Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
The world seems now more than ever to be in a total state of transition, or at the very least at a major crossroads. Global warming, pandemic, travel and economic disruption – all demanding a change in the way we operate our lives, careers, and how we function as a global ecosystem. We are in a kind of purgatory between the road we once trod and some other safe road out; as we are desperate to get things back to ‘business as usual’, we are confronted with the choice of continuing down the same road, or choosing to walk another path.
During lock-down, more than ever, I found myself questioning my life’s path – the faults in my choices. Ultimately, I started to ponder fault lines in our industry, our governments, cultures, civilization and the behaviours that led to this pandemic – omens we largely ignored along the way – the global financial crisis, Ebola, climate catastrophes like the fires that ravaged Australia in 2019 – all symptoms of a global ecosystem in peril. Typically, when the world goes through periods of dramatic development or upheaval, the organisms that inhabit it are mirroring that change and vice-versa. When one finds oneself in unfamiliar territory it is natural that questioning of self begins, but I think this questioning has begun on a more global scale.
The only experience any of us can speak to with authority is our own, and here, I reflect on mine.
When the bottom fell out of the housing market in the US in 2008, I was embarking on the journey of a lifetime. I had recently concluded studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, started work as a chorister for Cantillation, and Pinchgut Opera, and taken a maternity leave contract at Opera Australia. Not long afterwards, I found success in the Australian Singing Competition, winning a scholarship to attend Manchester’s prestigious Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM). With a full scholarship and other winnings, I headed to the UK just as stock markets began to go haywire; suddenly my savings for living and other expenses, were worth 2/3 of what they had been, as the global financial crisis took hold.
I grew up on a small lettuce farm in rural NSW. When we weren’t on the farm we were privileged to be at dancing, drama, singing, tennis, soccer, hockey, the local musical society or school. The neighbours would see us arrive home in the ute, covered in dirt and, only half an hour later, tearing down the road in the old commodore – my sister and I adorned in full stage makeup and sequins – off to some dress rehearsal or other. Growing up on a farm, I think we believed that having time on your hands was incredibly bourgeois, or the product of laziness, or both; Mother Nature never takes a holiday so why should we? The relentlessness of life on the land, coupled with a plethora of extra-curricular activities, gave me a strong work ethic, resilience, determination and adaptability, but what it didn’t teach me was how to sit with myself in a void of time, without the context of work, of some kind, by which to evaluate myself.
When I moved to Manchester, I didn’t know how I would measure up. My plan was just to work harder and not let any opportunity pass me by. Whether you believe a career in opera is built by following some well-worn path – a particular conservatoire, teacher or Young Artists Programme, or if you are under the impression it’s simply appearing on earth gifted, privileged and lucky, one irrefutable fact is that it takes very hard, focused work, discipline and perseverance over the course of many, many years. What is not seen or advertised are the cases of ‘burn-out’, the mental health battles, eating disorders, vocal breakdowns, or the struggle many musicians have with drugs and alcohol – all symptoms of a personal ecosystem in peril.
The RNCM was a huge success for me. In the year-and-a-half I was there, I received a Post Graduate Diploma, an International Artists Diploma, performed six leading roles, countless concerts, and was invited to audition for the Young Classical Artists Trust; I was subsequently signed, finished up my studies in 2010 and moved to London.
The years that followed contained some of the highest and lowest points in my life. I represented my country at one of the most prestigious competitions in the world, a gold embossed envelope arrived inviting me to Buckingham Palace to meet The Queen, I sang in some of the most iconic venues in Britain and met people whose recordings I had obsessed over for years; yet in the midst of it all, I was struggling. Work as a freelance artist typically takes on a flood/drought pattern and freelancers, for the most part, get paid for each performance they complete – no rehearsal fee and if you get sick and miss the show, you get nothing. There were times I really felt beaten – reminiscent of days on the farm, when we were just starting to break even or gaining some momentum, and the heavens would open – hail raining down on the delicate flesh of our livelihood – that thick pit in my stomach that said ‘all your work has been for nothing’.
The year before the pandemic I had a fantastic year – Cosi fan Tutte in Malta, Carmen in Adelaide, touring with the Australian Haydn Ensemble, my third leading role with Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, and then off to The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (ROH) to make my debut as Flora in La Traviata.
I debuted at the ROH on March 14th with plans to make it a major stepping stone to bigger and brighter things – the opportunity I had been working towards my whole career. On March 16th, before the scheduled second performance and before the head of casting had had the opportunity to see the show, fully made-up and about to have my wig put on, company management arrived to announce that the performance, along with the remainder of the season were cancelled, effective immediately – lockdown commenced and I haven’t set foot in a theatre since.
At the beginning of lockdown, it was easy to keep riding the adrenaline wave fresh from my ROH debut; I started my own fund-raiser for musicians in need, spent hours making videos with fellow musicians, performing from my living room, editing material for up to twenty hours in a sitting. As the situation worsened and various industries called for government support, suddenly The Arts were being relegated as ‘unviable’. In the midst of trying to create a positive artistic response to some online vitriol directed at artists, the murder of George Floyd happened, the riots began and I became overwhelmed with the world. At the pleading of my husband, I stopped.
The wave of exhaustion that consumed me was immense and it seemed impossible to resolve the tiredness in my bones. My diary continued to empty, so I made the move to teach online and had plans to learn French and do some role study. Then, I found out I was pregnant. For the past five months I have been predominantly bed-ridden with hyperemesis gravidarum, or severe morning sickness. Needless to say, I have never been stopped in my tracks in quite the same way, and now I was trying to embrace the prospect of motherhood in a world I didn’t recognise. In the midst of it all, I have found myself asking, “Am I still a musician?”.
Knowing who you are out of context and in the absence of external validation, is a hugely galvanising force and one our industry desperately needs right now. Sydney Poitier spoke of his experience of moving from the Bahamas to the US. Living on Cat Island, with a population of 1000 including only two white people, he had never thought of himself in the context of colour; arriving in 1940’s America at the age of fifteen, he had a steely sense of self, “and every time [restrictions]were in my face, I could say, ‘Let me remind you who I am’”.
It’s true, all industries have been hit hard by the pandemic, but it is also true that the arts industry has been hit harder than most. No industry has faced the blatant disrespect and disregard (in Australia and the United Kingdom) that the Arts sector has had to face. When governments feel justified in ignoring some three million self-employed that have gone without support since March and, instead of finding a solution, fund targeted advertisements encouraging artists to retrain, without financial backing, and in a jobs market that is seeing up to a thousand applicants for any one job vacancy, it’s clear: no voices of validation are coming from our governments, so we must find our own. Even as theatres and concert halls in Australia begin to re-open and with a promising vaccine on the horizon, there will be no fast return to steady work for many of us. So, whilst we take on temp work to make ends meet or subsist on universal credit, we must continue our daily practice and diversify where we can, all the while holding fast to our identities as viable contributors to the economy and as valuable explorers of culture, philosophy and the human condition.
The time we have now presents an opportunity to deal with some of the ugly aspects of our industry and to promote real change. To come out of this without casting habits that reflect the diversity of the world through representation of the diversity of our practitioners; without more imaginative programming that gives voice to unknown stories and new perspectives; and without reforms in the way artists are contracted so that they are better protected – would be a shame. With time on our sides, we need to take personal responsibility in fighting for an education system for all children, that uses art as a lens through which to comprehend history, culture, mathematics, design, science and language, so that they grow into adults who see art as a tool for the every-day, not just as an olde painting, an olde poem or something behind a pay-wall. Now is the time to ask ourselves how we send the elevator back down for the next generation of artists, and how we make their experience better than our own; to amplify our voices through organisations that have formed in response to the pandemic – OneVoice, MAX, OperaUK and KIDS need MUSIC to name a few.
It is so easy to feel that we are mere observers in our world’s journey though time and that real change is beyond the individual; when seeking large-scale change, it is easy to forget that the most crucial step forward comes from a decision to make a change in ourselves. When Rosa Parks decided she wasn’t getting out of her seat that day, could she ever have imagined the ripple effect her decision would have across the world? Being a mere observer is more powerful than one might think; like refining our technique as musicians, the simple act of observing a fault empowers us to more readily identify it, which in-turn facilitates a choice to change; observers of this change, are then led to their own change and the ripples continue outwards.
We tend to treat the valuable commodity of time as an obstacle to the achievement of goals, rather than – a space – to be inspired, to build foundations, to prepare and to heal. If this pandemic allows us to find a small change in our individual perspectives, it is my hope that collectively…
[We] shall be telling this with a [smile]
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and [we]—
[We] took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Helen Sherman recorded live at Milton Court, London.