I recently had the privilege of being able to hear one of my favorite opera singers perform live.
Maybe not a sentence you expected to read today. Believe it or not, I was an opera singer in a past life. It didn’t work out, which was probably for the best. Anyhow, I still sing, teach voice lessons, and take huge delight in seeing professional musicians at work.
This was Joyce DiDonato, a fabulous mezzo-soprano, singing with the Kansas City Symphony. I had tickets in the second row. Spit-zone close. I could go on about how amazing it was to watch her back breathing, the shape of her lips, etc. etc. But that would be a different blog.
In the afterglow of the concert, I was searching around for her online and came up with a lovely interview she did with Living the Classical Life. She told the story of how, as a young singer, a prominent and established musician told her she had nothing to offer as an artist.
Can you imagine?!
After some time passed, DiDonato started to try to figure out where this criticism had come from. And she realized something that totally revolutionized her approach to music as an artist. She was portraying perfectly what an “Opera Singer” should look like, walk like, talk like, and singing her arias like “Opera Singers” should. She had left herself completely out of it. There was nothing of Joyce in her art.
If we are trying to be what we think is expected of us, to produce what is expected of us, we will have nothing to offer. The writers I consider important (Dickens, O’Connor, Lovecraft, Fitzgerald, Calvino, Dillard, LeGuin, Peake) all sound so incredibly like themselves. This is their strength: not that they can write a fantasy trilogy, a shocking short story, or invent a new form of fiction, but that they are doing what they do. What they want to do, what they can do, and they are saying it in their own voices.
DiDonato took several years to figure out what she wanted to say. Now she is celebrated internationally for her skill and for her activism. She consistently emphasizes the humanity of the characters she portrays. She holds masterclasses with young singers. She works with prisoners at Sing Sing. She is trying to bring peace to the world. What she wanted to say is, I think, that everyone deserves compassion.
And she earned the platform to say this by choosing to forgo the image of who she thought she was supposed to be. She is Joyce, 100%.
I think this question of identity, especially for a young artist, is super important. We can’t create anything new if we’re trying to emulate another artist. We can’t create anything interesting if we’re caught up in the imaginary rules we’ve made for ourselves of what a “real artist” should do, say, think, or feel.
Questions To Think About
What does the market want? What would be an instant classic? What would people think is “cool”?
How can I be more myself in my work?
What persona is getting in my way?
What is stopping me from believing who I am is enough?
What do I want to say?
What do I have to offer as an artist?