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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On the frustrated and the talented,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH,
plus a review of Blair Tindall's book 'Mozart in the Jungle'

Dear Alice

When is an opera singer past it and when is an opera singer still considered young? I mean what is classified as a new and exciting voice? Is it a young voice or is it a fabulously trained older voice whom no-one has yet heard? When do opera singers know they are not going to have that big break? Is it what they look like as well as what they sound like that matters? Does the music still count? It is all media and hype these days!

I am a travelling opera singer aged 38 wondering what to do next. I am a bit overweight but look about 32, and am having a fairly good career with work till 2008, but it seems like so much sacrifice for little reward especially when you see and hear other hyped up singers who are not delivering the goods. Is PR necessary or is it a waiting game?

Frustrated and talented, London

Dear F and T,

Sorry to hear about your frustration, though you seem to have done pretty well for yourself, if you have bookings until 2008 already! Most opera singers never do that well -- You're in the top one percent already.

You bring up a number of really interesting questions. A friend of mine, who I turned on to Cardiff Singer of the World, was stunned to discover that the competitors (and they were not all by any means all fully-developed singers) were all late twenties or early thirties: I think she expected seventeen or eighteen-year-olds!!! Certainly singers have a longer shelf-life than many musicians, with the really big, Wagnerian voices really only maturing in the late thirties or early forties (compared to most instrumental solo competitions ending mid-twenties). So it very much depends on the type of your voice. If you are a natural soubrette, then (unluckily) your shelf-life will probably be shorter than a lyric soprano, and you could do worse now then think ahead about diversifying your career in your forties. If you are a demon sight-reader who can pitch an A-flat out of the ether then you will probably always be in demand by modern composers, regardless of age, looks or anything else. Equally, if you can drown out an orchestra (regardless, it sometimes seems, of the quality of the sound) then your voice will always be prized. (And yes, a lot of hyped-up singers with pushy agents and good PR get MUCH FARTHER then they've any right to!!!!)

What is a new and exciting voice? you ask. I think it's generally a combination of your two suggestions: a fabulously promising, at least semi-trained, youthful-ish voice. You are right to question, after being heard over the last few years and doing well but not quite making that big breakthrough, whether 'the level of sacrifice is worth it'. My advice would be to go to a couple of the top vocal coaches out there and get some expert advice on where your voice is going. If it is getting deeper or stronger then you might want to keep going, at least for a few years, in the hope that the quality will (eventually) get you through that barrier, even if it might be as a different kind of mezzo (or soprano) from what you currently are. If the voice is good but not changing much, and the level of work you're doing remains frustrating, then you want to think about (a) teaching (b) doing languages as a career (c) doing something really radical: retraining in Alexander Technique or physiotherapy or journalism or something. You're still young enough, at 38, to do loads of things in all kinds of places, most of them cheaper to live in than London is.

Your hardest question to answer is: when do opera singers know when they're NOT going to get that big break? Never, is the answer. There's ALWAYS that chance, that if you pull out all the stops, are in the right place at the right time, if the voice expands and alters in some quite minor ways, that it could be YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's what keeps so many singers working, and learning and getting coached, year after year. But I think you're right to question, at 38, well as you've clearly done, whether this is really where you want to be for the next twenty years, or until the phone stops ringing because people have decided you're not up-and-coming but up-and-come. Too many musicians of all types DON'T stop and question: those are the orchestra players who live stultifying lives, locked into their jobs and hating them.

I, of course, am not competent to judge -- even if you gave your name and I knew your voice -- where (if anywhere) your particular voice could take you, or whether it is developing or not. But there are people out there who ARE competent, and WILL be honest, if you are as honest with them as you've been with me. Don't just take one person's opinion, but do get some opinions, serious opinions, on the chances of your being one of those (very lucky) few. And remember, the music will always be a part of you, and you may even find you love it better when you're not putting your all into 'making it.'

(There IS a whole world out there, as well ...)

Ask Alice

And so we pass seamlessly to Blair Tindall's Mozart in the Jungle (sex, drugs and classical music), which has recently been published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

Blair Tindall was for some years a professional oboe player (including a critically-acclaimed Carnegie Hall début), based in New York and freelancing with almost every local orchestra, up to and including the New York Philharmonic. In her forties, Ms Tindall decided that freelancing was a mug's game, with the work normally given to those who had sex with the right people (which she had small scruples about doing, it must be said). One has to wonder, talented as she is, how well Ms Tindall would have done had she not had affairs with three of New York's most prominent oboe-players (possibly rather better, in the long run, as said hot-shot oboiests tended to move on to other star-struck girls afterwards) but that is not our purpose here. At any rate, she has (very gutsily) elected to retrain as a journalist, and (still more gutsily) chosen to write a memoir of her playing days as her first book.

Blair Tindall describes everything: from the mistakes she made as a young and star-struck oboist wannabe until her decision (stuck in a dead-end job playing oboe on Broadway's Les Mis) to get out of the entire business and start over. Her book has been publicised in sensationalist terms as a titillating read -- which it emphatically is not -- and indeed anyone looking for cheap thrills would be well advised to look elsewhere. Most of the book is a well-researched, well-written, and even passionate explanation of where American classical music went wrong, from the 1940s onwards. Tindall cogently argues that, although there are currently more people attending classical concerts than ever before, the greed of the boards, conductors (and even, sometimes, musicians) renders orchestras economically unviable. She also excoriates the music colleges for churning out tens of thousands of orchestral musicians, year on year, for which there has, for some decades, been no demand. The 'isolation' of orchestral full-timers from the cultural economics dictating the plight of their orchestras is also discussed, as well as the 'class structure' underlying orchestral salaries. (One major orchestra's executive apparently told Ms Tindall that his job 'revolved around finding ways to meet the musicians' full-time employment demands, rather than serving the audience.')

She also analyzes a report by Harvard's Richard Hackman on the relative job satisfaction of workers in a rich variety of industries. Orchestra musicians came almost bottom, scoring lower in job satisfaction and overall happiness than flight attendants, mental health workers, beer salesmen, and even prison guards. In fact, only nurses in operating rooms and semiconductor fabrication teams scored lower than orchestral musicians!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ms Tindall recommends the orchestras stop dumbing down their marketing strategy in a (probably doomed) attempt to appeal to younger audiences: classical music is something people sometimes have to mature into. She also recommends fewer concerts of higher quality, even at the expense of orchestral jobs.

Yet other journalists and writers (notably Norman Lebrecht) have done prescriptives and diagnoses of where classical music has gone wrong before, and in even greater detail.

Mozart in the Jungle by Blair Tindall

It is Blair Tindall's honesty that stays with you, after the book is finished. We're not talking sex scenes, which may disappoint those attracted by the rather clever cover (comely oboist, completely starkers, being eyed up by various odd-looking, 18th-century-ish male instrumentalists). Tindall's sex scenes frankly end where most writers' sex scenes begin. Yet the fact that it's a memoir does carry the reader along; it is impossible not to pull for her. There's also a genuine resonance to her description of the famous Allendale building (where Tindall along with half New York musicians lived and worked), her audition heart-breaks, not to mention the story of 'Bonnie,' a high-flying cellist who slipped into debt, drugs and prostitution, and various fellow musicians' deaths from AIDS. Probably the most shocking revelation for me was how much of a (hard) drug culture there was in 1980s-1990's New York music scene: the casting couch is an old, old story in comparison.

Maybe Mozart in the Jungle only appealed to me so strongly because I too feel, as Tindall puts it: 'I'd never honestly been interested enough in the field to make it my career. I simply got hooked as a teenager because it earned me attention. I felt stuck in a life that was wrong for me.' Like Tindall, I too felt deeply drawn to music as a teenager partly because it was an easy way of getting attention (or strokes, as therapists put it). We both 'escaped' out of a profession to which we were temperamentally unsuited; we both felt stifled by an environment that gave us no autonomy worth mentioning, and we both started to write. (We even both went to the same summer music camp, all those years ago). And now we both feel liberated to love the music again that once only seemed to represent personal disillusion and disappointment.

I hope Tindall's is not seen as a depressing book, though a lot of the research that went into it is, for a lover of classical music, certainly depressing. The sex scenes are few and lousy, but beyond that I think it an important book, a necessary book, and even a coming-of-age book (musicians take longer to grow up!!!!) How many writers are honest enough to show themselves, repeatedly, making the wrong choices, falling for the wrong people, reading from the wrong script? I don't know Ms Tindall, but I feel as if do -- now. And I honour her too, not only for her analytical skills but for her personal courage. The ISBN is 0871138905, and the publisher is Atlantic Monthly Press.

Copyright © 15 July 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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