Opera and parenthood. It works.10:00, 7th July 2018
Internationally renowned soprano Madeleine Pierard is a founding member of the new charity organisation SWAP’ra – Supporting Women and Parents in Opera – and talks about her own experience of bringing up her two daughters in a working ‘opera family’.
As an artist, you often reflect on what is and what was. We constantly critique ourselves and feel that we are at the mercy of the subjective nature of our employment, so it’s no wonder singers are already often insecure beings, as many artists are.
And then we become something else entirely on stage. Invincible: a goddess, a warrior, a king or queen, totally immersed in the most scintillating music imaginable.
The highs and the lows can create a very precarious state for many artists, and I certainly experienced this – until I had children.
Being a parent creates perspective and a new sense of meaning to absolutely everything. It is, without question, the hardest and most rewarding job in the world, but it is easy to lose your sense of self, especially in the early years.
I grew up thinking parenthood would never happen for me. As a preteen, after two years of chemotherapy due to a particularly rampant strain of B-cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, my mother was advised that it was highly unlikely that I would ever conceive. This news devastated her, knowing the pain I would likely go through in my adulthood. But to cut a long story short, once I found the man I knew I wanted children with (conductor, violinist and fellow Kiwi, Michael Joel), with trepidation we started trying and fell pregnant on the first try… with both children!
I consider myself to be one of the luckiest people in the world – privileged to have a job I love, which I get to do with many people that I love – some of the best in the business, and bringing pleasure to so many through our collaborative process. But it is gut-wrenchingly hard work. In the old days (pre-children), before a performance on the main stage at ROH, I would get up late, perhaps nap in the afternoon after a gentle gym workout get my body in to the zone for the marathon ahead. Oh, how hilarious that is to me now!
Now, I might get to sleep before 1am on the odd night, but it is generally highly unlikely that I’ll get a nap or a full night’s sleep before a performance. Then, on the day, my focus is on keeping my children alive and chores done until I leave the house for my makeup call. My husband, too. We share parenting duties equally as he is also a freelance musician. But it’s not a lucrative career by any stretch, which means I’ve had to go straight back to work after both babies.
We manage with a patchwork of babysitters, nursery, play dates and childminders that takes hours each week to organise. This is especially challenging in our industry where it is the norm to receive a weekly schedule on a Friday evening, but we all muddle through.
But I have loved my career since having children. My first daughter, Chloe, was born 12 months after I finished my tenure as a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House (ROH). I was down to sing in Parsifal just a month after Chloe was born, but her visa was delayed by a week and I had to withdraw – this was really hard, but as I had an established relationship with ROH, they were very understanding, as was my agent, Neil Dalrymple. So my first professional gig after Chloe was born was when she was nearly three months old in La Bohème at the Royal Albert Hall. In retrospect, three months of forced holiday was serendipitous: I really needed that time to get used to being a mother.
From early on, Chloe joined me in coaching sessions and rehearsals at ROH and we felt embraced as a family, so much so that Chloe knows many of the staff and the origin of the contents of every display cabinet in the corridors. It is a magical existence for her and a second home for me. I never once felt that her presence was an imposition – quite the opposite usually! But then, she was an unusually quiet and happy baby and would just sit and absorb everything.
The JPYAP and The Royal Opera have been ground-breaking in their support of their singers during pregnancy, having had three Young Artists on paid maternity leave during their tenure as a Young Artist, for instance. I have never heard of this happening on any other Young Artist programme in the world – but I’d be very happy to hear that it does!
I returned to work just a few days after the birth of my second child and although it’s not for everyone, it was the right choice for me and my family at that time. It was a very straight-forward birth and singing straight afterwards felt perfectly comfortable. And luckily so, as I was due to sing in Nixon in China in a festival in New Zealand. I flew my family to Auckland on the fifth day after Eleanor was born and started rehearsals the following day. Michael was stationed with the baby in a dressing room (in shifts with my mother-in-law and his cousin) so she was always nearby. I was so nervous about asking to breastfeed the baby but the conductor, Joseph Mechavich, said, ‘Look, you don’t ever need to ask for permission. You need to feed your baby – leave when you need to.’ I cried with relief. I fed her in the music rehearsals too, and continued to do so with most companies I worked with during her first 12 months! The final performance was when she was two weeks old and I remember after singing my final line of Pat Nixon’s role as though I was going to faint. I had pushed my body to the limit.
I had seven gigs during Eleanor’s first seven weeks, then when she was four months old my first Violetta, with NZ Opera. Again, a company who was hugely supportive. I didn’t have family around the whole time so was on my own with the baby a lot, and Violetta is a mammoth role, so to this day I don’t know how I managed. Eleanor was going through the four-month sleep regression and I was so envious of the other cast members who got to go back to their hotel and rest, while I fed during the night, crying with exhaustion. But luckily, during performance time, my beloved mother-in-law came to my rescue.
After that, I went straight in to performances in London of Il Barbiere di Siviglia with The Royal Opera. I was sick the whole time, but managed the singing perfectly well. It’s amazing what you can do on adrenaline alone, and I strongly believe being a mother equips you very well for these situations. Things went from challenging to impossible when I agreed to perform Schoenberg’s Erwartung straight after Il barbiere. I had to learn, memorise and stage the piece in two weeks and thanks to the patience of the team at Shadwell Opera, I managed. Then, I had a break of two weeks for the first time since Eleanor was born. I had been working solidly for nine months. I was breastfeeding that whole time and in hindsight, I have no idea how I did it, but I did. Because I had to. Because being a mother makes you more determined, not less, to perform well and be reliable and organised. I also feel that I value my career more – it is more a part of my identity than ever before.
Now, my kids are a bit older and they love being in an ‘opera family’. We all sing together and they have seen things that would have been beyond my wildest dreams at that age – like sitting in the dress rehearsals of The Nutcracker, which Chloe knows note-for-note, along with The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. She’s four years old.
But I do feel, having heard the experiences of many of my colleagues, that there are improvements that should be made and voices that still need to be heard, that’s why I am part of the the SWAP’ra team. But it is so important to acknowledge and celebrate the inclusiveness of many companies who are trailblazing. SWAP’ra is dedicated to making sure this becomes the norm.
SWAP’ra will present its inaugural Gala Concert at London’s Opera Holland Park on 31 July. Tickets are available through http://operahollandpark.com