In the film Grand Hotel Greta Garbo, portraying a ballet dancer on the road, has her famous lines: "I am tired" and "I want to be alone". I get it. I really do.
Recently a colleague was commenting on how blue he was anticipating the travel ahead- even for a vacation. It reminded of him of the endless days on the road far from home. I have just finished a busy 3 months of travel. I am thrilled to have been working because the work for older singers like me is definitely drying up, but the thing that I and many others face with a life of constant change- a life on the road, is a sort of overall depression.
On a plane I am sitting in the center seat with my knees up against the seat in front of me. For this I paid an extra 35 bucks to sit in a more premium seat. Here goes another year off my life. Ideally I should be up moving around to prevent blood clots. I imagine telling that to the guy next to me who is trying to squeeze into his own seat and get some work done on his computer or to the flight attendants who are trying to run their carts up and down the too narrow-aisle to serve the crowd.
I cannot congregate around the restrooms nor would I wish to make the situation even more unfortunate for those left sitting in the final rows in the plane. On most trips I sit sometimes five hours without moving. Often I am asleep before take off due to the exhaustion factor. I look down at a plastic water bottle as it seems to be sucked alive while the pressurization changes and I wonder if my intestines and my brain are doing this. Also on my mind is the extreme dryness that no amount of water seems to appease. Dryness is my enemy, as is lack of sleep. These are the two things I need to perform optimally.
I have racked up 36 years of world travel. One would think I would qualify for an automatic upgrade, no?
When I land I will either take public transportation to my lodging or splurge on a taxi. Sometimes I will be picked up by a volunteer or staff member, which is a lovely help.
When traveling for operatic engagements I will be located in a town for two to eight weeks or more. For people who have to be in a different town every night this probably sounds like a luxury, however, the company for which I work owns my time. I cannot leave the area unless I get an official release. Additionally, even on free days between performances I am unable to perform any where in a 50-mile radius. Much of my time is spent preserving energy for the performances.
For engagements of over a week I have to find apartments that are affordable. For most opera jobs I pay my own housing expense.There have been times in NYC, Paris, London, that I paid an unimaginable over $6000 a month for this. For orchestral and recital jobs the presenters often have a deal with a hotel and I get my lodging as part of a contract. This is a relief. I take my earplugs so the partying convention goers in the hotels do not keep me up. As I need to stay in touch via internet at the hotel I need to pay from $9 to $15 a day for the privilege of internet connection. Sigh. (Has anyone ever noticed that if you say at a lesser expensive motel your internet is free?)
I am away from home. This is something to which I should be accustomed after so many years in this business. Oh how I wish it were so. The first day or two I spend getting my bearings, meeting my colleagues and the staff with whom I will be working. There is a bit of "'first day of school" atmosphere. We wear our hippest clothes. I get to own my free time a bit without the restraints of stuff to do at home. After about two days I feel like a fish out of water. I start to feel the distance from home, friends, and family. However, I soldier on, do my job, throw myself into rehearsals. Once a show opens I am met with two or more days off between performances.
(I might add that I do not get paid until I do a performance so I am responsible for all my financial outlay no matter if I sing or not.)
After sightseeing as much as I can, I start to get even more blue. I cannot explain it except that I know that most of us who live like this have this issue. Few of us are lucky enough to have a spouse who travels with us. I look back at the days when I left my son home with his father and honestly have no idea how I did it. One colleague once told me just not to think about it. That actually worked but I was eventually laced with the guilt that I should be thinking bout it. I understand why singers take their pets with them fro this reason. Larger dogs are registered as helper dogs and able to fly in the cabin.
It is hard to quantify but I think the amount of constant adaptation to our work and surroundings takes a toll. Early in my career I thought that maybe this would get easier, that I would have an assistant or a driver or could afford business class. As a self-employed person I do not have a guaranteed retirement or employer paid health insurance. I use my extra money to pay for this and cover my home bills that still need to be paid while I am away. It is not so easy to just spend the money for business class anything.
All the financial concerns aside, it is the struggle of how to spend my days when away.
No matter what I do to stay busy I am aware that I am away from home and it is a necessary evil. I remember when I was younger I felt that I was living life as a double-edged sword. I am a creative person and I need an outlet. I need to make a living.
There were times after I boarded a plane that I imagined running up to the door as it closed yelling "let me out!" I have never been afraid of flying. It is not that. It is the strange unplugging from one life and entering the next that is tough. I have a recurring dream of the plane crashing and I and my son walk away. This dream takes many forms and many locations. My favorite is when the entire cast is on the place and it crashed. We are all arrested and the director (who none of us likes) talks himself out of jail but leaves the rest of us to rot.
On this most recent last trip the inhumanity of the airline experience really struck me. Had I really spent most of my life on planes? Had the leg room in the economy seats - even on over-seas flights - really been this bad? Waiting to board I grasp my cell phone with the boarding pass, for which I paid extra to board "priority", feeling hopeful that at least I will be able to squeeze my carry-on into the over head bin. I hear the boarding groups ahead of me. What used to be: "uniformed military," "people needing assistance" and "those with small children" is now this plus: "Platinum", "Gold", "Silver", "Ruby" "Emerald", "Sapphire" "Quartz", "Coal", "First Class"... and then the rest of us lowly travelers. I guess we should be in the groups named: "The Humiliated", "Un-Savvy", "Group Z".
When I head to the restroom in the rear of the plane, I look forward at the large group of human beings that are crammed next to each other, often times actually touching hip to hip, elbow to elbow, but not making eye contact or talking. I cannot imagine anything less human. I take my seat and as we take off the man in front of me reclines seat back and I am entombed in my seat, unable to reach my carry-on or my water bottle. I am glad I remembered to take my baby aspirin.
My"gift" is my voice and it has taken me very far. In the end it is an incredible honor and privilege to perform the music, see the places, and meet the people I do. I make it a point to remind myself of this. Every profession has its drawbacks and sacrifices. But sometimes I do wonder at what cost?