Known for her wide range of dramatic and comedic skills in singing as in acting, Joanie Brittingham has been acclaimed for her performances with various opera and theater companies in the United States as well as in prestigious concert venues, such as Carnegie Hall. At the height of the pandemic, she took on yet another role, editor at Classical Singer Magazine, bringing her wisdom and experience to this special trade publication dedicated to classical singing and singers. She shares that wisdom and experience with us as she reflects on her unconventional career path and her mission to help singers create realistic and fulfilling goals. She has also just released a unique Christmas album in collaboration with performing artist Mim Paquin. For additional information about Joanie’s career and to download or stream her new album, please click on the links at the end of this interview.
What was your first passion, singing or writing?
Singing. I heard opera as a child on NPR and told my mom I want to do that. My younger sister started taking voice lessons and when I saw her recital, I said I want to do that too! So, after many years of singing the “Sisters” duet from White Christmas at family parties, I wound up majoring in music.
Joanie Brittingham as the Witch in Into the Woods with Madison Lyric Stage (Connecticut), 2019.
Did you sing opera right away?
I did musical theater in high school because that was available, but as soon as I started college at University of West Virginia, I wanted opera. I kept getting work in musical theater and I got my first union Equity points when I was in college. Then I went to grad school where the idea of crossover wasn’t really a thing yet. At West Virginia, we got to have a more holistic education in order to be marketable and employable. It’s heartbreaking that they have taken away their world languages program. I left there speaking French, German, and Italian. Now they have a bare minimum available and that’s a real loss. I came from a rural community in Pennsylvania, in northern Appalachia, and language programs are not something available for students in that region.
In graduate school, I was told I had to pick one thing to focus on, and I had a problem with that, because that’s not realistic for what working in the arts looks like now. Many of my school colleagues expected to be discovered right after graduating. In reality, you have to pound the pavement, do lots of auditions, and sometimes take on work that you’re not happy about. But you meet people on those gigs who then work somewhere else, and they recommend you.
What were your career goals?
I did two Masters, in voice and music history, because I really wanted to teach; that was the long-term goal. I wanted to have a tenure-track teaching job and four kids and a house with a garden. I have none of those things, by the way. Life brought heartbreak, but also a lot of amazing, surprising things. I took an interim teaching job in Mobile, Alabama, and I was okay with the idea that my husband and I probably won’t ever live in New York. While in Alabama, I was flying out to do all these auditions. One day I flew to New York at 6:00 AM, got in a bus to midtown, went to a studio and did an audition, had enough time to get a hot dog, get back on the subway, then on the bus to the airport, and I just barely made it onto the airplane because the weather was turning and I had to teach the next day. I realized then that this was not sustainable; we were spending more on flights to New York than we would on rent. So, we decided to move to New York. This was in 2013.
Joanie Brittingham – Photo: Rachel Monteleone
Then I got a job teaching voice lessons and music history at a college in Long Island. Meanwhile, I was performing. I did my Carnegie Hall debut: I was requested by the composer Karl Jenkins for the North-American premiere of his new work, the “Cantata Memoria for the Children” of Aberfan. I got to do that solo, which was an incredible experience. I wanted to keep performing, but between student loans and the expense of voice lessons, I had to keep teaching. We also found out that we couldn’t have kids. The alternatives to that are extremely expensive, and we tried and failed. One day, I realized that I don’t want to be a sixty-year-old adjunct with no health insurance. The possibility of a tenure-track job is really limited, and you have to be willing to move anywhere.
You know, the way that academia is overrelying on adjuncts is harmful to the ecology of learning. It’s harmful to the teachers; I knew faculty members who were on food stamps. My students would ask: “Where is my tuition money going?” I don’t know, I’d say, not to me, we’re considering joining the janitors’ union. So, I thought, the tenure-track job is not going to happen even if I get a doctorate. The competition is as steep as when you have the 900 applicants for twenty spots at a young artists program where half of the 900 applicants are sopranos and there are only four soprano spots. My husband was planning to go to law school, and he was leaving the arts administration field entirely, so I left teaching and learned how to tune pianos and do grant writing.
Then Classical Singer Magazine hired me as their editor once the previous editor stepped down. I’d been writing for them for years. So, this is where I am now, freelancing. It’s scary, especially as we enter this rocky post-pandemic/continuing-pandemic time. People are still getting very sick and we’re taxing our hospitals. It’s this weird space where the arts funding has really dried up, and a lot of companies are doing badly; it’s reminiscent of graduating into the housing crisis. I feel for the young artists that are trying to get a foothold because I know what that’s like. I’m lucky to say that all of my 2024 gigs are things I did not audition for; meanwhile, after the auditions I have done, I’ve gotten callbacks and not very many offers from those callbacks.
Joanie Brittingham as the soprano soloist for EnsembleNYC’s Bach Magnificat in D
What is it like to be the editor of a trade magazine focused on singers and singing?
Classical Singer has a niche audience and has been around long enough to be the reliable, trustworthy source for information, which is great. But it is starting to be the only remaining print publication in the U.S. that talks specifically about opera, now that Opera News is gone. We also cover crossover and musical theater, and we are as realistic as we can be for the students who are entering colleges and young artist programs about what their future can and should look like. It’s not realistic to go into a degree program and think that you’re going to sing at the Met. If you even get to audition for the Met, you are already in a very small percentage.
We want people to see that they can engage with this art form and still have a life that they like. I was told: “If you want to sing, you have to give up all of these things.” That’s simply not true. There are plenty of opera singers who are parents and who have vibrant lives in other areas. I think we need to lead varied lives, and to know people who are in other fields. We’re doing this interview now at The Lambs, the oldest theatrical club in America founded in 1874. Here I know film makers, actors, dancers at Radio City, lawyers who are advocates for the arts, and it’s been a gift to be able to connect with them. We, as singers and as artists, need our blinders on in the practice room to focus on our music, but we really have to take them off and interact with the world around us, if we’re going to make meaningful art.
What are some new initiatives in terms of sustaining “Classical Singer” magazine in this climate?
The younger generations are not as engaged with print, so we are doing more online. With online content we can address things faster, in real time, we can have reactions to things that are happening in the industry. With print, because it’s such a slow process, we’re able to do features on artists that take more time and give a more reflective look. A lot of our readers are actually high school students looking at college programs, college students looking at graduate programs, and recent grads trying to figure out what to do with their life. Their voice teachers also read us. The end goal is always to help singers, because in this industry there’s a lot of gatekeeping. My goal as the editor, in the content and the writers that I choose, is not only to remove those gates but to remove the fence so that this art form, which is beautiful and beloved by many, is as accessible as possible to the singers and audience members. I want singers to know that there’s no ladder for a career. It’s a hillside. Wherever you take your picnic blanket and set it down and have your career is right for you. Some people are going to be at the top of the hillside, some people are going to be scattered throughout, and the view will be beautiful, no matter where you land. I’ve been wording it that way for a while now. We know singers who have enviable careers at the top of their game, and they are absolutely miserable. I don’t want these students to feel like they have to choose a career and a life based on someone else’s metrics for success.
Joanie Brittingham – Photo: Gillian Riesen
Now that the discontinuation of “Opera News” has left a gap, do you ever see “Classical Singer” filling it by expanding into covering more opera newsy territory?
Well, not really. We don’t do reviews because, at the end of the day, aside from a good quote, how does that help singers? So, the focus will stay on helping singers. We have added a column called “Inside the Industry” where we talk about things that are happening within the industry. In a lot of ways, Opera News had a lot of ads and sometimes those ads were in the form of articles for what was happening at the Met. We don’t have that responsibility; our responsibility is to the singers.
Tell us about your recently released Christmas album called “They Wonder as They Wander.”
I did this album with my friend, Mim Paquin, a soprano of French-Canadian and Irish descent who is from New England. There are some classical sounding aspects to it but it’s not a classical album. We wanted to go with something that evoked the music we grew up with. For me that was Appalachian music, so there’s some hammered dulcimer in there. We chose pieces that were meaningful to us and to our families; we wanted to make something that told the story and journey of people finding community. So, we explored these old Christmas carols and pieces that felt safe and comfortable. We’re both multi-instrument players so I’m playing the concertina and the Irish tin whistle, and she’s playing the piano and guitar.
You’ve already touched on flexibility and openness, but what else has the forging of your unique career path taught you?
As singers, we learned from the beginning of our training that this career will not love you back. There is no job, no gig, no performance, no publication, nothing is going to love you back and give you all you want. You have to love it and give to it beyond those expectations. I think there’s something to that in all approaches to creative work. A creative work is important; it’s how we as humans express being human. There’s a reason we have cave paintings that are older than agriculture. However, it’s also not that important at the same time; it’s not surgery. We’re not literally saving lives. We may be reaching souls and touching people’s lives in meaningful ways, but we are not a blood transfusion needed at the critical moment in someone’s health, and we never will be. That’s okay; we have a different function. So, we have to find and carry that balance. I think the way that capitalism has put its tentacles into art is this idea—and I struggle with this too in my intrinsically calcified capitalism—that my art doesn’t matter if I don’t make money from it or if it’s not out there. I have so many other ideas and so many other things that I want to make. Hard work is one thing, but if something becomes a burden then it’s okay to let that go.
The art of practicing your craft is important too. I’m working on my book on practicing for singers that will be published through Classical Singer. It’s about methods of practicing based on my experiences, both as a singer and a teacher. When I asked some of my teachers to tell me how to practice, they said: “Just practice!” Well, to me that meant running through the pieces over and over again. That’s not practicing, that’s just making permanent the mistakes you were already making. So, I had to learn from instrumentalists and other teachers, people who had solid practice techniques. I observed their lessons, and I had handouts that I then gave to my students, and I realized I can expand on these. I did a lot of research on how we as humans learn and retain information, and how we can do that effectively and efficiently, because there’s only so much singing you can do in a day. There are things that I can learn from instrumentalists, but I can’t spend an hour and a half on two measures; I’d be vocally raw, and it would be bad for my instrument. I always told my students that, unlike instrumentalists, your instrument doesn’t get put in its case and slid under the bed, and then you go out to a bar. Your instrument goes to the bar with you, your instrument goes to your grandmother’s funeral with you, your instrument experiences every emotion that you do because it is you. It is not separate wood, felt, metal, and all of the materials that instruments are made of. It’s the entire body and even the intangible things like emotions and states of mind.
I was told when I was an undergrad that, if you wanted a successful career, you had to have good health and the determination to keep it. As if that’s up to you! I mean, there are some choices you can make that are better than other choices, but you didn’t choose your genetics and you didn’t choose to live during a pandemic. There are singers who grew up drinking water out of lead pipes; they didn’t choose that, and they have to deal with the health ramifications. There are singers who got Covid from a rehearsal where everyone was unmasked and now they have lung problems. So, I think when we talk about practicing, we also have to talk about understanding limits. The practice room is where we discover our boundaries and our safe zone that we can take into rehearsal and then into performances. This allows us to still be vulnerable onstage while helping us build professionalism with our colleagues as within the industry and the environment that we find ourselves in.
Top photo: Joanie Brittingham at Carnegie Hall in Karl Jenkins’ NYC premiere of The Cantata Memoria for the Children of Aberfan with DCINY, 2017
The photos are courtesy of Joanie Brittingham, except for the two that have the photographer credits.
They Wonder as They Wander Christmas album: