A littler happier and finally. . .
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.
And fish to catch.
We went ahead and purchased a year membership to the museum and hope to use it a lot (Brian and Colin are having a special daddy/Colin time there right now since Jane was napping and I'm doing laundry.) I took the kids the other day and we even saw a coyote on the way home. Not too sure I like seeing coyotes where I am walking with my kids.
Brian was interviewed for Opera Colorado's blog recently. Just a fun little thing.
We can barely remember when Brian had short hair like in his head shot. He has intended to cut it for a couple months but instead it gets longer and longer. I need to buy him some head bands.
We are all set up in Denver, rehearsals started and again, we are loving Downtown Denver. We have a really great apartment 1 block from the 16th Street Mall on the 25th floor. Brian can walk to work and I can walk to the Children's Museum with the kids. We have some beautiful views and are very well set-up. Above is Larimer Square, with an entire city block of rope lights. We love all the historic buildings and fun things to do. Also, it is nearly 60 degrees today. Colin has spent a great deal of the afternoon playing on the balcony. Can't complain about that.
Outside the Denver Art Museum. Denver does seem to be lacking a bit in outdoor playgrounds, but our kids will improvise with large art pieces.
A few weeks behind, but a few more photos from Christmas. Colin and Jane both got very cute Christmas sweaters from their Aunt Mary. Jane wore her Dora Backpack all day, and Colin enjoyed a bowl of broccoli Christmas afternoon. Both the kids are still broccoli crazy and we can't complain.
We went to my brother's in the afternoon and made some Christmas Gnocchi. I got Brian this "Lumber" shirt in Poland as a special surprise. I was considering getting him an Engrish t-shirt, but then at Carrefour with Sue Anne in Praga, she found this little gem. It's almost as good as Skipper, but Skipper photographs better.
Oh Christmas Gnocchi! I used to make good gnocchi but our gnocchi has reached all new levels. I make the dough, Brian makes them fancy with the fork mark and does the sauce. He loves doing a browned butter with sage. I want some now.
We have been settling into Denver and will post photos soon. We are in a great apartment and love downtown Denver. Brian has been a little under-the-weather but should have his voice back soon. And it has been in the high 50's, how great is that?
We were planning to leave for Denver on Wednesday but due to a probable storm that day, we are off tomorrow. We only started packing today, but Brian pointed out that it will be good to just have one day of packing instead of two, and the opera is letting us get into our apartment a day early. So lots of laundry and sorting today. . . at least Denver is just an eight hour drive and in the same time zone. Colin is getting excited for the Denver adventure, mainly because Brian said there would be a new toy waiting for him. We are planning to get a membership to the Denver Childrens Museum and will most likely be spending a lot of time there. Goodbye Utah, see you in just over a month.
(I think I'm logged in as Brian but this is Ann.)
Some of our handful of readers may be missing Poland. (My brother complains when we are home because the blog gets too boring. Don't worry! We leave again next week.) We forgot to post a few things from Poland, like the Donkey Ramen. I hope it was not really donkey flavored, but what is that donkey doing on the package? We contemplated that is was a bunny, but those are donkey teeth. Colin grabbed this in the store one day. The broth was tasty, kind of with a hint of nutmeg. Do donkeys taste like nutmeg?
And colder times (Temple Square in December)
January: We started the year in Seattle for Brian's production of the Pearl Fishers with Seattle Opera. We enjoyed spending time with family and friends. We traveled directly to North Carolina at the end of the month (for a total of almost 3 months away from home).
February: We appreciated the early Spring in Raleigh since we were in Seattle for their freak 12 inches of snow. Brian was in Opera Carolina's Cenerentola. A highlight for me was the show on Valentine's Day where I was seated on the end of the row with an empty seat right next to me. I am sure it looked like I have been stood up but I actually went home with Cinderella's Prince. We enjoyed the Southern hospitality of our old friend DanaLee. She was especially helpful to me when Brian had a concert in New York between Cenerentola shows and left me and the kids behind.
March: The kids and I were home all month while Brian had concert work in both Milwaukee and Louisiana ( both Carmina Burana). Colin, Jane, and I enjoyed being close to our pediatrician since they got RSV. (He said I probably had it too, it was nice and miserable.) The end of March took us to Washington DC for a dear friend's wedding, the Cherry Blossom Festival, and wonderful times to see other friends.
April: We arrived home from DC on April 4th and left for Honolulu on April 6th. Brian had a third Carmina Burana with the Honolulu Symphony (RIP, so sad). He only sings for about three minutes in the piece as a roasting swan. The lovely retired gentleman I sat next to in the concert had heard the piece live 7-8 times. He said he had never heard a tenor sing it as well as Brian did. We loved Hawaii as it exceeded our expectations. We spent an extra week up on the North Shore with some lovely friends.
May: We were home for maybe two weeks and I had to go to Disneyland. We stayed with more lovely friends and we always love Disneyland. Brian spent a lot of time getting the garden in. Something in the garden tried to kill him by giving him a terrible infection in his knee. (Worst case scenario, he could have been in the hospital for 6 weeks, so said the Urgent Care doctor.) He had his last follow-up with an orthopedic doctor the same day we left for Princeton, NJ for the Princeton Festival.
June: Brian had fun in the Princeton Festival's production of Britten's A Mid Summer Night's Dream. (It was a great show, hope Brian does more Britten.) We stayed in New Hope, PA in a 1830 lock keeper's stone house right on the Delaware River. We loved jogging on the tow path and enjoyed the nice people of New Hope and Princeton. We also spent a few of Brian's days off in Center City Philadelphia thanks to the Nuttall's generosity. We loved Philadelphia.
July: We were home all month. Brian began a big remodeling of the basement and I had a great time with a herniated disk (pain way worse than natural childbirth). This was not my favorite month, but had a nice time for Brian's birthday.
August: All summer (but a lot in August) we enjoyed many visits from friends and family. We love that in Utah we are able to see so many people. Brian and I celebrated our 6th anniversary with a lovely night away in Park City (since he was off for another concert on our actual anniversary). Colin also started preschool after becoming totally potty trained. (Yay!)
September: We traveled to the Seattle area for Brian's family reunion. We also found out that Brian had a last minute offer to sing with the Polish National Opera. We had less than 20 days between getting the contract and traveling to Poland. Jane got an expedited passport. She maybe has the cutest baby passport photo ever, or one of the cutest since Colin's is also very darling. Colin's photo has made very tough looking border control personel smile.
October: We loved Warsaw and had a nice Polish Fall! We enjoyed mild weather (although a bit gray at times). We had an apartment in the Grand Theatre about 2 blocks from Old Town.
November: Still in Poland, we loved going to the cemetery on All Soul's Day and traveled to Krakow with our friend Sue Anne. We made some very nice friends in Warsaw and have lovely memories. We got home two days before Thanksgiving.
December: Home for the holidays, (minus Brian's one weekend away for a Messiah performance in Indianapolis). Early in the month Brian sang the tenor role in the Creation with Utah Opera and we enjoyed Brian getting paid to not travel. We had a great Christmas and are preparing to leave again in early January (Barber of Seville in Denver with Opera Colorado ).
We know a lot of where we will be in 2010, but who knows? Holy cow it is a crazy life.