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Art and Fame: A Perspective of an Artist as a Young Man
When I was something less than two years old, certainly too young to have any real memory of it, I was photographed sitting in the middle of the dining room table wearing nothing but an over-sized and very glamorous hat. I don’t think the photo was posed: I’m sure I donned that hat myself, and from the expression on my face, I’m equally sure I expected to be noticed.
That must have been the earliest expression of my fantasy of fame and celebrity. I began my stage career at the age of five as the little prince in The King and I who crawls between the king’s legs. I relished that moment: the most special of all those child actors who comprised the royal family. Without belaboring the point, I continued performing all through my school years. I was sought after. I sang and performed everywhere and all the time, turning up as a regular in community and school projects, and even one professional program. One kind reviewer called me “everybody’s tenor” and a local philanthropist and arts supporter praised my “multi-faceted talents.” These are words of praise and encouragement that resonate in the formative years. I took the affirmation as a promise of future success. I watched the Academy Awards and Tony shows religiously, fantasizing about the day I would cross the stage to claim my own recognition.
When I was accepted as a theatre major at Northwestern University, I knew I was on my way! And I was: to become one of the rank and file of astonishingly talented and ambitious actors and singers. Suddenly I no longer stood out, and I realized that fame and fortune did not necessarily lie ahead. But if I couldn’t be a star, it meant I was a failure. So I chose safety, abandoning my dreams and opting for a more traditional vocation in which my singing and acting would become my avocation.
My initial pursuit of a performing career was ego-driven: I craved stardom and fame. That was the only measure of success that I could see or accept. When I sensed it would elude me, I left it behind. It took a few frustrating years and some unfulfilling endeavors to bring me to the realization that performing is in fact central to my identity. I found my way back into the “business,” but with a very different perspective. And that perspective, to borrow a phrase, became the secret of my success.
The maturing process brought to light the idea that what matters is what we give our audience, and not what the audience gives us. That sense of offering, instead of taking, enabled me to become more coachable and receptive to some incredible mentors who helped me look for gratification not from the outside, but from within.
One of the many things I learned is that as artists, we are always still becoming — works-in-progress. This is true of professionals or amateurs; there is a constant need to strive for a better sound, a more sensitive use of language, a better motivated and deeper sense of character, or a more refined way to move on the stage.
I learned to appreciate, rather than fear, the complexity of my craft. I challenged myself to study vocal technique; I dedicated myself to learning languages in detail, well beyond the simple phonetics of good pronunciation. I discovered how a chord progression or a melodic turn can illuminate the poetry of a well-crafted libretto. I became a relational performer: I began to listen to my colleagues on the stage instead of counting rests until my next entrance. I became selective in my performing choices and disciplined in my preparation. In short, I put my attitude and arrogance aside, and tried to become a servant to the art and craft of the singing actor.
Just before I graduated with my Master’s degree, I asked my opera director to advise me on next steps up the career ladder. I sought a list of people to call, appropriate auditions, suggestions of roles I should prepare. To my surprise, she asked me what I wanted to do. Of course, I said, I want to perform, and she replied “then you will,” before sending me away. I was crushed; her reply left me floundering and unsure how to proceed.
But that lesson again made me reexamine my relationship to the field. It’s not what house you sing in, what young artist program you are selected for, what leading roles you are hired to perform, by how much you are paid or even how famous you become. Granted, those are very credible measures of success, but they are achieved by very few.
Those seemingly dismissive words forced me to take complete responsibility for my own career, taking what gigs I got, and creating opportunities where none existed. I had developed a love for what I did and a need to try to give something of value to those for whom I performed. I won’t claim to be well-known, or even the best in my field. I do claim, no, I proclaim the satisfaction of knowing that when I perform, I do so to meet the demands of the music, the libretto, and the drama. And my fulfillment comes not from the applause, not from the size of the paycheck, not from a glowing review — as nice as all these things are. My joy as a performer comes from the fact that my efforts may have entertained someone, enriched a life, soothed a frayed nerve, or brought a moment of joy or comfort to someone who has seen or heard the performance. It no longer matters to me where that performance occurs, only that occurs at all.
Sometimes the very talented are rewarded beyond all imagination, but sometimes not. Whether a career is small or monumental, success must be defined simply by having the opportunity to do what we love. Serving the art, serving yourself, is its own reward, and the adulation of an appreciative audience is a bonus that praises not so much the artist, as the art itself.
About the Author: Robert Hansen is the Regent's Professor of Voice at West Texas A&M University. He holds degrees from Northwestern University, Boston University, and the Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of North Texas, and has done post-graduate study at Cambridge University in England. He made his professional singing debut with the Boston Summer Opera Theatre in 1977. He co-founded the Red River Lyric Theatre in Wichita Falls, TX in 1980 and served as its general director until 1986. He has made concert appearances in New England, the Midwest, and the Southwest. His performances with Amarillo Opera include Alfred (Die Fledermaus), Don Ottavio and Almaviva. He won acclaim for his Amarillo Little Theatre performances of Archibald Craven and Pseudolus. He performed the tenor role in the New York City premiere of the opera Confess, Confuse by Bruce Trinkley in January 2007. Hansen is listed in the International Who's Who in Music, is a member of OPERA America’s Singer Training Forum and currently serves as the executive director of the National Opera Association.