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  • Writer's pictureThera Barclay

What's Age Got To Do With It?

Well, I did it: after about three years of hiatus during the pandemic, I finally resubscribed to YapTracker. That 1 AM email listing all the future opportunities and upcoming deadlines for keen singers is once again taking up space in my inbox, and let me tell you, it's been mighty depressing.

As I scroll through the opportunities, I can see that I'm ageing out of quite a few young artist programs, grants, and competitions. And I'm not even 29 yet! It's hit a nerve that I wasn't expecting to hurt so much. I think it warrants an important conversation about society's weird preoccupation with youth and prodigies.

I still consider myself a young artist, but it seems like society seems to think otherwise. As a light and bright female voice type, the take-home message for me is that I'm supposed to have a booming professional career right now. Allegedly, I should have been showing off my vocal pyrotechnics since popping out of the womb, and I should have had natural flexibility with my instrument, unmatched technical prowess, and fully-formed artistic instincts since at least my early 20's. For me, that has definitely not been the case.

I had a shaky beginning to my vocal journey: I sang as a mezzo for two years during my undergrad (oops) and transitioned to soprano for my third year, but never really got into the repertoire that I now know is the right fit for me. It wasn't until my Master's degree that I worked with a teacher that helped me enable my facility to high Cs and beyond. I've only been singing coloratura rep for a few years, and yet it seems like the expectation for my voice type especially is to have been singing high Qs at 19 years old, and I can most definitely assure you, I was not. And then, right smack in the middle of when I was supposed to be panic auditioning for things left right and centre (because, allegedly, I'm going to expire like a carton of milk pretty soon), the pandemic hits, and there was no possibility of singing anywhere, for anyone.

Fast forward three-ish years, and here I am scrolling through YapTracker and seeing (in my opinion) the most ridiculous age cut-offs. No older than 30. No older than 28. No older than 23. 23! I was only just getting acquainted with my high extension at 23.

Now, finding myself as an (apparently geriatric) 28-year-old, I personally feel that my artistic knowledge has never been more rich and more well-rounded. I have a way better understanding of the physiology and technical requirements (and bugaboos) of my instrument. My voice is much rounder, fuller, and more developed, despite being a voice suited to lighter and brighter repertoire. The artistic insights I can bring to the table are much more rich and well-founded. So, if I'm a better artist than I've ever been, why am I, at the tender age of 28, being denied the opportunity to demonstrate that artistry?

I guess this brings us to the many "whys" and "whats" of age cut-offs for young artist programs. Why is there an age cutoff? Why do we have such a preoccupation with physiologically-younger talent? What does it mean to be a "young" artist? All big questions that I'm not sure can be answered in a single blog entry.

What I will say is this: we, as a society, seem to have a bit of a fixation (dare I say obsession?) with being (or at least appearing) young. This fixation is especially pertinent if you identify as female (because God forbid a woman shows signs of existing, am I right?). Take our craving for eternal youth and our fears of ageing and mix in our infatuation with child prodigies - especially in a field as "grown up" and "high art" as opera - and we've got this rigid, bizarre, and, in my opinion, antiquated notion that the operatic sphere exists only for either up-and-coming youngsters or the highest calibre of seasoned pros. That's not a lot of room left in between for those of us who are discovering our physiological as well as artistic voices at different paces.

Also, what does it even mean to be "young"? That might seem like a bit of a silly question, but newness, youth, and vitality can be experienced in ways other than age (or lack thereof). Even for sophisticated professionals, working on a new art song or aria can be a humbling experience. Tackling an upcoming production or learning a new role can make one feel like a beginner again. And discovering new ways of interpreting and thinking about our craft can indeed bring about a wave of vitality in our spirit. These experiences have nothing to do with age, yet they embody many of the traits of youth that we covet.

I can see that there are YAPs that are starting to forego the age requirement, and I think this is a step in the right direction. Perhaps organizations are starting to value the differences in singers' artistic journeys, and are recognizing that a precocious youth isn't necessarily a fundamentally "better" artist than a late bloomer. And while a talented wunderkind is always a thrill to watch, there is an enormous deal of respect to be had for the artist who had to do a little excavating before the voice (and person) were quite ready to shine at their best.

I will keep perusing YapTracker, and I'm sure I will continue to groan internally (and sometimes externally) as the age limits keep popping up on my screen. But I'll try to remember my own advice and celebrate the journey it's taken for me to get here, instead of shaming myself for not being more of a "natural talent" from the get-go. And I can only hope that in five years (at the ripe old age of 33!), I'll continue to celebrate how far I've come, and the artist I've grown into. TB

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