This is an essay I wrote a while back, but since I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, I’ve decided to publish it here. Enjoy!
If you ask me what I do, I’ll tell you that I’m an opera singer, but actually, I’m an office receptionist who spends a disproportionate part of her pitiful income on voice lessons, opera scores, accompanist fees, and transportation to and from rehearsals for local, community-produced opera companies.
Some of the drives to rehearsals are over an hour long (If you want to sing badly enough, you’re willing to expand the definition of “local”), so I’m always looking for something new to listen to in the car. I recently happened upon a wonderfully silly little radio sitcom from the BBC called Cabin Pressure*, which I got from iTunes with the last few bucks I had left over after squandering the rest of my paycheck on all that singer stuff. But downloading the show was cheaper and way more enjoyable than sitting in a therapist’s office talking about my Feelings, and it seems to have yielded the same result.
It’s a comedy about the shenanigans of MJN Airways, its two pilots, owner, and only flight attendant; an underdog story that manages to get its listeners rooting hard for the endearingly pathetic losers that are its characters. MJN is always, as its owner Carolyn says, at the brink of bankruptcy. The flight attendant, Arthur, is an unwaveringly optimistic moron whose cheeriness falters only in the presence of his unloving father. The usually swaggering first officer is heartbroken when his wife has an affair.
But it was the plight of Captain Martin that changed the way I see myself. Martin was so desperate to become captain that he agreed to do the job for free, making his living driving a moving van on the side. Since he failed his pilots’ license exam seven times before passing, he can’t get hired by an airline that might actually pay him a salary. He had wanted to be an airline captain since he was seven years old (and before that he wanted to be an airplane), and now that he is captain, he simply wants the respect he feels a captain deserves. But alas, to Martin’s eternal annoyance, passengers always assume that First Officer Douglas is captain. Douglas constantly shows him up in flying skill, intellect, charm and well, everything, even playing the piano. And then, of course, Martin has to spend his free time hauling furniture around in his van, earning just £10 an hour.
Martin is me.
You see, I desperately want to be an opera singer. I’ve been singing my whole life. I’m almost physically incapable of keeping my mouth shut when I’ve got a tune in my head (which is always). I idolize the likes of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, read their biographies, analyze the tiniest details of their iconic recordings, and try to emulate their technique, and even the way they dress.
Opera itself is an fine art that over the last 5 centuries, has been telling fantastic stories in the most cathartic way: with the beauty and drama of the human voice, which, when trained properly, can soar out over a 100-piece orchestra into every corner of a 4,000 seat theater. Microphones are for sissies.
At 18 I went to conservatory to get that vocal training, but quickly found myself always outshone by the other singers in my class. They weren’t just better singers, but prettier, better actors, had cuter boyfriends, richer parents, in fact, many of them could play the piano like Douglas (admittedly a less surprising skill among opera singers than pilots, but still.) I never got cast in the university’s student operas, never got solos in choral performances; it was discouraging to say the least.
Operatic singing is really hard. You have to learn vocal technique, and musicianship, and at least three foreign languages, and acting. I never failed my exams like Martin did, but I might as well have. As graduation approached, I started saying that I didn’t want to be a singer anymore.
But that was a lie. I just decided that I probably couldn’t be, because I wasn’t good enough. I went years without singing, doing this job and that. I was a yoga teacher, and then thought I might be a journalist, but just resigned myself to doing mindless, low-paying jobs in offices .
I still loved the opera and would attend performances of the major opera company in town and the telecasts from the Met. I would watch from the best seat I could afford (tip: always bring binoculars) and think about how exhilarating it must be to be on that stage. I would make my way home imagining myself performing a flawless O Patria Mia or Vissi d’Arte, completing the final, thrilling phrase of the aria and feeling that moment of awed silence before the audience erupts into rapturous applause and shouts of “Brava!” as they toss bouquets at my feet.
I couldn’t avoid it any longer. I finally decided that I wanted to make one last go of it. I started taking voice lessons again. I really am a good singer; at least as good a singer as Martin is a pilot.
So, I auditioned for a tiny community opera company and they offered me a role. It was just a small part: First Grisette in the Merry Widow by Franz Lehar, but I had so much fun at the rehearsals, and made wonderful new friends. Opera singers are, as Arthur the flight attendant would say, Brilliant!
When the time came to perform, I put on that grisette costume, walked on stage and sang my solo number and kicked my feet up in the can-can. It might not have had the gravitas of Vissi d’Arte, but as I sang and danced I finally felt the exhilaration that I had daydreamed about from my cheap seat in the opera house.
I’ve performed in several other operas and concerts in the months since then. I just sang my first principal role, The Plaintiff in a small presentation of the Gilbert and Sullivan one-act Trial by Jury, but the dream is still to audition for bigger companies, ones that pay fees I could make a (modest) living off of. When I think about it, I decide I’m not ready. Maybe I never will be. I sometimes get really down on myself, thinking, “You’re almost 30, Molly. If you can’t get into the Young Artist Programs at Glimmerglass or Santa Fe by now, you never will.” And I look at the singers who are getting roles in those programs and feel like Daniel San getting his ass kicked by the bullies from the big evil karate dojo. I feel like poor Captain Martin being out-witted by Douglas again.
So anyway, one day at work, and by that I mean the receptionist job that I actually get paid for, I was scouring the internet as usual for anything and everything that would ease my immense boredom, and I found a blog by Cabin Pressure’s author John Finnemore. Someone had written to him about Martin and why he is willing to work as a pilot without getting paid, and to that Finnemore had this to say:
“Martin still doesn’t get paid as a pilot, and makes his living as a man with a van. But don’t feel too sorry for him – money’s always tight for him, but he’s not living in abject poverty. And he is doing the one job he always wanted to, and how many of us can say that?”
And that’s when the realization smacked right into me like a pigeon into an airplane windshield: I just spent two weeks leaving my boring receptionist job at the end of every day, and driving to a musty black box theater where I would rehearse the over-the-top finale ensembles and surprisingly elegant vocal lines and ridiculous comedic pratfalls of Trial by Jury late into the night with several of my friends. We were dancing around the stage, laughing, and singing opera. And when we got in front of an audience, I got to feel that opera singers’ exhilaration all over again.
So what if I’m not getting paid for it?
I’m not singing at the Met, and Martin’s not flying for British Airways, but we’re both doing the one job we always wanted to do, and how many of you can say that?
*Ok, I admit it, I only found Cabin Pressure because after watching Sherlock, I looked up Benedict Cumberbatch’s IMDB page so that I could watch every single performance of his. I am that girl. I ain’t even sorry.