One of the most difficult obstacles for any singer is the problem of nerves, no? A couple days ago I showed a group of voice students the film of Janet Baker’s last year as an opera singer. Called “Full Circle,” it documents Baker’s final year, when she was fifty, in opera, a year in which she sang Gluck’s Alceste at Covent Garden, Donizetti’s Mary Stewart at the Colisseum (English National Opera) and, finally, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Glyndebourne. All three houses were places she sang for the entire three decades of her operatic singing career (she never performed in opera outside of Britain, a decision she made early in her career as a way of managing the enormous amount of time she did spend away from home).
As when I have presented this film to students in the past, there was a high level of attention when Baker discussed how nerves had been a serious impediment to the enjoyment she got from her career. However, not long before the film was made, in 1981, a good friend of hers had explained to her that she could be enjoying her gift as so many people in the world had been doing for years, and Baker avows that for the first time in her life she was beginning to do just that. Until then, though, she said nerves had been a nearly paralyzing force. What were some of the reasons she listed? A general sense of responsibility to the audience, especially after one has become more famous; the anticipation of wanting to get all the details which one has worked out so meticulously before the performance — details of phrasing and such — wanting those to go right in the performance itself; the anticipation of disappointment when such details do not come through in the performance.
There is no question that gifts as abundant as Janet Baker’s are rare indeed. She seemed to form a certainty very early that hers was to be a vocal career (she was able to determine this early enough that both she and her husband devoted their lives to its success, and she made many concessions in her life — such as deciding not to have children — to ensure her own focus on her art). Most modern singers are not so fortunate, and their gifts are more modest. However, an important thing to remember, as one of my students who has indeed been diminished by his own nerves in performance before was able to articulate, is that we are indeed up there before an audience to share something that presumably does give us joy on some level. Sharing that is in itself a gift. A gift that requires the utmost courage to present before others.
This week I have been rereading Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares. Though she is speaking of nerves from a director’s point of view, I find her comments (she labels the chapter “Terror,” hence my title for this blog) utterly germane to anyone who has created art before other people: “Every time I begin work on a new production I feel as though I am out of my league; that I know nothing and have no notion how to begin and I’m sure that someone else should be doing my job, someone assured, who knows what to do, someone who is really a professional. I feel unbalanced, uncomfortable and out of place. I feel like a sham. In short, I am terrified.” I have shared all of these feelings, regularly.
Take away the “new production” aspect, and I think these murmurs and suspicions of one’s own unworthiness underlie many singers’ fears as well. It’s possible to be paralyzed by these feelings of inadequacy. Yet it’s also possible to overcome them with an attitude of commitment to the work at hand, to connecting with oneself, the work and one’s audience and coworkers. An openness to this sense of connection makes one want to do one’s best, not just in the performance, but in listening to all the information possible regarding the process, in listening to one’s inner promptings and those of the work, the composer, one’s colleagues.
I wish all the singers out there joy in their endeavors!