I received a lovely letter from an aspiring young singer – 18 years of age, trying to determine what kind of mezzo she may be. After all the normal feedback from “the powers the be”, she came to me with a question:
“I have been approached by several people to dye my blonde hair to a darker color and after a couple of disappointments I finally decided to reinvent myself and dyed it dirty blonde/light brown. The problem is I miss my blonde hair terribly, and since you are a successful blonde I was wondering what your views on the matter are. Have you had any trouble getting cast as a blonde? Or has your blonde hair hindered you in any way in the opera world as a mezzo? Would you say it could be a disadvantage to be a blonde mezzo? Any help or advice is greatly appreciated.”
The question struck a big response in me, and I felt compelled to reply with a rather in-depth answer posted here (kudos to you who make it to the end!). But I also realized her question, perhaps overlooking the specific hair color issue, is surely one of universal concern to young artists: how much attention should we put into our appearance? I feel you, hear you, and offer the following response to perhaps offer some guidance on moving forward with your training and journey as a young artist. Disclaimer: these are strictly my opinions alone, and should be taken with a grain of fabulous sea salt (bigger kernels than ordinary salt!) Also, while writing from the vantage point of having been in this business a number of years, now, I don’t mean to imply that I never crossed these questions of identity or appearance myself ~ of course I did. My answers are born out of my experience …
Dear Non-blond Mezzo,
I’m going to make a big assumption here: I assume that if you wrote to me directly you are actually asking to hear a direct and honest response, and not hoping for something merely … polite. (If I’ve assumed incorrectly, please forgive me!) One thing my years of experience has taught me, without exception, is that even when it’s terribly difficult to face, the MOST helpful thing, by far, is to hear the truth about this business. You may not get it very often, but you’ll eventually learn that it is the thing that breeds the most growth as an artist and human being ~ and this, after all, is what we’re all searching for, no?
I also have to say that your particular question has struck a real chord with me, because I feel it highlights some of the issues where I believe our industry is failing in these days. So while the question is quite straightforward (and granted, perfectly innocent on your part!), I’m afraid I feel the need to answer quite in depth. Bear with me?
So, to be very honest, and with all due respect, the last thing you should be thinking about right now, is the color of your hair. A variety of reasons immediately jumps to mind:
First of all, the task in front of you ~ achieving your dream to be an opera singer ~ requires INFINITE amounts of training to perfect your vocal technique, master your languages, refine your musicianship, acquire brilliant stage presence, deepen as an actor, absorb the infinite dynamics of the human condition (so you will actually have something to say of merit and interest when you open your mouth) and to blossom as a generous colleague. Each of these aspects not only takes a lifetime of learning to attempt to conquer them, but as a young student, the laying of the bricks of this foundation which you are living right now takes immense discipline, concentration and dedication. How you prepare NOW will absolutely determine the kind of artist you will BECOME. I would hope that your interest would lie in listening to the masters of your art form, reading about the history of the various periods you are attempting to step into, experiencing live performance, inundating yourself with the artful elements of this craft – none of which, in all honesty, include hair color.
Secondly, I do contend that a singer’s physical health is unquestionably of paramount importance ~ the body is our instrument and we need to be consistently healthy and provide that our voice can be in optimum condition via rest, good nutrition and good physical strength (paired with flexibility). I recognize that the reality of our business is that physicality figures prominently into casting (this is not at all a new concept, by the way!), so I understand why this may prompt us singers to worry excessively about our physical appearance. Yes, this is undoubtedly one part of the “game”. However, if this becomes the primary, secondary, or even tertiary priority, I guarantee you that a career of any length or importance simply will not happen. I contend that it actually cannot be sustained on a superficial level, for the BEAUTIFUL thing about our art form is that it involves the huge palette of human emotions, as well as an understanding that requires great comprehension about the world, history, psychology, human frailty, and connecting to something that is bigger than any of us ~ this is the reason this music has survived and been celebrated for CENTURIES. The moment it descends to a purely superficial experience, it has no long-term chance of survival. And it is on the shoulders of everyone in this business (agents, performers, intendants, and perhaps most of all, teachers) to be sure it remains something of substance, so that we not only honor the legacy of the great composers and performers by keeping the traditions alive, but we also expand it and illuminate it in even greater depth with our modern experience. This asks of us tremendous involvement, imagination, commitment and determination ~ again, things that, I believe, preclude spending too much time on thoughts such as the color of one’s hair.
There is a third, very important element to this puzzle, and that is your voice: not the voice we all think about that comes out of those two, hard working, unassuming, vibrating vocal cords in your throat. No not that voice, but the voice that is your soul / spirit / heart ~ however you may choose to define it. It is the inner “thing” inside of you that needs to be shared. It is the desire to connect to something outside of yourself (the divine? another human being? a deeper understanding?) This requires us to search profoundly inside ourselves ~ so we can begin to have a glimpse of who we are, and therefore begin to discover exactly what it is we desire to say. No teacher will give this to you, no conductor or director will identify it inside you (although they may be able to ignite it a bit inside), and no coach or audience will verify it unless you can at first tap into it and release it yourself. There are different tools to find this ~ experimentation, examination, playing, living, searching, loving ~ and yes (finally!) maybe even hair color can initially help you to identify this spark inside of you that wishes to be found, or help you to externally identify something that feels right, or more “you”. If this is the case, then you need to be very honest with yourself and ask “WHY do I feel more myself when I do ____?” Is it merely a mask? are you hiding? or is it really helping to illuminate more clearly how you feel inside? Those questions will help steer you to what you believe in and who you may be. But they are ONLY a catalyst and not anything that has lasting power. We don’t have to look very far to see celebrities in our culture trying desperately to define themselves primarily and desperately as merely perfect physical specimens, and the eager public asking for more ~ but sadly, the impression that is made is one of being utterly hollow inside. “Hollow” has no place in this world of high art ~ at least not in a significant or lasting way, and most certainly not in a way that deeply moves people at their core, which is, I think, the object of our world of music!
So my basic answer is that I’ve never, ever given thought to my hair color in terms of my career and I categorically cannot believe that any job was gained because I was blond and not brunette or redheaded. Now, jobs or competitions were certainly won (or lost) because I had a certain level of confidence (or lack thereof), and of course my physical appearance affects my level of confidence, varying on any given day. And I absolutely have thought about it as a woman (who was born nearly white-blond and has tried to keep “reminding” her hair of that since her mid-20′s!), but this has been for me, as Joyce. As a performer, and one who occasionally loves to play up the glamour side of things, yes – then a lot of thought goes into the image I am putting out, and which side of my personality I may choose to present. And yes, I absolutely make a trip to the salon before a big photo-shoot or important concert, because I want to present myself in the best light ~ but in a way that feels true to myself and highlights my true personality. But this is ALWAYS after the “art” has been attended to. For you, thinking in terms of auditions and concerts, of course appearance plays into the audience or jury’s overall perception of the evening ~ but you cannot fool them: if the look is not “you” and if the beauty or glamour exists only on the surface, it won’t mean a single, solitary thing. Yes: as singers we need to function and thrive within the world of glamour and allure, but please ~ PLEASE ~ never at the expense of the art. It is, in my very humble opinion, WAY down on the list of priorities ~ especially when you are starting out and needing to learn simply how to put one foot in front of the other as a vocalist.
Finally, you’re entering into a field where you are, and will forever continue to be, under constant scrutiny. You will need to find a balance between listening to the advice of others, and listening to your inner artist / inner voice ~ finding a way to reconcile and constantly balance the two. Again, in my most humble opinion, I think your gut must always have the final word, but I have always treasured the advice of those that I trust and respect. You just need to be very observant and realize who has your best interests at heart, and who is working on their own agenda. (This, by the way, can take decades to learn!)
We do NOT need a bad imitation of another artist that has come before us (the blond one, the “Next Callas”, the skinny-one, or the “New Pavarotti” or another barihunk … Well, OK, we can always use more barihunks!). No. We need originals. We need originals desperately, and the only way that will happen is if the business fosters and encourages individuality. We want it, we crave it, and we need it. But the aspiring artists of today also have a responsibility to learn about themselves, to strongly address WHY they need to perform and what they have to say, and I think that resides in deep questions much more pressing than blond vs. brunette.
Now, all of that having been said, please know that I understand completely why you asked the question, and I’m very happy that you did. You are certainly not alone in your concerns or doubts about what is important when starting out. I think your question has allowed me the opportunity to speak about things that affect a LOT of young singers and who could truly benefit from knowing they are not alone in their insecurities, or doubts, or questions.
Thank you for reading … and here’s hoping you ALL find your own, unique, beautiful, artistic and soulful way to impact the world around you!!
That having been said: