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  • Writer's pictureIngela Onstad

Is my career over?

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Christine Schneider of The Visceral Voice Podcast. We spoke about all my favorite things: anxiety, panic attacks, life in the performing arts, and coping with the COVID pandemic.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Christine, she is a highly-regarded manual laryngeal massage therapist AND a former professional Broadway singer. The way I see it, she’s the massage therapist to the stars!

Ingela Onstad soprano
Ingela singing in Oldenburg, Germany

After we wrapped the episode, Christine and I continued our conversation and talked about more personal topics. We shared more about our personal journeys with anxiety and swapped stories about observations we’ve made about performers over the years.

Christine mentioned that one of the common conversations she has with singers is debating the question “how do I know when to end my career?”. Even prior to the global pandemic!

I see this question coming up a lot recently due to the pandemic amongst friends, colleagues, and on social media groups for performers. Now, I know that there’s a huge difference between contemplating stepping out of a performance career due to CHOICE (a luxury question to contemplate) rather than BY NECESSITY (bills have to be paid, after all), but I’d like to share some of my experience with you in the hope that hearing one artist’s story helps.

In my first and second blog posts, I shared some of my artistic career trajectory. What I have not yet shared on this blog is how I decided to leave Germany and transition into a new career as a mental health professional. I’ve shared more personal information about this on two recent podcast interviews (The Visceral Voice and OPERAluscious) but never in print.

Although not the same as a pandemic, my decision to leave Germany and start over was also due to a crisis: divorce. Without going into too many personal details, when my ex and I decided to end our relationship, I had every intention of staying in Germany. I had permanent resident status and I also had full-time employment.

Interesting fact about Germany: you and your spouse have to live in two separate households for one year before you can get legally divorced. Why, I don’t know. But what this meant was that I had an entire year to think about things.

At first, I didn’t even think about leaving. Our separation happened extremely quickly and I barely had time to process what was happening. Plus, I was singing, teaching a few students privately, had friends, had somewhat of a life. And I still had SO MUCH I wanted to accomplish in my career. I still felt so hungry and so committed to my opera career.

However, a crisis has a way of distilling certain things down to their essence. As we went through the divorce, I realized that I was not just losing my spouse, but my entire family in Germany. I think it’s the rare divorce that ends well enough for you to maintain close relationships with your exes’ family. I also realized that although my life was fine at the moment, the minute the management changes in a German theater you are usually stuck looking for a new job. I wasn’t sure about my ability to weather another giant crisis in a short time period, especially with a lot of my support system gone.

I was living in Oldenburg at the time, and I had a feeling that the management of the theater would soon change due to certain circumstances and rumors. I had the realization that I no longer wanted to start over in yet another city and begin again. I lived in three different cities in 10 years and I couldn’t fathom starting again. And I had no idea if I would even get another job. Sopranos are pretty much a dime-a-dozen, unfortunately. The competition is STIFF.

So – during that year of separation, I decided to go back home to New Mexico. I was 32 years old and had lived in Germany since age 23.

The biggest fear when I was thinking of returning home was – will I ever sing professionally again? I had no idea about the state of things at home, what types of gigs were available, what they paid, etc. I knew for sure that I would no longer be paid to do music full-time. Not that it isn’t possible, but it likely would have involved me moving to a big city, getting an agent, and many other steps that I wasn’t sure I wanted to take. I had very few professional connections in the US, and I felt like that ship had sailed for me.

I was also exhausted from the divorce and feeling pretty disheartened about my life.

I think the biggest question that came up for me was this: who am I if I no longer define myself as a full-time musician? And what the HECK am I going to do in order to make a living? I had never had a Plan B and it seemed impossible to come up with one in a crisis.

It was a scary time in my life, no doubt. I realized that I relied so much on an imaginary vision of how my life was going to proceed – and suddenly I had no idea anymore. It was unimaginable and that caused me a lot of anxiety.

I applied for a Masters degree at UNM and figured it would buy me some time to figure out my big Plan B. But I decided I would only enroll if I got an assistantship – I was pretty sure I didn’t want to go into debt for this degree, as I wasn’t sure what the point was of getting a graduate degree at this stage in my life and career. But music still felt like “home.”

As I was in my final months of being in Germany, many friends and colleagues tried to convince me to stay. A very kind opera director told me I could move into her place in Berlin that she rarely occupied and live there while trying to figure out how to further my career. A musician that I began seeing romantically worked hard to convince to me stay, not only for the sake of our relationship, but he really believed in my talent and was certain that I could continue to find work.

It was a hard call. I felt very torn. But in the end, UNM came through with an assistantship offer and I enrolled, put in my notice at the theater, and started planning how to get my things back to the US.

You may be wondering at this point – why not just stay as long as you had employment and then figure out a next step? To be honest, there were many things about the position I had that were unsatisfactory. I wasn’t getting the roles I wanted, they had me doing prompting on top of singing, I felt very unappreciated and used. And once again, the divorce really shook me and made me realize that I wanted more emotional support in my life.

At no point was I absolutely sure that I was making the “right” decision, every step was filled with a lot of doubt and constant questioning. However, when weighing my options, the prospect of being back home where I had my family, life-long friendships, and a community that I knew would support me won out over the possibility of a better opera career. I decided to go with the thing that felt more secure and honor my heart’s wish for security.

Let’s be clear, up until my divorce, my heart’s wish was not for security – its wish was for an amazing singing career. There was a moment in my junior year of high school where my voice teacher told me she believed that I had what it took to be an opera singer, and from that moment on every decision I made was in pursuit of that giant goal. Moving back to NM felt a little bit like giving up on that part of myself.

The blessing of coming back to do grad school was that I still had a lot of music in my life. But as lovely as that was, I struggled with new questions about my identity as a singer, such as “is this a step backwards?” and “am I still viewed as a professional?” and “will this lead to anything?” It hit me just how much identity I had invested in being a professional singer.

Well, to fast-forward through the next few years, I eventually decided to continue on for yet another graduate degree in clinical mental health, MA in Counseling. I had always had an interest in the field and been committed to my own mental and emotional well-being, but it took me more than a few months to mull over this decision. I spent hundreds of hours volunteering at a local crisis hotline in order to see if I could truly handle the stressors of being there for people in a deep way.

So, with some excitement and some trepidation, I began my next degree and then moved into the field of professional mental health, where I remain today.

Back to the idea of identity, sometimes I felt like I was wearing a “counseling student” or “counselor” costume over my singer identity. I know that as a singer, I often struggled with Impostor Syndrome, but here was another form of Impostor Syndrome. Double Impostor, perhaps?

Luckily, I still found opportunities to feel like “myself” (singer) again. From the moment I arrived back home, I began making connections in the community and finding opportunities to gig. But I could quickly see that there was a cap to what I could accomplish as a freelancer without an agent. I’ve continued singing as much as my schedule (and opportunity) allows, but who knows what that will look like going forward? As we all know, the arts community has been hit extremely hard due to COVID and it’s hard to foresee what “recovery” will look like.

I’m really grateful for my life today and feel like I ended up where I need to be. My life feels very “right”. But I can’t deny that taking time to contemplate my past and my winding path to my current career wasn’t a little mournful. I think of all of the musicians I know who have devoted their lives to the art and who are now facing extreme loss and hardship and my heart feels heavy and sad.

If you are a musician or other performing artist and are reading this right now: I want you to know that I have faith in your resilience. I trust in your ability shift and pivot. Your path going forward may still feel very terrifying, but if you keep taking the next tiny step, you’ll figure it out.

I believe you’ll even figure out a way to still feel like an artist even if there are no scheduled performances for the foreseeable future. If we are being truly honest with ourselves, we NEVER knew what was coming next, we only THOUGHT we knew. This is a deep truth that I often process with clients: our need to feel secure about our future, our need to feel like we know what’s coming next.

We don’t. We never did – and this global crisis has reminded us of that more deeply than ever before. In my estimation, all we can do is keep moving forward and have faith that music and art still live in us, and that we will all find a way to share it with the world in a new way.

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