Women who want to succeed at motherhood and career face challenges daily, but those in the performing arts face special obstacles. Two new mothers who are singing lead roles for the Des Moines Metro Opera this summer brought their children with them to Iowa. We asked them to talk about their industry and how they navigate it as working mothers.
Elise Quagliata is singing the role of Sister Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking.”
When you began singing professionally: 22
Your current hometown: Jersey City, N.J.
Your family: Married to a wonderful man from France, Xavier, who I met while singing at Florida Grand Opera. Our daughter, Lila, is 6 months old.
Q.: What are the challenges for you in pursuing your career?
A.: This is a challenging business, especially in the current economic climate. So many regional companies are struggling. Some feel they need to stick to what works, offering only top-selling operas, and hiring from a smaller pool of artists who they know, trust or who have been validated by larger companies. The art of it all, communicating beautiful music on stage, is the easy part. But doing auditions, networking, securing contracts, dealing with rejection…this is the stuff that takes up time and emotional energy. When I was 26, living the bohemian artist’s life was fine…fun, even. But now with a family, it’s harder to justify taking gigs that don’t help me financially. As an artist, one wants to accept jobs for the art of it, to grow one’s resumé, etc. But I don’t have that kind of freedom anymore. It’s been a challenge accepting that, because I love to work. As a working mother now, there are so many other considerations such as childcare on the road, her accoutrement, and extra costs, in general. Some jobs are just plain cost prohibitive to accept.
Q.: How many days a year are you away from home and how do you handle that?
A.: This year I’ve only been away about three months because I had a child the end of 2013 and didn’t return to work until April. However, in previous seasons, I’ve been away sometimes half the year. Compared to some of my colleagues, that’s not even a lot of travel! It’s not easy being away from my husband and family. I hate having to miss big family events. But our travel is spread out: two weeks here, four days there, home for three weeks, etc., so we do have some breaks when we can be home. My husband also travels to see the performances if his work schedule permits. We’re just beyond grateful for technology. Skype and FaceTime have saved many a performer’s family life!
Q.: You’ve brought your daughter with you to Iowa. Is this the first time you’ve done this?
A.: My first performance back after maternity leave was "Dead Man Walking" at DePaul in Chicago. Lila was three months old, and not happy AT ALL that I was going to sing for eight hours a day. My mother traveled with us and acted as nanny. It was NOT easy. Since then, she’s grown and changed exponentially, and she and I went to Jacksonville, FL to sing Mahler in May, and she was great, and now, again with my amazing mother in tow, the three of us are happily settled in Iowa for seven weeks. It’s not easy, but we’re finding our footing. She’s going to be with me on the road as long as I keep singing (and she’s not established in school yet), so it’s something we have to figure out. The hardest thing is finding balance between being the Mommy and being the Mezzo. To sing successfully, YOU MUST SLEEP. However, as any new parent knows, infants don’t exactly care about your schedule. And my daughter has had a particularly tough time finding her sleep rhythm. I’ve gone to rehearsals and performances when I’ve only had a couple hours of sleep. Not easy (or recommended.) All this difficulty aside, I feel so fortunate to be able to have a job where she can travel with me, not to mention have an incredible mother who can travel with us and act as nanny!
Q.: Typically, is there support to do that in the performing world? Did you get any special or unusual help or accommodations from Des Moines Metro Opera?
A.: I’ve had limited experience with this. I’ve only had one negative response from one company who refused to house me with a baby. Again, economic difficulties had forced this particular company to stop housing artists in hotels and could only provide home-stays. No one was willing to host Lila and me. That was my only direct experience feeling unsupported. The performing world is hard for women who want to become mothers. No one is saying, “Don’t do it,” but there is a feeling of “well, if I do this, I will lose work, I might be forgotten and it will be so hard to come back.”
Opera is freelance, ie. there’s no steady paycheck, no 401(k), no pension. So if you’re taking “maternity leave,” you’re not working, hence, you’re no longer making any money. I had to cancel three contracts because of my pregnancy. That’s lost money. And if you have gigs lined up post-baby, you have to prioritize getting back in singing shape soon after baby is born because the bills have to get paid. I sang all the way into my sixth month of pregnancy, when I was just too big to costume, and there was a conversation that kept coming up (mostly from other, non-performing women). They kept asking me if I was going to continue singing once I had the baby. My answer was always YES, and not just because I had four contracts already scheduled for 2014, but because that was my job. Why would I just quit my job? Now, I know this is a complex issue for women the world over, but these women often made me feel that being an artist, because I enjoy it, and it’s fun, was somehow just a hobby, and now that I would have a baby, I would quit fooling around. It was a strange question to me and was always peppered with, “Well, what are your priorities?” I’m pretty sure all the male singers I know who have children, of which there are many, have never been asked what their “priorities” are.
Des Moines Metro Opera has been fabulous. They’ve provided really comfortable, spacious family housing for us, and they’ve never made me feel like having Lila here was any sort of an impediment. I have to figure out my own schedule, ie. finding time to breastfeed or pump during rehearsals or performances, which is challenging, but in general, DMMO is like a big family, and I’ve felt nothing but love and support through this process.
Q.: Who are your role models?
A.: My role models are all the women who have successfully been balancing this career and motherhood. I have a colleague, who’s performed and traveled with her little one for 10 years now, and she says something so true, “Taking care of a child is hard work. You going up there and singing a three-hour opera is the easiest part of your day. Enjoy it.” And I do. It certainly keeps things in perspective. I’m in awe of all the mommies out there who are traveling and performing. It’s no small feat.
Q.: How have things changed for women, specifically mothers, in the performing world that you’ve observed or experienced.
A.: I can’t speak from experience, since it’s only been a few months I’ve been doing this, and it’s been mostly positive. Being a performing mother is hard, but I see so many of my colleagues with infants or toddlers (or both) who are successfully doing it. A friend started a group on Facebook for performing mommies, or partners of performers, and it’s been an amazing support system and resource for me and many others. I sincerely hope companies continue to support singers and their choice of motherhood.
Q.: Any advice for young women seeking a career in the performing arts?
A.: My only advice is that there’s not ONE correct path. Some people say to have a child before you become established, and others believe having a child after you’re established is preferable. Ultimately, it’s your choice and this career should not hinder any decisions you’re making about life and family. We’re fortunate to create art everyday, but that career choice shouldn’t dictate how you choose to live your life. We need to continue developing ways to help mothers thrive in this job, and keep supporting each other, whether we chose to have a child or not.