To answer the question: "Do you still sing?"

"Do you still sing?"

This is the question on everyone's lips when they see me light up about inclusion in technology, accessible design, and artificial intelligence. They saw me doggedly pursue a career in classical singing; they loved my voice, my joy when I sing; they loved knowing an opera singer and being able to talk about it. They seem worried.

"Do you still sing?"

So much time, so much money, so much emotional investment. I quite literally gave it everything I had, and in some cases, more. All through my training, I was told that if opera wasn't the only thing I could possibly do in the world, then I shouldn't do it. I was told that I was one of the most tenacious young artists my coaches knew, and that if anyone could "make it", I could. I was told that every minute, every dollar, every tear, should be spent on my singing career, if I wanted to succeed.

"Do you still sing?"

I am doing the dishes, as I do every day. I'm in love. A song comes from deep within me - from my heart, my diaphragm, from my past. It's Ravel - still my voice, still singing. "Ô joie de mon âme, Joie de mon coeur, Trésor qui m'est si cher ; Joie de l'âme et du cœur, Toi que j'aime ardemment, Tu es plus beau, plus beau qu'un ange." I feel a kiss on the back of my neck, and a whisper, "I love it when you sing."

"Do you still sing?"

Often, I have to introduce myself to new people who work in technology. Tech meetups, networking events, interviews with the press, in my bio for speaking engagements, people in lineups and coffee shops. "I work in technology," I say. "I do web design and development, and I'm studying data science." Their eyes glaze over - depending on who they are, they either don't care to know more, or they see me as the same as the other forty people they'll have to make small talk with that day. "I'm also a classically-trained soprano." Their eyes light up. "Oh, really?..."

"Do you still sing?"

The last time I sang alone on a stage was at the Monument National in Montreal in May of 2016. I was sharing the stage with Kristin Norderval, and we were representing the younger and older selves of Patricia Isasa, a lesbian political activist in Argentina that was kidnapped, tortured, and raped during the dirty war, and who brought a winning court case against her abusers. It was the first time in my entire singing career that I felt one hundred percent myself, heart, body, and soul, on stage. It was the first time that I played a queer character - the first time I was part of a modern-day story that I felt had the capacity to contribute to societal change to benefit the marginalized - the first time I sang a lead role in an opera that was written with my voice in mind. The first time in ten years.

I have learned that there is a difference between my physical voice, and my voice in the broader sense. I have mastered my physical voice - all the nuances, the breaking points; learned the ways my voice likes to move and blossom. There is freedom and joy in the practise of using my voice in that way on stage. But I needed something more. I needed to use my voice in a way that was rooted in the wildness of my growth as a human being; as a queer non-binary woman; as a sober person; as an artist, a writer, and a huge tech geek; as a person healing from some profoundly violent experiences. 

It is not that singing on stage precludes me from using my voice in that way. But, I have learned that the resources of time, energy, and money are limited, and one must have access to a lot of each of those things in order to make it in the classical music world. This is the hard reality: I have to pay back the financial debt I incurred to pay for my auditions; I have to be in a stable home and community to be able to stay sober, heal from my trauma, and address my mental health challenges in a serious way.

I am using my skills and smarts in STEM, combined with my creativity, to be intellectually fulfilled and help solve some of the most urgent human rights issues of our time. For me, this feels like singing once did - vibrating the air around all of us with beautiful, healing sound. I always wanted to heal the world using my voice, and I am still doing that - I'm just doing it in a different way, a way that feels more fulfilling and more impactful in this moment.

I am so grateful to have had a 10-year solo career as a professional classical singer. I would not be the person I am today without those experiences, those people, and that music. Singing will always be a part of my life, as I sing in my apartment, with the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra choir, and whenever the opportunity arises. And above all, I'm committed to staying true to my voice, to using it in the exact ways it needs to be used, without apology.

So, to answer your question, "Do you still sing?", my answer is-
How can I keep from singing?

WritingRebecca Woodmass