Classical singing seems like a horribly egocentric endeavor. In one way it’s true. As a musician, I am the instrument. Over the past few years I’ve poured considerable hours and dollars into my performance product, which is ultimately my throat. Selfishness is absolutely necessary in a few instances; I must be careful to properly care for my instrument with sleep, general health and vocal conditioning. I must set aside ample time for preparation of whatever material I’m learning. So yes, a singer is necessarily selfish in the same way that an Olympic athlete is selfish. Both individuals pledge allegiance to the highest level of performance in their field.
But ultimately I keep coming back to the question of WHY. To what end do I make all of these choices and sacrifices? Is the simple satisfaction of a job well done enough, or is there something more worthwhile and transcendent? This question has plagued me, but I think I found the answer through two artists I admire.
Anthony Dean Griffey is a world-renowned tenor who grew up near my hometown in North Carolina. His childhood was full of severe personal challenges. But as Tony grew up, he found his voice. He realized that he had a special talent, and he has shared it with people everywhere from The Sydney Opera House to The Metropolitan Opera. When I was still a student at UNC Greensboro, Tony came to sing for the students and to talk with us about his journey. He shared his efforts to work as an advocate for education and for mental health. He implored us all to find a way to share our unique purpose with the world, and I knew he wasn’t just talking about conquering arias. Tony finished that recital the same way he ends every solo performance, with a gorgeous and sincere rendition of “This little light of mine.” It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to follow his example and sing; it wasn’t a desire for fame, but a dream to make the world a better place. Since then Tony has recorded a Christmas album titled “This Little Light,” and all of the proceeds go to Open Doors Homeless Ministry in High Point.
Joyce DiDonato is another acclaimed artist who uses her voice for a greater good. She has been a fierce advocate for music education, and she publicly refused to perform in Moscow because of the Russian government’s problems with human rights. I’ll never forget the time she came backstage before La Donna del Lago at Santa Fe Opera and announced to all of us apprentices that she would like to dedicate her performance to a recent victim of bullying who succumbed to despair and had taken his own life. She said that she was committing her work that evening to this seventeen year old who had been tormented, but also to his bullies and all of those who stood by silently; she invited each of us to join her in this intention, because music has the power to heal and change the world. I was only in the chorus, but I know that my contribution was imbued with a deeper sense of purpose that night because of our leading lady’s example.
In recent months I’ve gladly accepted the opportunity to sing for benefits or go Christmas caroling at a nursing home. It didn’t bring a paycheck, career advancement or accolades; but it brought me joy, hope and a renewed sense of purpose. All of those treasures fill the well of an artist’s soul, and it’s an investment that will reap large and ineffable benefits along the way. In 2015 let’s all look for more ways to reach out and make our voices heard for a higher cause.