World Famous Opera Singer on Mental Health

With a voice that is a “veritable force of nature” (Chicago Tribune), American Soprano, Tamara Wilson, has made a name for herself in opera houses and concert stages all over the World, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, The Sydney Opera House, Royal Albert Hall, Disney Hall, to name a few. Ms. Wilson was awarded the prestigious Richard Tucker Award in 2016 at Carnegie Hall. She received an Olivier Award Nomination for her performance in The Force of Destiny with the English National Opera. Ms. Wilson has recorded various operas and concert works of Wagner, Strauss, Beethoven, Mahler, and Verdi. When she isn’t jet-setting around the globe, Ms. Wilson lives in Houston, TX.

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We are honored to interview Ms. Tamara Wilson and explore mental health in the performing arts community. Read through the interview here:

1. Many are often uncertain of starting a career dedicated to an art form. Although you are now a highly decorated operatic singer, can you describe how you felt and what you went through as you began your journey?

I began music school intending to teach. I did one competition in the first year of my Master’s degree, and my career took off. It was a gamble to leave school and try for a path in performance, but I knew I could always go back to teaching. I had nothing to lose and just kept working gig to gig until I became a professional opera singer. I am lucky enough to have parents who supported my dream. It was uncertain at times, but just with any job, especially in the present, nothing is reliable.

2. Being a singer under the spotlight is difficult for a variety of reasons. Which mental health challenges are the most common in the field? Does the comradery between actors help deal with these issues or do you believe there should be more support systems in place?

There are many mental health issues in the performing field. I would say that depression is the most common. In talking with my colleagues, many have dealt with depression at some point in their careers. Last summer, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. My job did not cause it, but being a singer did not help. I developed crippling anxiety about five years into working professionally. I also thought I wasn’t sick, and I was being dramatic. I did not get diagnosed until last year. I felt shame that I couldn’t pick myself up and get rid of my sad episodes on my own. I really couldn’t go on anymore, so I went to my first therapist last summer. The minute I started taking medication, it was like the world changed from the grey world at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz to the colorful happy land. It is insane that it took so long to ask for help. I wasted so many years where I could have been healthy. I thought asking for help was some kind of failure. Now I am happy I finally found the courage to see someone.
Our career is a giant cocktail of issues waiting to happen. Singers are under scrutiny every day of their lives. The criticism of a singer is always personal. Most professional musicians are perfectionists. Internal and external pressure is pervasive. I started confiding in colleagues that I was having a hard time, and even just saying it out loud was a weight off my shoulders. Once I heard so many other stories like mine, I realized I wasn’t as alone as I previously believed. Now I want to make sure no young singer coming up feels like I felt. It’s time to talk about mental health more as an actual part of regular health and not ashamed.

3. Can you describe the stigma surrounding mental health in the performance arts?

It’s interesting because being eccentric and artistic are big pluses. However, mental health can sometimes make a singer seem “difficult” or “unreliable” and, therefore, a risk to hire. We are only as good as our last performance and only as good as people in the industry say we are. When I lost my grandfather, there was sympathy for maybe a day; then, the show must go on mentality kicks in. Rehearsing an opera is on a fixed timetable, and a company does not care if you are in a fragile mental state. At rehearsals I was a shell of myself. I remember that period as some of the worst days of my life. You can’t concentrate, and there is no time to grieve.
It isn’t just mental health issues in our field that can label you as inadequate. You can ask a director why they want to stage something a certain way, and even questioning them can get you “banned” from working with them. i.e., they will tell everyone in the opera business they won’t work with you again. It is no wonder that singers will hide their feelings or illnesses to maintain employment in this environment. It’s the same with physical illness. People will hide the fact that they have cancer or MS. Some will even hide pregnancy not to be fired.
We get paid performance. If you become sick and are unable to sing on stage one evening, you lose that fee. If you sing a run of 4 performances and are unwell for two days, you halve your income. Singers spend weeks beforehand rehearsing and paying all expenses upfront for flights, lodging, and meals. So if you worked in Europe for 6-8 weeks before the shows, it's possible to lose money due to sickness. Singers stigmatized for having a cold don’t talk about mental health. I had to choose people I trusted not to spread rumors that I had been dealing with depression. Now I don’t care what people say. I have depression, and I am working on it. Now, I want to let people know that it is okay to admit that you are overwhelmed and need help.

4. What effects do singing and performing have on your mental wellness?

For some, singing is therapy. I feel my best when I’m rehearsing and making music with my colleagues. It’s a weird dichotomy because I love what I do, but it also gives me anxiety. Being onstage is a high that I cannot describe adequately. Great performances are rare but are so unique, you spend your life chasing them. Singers deal with all of the cons in this business to spend 3-4 hours singing an opera for that beautiful experience.
It’s interesting; the act of singing takes me out of myself and my troubles. Being to portray characters experiencing extreme emotions is therapy. It’s everything around it that is what hurts mental health. Performing is a small percentage of my job. Travel is constant. The business side of being self-employed takes more time and causes the most anxiety. There are many expenses. You become a travel agent finding apartments in foreign countries. The hardest part to get used to is missing family, and missing events like weddings, funerals, birthdays, holidays. Finding out that spending Christmas alone in a hotel room in Cleveland and Japan are very similar, it is not something I was planning on discovering. There are incredible highs with applause at the end of performances compared to complete silence at the apartment or hotel room afterward.
You aren’t only performing your role. You create the performance of the person people expect you to be when they meet you. Donors or fans expect you to be this jet-setting diva who lives a glamorous life. You have to act a certain way for directors and heads of companies, and it’s exhausting. Once I got a little older and realized the amount of energy that went into being the "perfect singer" was untenable. Once I relaxed the pressure I put on myself, I felt better.

5. What do you do to maintain your mental health as a performer and to destress/relax?

When I’m in a good place, I meditate and do bodyweight exercises with the Sweat app on my phone. It’s brilliant and easy to use when you’re on the road. I watch a ton of movies and tv shows. I love to paint because it’s an artistic outlet that people won't judge like my singing. Gardening is a massive therapy, but it only happens when I’m home. COVID may have obliterated the next two years of jobs in our industry, but my garden is happy.

6. Where was your favorite place to debut?

I loved singing at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. It is the only opera house where your dressing room overlooks the bay. It was so cool to sing at such a famous opera house, and it did not hurt to be in Australia for around three months. It was a fantastic cast and crew as well. Happy memories!

7. What is the most soothing piece to sing/listen to?

OOooooooo, that is a tough question. I’m a 'music for my moods' type of person. The first piece that came to mind is the Duruflé Requiem. Something about that piece heals my soul. If we are talking opera, I can’t listen for enjoyment the way I used to. I analyze everything all the time, BUT operas I wouldn’t sing in, I love. One of my favorites is Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Probably the most played piece on my playlists is Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The balcony scene is my favorite piece of music. I always get goosebumps. If we are talking non-classical music. Anything by the band Grizzly Bear.

Conclusion

Thank you for reading the third installment of the interview series in which we hope to flesh out the relationship between music and mental health. Please visit the tab on mental health to learn more information about the current state of mental health and to find more resources. As always, please read our other articles and interviews and stay tuned for more music opportunities coming up!