I’ve been mulling this over for the last couple of years, and now it’s time to tell my story. I have given up opera and classical singing. For good. Yeah, I said it. Now, some of you might be thinking “about bloody time”, and others might be thinking, “aw, why?”, and still more of you might be thinking that I’m a quitter, and I lack dedication, and don’t want to put in the hard graft. Well, I have come to a point in my life where it is better to be honest and authentic, than to carry on on a path which I no longer feel any affection for, no excitement and no inspiration. I’m not sad about saying goodbye to this former “dream”, in fact the opposite, I feel a burden has been lifted from my shoulders, which will now allow me to pursue other creative goals, which really do inspire me and excite me.
When I first went to university as a fresher, I was enrolled on a Music Technology degree. I had joined the degree after doing a couple if years studying production and creating music through technology at a local poly, and when that course closed, I was offered a place on the nearest similar pathway. This turned out to be a Foundation Degree. I had hoped to carry on writing and producing my own material, but I found the university a much more competitive, and sometimes downright hostile, environment than the poly, where people were much more egalitarian. The Foundation Degree turned out to be a boy’s club, where, I am ashamed to say, I allowed myself to be sidelined and pushed aside. I finished up the first year, doing most of my work on my home computer, as I could never get studio time because several young men chose to use it as their own private club, making other users feel they were encroaching on their turf. I think I started to suffer with ‘stereotype threat’ which prevented me from doing my best work, and I lost confidence in my abilities. The head of the Music Tech faculty was as much use as a chocolate teapot, often arranging “tutorials” then failing to even turn up for them. I felt the course had become something of a “free for all”, and frustrated that I had not been considered for a high status work placement, which some if the other students had been offered, I chose to migrate from the Music Tech FD to the Music BA proper.
On the Music BA, things were quite different, much better in all truth, and I had the option to switch my “personal tutor” to one who actually took an interest in me, and bothered to attend scheduled tutorials. There was a much more equal mix of male and female students as well, which helped me to feel less awkward and unwelcome. The main difference between the Music Tech course and the Music BA, was that you were expected to study two main instruments and take a performance assessment each term in one of them. I chose to study bass guitar, and voice. As bass is not really a solo instrument, I focused all my energy into singing. At first, I chose to do popular and jazz, but feeling that I was not getting good enough marks for my performance modules, I followed what my fellow students were doing, and switched to classical singing. OK, so I did have an awful singing teacher for the first few months, but I managed to supplement this with self-study and a few private teachers from the local area, until a new singing teacher came to the university who actually was bothered to teach me. She allowed me to experiment with classical and operatic repertoire, which I had previously felt eluded me. I also felt encouraged to join a local chamber choir, two different amateur large scale choruses (the type which perform Messiah and other grand oratorios) and competitive barbershop choir to get the extra practice in. From then on, I managed to catch up and for what it’s worth I started doing a whole lot better in those performance modules. Being able to finally compete was rewarding, and I stuck with it, eventually getting not only my BA (hons), but competing in music festivals and actually winning. I started thinking about becoming a soloist or taking roles in operatic productions. Some of my advisors actually advocated for this, so it wasn’t an impossible goal.
Now this might sound really silly, and it is, given hindsight, but in the early to mid 2000’s there was a bit of a fad for ‘popera’ and ‘classical crossover’. The rise to fame if such artists as Russell Watson, Charlotte Church, Kaff Jenkins, Alfie Boe and the supergroups Il Divo and Amici Forever offered to ‘democratise’ opera, and take it out of the elitist realm into the popular “Top 40” mass media. In the case of G4 and Paul Potts, these ‘opera’ singers were nailing it in the TV talent shows, even if their day job was working at Carphone Warehouse, so this belief was justified. In actual fact, it did nothing of the sort, and several of the “popera” stars, in performing for the likes of Queen Liz and the Pope, proved themselves to be every bit as elitist as the next guy. Even the ones who traded off the idea that they were “common” were every bit as guilty, Alfie Boe might have slept on a park bench and slept through whole opera performances, but who performed at the Jubilee? Precisely. What made this all the more uncomfortable was that a lot of these performers were demonstrable frauds, botching their way through butchered and auto-tuned arias they were unqualified vocally to perform, but receiving the adulation of an ageing and pseudo intellectual public who knew no better. The big joke was, although the popera / classical crossover scene purported to be “democratic”, it actually turned out to be more elitist than proper opera, and deal with big bucks. The whole thing was a hoax which unfortunately sucked millions out of the uneducated public who mistook it for ‘culture’ when really it was commercialised, mass-marketed, low-brow garbage.
As I have discussed before on this blog, I came from a very deprived background. Not especially ‘poor’ but culturally deprived and austere due to my parents collective psychological hang-ups and religious conservatism. I was the first person in the family to even consider going to university, as the ‘liberal arts’ were something to be scorned and scoffed at. Most of my family did military service, cleaning or nursing. There were a couple of uncles of mine who played the organ, but they took zero interest in my musical endeavours or any inclination to support me, which was a huge disappointment. I went to uni on a full grant, but I was very aware that the majority of students did not, and there was a clear class delineation between which students studied classical and popular musics. Maybe it was a bit of confirmation bias, but on one course I was on, a very average soprano was always given the solos, and basically carte-blanch to please herself, (often being hung-over or absent from classes) as her father was a big-wig in a multinational computer company. This kind of thing, unfortunately is common practice in universities, and underlines the intrinsic classism. I had also come to classical singing very late, where most of the others had been having lessons since childhood, and I was already several years older than the majority of the students I was in competition with. This made me even more determined to nail it, and I worked bloody hard, sometimes practicing up to 3 hours plus a day, actually ending up with sessions with a speech therapist because of this. I plugged on regardless. I invested all my time, money and health into this, even though I knew it caused me stress and anxiety.
Obviously, the idea of ‘high society’ enthralled me, and I liked the idea of singing on the stage at the Sydney Opera House in a big flouncy ‘designer’ dress and being given bouquets of flowers. This was a ridiculous idea in hindsight, and I do not know what it was that possessed me to think of things like that, but I saw what was praised and respected and I wanted a piece of it for myself. I bought my dresses from dress agencies when I knew full well that the other girls were getting them bought by ‘daddy’ from House of Frazier for hundreds of pounds. I tried to fit into a society which made me constantly compare myself to others, and it very often was nothing to do with the actual singing, it was about image, status and social climbing. Although I knew I was good, it was ‘imposter complex’ which caused me the most anxiety, the threat of being found out for being cheap and working-class made me try too hard. I remember going out once dressed in a white mini-dress and hair extensions looking like Mariah fucking Carey, for what purpose exactly? I felt compelled to present as hyper-feminine (yea, I know!!) glamorous, sexualised, and even put together a modelling portfolio for my agent of me sulking and pouting like a real diva. Things like this now fill me with deep shame. It was fake, insincere and deep down I actually knew it was, but I thought it would win me approval of the musical establishment which had proved that they value such dedicated effort. Having to compare yourself to other people all the time is stressful and tiring, and it prevents you from actually relaxing and enjoying what you do in case you let the mask slip for one moment and let your secret out. It was hardly any better as I had previously felt unable to achieve my goals in music technology and production because of my gender, and now I was struggling in classical music because of my class, age and highly manufactured ‘image’ I had created to over-compensate for my perceived inadequacies.
I feel I shot myself in the foot over this, as I put my own creativity on the back burner in order to prop up a false identity, and overvalue music written generations ago by old white men, who do not represent me or my experiences. I did exactly what I felt was expected of me, and expected it to pay out with opportunities and status. Which it did, for a while. I’m not going to throw anything back in anyone’s face, as I am truly grateful to those kind people who took an interest in me, encouraged me, and provided me with advice and constructive criticism. You know who you are, and I love you and respect you very much. I very much enjoyed my times studying at the summer schools in Italy, challenging myself with advanced repertoire and really pushing the envelope. I enjoyed West Dean college and Jackdaws as well. I met people who were just as passionate and excited as me, but I also met people who brought me down, threatened me and devalued me. I tried to get into ‘cliques’ which obviously did not want me intruding, and certainly would not welcome me with open arms. In some cases, I was unapologetically shoved out. I even recorded an album in 2011 which had provoked a green ink letter from a local choir leader condemning me as a crap singer and a fraud. On several occasions I was propositioned sexually, in return for favours, which I of course declined. The older ladies in my mum’s circle always praised my ‘beautiful voice’ and I achieved a lot of respect from them, but it was not their adulation I wanted. I wanted it to come from higher up. I had ruined a relationship I had with another local songwriter due to my pretentious behaviour, and brought down hell and damnation on myself. This left me bruised, paranoid and critically damaged my reputation, leading to false accusations being made against me, and a ban from the recording studio where he worked. This was the beginning of the end. It was on returning from Italy in 2014 when I really started to question what it was I wanted. I had been given two solid opportunities which I had not followed through, and to be perfectly honest, I am glad that I didn’t, because I had already dug myself a trench wide and deep which I was struggling to get out of, and this would have made it even deeper. One was to go and study in London at the ENO, on the Baylis project (I’d done a few of their short courses before, but this would have been a post grad) the other, was to go to the midlands to record with an industry Svengali who had been the musical director for such luminaries as Russell Watson, Katherine Jenkins and “Mr Go Compare” himself, Wynne Evans. I could have thrown myself headlong into doing this, but what kept me back was knowing that it would not make me happy. It forced an evaluation of what I really wanted, and caused me to backtrack, going back to playing the guitar and investing in Logic X and doing what I had wanted to do in the first place, create my own music. In all this rabid desire to be accepted into the establishment, I had severely undervalued my own work, and done myself a great disservice.
Being neither fish nor fowl is a hard predicament to be in, continuing to conform to highly-gendered stereotypes of the ‘diva’ singer and the operatic ‘prima donna’ put me at a distinct disadvantage when I was also trying to promote my own work and my own songs. I even found I lost work, and squandered opportunities as people thought they knew what I was all about. I even lost out on auditions for actual pop and rock bands as I was told, oh, we’ve heard your voice and we don’t want that kind of singer. Well, I wasn’t ‘that kind of singer’, I would never sing in an operatic style in a band, but I didn’t get the chance to prove myself. This unfortunately has happened many times, and I can’t blame them for thinking this as for years I had actively promoted myself as an operatic soprano, and I had the newspaper clippings, of my music festival wins, my performance diploma success and public performances to prove it. I was stupid to stamp my own card, secure my own reputation, then think I could just back away from it and do something else which appeared to be the polar opposite of what I’d been telling everyone I could do. Having effectively ruined everything for myself has brought me to this place where, in order to maintain some sanity and to be authentic to myself I have to say ‘enough is enough’. I sacrificed everything to be what people expected me to be, and to prove myself worthy, and now it’s turned around and bitten me in the backside. I can’t really blame anyone for being ‘prejudiced’ against me, when it was me who served to create myself an image I was to be judged by.
I have gone back to guitar and music production now, but am currently taking a little break from performing, instead exploring other avenues such as spoken work, writing this blog and even playing the saxophone. I have no desire to perform as a ‘soprano’ again. I have a few commitments I have to see through, but after that, no more. I make my money by teaching vocals, guitar and ukulele now, which is a lot less stressful that having to maintain a false public facade as a performer. I’m still in charge of a community music project which I hope I’ll build into a successful enterprise by next year. I no longer enter competitions, and have done very little busking this year. I need to rebuild some of my friendships and even apologise for my past behaviour, where I had come over as arrogant, snobbish and pretentious. I am truly ashamed of the way I behaved, and for those things I am truly sorry. Saying it was out of ‘fear of rejection’ is no excuse. Being true to yourself is accepting when you have been wrong and sometimes having to face up to things which frighten and challenge you. I’m currently working through this, as I’ve been wrong to allow myself to be manipulated and moulded by other people’s opinions and judgements. Being told stuff like, you’re too old to do this now, singing pop will ruin your voice, you should aim higher, you are a lyric soprano, you are a dramatic soprano, are you sure you’re even a soprano? I think you’re a mezzo!! (what the actual fach?!) you should wear this or wear that, sing this or sing that, don’t do that because it’s common and ‘unladylike’, why are you wearing a football shirt? Do something with your hair! – stuff like that pulled me in all sorts of directions except the direction I was meant to go and I’m still trying to work that out. I’m going to have another go at running a studio, and I’ve been accepted on a production course at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios next year, which hopefully will rekindle my creativity, which has been at a bit of a loss lately. I can do whatever I like. I don’t want to be boxed in by gender and class stereotypes which make me doubt my own competence. I’m going to go with my instincts and not let other people’s opinions confuse and deter me. I don’t want to be told ‘don’t give up!’ and ‘keep at it, you’ll get there!’ Just because I have invested so much time and effort into this, does not make it any more worthy of salvaging. That’s the classic ‘sunk cost fallacy’ which keeps people trapped in unhealthy situations well after their sell-by date expires. I have wasted enough time on this already, it does not make me happy, and I don’t want to waste another second. Bye bye opera.