I seldom broke $50k a year before taxes and business expenses. And given that, for the self-employed, as much as half of that can disappear after taxes and once expenses are accounted for, there wasn’t usually much left over. It could certainly have been far worse, but it wasn’t easy to stay out of debt, get a mortgage or pay rent, and definitely didn’t leave much for the future, either.
For me, the bleakness of the long-term financial and professional outlook increasingly began to overshadow any near-term artistic and career successes. I had been trying to save for retirement for years but was barely making a dent. I kept falling into huge credit card debt over and over. And I know many in the arts who have witnessed their aging parents outlive their money — and then fall into severe financial or health crises in their 70s and 80s.
These things have a way of piling up over time. After a point, I’d say that no working singer would be out of line for asking, “Is this as good as it gets?”
SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE
I began to develop a real sense of not being used enough. Of not being useful either as a professional or as a human being. And this in spite of me apparently having at least a somewhat enviable career. But when you’re a singer and your whole body is your instrument, there is no way that that kind of sinking feeling isn’t personal. As Peter Gabriel sings, “I need to be needed, I like to be liked, and I love to be loved.”
This certainly isn’t unique to artists; there’s plenty of evidence, both quantitative and otherwise, indicating that pervasive feelings of uselessness are corrosive to one’s overall physical and mental health.
Beyond that, however, if you’re a highly-trained, reasonably well-regarded and accomplished professional, but you’re not actually getting to practice your craft as much as you feel you should — let alone paid much to do so — dark things can start to accrue. Isolation, despair, and potentially worse. I didn’t like what I started to see in myself, and I worried about what might become of me — and what I myself might become.
Something had to give. And I knew it was going to take profoundly more than just getting a different side hustle (or three).
One morning in early 2018 I reached out to a friend of mine, himself a former singer. A graduate of one of the most prestigious music schools in America, a decade ago he decided that operaland was not for him. He fled New York City for Denver, and moved into tech. Now he is an admired executive at the oldest (and arguably one of the most successful) custom software agencies in Colorado.
Over lunch I told him everything that had led me to this point, with him nodding all the while. I said, “I’ve been a computer nerd since I was a kid, a gamer, a web design-tinkerer, and something about opera is just not working anymore. This is excruciating, but I think I might be ready to change or rebalance my career, maybe move into tech, but… I don’t know where to start.”
He said, “I think I have some ideas for you.”
And down the tech industry rabbit hole I went.
THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS
“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.”
― Lewis Carroll
On the one hand, there is nothing remotely unusual about what I’m doing.
Countless working singers have always departed the industry (or simply rebalanced how and how much they continued to sing) for other careers in education, arts administration, or business. This happens for any number of reasons, including family, finances, illness, and more.
You did the singing thing. You miss family, you want your own space, you want to put down roots, and you realize that the whole “saving for retirement” thing is something which you’ve neglected for far too long. This is an entirely natural progression.
But it was more than that for me: I concluded that not only were things not working for me personally, but they were also unlikely to get better for the industry as a whole. I’d posit that, as long as people love to sing, opera as an art form will survive, and even occasionally thrive. But singing opera as a viable, full-time profession in the United States is now more than ever a completely open question.
By early 2018, I’d nonetheless been extremely lucky. I’d experienced all the ups and downs of being a working, self-employed artist in 21st-century America. I had definitively proven to myself and to others that I belonged on the stage. I had made some beautiful art along the way, and had worked with and befriended some of the most gloriously incredible people in the world, too. All that before COVID was even on the horizon.
I had had my time on the stage and, in the process, got that most American of cultural stamps of approval — I had gotten paid to do it. Tick that existential box.
Moreover, with about two years of singing work still booked in advance, I had time. I knew that it was going to take about two years to make the transition, regardless, doing all of the personal and professional work necessary to ramp down one career while simultaneously ramping up the other. Very importantly, it would also give me time to make sure this is really what I wanted to do.
In early 2018, neither a global pandemic nor an unprecedented economic shutdown nor the almost total and immediate cessation of all performances in the U.S. were yet anywhere on the horizon.
Then COVID-19 arrived. Cue gigantic existential wrench falling into my plans.
I was actually already about to pull the trigger on my professional pivot, becoming a full-time job seeker and very deliberately beginning to deprioritize future singing work when the coronavirus appeared, cancelling virtually all operatic projects in the United States within a matter of weeks. My entire industry came to a grinding halt, leaving many tens of thousands of my colleagues in classical music suddenly out of work.
While it was a depressing implosion of what I had been hoping would be my orderly semi-retirement from the arts — losing a debut contract in my home state with a cast of some of my best friends in the industry was a particular disappointment — my two-year running start nonetheless made me feel far more optimistic for my own prospects than I might have otherwise.
But to see so much of the very personal and painful journey which began for me over two years prior suddenly being played out in real time in the lives of basically all of my opera colleagues all at once is gut-wrenching, to say the least. The profoundly negative consequences it’s had for so many people who work in the arts in such a short time absolutely beggars belief.
Coronavirus or no, leaving the arts and humanities as your primary profession may be the absolute last thing on your mind. And a career in tech is certainly neither the end-all-be-all nor a one-size-fits-all solution for artists who want to pivot, either. The world desperately needs artists and art-makers of all kinds, and there are more ways than one to reinvent how professional artists engage with the world — so take all of this with a grain of salt.
PIVOT OR PERSEVERE?
If you see yourself in anything I’ve written so far, then I want you to know that I’ve been where you are, and I want to help.
After two years of preparation, training, and certifications, followed by 200+ applications over seven months of being a full-time job-seeker, I am now fully employed in tech.
I work full-time in a software development discipline called Product Management, tackling complex problems for a myriad of clients in many industries. For the first time in my life, I make a solid living wage and can think about the future in ways I never could before.
And I still sing professionally, too; singing has now become my side hustle rather than the other way around. And that’s just fine with me.
This change has also empowered me to advocate for the arts in ways I just couldn’t before; I now have a completely new toolkit for how I can help both artists and arts organizations, driven in no small part by just having less anxiety around work and money.
I’ve been writing this article in my head for over a year. But I’m finally now committing words to page both because I want to help my friends in the arts and humanities, but also because I find myself telling the same story over and over again to people in tech — and I want them to better understand what we artists bring to the table, too.
There are many jobs in technology which do not require huge personal or professional sacrifices or even a full-time commitment. And since basically everyone in tech is already working remotely, now more than ever there are a plethora of support positions which might serve as a stopgap for you until the economy more fully recovers.
And if you really still have your heart set on reengaging more or less full-time with the arts world when it reemerges post-COVID, I support you, I salute you, and in the interim I encourage you to dive into all of the part-time, remote opportunities the tech world provides.
But this is not about that.
I’ve done that. And I’ve done what I’ve done to the extent that I’ve done it because I was simply over the endless side hustles.
While working as a part-time tech support agent or contract developer or online marketer to support your singing or your writing or your teaching may be just the thing for you, it’s definitely not for me. As I mentioned above, I just need more.
There are many full-time careers in software and IT, an increasing number of which are done from home, and which often pay way more than we artists (especially, those of us in the nonprofit arts world) are accustomed to receiving.
This is not to say everything has gone swimmingly for me. It has not. And if job searching is draining and difficult on a good day, job searching for seven months with an unusual resume while in mid-career-pivot amid a global pandemic and economic collapse is decidedly not for the faint of heart.
That said, I’ve learned some valuable lessons from this wild and very zig-zaggy transit from the arts into technology.
If you’re curious, read on: