17 May 2019
By Beth Clayton
Recently I came across an article claiming that it is hard to sing and worry at the same time — tell that to many an opera singer about to make their first entrance on opening night! Sure, from a strictly physiological standpoint, the act of singing releases endorphins in the brain and can improve blood pressure and stress levels, but the rub is that much if not most of that research is geared towards avocational singing. The stakes are a bit higher for those who sing for a living! A seasoned opera singer I know well calls it ‘being on the hot plate’— a state of being that begins the moment an artist shows up for the first rehearsal and is sustained until the curtain goes down on the final performance of that particular run. Rinse and repeat for the next job. And the next. And so on. The cycle has the potential to be exhilarating, fulfilling, and cathartic, but it can also be jam-packed with challenging and exhausting demands — and on occasion, downright disappointment.
How are performing artists supposed to keep a sense of balance as well as a sense of self? If one is fortunate enough to have consistent employment as an opera singer, the reality involves a life of constant change: living out of a suitcase most of the year, facing long bouts of separation from loved ones or the financial challenge of traveling as a family, having one’s time and schedule dictated by others, never-ending study and practice, and then, at the end of the day, being subjected to the judgment of being “only as good as your last performance”— it’s a tough job! So, why do it? Most singers would reply: “Because I have to.”
What kind of support then needs to be in place so that this art form and the performing artists who feel compelled to devote themselves to keeping it alive can be bolstered? How can they and it be sustained in a healthy way? I felt all of these realities firsthand in my two-decade-plus career as a mezzo-soprano. A rollercoaster ride is the best way I can characterize my life as an active artist: a lot of ups and downs with some coasting mixed in! My adrenal glands got a pretty consistent workout with the surges that are generated by the act of live performance. While I loved so many aspects of what I did, a few years ago I decided to dig deeper into what it would look like to refocus my own performing energies in a direction that would allow me to help others navigate this rollercoaster ride. And that line of thought led me to…Santa Fe architecture! Yes, really.
So much of Santa Fe’s traditional architecture is flooded with “nichos,” which made me think about the niche of working specifically with performing artists, since it was a life I knew well. I lived it full-throttle and still live amidst it with a spouse in the industry. There is no substitute for the real experiential quotient in any field. From where I sit, I see a world increasingly driven by specialization. And in thinking of that word itself, I believe that most human beings crave feeling special. In a singer’s brain, that need to maintain confidence, hone in on one’s uniqueness — in essence to “feel special”— often sends conflicting messages of doubt and fear that one is not good enough coupled with the pressure to keep those insecurities under wraps. Whatever you do, never let them see you sweat — a tall order in many a costume and/or athletic staging!. Think back to the ‘hot plate’ metaphor: it truly is demanding to maintain a level of polished performance, whether an artist is at the hungry beginning stages of building a career, in the middle years of maintaining and sustaining a career, or trying to gracefully adjust to the inevitable waning of a career in later years.
At every age and stage, artists need opportunities to do emotional and technical woodshedding, and it is not always easy to find that safe space when one is under constant evaluation. That is where my niche takes shape. I completed a second Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling to augment my own life experience as a performing artist with foundational psychology and human developmental knowledge. Aptly enough, the degree falls into the category of “applied psychology.” Let the application begin!
Operatic mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton is a Clinical Mental Health Counseling Master's Degree graduate and seasoned musician/operatic vocal performer with over two decades of professional performance experience. She currently integrates the two platforms to help those active in the performing arts as well as others who seek to optimize performance and achieve balance and satisfaction, both personally and professionally. Visit bethclayton.com to learn more.