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  • Blake Hill-Saya

Gratitude Is in the House

“Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.” Madeleine L'Engle

As a child I had a hard backed pop-up book of the fairytale The Three Little Pigs. I used to have bad dreams about that scary Big Bad Wolf who ate all the Little Pigs who didn’t have a house made out of bricks. I tell you what, those pigs who built their houses out of straw and sticks were some serious party animals. They were the ultimate examples of laziness and bad planning not to mention poor judges of building materials.

This fairy tale/ morality play is one that is too often applied to those of us who choose careers in the less lucrative performing arts (no one quotes this fable to Cardi B or Clooney). I would wager every working opera singer you will ever encounter has been asked on an airplane or at a cocktail reception, “…so what do you really do for a living, I mean, like for money,” or “tell me how to talk my kid out of a music career, “or my very favorite “…you must have a rich husband.” I would be lying to you if I told you this career is one that promises financial security, job security, or even any bankable accumulation of prestige. I am still here to argue, however that I am profoundly grateful that I built my house out of a career in the arts, even if the wider world sees it as straw. That straw, as we have learned in another fairy tale, can be spun into gold under the right conditions.

If it is anything that 2020 has taught us, it is that the unknown is always a factor. Institutions and world orders can change nearly overnight. Singers and performing artists are far from the only category of workers who have been largely out of work since March. Ask salon owners, flight attendants, non-essential medical service providers, teachers, and the list goes on apace. I don’t need to stress here the emotional journey of being out of work or of losing a business. What I am here to speak to is that those of us who have chosen to build our lives as artists have a ready-made cocktail of capabilities with which to respond to an uncertain future. The primary ingredients of that cocktail are creativity, resilience and the ability to improvise in real time. If and when artists have to focus our skill set in the direction of a new career, a complementary enterprise or a short term project in a different field we have these muscles already built and ready to go. We have built our houses out of creativity, and in an arena that has never promised us security or a predictable path. Trust me, you want artists on your team.

When I look back at this year, better yet when I look back on how I have witnessed my community of fellow artists respond to the challenges we have all faced, a part of me is healed that I wasn’t aware needed addressing: the part of me that has always been a little afraid of turning out to be the little pig who built her house out of the wrong stuff. The fundamental realization here is that the house we all ultimately build is us, not the structure that we inhabit or own. When danger comes, and systems fail, it is who we are and how we have lived into that truth that preserves our essential selves. Music and music making and the business of getting every opportunity I have ever had to make music has built the woman that can stand in the storm and think clearly and creatively about survival. The ensemble I have experienced and benefitted from in the process of making and performing music with every kind of personality has taught me to communicate and still have hope for synthesis in an increasingly divisive and nuance averse world. The mini worlds that rise and fall in the course of an opera production have gifted me with microcosmic examples of how organizations can work and what makes them thrive or stall. Very few professions seek routine individual transcendence from their employees in direct tandem with superlative and pressure tested team work. I am not saying this is always delivered, I am saying that these qualities are rarely expected all at once in other spaces. Knowing that ‘the show must go on’ builds a habit of resolve that is integral to the instinct for survival. “Show People” know how to keep moving, no matter how tired or gutted or giddy they might be.

This week I am grateful for every colleague I see out there making awkward yet beautiful videos for remote performances, launching podcasts from their closets, sharing with us that they can play the ukulele and sing standards like Sarah Vaughn or make a souffle like Julia Child. I am grateful for every company out there doing zoom presentations, mining their archives for past performances and inviting those artists to speak on panels about their experience. I am grateful for the new organizations of solo artists that are forming to reimagine how opera will work going forward in a way that represents who they are and the world they want to be part of. I am grateful for every note of music being made in the homes and practice rooms of those who are staying vocally fit for the opera of tomorrow. I am grateful for every student that keeps working on their recital repertoire, every voice that is growing and dreaming of their turn to take up this mantle of leadership through beauty. I am grateful for every innovation and donation made to keep this art form alive.

In writing about, singing about and making art about the world we live in, we fortify the human house with empathy, grace, and the essence of human potential. We blaze a trail of passion through the dark and thorny forest of truth. The accumulation of material value certainly makes life safer and softer, and of course makes the opportunities for art happen. But value flows through a community through more conduits than currency. The performing arts will forever be a confluence of these streams. When all sources of human value are equally respected and received the rarest and most healing of exchanges takes place. I am grateful for every nanosecond I have spent inside that magic circle of endless potential.

Be well, dear colleagues and friends. Be proud of all you have contributed and achieved on the battlefield of this landmark year. You are part of a marvelous hero’s journey. Remember, the gifts that you carry, even if they feel abstract, or ordinary, are often the very things you need when that wolf starts to huff and puff.

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