The Concert/Recital/Oratorio Option…And Your Sanity!
by Kevin McMillan
Let me state first that I am an unabashed opera lover. I weep with the best of them when Rodolfo screams discovering Mimi has faded away. I adore the operatic repertoire, have enjoyed singing it, and love teaching the great arias and roles to eager young singers on a daily basis.
Let me also say straight away, however, that as a pedagogue, I have found for years that many young singers make the mistake of putting all of their ‘eggs’ in the operatic ‘basket’. For instance, when I make arias from Handel’s Messiah obligatory for my young students, I have often had some questioning glances. When I respond “Why wouldn’t you work on this material first? It will more than likely be the first music you are paid to sing in public?” the questioning glances grow even more intense, and I hear “But I’ve always heard that opera is where the money is?!”
Well… to some extent, there is truth in that statement. Fees for operatic engagements do tend to be higher than those for concert, recital and oratorio engagements….but there are other considerations.
Perhaps it would be appropriate at this point to write a little disclaimer about myself. Thirty years ago, I crushed the L1 vertebra in my spine in a farming accident. I was a complete paraplegic for about six weeks, but fortunately, some of my enervation returned, and after considerable physiotherapy, I have been able to walk with forearm crutches and ankle braces since. This accident occurred just as my vocal studies were commencing, so I made it my goal in life to find a way to express myself vocally despite my physical challenges. Over the last 25 years I have managed to keep myself busy singing, recording, traveling and teaching. I have been able to ‘keep the wolf away from the door’ financially, raise a family, and feel fulfilled as a performer. I have done that with only fleeting toe-dips into the operatic waters, largely through concert and semi-staged performances.
So – I have had a very good reason to manage my performing life in this fashion. But there are a couple of core reasons for able-bodied young singers to pay close attention to the concert/recital/oratorio repertoire as well:
Reason I: Artistic fulfillment and development
There is great artistic fulfillment to be found on the operatic stage, and it would be redundant to say that we all appreciate it. It also should be stated, however, that there are times when my operatic colleagues have confessed to me that they have felt like a cog in the gears of a great machine, and that the artistic moments – although wonderful – do seem a little fleeting, when compared to the long hours of dealing with costumes, make-up and stage directors.
Contrast this with, for instance, the experience of singing a role like Mendelssohn’s Elijah. There are few, if any, baritone operatic roles which have the same predominance in a work – musically, vocally and dramatically. When one wants to make one’s points artistically as Elijah, there is but one relationship to worry about: that between you and the conductor. That relationship must be established within hours rather than days or weeks, and the onus is very much on the shoulders of the performer to make the drama speak clearly within the conventions of oratorio. The sense of artistic fulfillment when this comes together well is enormous.
Furthermore, contrast an operatic role with the experience of performing Winterreise. When one sets out on that journey, one’s only artistic partners are one’s collaborative pianist and one’s imagination. Creating this internal emotional landscape and living it out over 24 songs is one of the greatest artistic experiences a singer can know. To describe the role of the protagonist in Winterreise I would say, as Mel Gibson did, when he was asked about the role of Hamlet: “It is not so much a ‘role’ as an assault on your character.” These are great experiences – even life-changing ones – and one might argue that an operatic singer who has not tested these waters musically, vocally, and emotionally has missed out on the development of some core values for the work he faces musically, vocally, and emotionally in his daily work on the operatic stage.
Reason II: Sanity
When my young student says “But I’ve always heard that opera is where the money is?!” he does have a point. Operatic fees are higher. However, my agent used to say: “The only money made from regional opera is by Holiday Inns.” Time and distance are very big issues in the operatic world. I remember a conversation with an operatic colleague during which we discovered that I had sung two sets of Carmina buranas, a Brahms Requiem and a song recital in the same time that it took him to do one run of Papageno. After all was considered, I had netted more income in the same period than my colleague.
More importantly, between those three engagements, I had a few days home with my family, cramming in as much normalcy as I could. My son is now 25 and working on his PhD. We love each other dearly, and the solidity of our relationship has a lot to do with his patience and understanding during those years, but without the relative flexibility that my concert/recital/oratorio schedule allowed me, it may have been harder to maintain that relationship as well as we have.
Add to that the fact that I am male, and that during those really busy years I wasn’t teaching very much. The concert/recital/oratorio lifestyle – for women who want to raise children, and for pedagogues who need to maintain their relationships with students – makes incredible sense.
So – the message I will unflinchingly send to young operatic singers is: Do not neglect the concert/recital/oratorio repertoire! As you chart your way through a career as a performer, its benefits are manifold – vocally, musically, artistically, and emotionally.
Canadian baritone Kevin McMillan’s performing career has spanned 25 years with more than 750 concerts, 15 professional recordings, a Grammy award, a Gramophone award, and numerous Juno award nominations. He has performed internationally with conductors such as Herbert Blomstedt, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Charles Dutoit, Krystof Penderecki, Sir Roger Norrington, Hellmuth Rilling, Kurt Masur and the late Robert Shaw. He lives in Virginia and is an Assistant Professor of Voice in the School of Music at James Madison University. Read more about him at: www.kevinmcmillan.ca.