For opera parents, the show — and family life — must both go on

Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher is balancing the demands of new parenthood to daughter Leonore with live performance for the Canadian Opera Company’s upcoming production of “The Magic Flute.”

For parents who work in the demanding field of opera, juggling familial duties while employed in live performance is a high-wire, daredevil act.

Their role as a parent never ends. And yet, the show must go on.

Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus knows this first-hand. He’s raising the seven-year-old son he shares with violinist Elissa Lee and co-parenting Lee’s 13-year-old son from a previous marriage.

“I’ve learned that you have to be adaptable and efficient,” Debus said. “While being present to your family, you are required to perform at a high level.”

Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher and assistant stage manager Kate Porter are both newbie parents who have made the mammoth shift from full-time baby duties to demanding rehearsal schedules as the Canadian Opera Company mounts its production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which opens May 6.

Despite the demands, both say the experience of bringing opera to life, to the stage, seems to help them navigate the challenges of caring for their infants.

“Normally I schedule singers and now I’m scheduling meal plans,” said Porter, who is raising her 17-month-old son, Émilien, with her partner, a university professor. “Implementing structure, creating order out of chaos, is something that happens at work and at home.

“My partner’s hours are both more regular and more flexible,” she added. “I find it reassuring that he will always be there at bedtime, even though sometimes I have to miss it.”

Neher, who has performed in three productions — one as far afield as Paris — in the 14 months since her daughter, Léonore, was born, also finds performing and parenting skills have more overlap than you might expect. The fact that her partner is also a musician, a singer in the a cappella group QW4RTZ, has helped reveal these similarities.

Being a singer helps Neher navigate these demands. “Being pregnant, giving birth, breastfeeding and all the very short nights of course affect your singing,” Neher said. “Knowing your voice allows a singer to navigate the physical demands of being a parent and performing. I have learned when to rest and be silent.”

Not that it is a foolproof formula. There are times when it just won’t work and that’s when “adrenalin keeps you going. As a new parent, you develop a new life force that drives you through the day. You have an unknown force inside of you that you didn’t know you had,” said Neher.

Fortunately, opera schedules are sometimes set years in advance, so Neher can co-ordinate with her partner to ensure he can step up when she has intensive rehearsals and performances.

Conductor Debus acknowledges that people working in opera are “not too different in trying to achieve a work-life balance than other professionals, but the challenges are different. When we perform we work when others are not working so that working people can attend performances. Rehearsal schedules do not align with school schedules.”

And then there are the other requirements of this industry. It’s a six-day work week, not the five-day week most of the world enjoys. Of course, performance always means evening and weekend work. At the COC, two operas rehearse in repertory: one in the morning and afternoon, the other afternoon and evening. That might mean missing both dinner and bedtime, important times for parent and child.

Parenthood has made Porter change how she approaches scheduling. “Before I had a child, I would schedule my contracts as close together as possible, sometimes overlapping. Now I relish the gap between contracts. I look forward to the summer when there are no operas being rehearsed or performed. The gaps make this work possible.”

One change that seems particularly rough for Neher is not sleeping in after a late performance or rehearsal. With a child, she is up early in the morning no matter what the rest of her schedule calls for.

Neher has also discovered the challenges of parenting while away from home. “When I was in Paris, I met someone I knew on the street, and they were incredibly helpful in supplying the toys and books that helped me parent but that I didn’t have room for in my luggage.

“This happened here in Toronto as well. A member of the corps offered to help. Raising a kid, it takes a village.”

But there’s always the music, which can be a salve for both parent and child. Despite her worries about returning to rehearsals, Porter was excited to be back in the hall hearing beautiful singing, something she wishes she could share with her baby.

“It is a shame my little guy is too young for it this time around … this production is colourful, with large animal puppets. It’s playful.”

As a singer, Neher is blessed with the chance to share music with her child at home as well as in her job. Like many parents, she sings to her child to soothe her.

“There is a German Christmas song that is the ‘magic trick’ that calms her. A recording or another voice will not have the same effect.”

Neher also shares music with her infant when she is preparing for an opera. “Singing to her isn’t special to her because she hears singing from me so frequently. She hears me practise and listens to the operas I listen to to study roles. I am so happy to fill her head with all kinds of music.”

But there is more to life than music.

“A performing artist is married to their art. There must be passion and commitment, but it should not take over your entire being,” said Debus. “You should still see the beauty of the other things that can happen in life. The responsibility you have for your children is absolutely unique and valuable. That is something that I had to learn.”

Stephen Low is a Toronto-based freelance writer with an interest in theatre, dance and opera.

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