Opera and cultural change: Is the system in need of a rethink?

by Elisabeth Meister and Stuart Pritchard

The climate in which opera singers work is often one of powerlessness, fear, repression and anxiety:

Powerlessness, because hiring decisions are outside their control, and even their ability to influence them is very limited.

Fear, because the lack of ability to influence those making casting decisions leads to chronic work insecurity.

Repression, because any honest admission of the authentic frailties which make us all human risks being interpreted as weakness, endangering the ability to get work.

Anxiety, as a result of all of these things, but also anxiety at the harsh judgment of the public who often don’t understand that the human singing voice isn’t something which can always be summoned on demand to the quality we would like: singing a top C at over 100dB relies on the complex interplay of physical and psychological factors far more than speaking can ever do.

Added to the training required to be able to sing consistently well, is the emotional input and feedback between the brain and the body.  Your state of mind has a huge effect on what is possible vocally, which explains why your voice is usually the first thing to “go” when you’re feeling emotional. But how does a professional singer’s mind work in a climate where its owner has so little influence?

The stumbling blocks are immense: there’s the pressure to find work, not only to put food on the table, but to satisfy the innate craving for performing that lies inside most singers.  Then there’s the pressure to perform when you’re feeling unwell, or worse, being forced to withdraw from a run entirely because it turns out that, several years after having signed a contract, your voice has changed and you discover that the role no longer suits your voice. The potential backlash from critics, the public, and the companies you work for can seriously affect a singer’s ability to remain “in control”.

This lack of control can lead to seriously debilitating situations: the body’s endocrine system is often the first to fall victim to stress, leading to diagnoses of, among many things, thyroid issues, acid reflux, migraines, anxiety attacks, and even epilepsy.

The environment within which singers operate is pretty much custom-made to get in the way of them being their expressive, artistic selves.

There are so many collaborative, engaging and co-operative ways in which such things could be improved.  To do so is a huge challenge, requiring bravery and courage to try doing things differently, not just for singers, but for everybody who works in the industry, and everybody who enjoys the fruits of the industry’s labour.  It was Charles Darwin who observed that it isn’t the strongest or the fastest who survive, but those most adaptable to change. Inevitably collaboration would mean a re-distribution of power and a change in the culture of many organisations.  It can be done; but it’s not an easy journey.

Next time you wonder why opera struggles to survive, you might take a moment to wonder whether its cultural approach is able to make the leap necessary to allow it not just to survive, but to thrive.

Stuart Pritchard is an award-winning author and behavioural psychologist.  Find him at his website, Unlimited Growth, or follow him on Twitter @StuartP69. He is a member of the Meister Music Creative Team.

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