Notes On The Road recently had a rare and fortuitous opportunity to chat with lyric soprano Amy Burton, a star of the operatic scene and member of the esteemed voice faculty at Mannes College.
A regular performer at The Metropolitan and New York City Operas, Amy has portrayed dozens of roles throughout her career, ranging from the repressed, deranged Governess in Britten's Turn of the Screw, to the shamelessly sexy, "professional" temptress in Kurt Weill's The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny.
Critics the world over have hailed Burton as "shimmering," "mesmerizing" and "fiercely compassionate" - all of which proved true during her generous interview with Notes, when she shared on everything from overcoming challenges during her early career to pushing creative boundaries and trumping adversities to ultimately fulfill what she considers the greatest role of her life.
Notes: What began your career in music? What was the beginning where you said, "This is what I'm going to do?" events were determining in your decision to pursue a career in music?
I wasn't much interested in classical music growing up, though I studied piano, flute, voice and guitar. I got taken to a lot of Broadway shows and that was the kind of singing that I really wanted to do. That was what sort of lit my fire, as a child. I completely absorbed recordings of all those classic musicals: West Side Story, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, The Fantasticks. That was my first passion and I knew that I wanted to sing by the time I was five.
As a teenager I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. One of my best friends and I had a duo. We sang and wrote songs together. We listened to a lot of the classic singer-songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Carly Simon, Phoebe Snow, as well as the great jazz singers: Ella, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn. I wanted to do everything; I wanted to sing, write, act, you name it. I was just kind of busting with creativity. The only thing I didn't want to do was work in an office!
At that time I really wasn't interested in opera, but I decided to go to Northwestern where I had auditioned as a voice major. I chose that school because of its renowned theater department, but I wound up working with a voice teacher [Patricia O'neill] who really changed my direction-and therefore, my life. I started listening to all this other classical music that I hadn't been exposed to growing up. I had never heard any Mahler, Fauré, Barber, Copland or much Bernstein growing up and I just went nuts-I said, "This is incredible, I love this music!" After that I had one year where I tried to be both an opera singer and a singer-songwriter, and that just didn't work. So, I made a choice to pursue opera, giving myself until 30 to make it work.
After graduation, I went to London to work with Vera Rozsa who was a very well-known teacher in London. I went over there and after 5 months I came back all fired up to start auditioning for things and I actually got work. [Laughs.] I did, I got work really fast and I was young! I got into Eastman for grad school, but I didn't go because I had work as a singer-paid work. My professional career just started and I was just beyond 22.
Notes: Wow, that's really impressive.
That year I did 75 auditions! It was everything from little vocal competitions to big things I had no business auditioning for, and everything in between. I got a couple of nice opportunities out of it, including my first manager, but the ratio was pretty hideous! I tell my students that all the time when they feel discouraged. Because out of those 75 auditions, I got work that essentially led to everything else that followed. But you know, I bombed 71 times. [Laughs.] Well, I didn't bomb, but it shows how hard your head has to be. There are good ones [auditions] and bad ones and I was never the greatest auditioner. But I was determined to pull things together and it actually happened rather quickly for me.
Notes: How did teaching at Mannes become part of your career?
I actually wasn't interested in teaching and I was very skeptical about whether I would like it or not. But when I was offered the opportunity at Mannes, it seemed like a smart thing to do for the future, because you can't sing forever, although--I don't know, look at Placido Domingo-maybe you can! I was kind of just sticking my toe in the water to see if I liked it. I was honestly afraid that I wouldn't be generous enough of spirit to be a good teacher, especially if I waited until my singing career was over. I wanted to know if I liked it, and if I was any good at it, before I "needed" to do it.
Notes: Do you mean that you thought it would be the default position, like "I'm not singing, so therefore I have to teach."?
Exactly. I was worried about that, because I don't think you can be a good teacher if you feel bitter in any way.
Notes: Eventually, your students will notice that as well.
Or I would be living out my dream through them or something. I wanted to see what it would feel like.
Notes: What did it feel like? What have you discovered in seven years of teaching?
I discovered that I really like it! Teaching is fascinating, engaging, and I actually think it's made me a better singer. I should add that I'm also very lucky that Mannes is so supportive of my singing career!
I think there's a real prejudice in the world of singing that doesn't exist in the other spheres of classical music. If a violinist is on a faculty somewhere, that is considered prestigious--nobody will think that violinist is no longer serious about playing the violin; but this is exactly the attitude in the opera world! If you are teaching, it is somehow because you are not busy enough as a performer, or that you've 'given it up' or have the lost the passion or competitive instinct, or something like that. It's a hurtful attitude, and one that might keep a lot of potentially wonderful teachers on the sidelines. Of course, there are fine singers on voice faculties all across this country. Anyone who's teaching voice knows how much it teaches you about singing. When you have to explain something, you are forced to put into words something that you might not really have fully understood yourself.
LEARNING FROM TEACHING
I think when I first started teaching, I was petrified, because I thought "oh, my god...you know, I only know about my voice...what am I going to do if a mezzo comes in, or God forbid, a tenor! Or, "What am I going to do if someone brings in an aria that I don't know?!" And lo and behold, it happens; you learn what's the same and what's not with different voice types. Or, you realize that you've been a very busy singer for a long time, so, there's some repertoire you know like the back of your hand, and some you just don't know.
I haven't spent my life working on everything-you can't know every song or aria. Well, I guess there are some that do, and I admire them [laughs]. But what I love about it, I guess, is that every lesson is unexpected - and actually, I have learned a lot of wonderful new repertoire from my students. The whole experience of teaching for me feels a little bit like improvisation. I'm never sure what will happen, but even as a young teacher, I trusted my instincts in a way I never did as a young singer. Realizing that I knew more than I thought I did was a big surprise, and that is part of how I discovered I liked teaching.
I used to feel somewhat wistful about the fleeting nature of performance. You give a performance and then it's over. Maybe you go out to dinner afterwards, and maybe the next morning you get a nice review and you can paste it in your scrapbook or put it on your website...but basically the work that you did is in the ether now. I often felt very sad about that. I wanted to 'put it in a bottle' and dreamed of making recordings, so I could feel I was leaving something behind. I have since made several recordings I'm quite proud of, but that's not really what I'm talking about.
When I started to teach, the biggest surprise was how past performances and precise details of my years onstage had accumulated. These memories came flooding back to me, and were tangible and accessible: it was like discovering a warehouse of knowledge that I had, and it was really for the first time, through teaching, that I saw the sum total of my experience. It was a real revelation that made me feel very rich. Suddenly, it changed how I saw the inevitable career shift. That awful saying about "Those that can't do, teach" lost all potency when I realized that my years of singing left me with so much to offer the next generation.
MODELLING ONE'S CAREER (or: How to be a Singer and Have a Baby)
Notes: I see from your website that you travel a lot, but I also see that you have done a lot in New York. How does it feel being a New Yorker and working a lot in your own community when so many other people just seem to travel all the time? It seems like a really unique opportunity.
I sang with Frederica von Stade in Dallas when I was very young and recently married. She had her two beautiful young daughters with her. I was so in awe of her, both as an artist and as a person! One day I asked her how she managed to maintain such a busy career and a family life as well. She said "Well, I live in New York, so I sing at the Met most of the time. My summer's are at Salzburg where my kids come with me, and I do only one opera a year outside of New York or Philadelphia." I thought to myself, I might not ever have the luxury and glamour of her career but I could certainly model my own on that idea, so that's what I did. For me, being from New York, working there was the key to "having it all."
My first big New York engagement was "Mitridate" with 'Mostly Mozart Festival'. Then right on the heels of that I got hired by New York City Opera, and then the MET hired me soon after to cover and do some small roles. I thought "well, it might not get any better than this...let's start a family!" [Laughs.] My son was born in '94, and since then I've worked at both City Opera and the Met pretty much every year. That's how it started really, and since then I've also been involved with a lot of other New York groups like New York Festival of Song, L'Opéra Français de New York and Chamber Music Society. Of course, it's not that I don't work other places, but my career has more New York in it than just about any other person I know. So, I got my wish!
And I can tell you it's THE question I get asked by young female singers. They don't want to know how to phrase or handle an ornament, they want to know how to have both a baby and a career!
THE CIRCUITOUS PATH
Notes: I would love to close things up with a question I'm sure you get asked all the time, but what do you see as the biggest challenges for young singers in the industry, and what do you think are the most proactive ways to go about getting over those hurdles?
You definitely have to be persistent and have a hard head! I've had kind of an odd career that didn't really follow the 'usual' path. There are many more circuitous paths that can be taken and you either have to discover them or create them, or both. I mean, the 'straight and narrow' path of being a gorgeous, incredibly talented young performer a fierce competitor who wins competitions and has high powered people supporting them...that path is even straighter and narrower than it was when I was younger. It still happens that way today, but to fewer and fewer people. There are more singers flooding today's market, more singers than could possibly fit on that narrow path. The supply and demand is out of whack, and it can be a little intimidating for young singers just venturing out. l encourage my students to be independent and to really think outside the box. By that, I mean creating their own publicity and opportunities. With Myspace, Facebook and YouTube, it's never been a more egalitarian landscape for artists.
Notes: I really like this idea of the circuitous path; it seems to me to be more the rule than the exception.
If something doesn't exist, you can create it! Singers tend to feel somewhat disenfranchised and powerless. Part of our existence is taking direction from coaches, a (hopefully supportive) teacher, conductors, directors. As a group, singers are not holding the power in an obvious way. But you're only as limited as your imagination.
I have one very inspiring student, for example, who has been following her husband from city to city, whenever he changes teaching posts. They have two small children and wherever he got transferred, she started an early music consort. She's not only passionate about early music, she's also now a crackerjack organizer and grant writer. She created work opportunities for herself and learned that becoming a presenter allowed her to offer other people work. It changed how she felt about herself and changed her relationships to other people, many of whom offered her work with their own festivals.
This student didn't have a big, operatic voice, and started an early music group. Another student of mine loved contemporary music, and started her own commissioning ensemble. If your dream job doesn't exist, start thinking about what you are able to do to create it. In retrospect, I think I was actually able to create The New York career for myself, where that's not really a typical model. I was able to do that for myself and my family, and like all of life's decisions I paid a certain price for it. But I was home for most of my son's life, which was, for me, the most important thing.
Notes: Speaking of creating, people like your students, like the one with the Baroque ensemble, are creating something in the way they would like to see it. What we do is creative and maybe we get really inundated with thoughts of auditioning and singing this opera that's 200-300 years old and maybe we've lost connection with what's proactive and creative, things that we can do right now.
Absolutely! The definition of success is only as narrow as you are willing to buy into. I think if you have a creative impulse, you should create something!