S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.
S2: Welcome back to WORKING. I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and I’m your other host. June Thomas June, how is your work going this week?
S1: I have to admit, it’s been kind of an emotional week. We just recorded the oh said the final episode of The Waves, but the last episode before we go on a hiatus that was caused by so co vid related cost cutting. And I just I mean, I love the show. I’ve done it a long time. I love working at my thoughts and ideas with Christina, Nicole and Marsha, who’ve been my co-hosts for the last year or so. And most of all, though, I’m realizing I’ll kind of miss that bi-weekly rhythm. I think that rhythm is a underrated factor in creative expression if you have to write a column every Friday. Eventually you get into just this thing where you have ideas on Tuesday and you fleshed them out on Wednesday and you get into it with your editor on Thursday. And I think the more you can create rhythms like that. I think it can be really productive. Do you have stuff like that?
S3: Yeah. I mean, I feel like we’re starting to do that with this show. You know, when is an interview being recorded? When are we doing, you know, this stuff before the episodes? And it really does start to shape your mental process of what the what the week looks like. So. So, absolutely. I tried to be a little less regimented about creative writing just because I don’t want to feel like neurotically beholden to a ritual for today’s episode. You spoke with opera singer Jamie Barton. Are you a secret opera buff?
S1: I don’t think I qualify as a buff because I really like opera, but I don’t know a ton about it. And I think in those high arts, there’s this feeling that you have to be an expert before you can kind of ally yourself with this art. But when I lived in Seattle, I subscribe to the Seattle Opera and one of my closest and oldest friends runs the costume shop there. So it was a thing we did together. I had an opera buddy. And at that point at least, the Seattle Opera was a faulknerian company. And I surprised myself by realizing that I love fogger. I’ve seen three full ring cycles in the proper bagneris schedule. And I have to tell you, I’m familiar with quite a few of the arts, but there is no experience that is better as an audience member than the ring about the sixth year of Gotterdammerung. You are guaranteed to leave your body and it is like nothing else.
S2: Wait, wait. You’re not an opera buff, but you’ve seen the ring in its entirety. Yeah, but I’m not in Beirut now. So while it really counts, you know. Yeah. Yeah. If you haven’t gone to the theater he had specifically built to realize his visions then. Are you even really listening to opera mean?
S1: Are you really? But for Jimmy Barton, I actually heard of a first when a British friend told me about a feminist recital that she did with her collaborator and pianist, Kathleen Kelly. And I loved what I read about that. And so I got to make a piece for the late lamented Studio 360 for which Barton and Kelly actually came to New York and performed in studio. And so I was sat there while she was singing, which is kind of amazing in opera. Singing is just a weird thing to do with your body. And to be up close when somebody is doing it is really, really kind of amazing. So I got to have that experience and I started buying opera tickets again.
S3: Oh, wow. So so can you tell us a little bit about her and her career?
S1: Yeah. So she is one of the leading mezzo soprano us at the moment. She was the featured soloist at the last night of the Proms in London last fall as the biggest classical music event of the year in Britain. A couple of months later, she played the title role of our fellow in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Glucose or Fail at the Chair, which we talk about in the interview. And right now, if it weren’t for Colvard, she would be giving her Elisabetta in Marias to order by Donizetti at the Met. I dont know if there is a typical background for opera singers, but if there was, she wouldn’t have it. She grew up on a farm in rural Georgia. She came to sing in relatively late for someone at her level in the art, and her breakthroughs have come in competitions in 2013. She was only the second person to win both the song prize and the singer of the World Prize in the same year at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. And that really took her career to the next level. She has an amazing voice. I highly recommend that curious listeners check out the Studio 360 piece. We did a link to which you can find in our show notes or search YouTube for the duet that she does with Joyce DiDonato. It was at a benefit concert and they sing together song. Library Ma from handle’s Julia says out it and it’s amazing. She’s a fantastic actress as well as been a great singer. And I have to admit, though, that one of the reasons I’m really drawn to her is her politics and her attitude. She’s openly bisexual. She’s spoken out about the way female performers bodies are policed in the opera world. And she has a really fantastic Instagram presence. She’s a great ambassador for opera.
S4: Well, it’s great. I cannot wait to hear what she has to say about all of this and her process. Let’s take a listen.
S1: So one of the things that came into stark relief in the last couple of weeks we’re taping this on March 26, is that singers like you soloists and the people whose names on the bill make people like me buy tickets are freelancers. How does that work?
S5: Yeah, we singers are basically freelancers or independent contractors. You know, we have managers that help us kind of field the requests at some point or help us get auditions at earlier points in our career. But really beyond that, you know, our managers are there to help us negotiate the contracts going forward. Every house has different typical contract offerings. And yeah, it’s all on a case by case kind of basis.
S1: OK, so let’s focus, for example, less fall. You played the lead Orfeo in the Metropolitan Opera’s or Fail at the Egypt. How much time did you spend preparing for that?
S5: Oh, gosh. Well, of course, you know, we have the rehearsal time and that that was about three weeks. If you’ve ever seen that kind of meme that has the picture of the iceberg and you see about, you know, 90 percent of the iceberg underneath the water, in the 10 percent above, you know, 10 percent is what people see in the 90 percent is what happens. That is so very much the case in the case of an opera singer. You know, it’s weeks and months of preparation leading into it. We have to show up on the first day of work, completely memorized, you know, so that is a lot of work when you’re singing in a language that isn’t your own. You’re not just singing in that language. You’re also storytelling in that language. You know, my personal goal is to always be able to in a way that if I’m singing in somebodies native tongue, they won’t be distracted by the fact that I’m not a native speaker, you know? So that takes a long time just getting the words and getting the music in, developing the character and then also staying flexible. Because when you go in for that first day of rehearsal, the director could have completely different ideas about who you are. Or it could be a concept production. Orfeo is a perfect example. It’s not exactly a traditional or fado. My character was actually based on Johnny Cash. So, you know, thinking of it from the point of view of not just I’m a woman onstage playing a man, but I’m a woman on stage playing Johnny Cash. You know what? What goes into that? You know, it’s I would say easily two months of solid work. And by solid work, I mean getting up in the morning and sitting down at the piano and just going and trying to basically memorize a book in a different language.
S1: Yeah, you’re famous, I think, for your interpretation and for your acting. And, you know, maybe when people think of operas, they think of Italian, French. But you are somewhat famous for predictions in check, for example, to selca is in check.
S5: Right. Yeah. Yeah. How do you learn that with the help of a lot of people. You know, when an opera singer starts going to college, because quite honestly, we always joke that opera singers and medical doctors are the ones who leave college with the most student debt just in college forever. But even in the first year, one of the first classes that they put us in our classes for addiction, specifically for the usually an undergrad, we’re talking the main languages that we sing in. So English is one of those German, French, Italian. If you’re really lucky, maybe Russian. If you went to a school that has a Russian person there that can teach it. But then there are other languages that aren’t standard and so they don’t really get a full class. And so whenever I’m approaching a language that I don’t already have some sort of familiarity with. I reach out to different diction coaches that specialize in those languages. So, for instance, when I knew that I was going to be doing a result for the first time, I took that opportunity to learn the dvorchak Gypsy songs in check. I knew that I was doing them on recitals. It would be a really great practice to just go ahead and get used to the language before I actually hit the stage at the Metropolitan Opera singing one of the most iconic mezzo roles. Revolver. So, you know, just getting a little bitter PRRI experience with it is really, really, for me key to making it be able to live. But yet the help from diction coaches, it’s I’m telling you, this is not a solo career at all. The opera industry is 1000 percent a team sport and those diction coaches really make. Huge difference between how once again native speakers will be able to enjoy it versus not.
S1: Yeah, and I don’t want to sound crass, but I am. I’m asking this because I really want to understand the nature of freelance, but you have to pay for those diction coaches, right? That’s not typically what is covered by the opera company where you’ll be singing a particular role.
S5: Oh yeah. Yeah. When you’re in prep mode for all of this, you’re definitely paying for everything. You know, as a freelancer, I’m paying for my voice lessons. If I need to get with a pianist to help me solidify getting something in my brain, I’m paying for that. You know, working on style. I’m paying a coach for that. Working on diction. I’m paying the coaches for that. So there are a lot of expenses that go in to just preparing something to arrive for the first day of rehearsal and be in a working place. Now, that being said, the opera companies almost always do have diction coaches that they employ for the run of the show. So those people will be in the room. They’ll be with us in real time, taking notes on what we can do better, helping coaches through it. But yeah, all of that preparation is really up to us financially as well as just getting the work done.
S1: Well, you have this repertoire of roles that, you know, how do you kind of let opera companies know what roles you know or what you’re willing to learn? Would a company come to you and say, hey, I don’t think you’ve sung I’m NéRISSE in Aida before, but would you like to me? Is that how it works or is there some kind of other way of communication for things like that?
S5: It’s less that there is any sort of formal communication and more that we’re in the age of Internet and word around. You know, it’s so like if I sing a role and it goes really well, then I notice that I start getting a lot more offers for that particular role. You know, usually if if there is a role and it’s funny that you mentioned omnivorous because that’s a perfect example. I’m Nerissa is one of those roles that it just takes years literally for your voice to both physiologically get to a place of being able to sing it. And also for me, I needed or still need more experience singing Verdi mezzo roles in order to be able to sing omnivorous. So I fielded requests for on neary’s for years at this point, you know, probably six or seven years. And I’ve said no to just about every offer that’s come along because I just didn’t feel like either. I was at a point of being ready for it when the production was supposed to happen or that it wasn’t in the right kind of place. Omnivorous is a hugely challenging role. It is. I mean it is a barnburner of a role, but it is really, really challenging. So I knew that I wanted to approach it in a theater that was a bit smaller than some of the theaters that I sing in and the United States, because, of course, we don’t use microphones at all. You know, so it really is totally analog. You know, so I wanted a smaller theater. I was hoping for one that was friendly. You know, some somewhere I’ve worked before that I’ve got a good relationship with and then hoping for good colleages, seen as supportive people that I’ve worked with before, that I can trust that I know are out there as team members rather than as solo artists trying to, you know, steal the stage. And I’m I’m very, very lucky. I’ve I’ve managed to find that situation, actually. And so I have my first I’m coming up in a few years. But to really go back to your question. Companies don’t really tend to go either. Would you be interested in learning this? They more or less just send a request to my manager and say hi. We’d like to offer Jamie this and it’s up to us to say yay or nay, depending on whatever factors there are.
S1: Well, you just mentioned, you know, some years ahead, opera singers, especially ones like you who are, you know, on the star side of things. Buke many years. Can you tell me how far out your boot?
S5: Yeah, I think right now I definitely have stuff on the books in 2023. I think that we have some interest in 2024 as well. So it really depends. It depends a lot on the Opera House. Some houses are able to book further out and others are smaller and they’re not able to put that far out. And it’s also dependent on the project. You know, if you’re doing a barber of Seville, which, by the way, is something I would never seeing. My voice just doesn’t do what Rosine wants it to do. But you know it. Something like a barber of Seville, they can book one or two years in advance pretty easily, but for something like a ring cycle. A big Bogner project or something like that or something that pulls a lot of resources like full chorus. Whole bunch of actors, you know, they’re gonna have to employ a lot of people to be up there onstage. Those are the projects that they’re kind of the specialty West type projects usually. And for those houses that can do them book as far out as they can because they want specific people. Sure. To be singing these principal roles. And the earlier you can get those people on the books, the easier it is to secure that they can actually be there and do that. The closer you get, you know, it’s it’s trickier to get the cast that you want.
S1: No. There’s a sort of a stereotype of the opera singer being very careful with the voice, which I totally understand. That’s your instrument is like a violin is being careful with the Stradivarius. But, you know, on long plane rides, are there things that you have to do to protect your instrument?
S5: Absolutely. Absolutely. First and foremost, hydration and sleep are a huge key in terms of vocal health for me. So keeping up with that on the regular is really, really important. But when I’m on a long flight or I know that I’m going to be on a long flight, I wear what is called a humidifier, which looks like a medical mask. But all it does is filter the air that’s coming in and recycle the moisture in your own breath so that you don’t go dry. And when your anatomy gets dry, that is when you get sick. It’s like every single, you know, fall and winter in New York when they turn on the steam heat in the building and all of a sudden you wake up and your whole mouth and throat and everything is just dry as a bone. That’s when you start to get sick, because that’s a pretty ripe opportunity for any sort of germs to just, you know, go and multiply. Oh, yeah. So so keeping moisture in your breath or in your breathing on the plains is something that I’ve discovered is really, really, really important to keeping healthy. And I’ve noticed such a difference that, you know, I should just say in a humidifier, if you want an opera singer to be a spokesperson, I’m right. Here it is. It’s so funny, though, because I get on a plane and. Well, of course, you know, right now with the Corona virus, I can’t even imagine not having a mask on a plane. But yeah, in regular travel times, you know, I’ll get on a plane. And it is that people don’t want to talk to you. People, you know, that they want to sit seats away. It’s perfect. It’s a wonderful, wonderful tool.
S1: That’s wonderful. Well, you know, speaking of the strange parts of being an opera singer, I’m curious also, apart from travelling, you also work really weird hours, but you have to do this. Very strange physical thing is a very specific kind of singing, which, as you said, it’s analogue. You’re projecting in a very large space. I imagine that’s difficult to eat before you do that. And they’re often very long things, these gray uppers and so much and you often finish really late. When do you eat?
S5: That’s a good question. I’m going to take it even a step further, because it’s it’s not just that during the performances, we are basically night owls, which is the case. You know, we’re getting off of work at 11:00 p.m. or midnight or you or sometimes even later than that if it takes a while to get out of makeup, you know. So if you’re getting off work at 5:00 p.m., you work a normal 9:00 to 5:00 or something like that. You’re not going to bed at 6:00 p.m.. Yeah, you’ve got to decompress. You’ve got to have dinner, you know. So during performances, yeah. I’m up until 4:00 in the morning easily. I was up right now just during Coreign times, as we’re calling it. I’m edging more towards the night owl thing. I was up until 5:00 in the morning was my goodness. But the crazy thing is actually that our schedules are so topsy turvy that that is the picture of what is happening during performances, during rehearsals. You know, we have to get there. Usually rehearsals and this is a vast generalization. But rehearsals almost always at a house, you know, like the Metropolitan Opera, for example, they take place between about 10:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., you know, so during rehearsals, I actually have to get up, you know, usually like 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning to be able to warm up, get some breakfast. Look, you know, presentable and get to work. And so, you know, it’s a little later than the 9 to 5 kind of thing. But we we are starting a lot earlier in the day. In fact, when we do final dress rehearsals and anything on stage, we’re doing them starting at about 10:30 in the morning. Well, which you know, that’s when it starts. If we have to be there. For, say, a dress rehearsal of any sort where they’re putting us into hair and makeup, we’ve got to get there an hour and a half earlier to be able to get into hair and makeup. So I’m showing up to work at the Metropolitan Opera at about 8:30, 9:00 in the morning, he says. You know that that is a huge portion of our life. This rehearsal period. So that happens. And then the performance area, which knocks us into night owl mode, and then we’re flying all over the world, you know, landing in different locations, trying to shift our time clocks to wherever we are. I’m telling you, my body has no idea what’s right now. I have my entire being is like, what year is this? I don’t know. Yes. Yes. But honestly, with the eating thing, it’s it’s really subjective. Different opera singers need different things. For me, I don’t prefer to eat before a performance. Kind of for the. Why, you would imagine. No, I. My diaphragm is pushing everything up. You know, it’s just a lot more comfortable to not have any food. You know, but I prefer to eat after the show. You know, I’ll I’ll have a pretty big late lunch or something like that. You know, that’ll last me well through the show. If I’m doing a really long show, then I bring some facts, honestly. You know, some snacks that aren’t going to gunk up my voice. So no dairy. Yeah, for me. I’m allergic. Only eat some gluten free. But anything that’s spread like is also going to kind of get my acid reflux going. So if I’m at a show that I’m usually bringing something like dried fruit or nuts, plenty of water. I stay away from bubbly water because, you know, flipping have definitely accidentally done that on stage before. Fun fact. It actually stops the sound. But it’s a bubble. It is. It’s a bubble. It. It is. Just literally stops the sound. I’m basically a 14 year old boy at heart, so.
S1: Well. So another part of the strange life of an opera singer. I mean, I wish to state the obvious. You guys are musicians touring musicians. But unlike, say, a rock musician going on a tour or a rock band. I guess they typically spend like one or two nights in a city and then they move on to the next city. But opera singers typically spend like, well, a month, six weeks, depending on the amount of rehearsal, how long the performances last. Let’s say, you know, for OFHEO, I think you were in New York for, what, for six weeks?
S5: Yeah, that was about two months for that one. Well, two months. So, like, where do you live? Because New York is not your home. No, no, no. Atlanta, Georgia is my home base. We basically live in sublets for the most part. So upper contracts, like you said, they can be kind of anywhere from a month to about three months. It really depends on the situation. Summer festivals do tend to be longer contracts. Santa Fe Opera, for instance, this summer, Lord Willen of the Creek don’t rise as they would say where I come from. If we get lucky enough to be able to do the summer festival there, you know I’ll be there from the middle of June until the middle of August. So that’s that’s a pretty solid two months there in those situations for the most part. We’re responsible for once again for all of our expenses so that they will reimburse travel. There are some houses that are set up well to give us rehearsal pay. And that is a very, very small percentage of houses that are able to do that. You have to keep in mind that opera houses, by and large. Well, I can’t think of a single one that isn’t. They’re all nonprofit. You know, this isn’t Broadway. Broadway is absolutely for profit and more power to them. That’s that’s amazing. But opera companies are non-profit. And, you know, the United States is not currently in the business of supporting the arts in a really strong way. So most opera companies can’t give rehearsal pay. So you know that the housing costs are coming directly to us. You know, so there are some situations that are a little different. I know, for instance, Houston Grand Opera, if you make below a certain per performance fee, I believe that they take care of your housing, or at least they used to Santa Fe Opera once again, whenever they bring an artist and they actually give them a house and give them a car, that kind of offsets the fact that the purple performance fee for most summer festivals is not terribly high. The goal with a summer festival, quite honestly, is to end up in a place that’s really pretty and get to enjoy a really pretty place. But yeah, the housing is basically on us and for the most part I use Air BMB or VR B0 or if I’m in New York, I have a specific furnished corporate sublet kind of situation that I go through. There are different kinds of gigs though. That’s just the upper side of right. Right. Right. If I’m if I’m doing a concert or a recital. In that case, then recitals. I’m usually the one footing the bill very often. And I’m also footing the bill for my pianist as well. It depends. It’s it’s really it’s kind of 50/50 on that. But with concerts for orchestras and stuff like that, very often they fly us and they put us in a hotel. We might be in a hotel for five days, five or sixteen or maximum for a concert gig with an orchestra. But it’s quite traditional that they’re the ones who pay for the housing in that situation.
S1: But interesting and I think that opera singers, it’s the last place in the world where you need multiple super fancy long, you know, the most formal. It’s like you’re going to a prom every single night. How many do you own? Where do you buy them and where do you keep them when you’re not wearing?
S5: Oh, my gosh. I how many do I own guide? I don’t know. I’m going to say you do have to provide your own right. Yes. For four recitals, four concerts, four public appearances. Sometimes, you know, if if I’m in New York, a lot of times in the spring, that’s when the gala season is. So they’re asking me to partake in, you know, be there as a support or to sometimes perform. Yeah. No, I think I probably have about 40 to 50 gowns at this point. Oh, yeah. And really, they spend a lot of different years. And for me, a lot of different sizes. Which is very useful. But I’m lucky to have a place in Atlanta that has some pretty decent closet space. And I basically have a double closet in my bedroom where one half of it is entirely gowns. Wow. In fact, I walked in one time from a gig and looked into my bedroom and the closet had fallen out. They literally had fallen out because the gowns were too heavy. I had to have the container store come in and install some harder, you know, more more sturdy equipment in there. Once again, the cost of the gowns are entirely on us. And that’s a pretty difficult expense to write off, actually, when it comes to expenses. You know, the sublets are a lot easier purchasing music, these kinds of things. But I’ve I’ve heard of a lot of opera singers. You know, if they go through an audit having to basically defend that, they wouldn’t wear this on a regular day. You know that this is an I’m not even joking. It’s crazy. They’re beautiful. Yeah. Yeah. But, you know, there are a couple of things that I’m looking at when I’m purchasing gowns. Number one, if I ever walk into a Macy’s, I’m going to look at what formal and semiformal attire they have, because at this point, I just kind of collect dresses because I know that I’m going to need different looks. You know, if I’m in New York, I have to keep a mental list and I really should just actually start a spreadsheet. But I have to keep a list of what gowns I have worn for what performances and how long it’s been since I’ve worn that gown. Because if I’m gonna be back in New York doing another performance, I don’t want to wear the same gown that I wore at this other performance three years ago. I tried to keep that varied. And then the other side of it is that just, you know, if there is something that is like a very publicized event, something like the Richard Tucker Gala, which is usually broadcast or for me for this last year, the last night, the problems with the BBC. Yes. You know, that that is, you know, put out to literally billions of people. You know, I at night were three gowns for that. And the last of which was this creation that was built by an amazing woman named Donna Langman and an amazing designer named Jessica John that featured the bisexual flag in kind of Diane to the underside of the Cape. You know, I’m not getting funding from the BBC to have that made. You know, this is entirely a decision on my own. And I’m I’m so glad that I did it. But it is very expensive. These are not you know, that’s why, quite honestly, I’m going to Macy’s for a whole bunch of other. You know, and as. Yeah. You know, as a plus woman, it’s difficult to buy off the rack. I’m so much. We’re finally heading into a world where plus-sized people have better access to more clothing, but even still it’s difficult. So I do a lot of online gown shopping. I know designers that are you know, they do prom and mother of the bride and Kim Seniora and all sorts of, you know, those kind of dress designers. I know which ones work for me. I know what styles look good on me. And I’ve got a great alt. list here. And, you know, so I just kind of you know, it is one of those like in between gigs thing that I do, I come back home and I have a pile of dresses that I need to take to the alt. lady to have redone or done for the first time either. But once again, and that’s an expense of being a woman in this career. Absolutely.
S1: You know, we’ve been talking about all of this trouble. And I’m wondering, do you have a sense of how many days you were actually at home in Atlanta in 2019 and since you’re not at home for the vast majority of the time? How do you kind of keep that sense? Everybody needs some kind of, you know, home. I know you take your cats on the road for a good chunk of time. Is that you? Is river how you find a home on the road?
S5: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, I always say that home for me is it’s kind of three components. It’s my actual home. My my condo, the friends and family that I have and my cat and written my cat is absolutely 1000 percent a piece of home that I can take on the road with me. So if if I’m on a long gig in the United States, anything over about three weeks, she comes with me. I don’t travel internationally with her. Luckily, you don’t have to very often. And she has a secondary home with my best friends, you know, saw. Yeah. It’s a it’s a really, really wonderful setup that me and my best friends really enable me to be able to have a piece of home on the road with me. I also fly my friends and family to come be with me for portions of time. You know, my my best friend will fly in over the weekend sometimes. And just being able to have some familiarity really, really helps for me. Yeah. To answer your first question, I haven’t done the math on 2019. And I’m curious. I really should do the math on that. But I remember doing the math on exactly how long I was home on one of my previous seasons, and I discovered that I had in like I think the calendar year of 2016 or something like that. I had been home 35 days. Well, yeah. And that included half lync half days, like travel days. Basically, any day that I could like step into my house. That was definitely counted because otherwise the figure would be just absolutely depressed. Wow. Wow. That’s mind-blowing. Yeah. I want to say it like that was one of the heavier seasons for sure. In general, I would guesstimate that I’m home probably 10 percent of the year. Well, 80 to 90 percent of the year is definitely out on the road or it has been thus far. Quite honestly at this point I’m starting to make adjustments at this pace has been workable for a few years, but not sustainable. And I am interested in longevity. You know, I don’t know if I’m going to want to be singing when I’m 70 years old, but I want the option, you know? Right. So. Right. Right. One of the hardest things about this career is actually finding your threshold and. Mm hmm. You don’t find your threshold by seeking it out. You find your threshold by barreling right through it. And looking back and going, oh, that’s where it was, you know, and I’m very lucky that I have a team around me who are all on my team very, very much on my own. Not just Jamie Barton mezzo-soprano team, but also Jamie team. And they they know when I’m doing well, they know when I am not. And there have absolutely been times where I just, you know, was travel weary. Mm hmm. You know, and I just needed to be at home. And so we have started to add in actually, I’ve started to add in sabbaticals into my schedule, which I think will do a really, really good thing for me in terms of the longevity component, being able to take off two or three months at a time, every three, three ish years, you know, and also not trying to fill my schedule up, you know, so completely taking a week off here in there, you know, making sure I’ve got time at home to be able to work on learning music rather than having to try and cram this music in on the road when I’m singing another project which happens. A lot. I’m also really, you know, I look at the pie chart of my life in the last oh gosh, decade. And it’s been at least 75 percent career focused. Which I love. I really, really love. But because I have been feeling more of a craving of balance in my life, I’m actually trying to give that to myself right now. I’m good reserving some of the day for work. But other than that, I’m cooking and I’m going on long walks and I’m sleeping at all hours of the day. Great. Much to the chagrin of my cat, but also connecting with a lot of my friends and my fellow artists. And quite honestly, we’re working together with our union to create a soloist coalition right now to really address the concerns of solo artists, which has been a struggle, I think, with our industry. Just because we’re all itinerant, we all travel so much, it’s impossible to schedule meetings for people to get together because rehearsals, you know, you never know when you’re gonna be called. And so we’re trying to create a space within our union. And I think that, you know, focusing our attentions on laying the groundwork for a healthy place for our industry is is a really good way of moving forward in this very odd time. So I’m just trying to take positive steps in the present, both for me and for the arts and for my own career.
S1: That’s really, really interesting stuff. And I appreciate your sharing because I know that talking about what you have to pay for and stuff, that can be a little too much to ask. So I appreciate your answering those questions.
S5: You know, I’m I’m delighted to truly this is something that we all go through. It’s you know, that this isn’t something that is unique only to me. So I think it’s it’s an interesting thing for the layperson to get a glimpse in on.
S1: Jamie Boughten. Thank you so much for joining working.
S5: Oh, I’m delighted to hear it. Actually gives me a good reason to get a shower today, so I appreciate it.
S3: June. One thing I really loved about your conversation with Jamie is how much you both focused on the fact that creative jobs are jobs, right? Like a majority of the work that artists do isn’t what we think of as maybe quote unquote creative. It’s the stuff that you have to do in order to be able to make your art. But do you think of that stuff as part of the creative process?
S1: I definitely do. And I also love that she was so willing to kind of demystify that stuff. It tends not to be written about or are kind of portrayed very much. And I just find that something fascinating. But I definitely do think that it is the very stuff of creation and creativity. I imagine there are a few people in the world whose talent is so immense that they just have to kind of sit at the keyboard and just touch a key and everything magically appears, you know, a brilliant work of art. But for most humans, it takes labor and for most creative work. For much creative work, it’s the kind of equivalent of doing scales. When you’re learning the piano, it’s repetition of helping you get better, of whatever it is you’re doing, writing, composing, dancing, designing or whatever. So I just think that is just an essential part of this work. Don’t you agree?
S3: Yes, I absolutely think so. And I think it’s even more pronounced with actors and opera singers and other creative jobs where you are both the painter and the paint at the same time. You’re you’re you’re no, you’re the material. But the art is made out of and the person making it. I think that’s even more pronounced. And in that case and you know, there’s a lot of details in here that I was actually frankly surprised by. I did not realize that, you know, even at a high level, an opera singer has to provide their own housing when they go to a gig. I mean, it’s a union thing in theater that if you’re an actor and you’re gigging in a theater out of town, they have to provide you housing at their expense. And so I was very surprised by sort of how much of a financial burden, even more than I had assumed there is on the individual artist and the opera.
S1: And I also know that they don’t want to you know, I think quite rightly, they don’t want to appear ungrateful or entitled by seeming to complain about the situations that their work puts them in. But endless travelling, whether you’re doing it because you’re an opera singer or a management consultant. It gets old very quickly. It is not like being on vacation. And I think we’re all maybe getting a little too much of it. No, but being in your home, surrounded by your things and your research materials, your books, your desk set up, just so you know, your bed, all of those things are part of a routine that really helps support creativity. And it can make a really huge difference when it does come time to just get down to work.
S3: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things that I liked is that, you know, for her, that’s re-created by bringing yes. Light, that it’s like you have to have something of homes that you have some feeling that you have all this. Yeah. Well, I have to say, we have a very exciting development in this week’s episode, which is it’s our first ever request for advice.
S1: So I’m so happy to get this email. We would love to get questions from more people, but we’re super excited about this one, which comes from listener Sharon, who will always have the honor of being the first person whose question we answered. I’m sorry to disappoint longtime mum and dad of fighting listeners, but it’s going to be read by Isaac, not by Shasha Leona.
S3: Well, I will try to fill those Melodia shoes, June. Thank you. So here is our letter. It’s from Sharon Dear Working. I’m inspired to revisit a short story that I wrote a few years ago, which received a vague note asking for changes and improvements from the editor to whom I submitted it, and to which I’ve never been able to finish. What do you do when the editor requests changes and you don’t understand what they’re asking for? I asked for clarification and the answer was even more vague. I can guess what the answer may be, but I’d be happy to hear from more accomplished writers. What to do in such a situation. June, you have so much more experience as an editor than I do. What do you think?
S1: I think the bottom line is you do have to have a rapport with your editor. That’s not negotiable. And if you really just don’t understand each other, it’s just never going to be a productive relationship. There are obviously many different kinds of editing relationships of different kinds of editing. There’s the kind of editing that you’re obliged to respond to, whether you want to or not, almost because it’s a condition of publication. When I was an editor on the tech side of Slate, if a writer just absolutely rejected the changes or additions or cuts or questions that I requested, that meant there just couldn’t be in the magazine. And there can be, of course, and should be back and forth debate spirited defense on the part of the writer for a particular section or a point or a turn of phrase. But if you just can’t agree, well, it just doesn’t get published wherever the editor works. But then there is a different kind of editing. That’s. More kind of like advice. There’s a spectrum between low stakes feedback and do this where it doesn’t happen here. I mean, there are obviously a lot of points on that spectrum, but if you and your editor just do not see things the same way and aren’t able to communicate. I think it’s just very hard to get much out of the relationship. You have to trust their vision and their taste and their style to put in the work that is required to change your work. There have definitely been edits that I’ve gotten as a writer too, where it’s just seems so huge and it’s so daunting and it’s such a big change that it really shakes your very conception of the piece that you’re working on. And that can be really hard. But in my experience, what comes out of that is almost always better. But they do have to explain why they’re suggesting this new approach, why they think it’s better be clear what they want you to do to get to this new place. And if you’re not able to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re asking for. It might just be that their vision isn’t worth pursuing or it’s just not a good match. But one final thing I’ll say after some point, there’s no point in pushing for more feedback. Editors have limited time and bandwidth and chances are you’ve gotten what you’re going to get from this exchange. It’s time to move on to another editor. Another reader. You know, there’s only so much you can get from people for free.
S3: Yeah, totally. I completely agree with that. My feeling about this question breaks into sort of two different categories. There’s the specific question about this piece and that editor to which all I can say is like it’s been a few years. They might not even be at that journal anymore. That magazine or, you know, like that door is probably closed anyway. And you didn’t really have a good rapport with them. So don’t bother pursuing it anymore. You know what I mean? So I would say for the specific thing of this story, you’ve put it in a drawer for a couple of years. Forget about their notes. Reread the story. See what you think you’re going to see things that you want to change and it fixes. You want to make things that don’t quite sit right with you. You know, do that past and then start to show it to readers. You trust friends, maybe family, who knows? And then get from their feedback, you know, start to think about a rewrite if you want to do one. Or just start submitting it places and see what happens. Then there’s the larger question, which has to do with what do you do when you get feedback that you don’t really understand? And part of it is that it might just be a sign that that’s not the right person to give you feedback. But another thing to think about, whether you understand the feedback or not, is always trying to listen for what I’ve heard writers call the note behind the note, because often people are really great at identifying a problem and less great at suggesting a solution that actually works for you. The artist in the work of art that you are making because that’s a kind of mind meld that can be very difficult to reach and can often take time and multiple pieces. You know, it’s it’s sort of further down in the relationship. So listening for the note behind the note, which is like what is the problem? What is provoking this? It might not even be the problem the person is bringing up. I know that sounds wild, but but it could be something even entirely different. And so not necessarily taking the notes at face value, which is not to say dismissing them, it’s actually engaging with them more deeply might help you find sort of a better direction to go in in your revisions. At least I found that to be so. It is very different, though, when you’re writing like an article for a magazine and then the edits are much more functional and have less to do with that stuff and are also much more. You know, you have to take them almost all the time, you know. And so that’s slightly different territory. But I think with with other suggestions, it might be that there’s actually just another problem that the reader is having trouble articulating.
S1: I really love the insight. I think even in non-fiction and even in a more sort of transactional relationship, if you’re not quite understanding what your editor is asking for. Just seeing were there finding a problem that could still work, that could still at least gives you gives you a place to reconnect with and to puzzle through. So I think that’s really very insightful. Thank you, Isaac. Thank you, June. And thank you, Sharon, for writing to us. Please let us know how it all turns out here at working.
S3: We want to hear from you. So if you have questions about writing, whether you’re trying to write a novel or a great email or any other aspect of this strange thing called creativity, please send those questions onto us at working at Slate dot com. We’ll discuss them in the show and if and when we can. We’ll put those questions to our guests. Thank you to Jamie Barton for being our guest this week. An enormous thank you to our wonderful producer, Morgan Flannery.
S1: Thank you, Morgan. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Reman alarm on TV and film director Demaine Davis. Thanks for listening. Now get back to work.