For parents who work in the demanding field of opera, juggling family chores while employed in live performance is a daredevil act.
Their parenting role never ends. And yet, the show must go on.
The musical director of the Canadian Opera Company, Johannes Debus, is well aware of this. He is raising the seven-year-old son he shares with violinist Elissa Lee and co-parenting Lee’s 13-year-old son from a previous marriage.
“I learned that you have to be adaptable and efficient,” Debus said. “While being present to your family, you are bound to perform at a high level.”
Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher and assistant stage manager Kate Porter are both first-time parents who have taken the giant leap from full-time baby chores to demanding rehearsal schedules as the Canadian Opera Company ramps up its production of “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, which opens May 6.
Despite the demands, the two say the experience of bringing opera to life, on stage, seems to help them through the challenges of caring for their infants.
“Normally I schedule singers and now I schedule meal plans,” said Porter, who is raising 17-month-old son Emilien with his partner, a college professor. “Building structure, creating order out of chaos, is something that happens at work and at home.
“My partner’s schedules are both more regular and more flexible,” she adds. “I find it reassuring that he’s always there at bedtime, even if sometimes I have to miss him.”
Neher, who has starred in three productions – one as far away as Paris – in the 14 months since the birth of her daughter, Léonore, also finds that acting and parenting skills overlap more than you might think. The fact that his companion is also a musician, singer of the a cappella group QW4RTZ, helped to reveal these similarities.
Being a singer helps Neher manage these demands. “Being pregnant, giving birth, breastfeeding and all very short nights of course affects your singing,” Neher said. “Knowing your voice allows a singer to manage the physical demands of parenting and performing. I learned when to rest and be quiet.
Not that it’s an infallible formula. There are times when it just doesn’t work and that’s when “adrenaline keeps you going. As a new parent, you develop a new life force that guides you through the day. You have an unknown force inside of you that you didn’t know you had,” Neher said.
Luckily, opera times are sometimes set years in advance, so Neher can coordinate with her partner to ensure he can step in when she has intensive rehearsals and performances.
Conductor Debus acknowledges that people who work in opera are “not too different from other professionals in trying to achieve work-life balance, but the challenges are different. When we perform, we work when others are not working so that workers can attend performances. Rehearsal times do not correspond to school hours.
And then there are the other requirements of this industry. It’s a six-day work week, not the five-day week that most people enjoy. Of course, performance always means evening and weekend work. At the COC, two operas rehearse in repertoire: one in the morning and afternoon, the other in the afternoon and evening. This could mean missing both dinner and bedtime, important times for parent and child.
Parenthood caused Porter to change the way he approaches planning. “Before having a child, I planned my contracts as closely as possible, sometimes overlapping them. Now I relish the gap between the contracts. I look forward to the summer when there will be no operas being rehearsed or performed. Gaps make this work possible.
One change that seems particularly difficult for Neher is not sleeping after a late performance or rehearsal. With a child, she gets up early in the morning, regardless of the rest of her schedule.
Neher also discovered the challenges of parenthood when away from home. “When I was in Paris, I met someone I knew on the street, and they were incredibly helpful in providing me with the toys and books that helped me become a parent, but for which I had no space in my luggage.
“It happened here in Toronto as well. A corps member offered to help. Raising a child takes a whole village.
But there is always music, which can be a balm for parent and child. Despite her concerns about returning to rehearsals, Porter was thrilled to be back in the room hearing beautiful singing, something she wishes she could share with her baby.
“It’s a shame my little guy is too young for that this time around…this production is colorful, with big animal puppets. It’s playful.
As a singer, Neher has the chance to share music with her child at home as well as in her work. Like many parents, she sings to her child to soothe him.
“There’s a German Christmas song that’s the ‘magic trick’ that calms her down. A recording or another voice will not have the same effect.
Neher also shares music with her baby as she prepares for an opera. “Singing for her is not special for her because she hears me sing so often. She hears me rehearsing and listens to the operas I listen to to study the roles. all kinds of music.
But there is more to life than music.
“A performing artist is married to his art. There has to be passion and commitment, but it doesn’t have to take over your whole being,” Debus said. “You should always see the beauty of other things that can happen in life. The responsibility you have to your children is absolutely unique and precious. It’s something I had to learn.”
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