The Impotence of Distance

A large part of any opera singer’s life involves foreign travel.

It’s wrong to say that the days when one could make a decent living singing only in the UK are long past, since that was never really the case to begin with. Opera singers have been wanderers since the earliest days of the profession, itinerant troubadours who readily follow wherever the promise of work might lead them.

True, the amount of time away from home is less now than it has ever been. A concert engagement in New York no longer requires a five-day Atlantic crossing each way. The practice of organising your diary to group concerts and opera contracts into continental tours is no longer necessary. The Jet Age has enabled singers to accept gigs at opposite ends of the earth, safe in the knowledge that pretty much any opera house on Earth is only a day’s travel away.

Nonetheless, given that most modern productions involve weeks of patient rehearsal, and invariably a performance window of anything from three to six weeks, singers today can still expect to spend long periods away from home, particularly if contract periods book-end each other.

My current away-time isn’t too bad, but in the past, I’ve spent many months on the road, moving from gig to gig without ever getting home. (One good friend of mine recently spent very nearly an entire calendar year on the road).

There are many useful articles out there covering various aspects of the job that foreign travel will inevitably entail, such as visas, foreign fees, withholding tax, air travel, and so on, but there is not much out there about how you deal with arguably the toughest part of the opera singer’s life – the nightmare that is a crisis at home.

Bereavement, accidents, illness, infirmity, ongoing medical issues, legal problems, financial disasters, you name it. Just because we’re opera singers, don’t think for a second that we’re immune to all the same crap that affects everyone else.

The difference is that, all too often, these things have a habit of going pear-shaped when we’re out on the road, and therefore powerless to do anything about it. I’ve taken to calling it the impotence of distance.

Last night, I called home to find that my Mum and Aunt had been involved in a bad car accident. My Aunt had to be cut from the vehicle by the Fire Brigade. Both were taken directly to hospital from the scene. The car was a write-off, and apparently neither driver-side nor passenger-side airbags fired.

This happened in Surrey, England. I am currently in Houston, Texas.

What do you do? What CAN you do?

The answer, realistically, is nothing. You’re stranded on the other side of the world. Every fibre of your being wants to rush home to help. But you can’t just ditch all of your obligations and jump on the first plane home. You need information, but it’s the middle of the night back home and nobody’s answering their phones. You’re stuck.

Needless to say, you don’t get much sleep. There’s a lot of clock-watching, as if sheer force of will can force time to move faster. You start filling in the hours by drawing up plans. If it’s Situation A, I will do this. If it’s Situation B, I can do this. You find yourself checking the airline websites to see if it’s even possible to get a flight home at such short notice. You figure out what you’re going to have to say to the opera house if you have to go home. Then you start worrying about ridiculous stuff. Will they hire someone else your absence? Can you afford to lose this engagement, if you have to go home?

Information is everything. You can’t make a single decision without it, yet you don’t have any access to it. You’re hamstrung. It’s the most frustrating situation to be in, and how you deal with it will determine, as much as anything else, if you’re cut out for a life in opera.

It sounds impossible, but I’ve had to learn, from bitter experience, that the first thing you have to do is fight the urge to panic. It’s vital to remember a couple of things:-

a) You’re not in control of the situation, and you’re not likely to be in control of it anytime soon. You need to accept that fact, and quickly, otherwise you’ll lose your marbles.
b) There is always somebody you can rely upon to help out, be it family, friends, or professionals from one field or another. As much as it feels like nothing can happen without you, that’s simply not the case. The people you care about will get the help they need whether you’re one mile or a thousand miles away.
c) Don’t feel guilty. Sounds daft, but it’s one of the most common reactions to a difficult situation. You feel guilty because you’re not there, and others are having to back you up. But you have to remember that your family and friends understand what you do, and won’t hate you for your immediate absence. They know you will try your best to do the right thing at the right time.

Thankfully, on this occasion, everything turned out fine. Nobody was seriously injured, just a couple of scrapes and bruises. And a badly bent Nissan. I’ve spoken to everybody and, thanks to my wonderful family, feel reassured that there’s no need for me fly home.

Even though I desperately want to.


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