"Life Is Short, Opera Is Long"

08/12/2011 11:04 am ET | Updated Oct 11, 2011

Life is short, opera is long...

to quote my late friend and opera production manager Chari Shanker

There are, at the very least, two ways to have a successful career in operatic & classical vocal music (or probably any career for that matter):

  1. Instant fame but short-lived success
  2. A slower but long-term career

I cannot personally speak to the overnight success experience but I can ask:
Is it better to be in the "What ever happened to...?" or the "I'm still here" column?

I bet all performers dream of instant stardom. I know I did. It is nothing new. There will always be miraculous young talents. Some will last, some will not. Instrumentalists are known for their "wunderkind" status. I bet that for every one we hear about, there are many we won't know of due to lack of exposure... theirs.

There have always been the rare operatic birds who debuted at the Met at a young age: Roberta Peters (20), Patrice Munsel (18) and most recently Danielle de Niese (18). I was in "Figaro" with Danielle for her debut and remember that she was not old enough to join in the champagne toast at the opening night party. Fortunately for us these talented singers lasted a while. Danielle is still singing with, no doubt, many years to go.

Remember Charlotte Church the 'Voice of an Angel?' Jackie Evancho is the latest offspring of America's Got Talent. Both are/were lovely singers, albeit not true opera singers. The human voice is affected by age. Brace yourselves girls. A woman's voice is affected throughout her lifetime by hormonal swings. The angelic voices in boy choirs are short lived due to encroaching adolescence. Preteen and teenage opera singers will age and with it will come problems and changes, not the least of which will be hormonal. Their instruments are inside their bodies. My voice changed for the better after I had my son but many are negatively affected by infertility treatments and menopause. I know it is hard to think ahead that far as a teenager.

How much life experience does a teenager have? How can they adequately express lost love, or the pathos of the human struggle? How can they understand the subtle nuance in the alliteration, rhythm, or use of metaphor? English arts song, German Lieder, French Chanson and other genre of that ilk are musical settings of texts of some of the world's great poets and writers. As with all great works of art there is a timelessness to the literature which changes for each performer depending on their life experience. Moreover, the same song can mean something totally different just a few years later.

Getting a big break is a real high but then one needs to follow through. Starting in my early 20's I was given major opportunities that kept me 'one step ahead of the sheriff', living with that great motivating fear of being fired from every new engagement. I had to continually prove myself and gain the trust of my fellow singers, the conductors and the directors. My wily manager negotiated some high profile engagements without an audition. My employers took a leap of faith with an unknown. I basically skipped the regional company experience and jumped to the top European and American companies. My colleagues were often famous and nearly 20 years older. I am not sure now where I got the nerve. No doubt ignorance was bliss.

Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Samuel Ramey, Dame Joan Sutherland -I could go on- were not overnight stars. They worked for years before we ever heard of them. All artists who are in it for the long haul paid their dues; taking jobs for little pay, sometimes even losing money just for the experience; living in flop houses without phone or TV and maybe just a portable radio for company; sharing the bathroom down the hall with strangers; dining on potato pancakes from street vendors. Remember that time before internet, when there was no such thing as express mail and a phone bill cost as much as a mortgage payment? These experiences can make success all the sweeter. As my late father said, "Some people complain when they are being hung with a silk rope."

Many singers make the choice to balance a personal life with a singing career. A committed career can be
a full-time endeavor. At one time I sang twelve months a year. The first year of my son's life we were in 7 countries and I learned 5 new roles. I made all my major debuts around the world in those early years. Later it became hard to take him away from his home and school life and harder to leave him. After a time it became too overwhelming to keep all the balls in the air. My marriage crumbled. I was compelled to find a better balance and I did.

A successful singing career can be a bit like an addiction. "Wow, someone will pay me THAT just to open my mouth and sing for a week's work !?" Those weeks pile up. You can be snowed under before you know it. One of those weeks might be your child's first week of school or your parent's 50th anniversary. An active singing career is normally booked three years in advance. How many of us know our what our personal life holds in three years?

I suggest to young singers that they find a few close people they can trust and keep it that way. Mine were my teacher, manager and spouse. Everyone has an opinion to offer and you learn early that you cannot please everyone. A major PR rep once tried selling me on singing roles (Salome, Kundry) outside my comfort level and voice type or "fach", as it is called. At another point I had the option to sign an exclusive contract with a record label. This would have afforded the benefit of free publicity, a life-size cut out of me in Tower Records and even my face peeking out of a lingerie shop window in Salzburg during the summer festival. I decided instead to work with many colleagues rather than just those exclusive to one label. As a result I did not have the PR backing that comes with such a commitment and did not record Susanne's Greatest Hits from the 80's and 90's but I did get my wish and recorded with many great musicians.

There is the old joke about the stages of a career:
1. Who is Susanne Mentzer?
2. Get me Susanne Mentzer!
3. Get me someone like Susanne Mentzer
3a Get me a cheaper Susanne Mentzer
3b Get me a younger Susanne Mentzer
4. Who is Susanne Mentzer?

There is more to life than instant stardom and fame. If one does take the slower route it is perfectly okay and, better yet, enjoyable and satisfying. Hindsight is as blissful as ignorance was in the early days. I am finally comfortable, seasoned and emotionally more circumspect - all the aspects I lacked but could have used when I was young. Pinch me as I gradually move from Stage 3 to 4 and beyond. Life is short.