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Jonathan Blalock in Paul's Case at the 2014 PROTOTYPE Festival
Jonathan Blalock in Paul's Case at the 2014 PROTOTYPE Festival (photo: C. Stanley)
Article Published: 04 Oct 2018

Next Steps

When a singer leaves the stage — what follows?

On the face of it, Jonathan Blalock had the kind of career that most singers would envy. He had become a go-to tenor for new works, appearing in the premieres of Gregory Spears’ Paul’s Case, Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus and Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls. But when he calculated the time it took to prepare, rehearse and perform a role, he came to a disheartening conclusion. “I divided my fees by the time I was putting in and found that I wasn’t even making minimum wage,” he says. “At a certain point you have to start ‘adulting’ and taking control of your life.” In 2017, at age 35, Blalock gave up the career that he had pursued so assiduously. He stopped accepting new engagements and started looking for new ways to make a living.

The impasse that Blalock faced is a common one. The very nature of singing makes a stage career finite. Only in rare cases will singers sustain their stage work through the end of their professional lives; most of them stop appearing in opera well before they reach normal retirement age. The second careers that singers find can be in fields as diverse as health care, law, social work and finance. But a lot of them stay in the field; in fact, opera leaders have found that singers can offer a level of knowledge about the field that they are unlikely to find elsewhere. Almost every American opera company lists former singers among their administration ranks, and quite a few general directors — such as Annie Burridge at Austin Opera, Ian Derrer at The Dallas Opera, Peggy Kriha Dye at Opera Columbus, Joseph Specter at Arizona Opera and Ryan Taylor at Minnesota Opera — began their opera careers on the other side of the footlights.

Blalock’s quest for a post-performing career has taken him to Opera Saratoga, where he works as development and patron services manager: a job whose psychological pressures, he notes, resemble those of performing. “Just like when you put yourself onstage, you have to take risks; you have to put yourself on the line,” he says. “I used to have anxiety at auditions. But now it’s not just my reputation that’s at stake, but the company’s impact on the community.”

Burridge went through New England Conservatory and the young artist programs in Des Moines and Pensacola as a soprano, but realized soon afterward that a stage career would not be hers for the taking. “I didn’t have a world-class instrument; I had three world-class notes, which isn’t enough,” she says. Meanwhile, time spent in company offices during her young artist stints gave her an appreciation for administration. “Driving along the highway one day, I thought, ‘Wait, you don’t have to be onstage,’” she says. “I came to the realization that I could find fulfillment without being onstage. Opera did not need another coloratura soubrette, but there were other areas of the business where they could use my help. I was fortunate to be able to realize I’m more talented at planning, writing and budgeting than singing.”

Although Derrer came to the industry as a baritone, he always maintained an active interest in backstage operations. Early on, he worked at The Santa Fe Opera as an assistant in the production and stage management department. “I vacillated for a while between singing and directing and stage management,” he says. “Based on what I’d seen, I knew I did not have the degree of fire in the belly needed to be a successful singer, so rather than trying to make it as another baritone, I thought I’d be better off pursuing administration. I loved singing, but I was increasingly more interested in other aspects of the business — unlike many of my singer friends, who did not seem to care about how things get loaded in and out of a theater, or how many choristers are needed for a production.”

A time-honored way for a retired singer to stay in the field is as a teacher, as a glance at the faculty lists of conservatories and the director slots at young artist programs will confirm. Case in point: Tenor Richard Leech, an international star for three decades, became the founding director of the Michigan Opera Theatre Studio in 2015, at age 58. It was a transition that he had long prepared for. “I never really planned to sing past the age of 60,” says Leech. “For me there were many reasons, among which is the fact that I know how difficult it is to sing at the highest level, and I would not want to accept less.”

Susanne Mentzer — in the 90s and early 2000s, the go-to mezzo internationally for roles like Cherubino and the Ariadne Composer — now teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and in her own voice studio, and gives masterclasses. But she admits the transition from her onstage heyday was a bumpy one. “In my 40s, I was going gangbusters — I couldn’t even foresee an end,” she says. “If you had told me I wouldn’t have been able to plan my own farewell tour, I would have laughed — I assumed I would have total control over that. But the work suddenly dropped off, and I did not anticipate that. It was a wake-up call.” She supplements her teaching with a crazy quilt of other professional activities: managing communications for a local arts foundation, running a bed-and-breakfast, blogging for the Huffington Post. Moreover, she has not entirely quit performing, with engagements that include recitals and, this coming summer, the role of the Grandmother in Jenůfa at The Santa Fe Opera.

To be sure, some singers find new careers in completely different fields. Soprano Ava Pine left opera at age 40 to pursue a degree in psychiatric nursing. Baritone Dan Kempson quit opera when he turned 30 and entered Columbia Business School; he is now a consultant with Boston Consulting Group. “As a lyric baritone, I knew my days were numbered,” Kempson says. “In my repertory, by the time you hit 40, unless you can move into Germont and Rodrigo, you’ll be competing with people younger than you, and the fees can only go in one direction.” One other factor: Kempson’s husband is bass-baritone Zachary Altman, whose own career was taking off. “Between the two of us, we needed a kind of stability,” says Kempson.

Beth Clayton represents a special case. Although the mezzo’s new career as a clinical mental health counselor has, on the face of it, taken her far afield from opera, she in fact sees it as an extension of her life as a singer. She is positioning herself as a “vocal-life coach,” working with singers on the myriad stresses that an opera career brings with it.

Meanwhile, her own identity as a singer has remained intact. “I will never not be a singer,” Clayton says. “I’m just not doing it out loud and in public anymore.”

Ryan Taylor

During his career as a baritone, Ryan Taylor, now president and general director of Minnesota Opera, always alternated performing gigs with entrepreneurial projects: for instance, an Atlanta concert series modeled on the New York Festival of Song. When an opportunity came up to replace William Powers as head of the Berkshire Opera Company, Taylor sat down and made a two-column list of his career activities — singing jobs on the one side, administrative jobs on the other — and checked off the ones that had brought him true satisfaction. The “administration” column won, hands down.               

“I could have stayed — I had work,” Taylor says. “But I thought I could influence the industry in a larger way by making the switch.”

Anne-Carolyn Bird

“My decision happened overnight, after a long time of preparation,” says soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, who gave up singing in 2016 to work in administration. “If I wanted to continue as a performer, I would have to push really hard and make a lot of sacrifices. I wasn’t as ambitious as I once was. My priorities were different. My oldest child needed a more stable situation. I have amazing memories of performing, but I don’t regret my choice for a minute.”

Bird is now executive and artistic assistant at Washington National Opera, where among her other duties, she offers input on casting decisions. “As a singer, I turned off my critical ear: It wasn’t my job to judge my colleagues,” she says. “Now, I have to listen with an ear to how a person is working for us. If someone sings a good Almaviva, what else would we consider him for?”

Peggy Kriha Dye

Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye, now general and artistic director of Opera Columbus, began honing her administrative skills back when, as an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, she was required to meet with donors and sponsors. She feels that the rigors of her performing career prepared her well for her new role. “It’s a message I tell my singer friends,” she says. “You memorize hours of things in foreign languages. You get out in front of thousands of people. The thought of putting together a production is not any more difficult.”

David Lomeli

In the early 2010s, David Lomeli seemed poised for a breakout career, booking prestigious gigs and garnering rave notices at every turn. But severe gastroesophageal reflux disease began to impair his beautiful lyric tenor voice. He had to bow out of assignments, and eventually stopped singing altogether. After a period of “panic and hurt” — and living in the basement of his father-in-law’s house — he joined The Dallas Opera as an artistic coordinator, and this year became director of artistic administration.

“There’s an aspect of me that’s always mourning my singing career,” Lomeli says. “But all my life has clicked to make me who I am today. Professionally, this is the happiest I’ve ever been.”