SINGING YOUR AGE STEPHEN A. BROWN ON CAREER NAVIGATION, PART 3
Pondering the career changes wrought by time, Simon Keenlyside was told by his teacher to ‘sing your age’, but he bewails the loss of the favourite youthful roles he has been obliged to abandon: ‘Comparisons with your younger self don’t help you in the now. Saying farewell to Billy Budd and Pelléas hurt me at the time, but for every door that shuts, another opens.’ Thomas Allen is very blunt about the ageing process: ‘It’s called survival. For season after season over a lifetime it becomes more and more challenging, requiring deep knowledge of oneself, one’s weaknesses and strengths. There must be a steely core from which the brickbats and criticisms will rebound. Without that toughness we sink without trace. It’s sheer bloody hard work.’ The 2016 Ferrier Award winner James Newby, frequently compared to these older colleagues, understands that he is in a somewhat golden position as an accepted newcomer, ‘but I know that will change, and I have to prepare for that, to develop a thick skin, and I am already working on coping mechanisms’. Two knights and a newbie: a trio of English baritones whom I questioned, along with 20 other singers of different generations from across the world, in order to discover just how, these days, to sustain an operatic life.
The Egyptian-New Zealand soprano Amina Edris believes that ‘these days, a career needs elements of both talent and thick skin’, while the British bass Robert Lloyd acknowledges that you must be able to suffer ‘the slings and arrows’. ‘A career can get
Simon Keenlyside and Robert Lloyd as Hamlet and Claudius in Ambroise Thomas’s opera at Covent Garden in 2003
nowhere without resilience,’ declares the Swedish mezzosoprano Anne Sofie von Otter. ‘You can be very vulnerable singing big roles in big theatres,’ says the English soprano Jane Eaglen. ‘It’s about personality and the ability to cope.’ Nerves of steel are vital. The American soprano Christine Goerke asserts that ‘You have to really want it, and sometimes you don’t know whether you do want it until you are actually doing it.’ It was persistence, determination, endurance and love of singing that kept the Australian mezzosoprano Bernadette Cullen going: ‘I never believed I was “chosen”, but I believed in myself and worked hard,
Opera, May 2021