Brian and I were asked to write an article about traveling as a family with an opera career that came out in the Feb. issue of the magazine Classical Singer. We have not seen it in print yet, but here are some of the photos we submitted with the article (nothing new for the friends and family that follow the blog, just lots of words and more photos.) I honestly feel a little bad because when I was doing the final editing I was in a bad mood and at one point I am a little negative. But things are good in Denver so I can't complain, too much. (We really are being well taken care of and have it nice and easy here, thank you Opera Colorado! Brian even gets to perform in the costumes that were made for him at Opera Pacific. He is having a lot of fun getting ready for this Barber.)
On the Road Again.... and Again
by Brian & Ann Stucki
For most of my life, I knew that I wanted to be two things: a musician and a father. As it became clear to me that my path was heading into an operatic career, I started to wonder how mutually exclusive those two things might be. Don’t get me wrong—I know a lot of singers have children and I’m sure many are wonderful parents. But when I envisioned fatherhood, I imagined being there day in and day out—watching the little changes and developments take place, being a real presence in my children’s lives. I wasn’t sure how that would harmonize with the nearly constant travel required of a working singer.
In graduate school, my wife, Ann, and I ran a lot of scenarios about how we might make our goals as a family consistent with the realities of an opera career (given what little we knew of those realities). We took a leap of faith and had our first child, a son, in February 2006, during my final year at Indiana University. I signed with my agent before graduation and started working before the ink was dry on my finals. What we have learned and experienced since has been a study in making things work.
Before I go any further, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that any success we have had is completely owing to my wife and her commitment to our family. I don’t know many other women that would or could do what she does. It requires tremendous sacrifice on her part. If we were content for me to say goodbye to the family for weeks on end, she could be pursuing any number of worthwhile vocations. She is extremely talented in her own disciplines, and our nomadic life does not give her the continuity she would need to build her own career. I am constantly aware of what she has to give up so that I can be with her and the kids.
So, as I said before, traveling as an opera singer with children is about making things work. It requires flexibility and the willingness to assume that there is more than one way to do something. Our decision to live in Salt Lake City reflects this. New York would have been the more obvious and traditional choice for a young singer just out of school, but work was taking me everywhere but the big city for the first year after graduation. It didn’t make sense to live in the most expensive place in the nation and maintain an empty apartment there for the bulk of the year. We realized we could really base ourselves anywhere in close proximity to an airport. Ann has family in Salt Lake, which gives her more support on those occasions when I do travel alone. It has been wonderful—such a beautiful and serene place to come home to, not to mention much cheaper. With the money we save on living expenses, I can travel to New York as often as necessary.
We have learned from experience what we can do and what we can’t do. And now, almost four years in and with a second child, a daughter who joined us in the spring of 2008, we know a lot more about the considerations that will make an extended contract with the kids in tow a success.
One of my most recent engagements is a good case study. In November, I sang Philip Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher with the Polish National Opera in Warsaw. The offer came with relatively short notice and filled a gap that I had in my schedule. We had less than three weeks from contract to departure, so it was especially challenging.
One of the first things that makes what we do possible is a supportive agent. My agency knows that we travel as a family whenever possible, so they are always aware of that element when negotiating contracts. By the time they come to me, they frequently already have some sense for how the organization would handle a little family arriving. (They were also the first to know when my wife was expecting our second child.)
When my agent called with the offer from Poland, he had confirmed with the company that the family would be traveling with me and they had assured him that they could accommodate us. We were told the opera could provide a small apartment with two bedrooms in the theater. Check. We learned long ago that sleeping in one space with the kids is a no-go. We can currently handle a one-bedroom apartment if we have to, but two bedrooms is ideal.
Then there’s the packing. It’s amazing how much you don’t need. Our first gig out of school was a production with Michigan Opera Theatre. We drove to Detroit from Indiana with our car packed to the gills and a car-top carrier bulging at the seams. Complete overkill. Having learned the hard way, we now have the packing down to a rough science.
It is definitely harder by several orders of magnitude to pack for two months with two kids than just for yourself. You might think it’s just four times harder, but it is more like 72 times harder. I can’t believe how easy it is to pack for the few engagements that I travel to alone. (Case in point, as I write this, I am leaving in an hour and a half to sing Messiah in Indianapolis, and I haven’t packed yet.)
We traveled to Warsaw with two duffels, one suitcase, Phil and Ted’s double stroller (beautiful thing), and a few carry-ons. Living out of a suitcase can be tiring, but there is also freedom in discovering how much you don’t need. When it comes to packing, my wife is a consummate list maker. And she is obsessed with baby gear—particularly travel gear. (She wants to start a blog dedicated to it, as we have many opinions and practical experience.)
Once there, we discovered that the definition of two bedroom is different in Poland. If it has a bed in it, they call it a bedroom, so we installed ourselves in a simple, tiny (but clean and recently refurbished), American-definition one-bedroom apartment—Ann and I in the bedroom, and the kids in the multi-use bedroom/toy kitchen (as our son called it)/living room. It was tight, but ended up working out just fine. I loved living in the theater. On evening breaks, I could go back and read a bedtime story for the kids.
One key to family life on the road is discovering structure wherever you are. A beauty of the operatic career is that once you’ve arrived somewhere, the schedule is usually great. A six-hour day of rehearsal leaves me a huge amount of time to spend with the family. So we really explore the places we travel. Warsaw was no exception. We really got to know the city, used buses and the metro to get around, and found the parks and good playgrounds and kid-friendly restaurants.
We also found you can’t believe everything you read in a guidebook. One of our books claimed that “Rooster” was a great family eating establishment. There was one a short walk from the theater, so we ventured in one evening for dinner. As it turns out, “Rooster” is modeled on the American “Hooters” experience. So after being seated, our waitress came to take our orders and our three-year-old son wanted to know why she wasn’t wearing any pants.
Our son’s enthusiasm and energy is not really scaled well for a tiny one-bedroom apartment, so we were out and about usually more than once a day. Ann would frequently take the kids to a playground in the morning during my rehearsal, and then we would find something to do together in the afternoon. It was wonderful for me to leave rehearsal and go back to my improvised home life. I was amazed at how much the apartment in the huge institutional setting of the theater in Warsaw began to feel like a home.
The physical return to my roles as father and husband gives much-needed perspective—a bigger picture that can be very easy to lose sight of in the intense world of rehearsal and performance. It keeps me grounded. Sometimes more than I would like.
The premiere in Warsaw was very exciting. The production was sold out and well received. I had the role of Roderick Usher, who basically supplies the action of the piece. We had a swanky after-party with caviar and a DJ spinning smooth tunes. Then we went back to the apartment. As I was getting ready for bed, my son had a coughing fit and threw up all over his bed. Ann was nursing our daughter, so cleanup fell to me—feet firmly back on the ground.
In terms of logistics, Poland was a fairly typical experience. While most companies are not expecting a family of four to arrive and stay for the entire production period, most are very willing to be flexible with arrangements. If the company typically offers a hotel room as accommodation, we work with the staff to determine a more suitable arrangement, whether that means us paying extra for a suite or some other negotiation. In North Carolina last year, we received a rental car for the duration in lieu of accommodations and stayed with a close family friend who had space for us. It worked out perfectly. Sometimes the companies that require you to find your own arrangements are more simple for us, but even those least prepared to house a family have been able to work with us to find a solution.
I am frequently asked about the expense of traveling as a family. The short answer is yes, it’s more expensive. However, kids are expensive under any circumstances. If we weren’t spending money on them on the road, we’d be spending it at home, and I don’t make much money at home. For us, the added expense is not much of a consideration.
I was talking with soprano Celena Shafer about life as an opera singer with kids (she knows something about this as a mother of three with three-year-old twins). We came to the conclusion that you can do whatever you want to do, as long as you’re willing to pay the price. And I’m willing to pay a high price to know my children. My first year out of school, we were on the road for 10 out of 12 months. My son would not have known who I was if we didn’t spend most of that time on the road together.
To counterbalance the added expenditures, we try to eat in more than most singers would on the road. I love to cook, and sometimes find new inspiration by dealing with the sorely under-equipped kitchens on the road. I’m frequently impressed at how much money other singers will drop on meals. I’m not sure if this reflects well on me, but we can usually feed our whole family for what I see others spending on one meal just for themselves.
The end game is that I’m a singer. I make my money primarily on the road. I don’t think I could be the road warrior I am if it meant extended absences from my family. So if this is our livelihood, then the money we spend for the family to travel is a necessary investment both for my career and our family.
As we look forward to the children growing older, entering their school years, and possibly adding to the family, we find ourselves confronted with new questions about the way forward, many of which don’t have answers yet. We are considering the possibility of some home schooling, but that is not a final solution. Kids need to have their own lives as they mature, and that involves relationships with friends and people who can’t come on the road with us. I hope to focus more on concert and recital work down the road, and would love to join a faculty somewhere that values my performance experience and will allow some flexibility to continue with it while providing some good roots for our family.
There is no made-to-order situation for people like ourselves, but nothing we’ve done so far has been made-to-order either. Rather, it’s the product of seeking to create a life in harmony with our most important priorities. And so far, the way forward has been illuminated one or two steps at a time, which is all we really need.
While the road does mean deprivations—felt more by Ann than anyone else—we have also had experiences as a family we could not have had any other way. It’s trite, but every contract represents a new adventure, new friends to be made, new sights to be seen, new food to be discovered. How else could we have walked down the beach from Tel Aviv to Jaffa and tried the best falafel in the world, climbed the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, spent about 12 days together at Disneyland, stayed in the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki, visited the Musée de l’Orangerie with a sleeping toddler in a stroller, or discovered the delights of Cafe Batida on Krakowskie Przedmiescie in Warsaw? And really, how fun would it have been to do any of those things by myself?
Brian and I met as 18-year-olds just before we started college. I fell in love with him soon thereafter, and we got married 10 years later. (It is a long and complicated story but with a happy ending and a very compelling continuing sequel.) I did not know Brian was interested in singing opera the entire first six years I knew him, as he was pursuing other musical paths. I also did not really know what I was getting into marrying an opera singer.
Life on the road can be nice and simple. I honestly enjoy having only what fits in three suitcases or in our small car. I also love when we are in a city and do not need a car. Removed from all there is to do at home, we find ourselves focusing more on the kids and have a great deal of time with them. The opera rehearsal schedule leaves us lots of family time together. When we do eventually settle down more, I know I will long to get up and go somewhere.
I hope the travel is teaching our kids to be flexible and open minded and not just preparing them to be restless spirits. Our kids are already seasoned little travelers since that is what they do all the time.
We enjoy having them exposed to the opera world. We have a photo from Brian’s recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on our refrigerator. Our son is constantly asking questions about why naughty Puck made Daddy sleep with a magic flower. Both our kids do vocal warm-ups with Brian, and when Brian is practicing, our son loves to comment on Daddy’s beautiful singing. Since our recent return home from two months in Poland, our son continues to say “thank you” in Polish (“Dzienkuje!”).
I am very happy to see Brian pursue and grow in his career. To his benefit, he is just about the most normal musician ever. His feet are planted firmly on the ground. Traveling with kids helps keep him grounded. It is hard to get a big head about yourself when you are cleaning up your son’s vomit two hours after your recent big premiere.
The constant traveling is not without its sacrifices, as Brian mentioned. He has been very kind to me in his writing. He is constantly aware of what I have to give up so that we can be together as a family because too frequently I am reminding him of what I feel I am giving up. I have had to put a lot of my personal interests on hold due to the travel. I am not able to do as much as I would sometimes like with my profession right now, but this is only one season of our lives. Even though it is hard, the benefits outweigh the difficulties.
As some things get easier the longer we do this, other things get more complicated as the kids get older. Quite frequently, even in operas that are not sad, I am somewhere in the audience crying because of the emotion and work that has gone on behind the scenes in our family. But although it is not always easy, I feel these sacrifices are worthwhile, especially while our children are so young and portable. Their childhoods will pass too quickly for us to be apart as a family. I am grateful Brian is having so many opportunities that allow us to be with our kids full time.
Brian Stucki has been singing professionally full-time for almost four years. He thought he was going to be a cellist until 2003, when he decided to enroll in Indiana University’s vocal graduate program. Since graduating, he has sung with companies and orchestras from coast to coast and on three continents. Highlights include The Pearl Fishers with Seattle Opera, Così fan tutte with the New Israeli Opera, Haydn’s Creation, with Boston Baroque, The Barber of Seville with the Compaña Nacional de Mexico in Mexico City, and The Fall of the House of Usher with the Polish National Opera. When not performing, Brian loves everything to do with food: gardening, cooking, dining out, and reading about agriculture and the problems of industrial food chains. He wants to raise chickens and would love to have a Jersey milk cow. He hopes to take up pottery and plans to build a brick oven for artisanal breads next to his herb garden someday.
Prior to becoming a traveling opera wife and full-time mother, Ann Hinckley Stucki studied socio-cultural anthropology as an undergraduate and went on to receive her master’s degree in social work. She has worked in a variety of fields from health education, mental health/community/school social work, geriatrics, childbirth labor support, and disease prevention in Latin America. Her research pursuits have taken her from a Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border dispute to London, England to present graduate research at a Medical Anthropology conference. Additionally, she is an award-winning photographer and enjoys portrait work. She also teaches fire breathing.