Simon Keenlyside & Zenaida Yanowsky
Baritone and Prima Ballerina
Husband and wife, baritone Simon Keenlyside and dancer Zenaida Yanowsky offer a unique insight in to the challenges of family life as two parents operating at the absolute top of two art forms.
08 March 2018
Z: image © Rob Moore, S: image © Uwe Arens
S: What are you both up to at the moment?
Zenaida – I’m performing “Las Hermanas” in Leeds with Northern Ballet in March and having to commute a little for the rehearsal period.
Simon – Working and not working. Being with the kids and surviving being away. Sounds glib but, of course, there is a world of struggle, guilt and fatigue in between.
S: Do you have time for other passions and interests outside of your work and family commitments? How have you maintained a balance between your busy career and having a personal life?
Zenaida – My work as a dancer has not given me much spare time for hobbies or social life. Also the daily mental and physical exhaustion and the constant muscle and joint care, cripples you from any adventures that might jeopardise being at your best physical ability for the demands of the following working day. When I had a family I felt I could only do two things. Go to work and come home to my family. There was no time for anything else. My social life was massively reduced and my other luxury passions like going to the theatre became non-existent to this day. It doesn’t have to be that way of course, but I feel that the pressure of staying at the top of your game intensifies with a family.
Simon – Zenaida has, in the past, accused me of being nothing BUT a collection of hobbies and passions. My father (also an itinerant musician), held this philosophy with respect to children: that if you throw enough mud at the wall, then some of it will stick. It did with me. The problem is that in order to actually immerse oneself in any of these interests one must first give up work entirely.
Once I was married and the children came along, the 25 years of adventuring in the mountains, forests oceans and deserts that I had done during and after the work periods all came to a screeching halt. I have taken 5 months off work every year since I was married. That still leaves me away for 7. Unacceptably long for any family. Yet more time off work than that and I think it’s fair to say that any career would flounder. For young singers it is harder still because they will not be earning decent wages. In addition, they must foster work contacts and connections and take most of what is thrown at them. All of this is going to play havoc with commitments at home. No amount of hand-wringing will change the fact that a singer’s life is a vagrant one. Modern transport will get you home for high days and holidays but it’s not a lot more than lip-service to family life and one must return immediately to work in any case.
S: SWAP’ra has been established to try to encourage gender equality in the opera industry. There are several obstacles for women in fulfilling their full career potential, and one of these challenges is the juggle of career and parenthood. This particular challenge also affects opera dads, which is why we were keen to add the word ‘parents’ into our name, despite being fundamentally a charity for women. Simon, could you describe the ways in which a busy career affects you as a father, and how this differs from the way parenthood affected Zenaida’s career? Zenaida, have you noticed a difference in the way parents manage in both opera and ballet?
Zenaida – ‘Managing’ would be choosing within the resources available, but there are hardly any resources in place to help working ballet dancers. I would call it “surviving mechanisms” more like...
In my case, I was in a privileged position to be able to afford a person that would help me with my kids when I was not home and could accommodate my crazy working hours. But, most of my colleagues’ wages would not cover that kind of flexible child care. Parenthood is a constant team effort but in my case, my husband would sometimes be away sporadically for over 7 months a year which left me running a home, organising child care, taking care of my kids and trying to do my job the best I could, all on my own. So what happens when if you are a single parent?
What if your child has some health issues? The beauty in the arts is the possible concentration of all kind of international artists, but as a foreigner (and I’m sure a big percentage of British parents feel the same), you find yourself with no family support and little time to connect to any other kind of network.
Simon – Many of my European colleagues are fixed in an opera house and remain there for something like half of each year. This is good for the opera houses, who have top-class singers on their roster and for a fraction of what it would cost them were they to employ freelance singers. In return, the singers have something of a home-life and are still able to work. Alternatively, some colleagues specifically base themselves equidistant between good opera houses. This way, most of their work is not so very far from home. In Britain we have neither the number of opera houses to do such a thing, nor the company tradition either. I am envious of my foreign colleagues in this respect, but it was never an option for me.
Zenaida, on the other hand, has always been company-based. However, having said that, the rigours of a ballerina’s life are such that there is simply no time to do anything else than dance. The sheer number of hours they put in daily must prevent any of the Mothers from being as present as they would want to be in the home and with the children.
S: How do you both manage your careers alongside your family commitments? How has this changed as your children have grown older? Have you had any lifelines in this juggle? (Helpful grandparents/nannies/boarding school/etc)?
Zenaida – When I started working after my first child was born, I would bring him to work with me while I was breastfeeding. The Au pairs I had would walk the baby to parks etc and then come when it was feeding time. That way I could also have my “baby fix” without feeling too guilty over the time I would spend at work. After my second child was born, things got a little harder. Being on my own with a baby and a toddler for long periods of time with little sleep took a toll on me. You could say I didn’t have the right childcare but I was stubborn and refused to just be a weekend mother.
I felt tremendously guilty I was not seeing my kids enough during the week. A couple of hours in the morning and 30 mins in the evening if I was lucky. My kids also made sure I knew of their disapproval and their behaviour became difficult. I could see the effect all this absent parenthood was having on their little lives and felt powerless to the extreme. My son developed an anxiety disorder caused by his dad constantly leaving and me not being at home enough hours in the day to ease his pain. A year on and I broke down having a huge panic attack on stage. The next day I took the day off work to reassess my situation, and decided to immediately ask my boss to review my working hours. Also I proposed to work through all my breaks (including my lunch break) if I could finish 2 hours earlier so I could see my kids more. Luckily my boss understood and managed to keep that deal for a few months at least.
Simon – We had no parental help. Mine have gone and Zenaida’s live in the Canary Islands. On the other hand, we do have the huge good fortune to be able to employ a nanny. It is a full wage, but without her, I do not know how we could ever have continued our jobs at all. I am aware that despite this, it is a privileged position to be able to afford the help that we do have. Boarding school would not be an option for us. I do not judge anyone else for thinking otherwise, but I know both of us wanted to have kids. They are the centre of both the our lives in every respect, and we both delight in the company almost all the time.
S: How do your children respond to your job? Have you found opera companies accommodating when your children have travelled with you?
Zenaida – My kids love coming to the Opera House or any other theatre! But they did ask me please to retire soon so I could be home more...
Simon – Like so many of our kind in the arts, our children have grown up in and around theatres. They are comfortable in them and don’t need reminding (anymore!) about the need to be under-the-radar and quiet. Are opera companies sympathetic to children in the theatre? No, I do not believe that they are. They have a job to do. Theatres are high octane environments: high emotions, deadlines to present operas and ballets on time. Presenting works of art and artists in the best possible light is not an environment conducive to children playing in the stalls or corridors.
We who have kids with us try to have them on a short lead and as far as possible away from the corridors of power. All the same, most children learn pretty quick what not to do.
S: Simon, have you ever taken your children and a nanny/au pair abroad with you for a production when Zenaida has been working/away?
Simon – Yes, I have on occasion taken the kids away on my own. Of course, what can go wrong usually does go wrong. Often at the last crucial minute. Perhaps it does fit a stereotype, but I have found that Mediterranean cultures are a little more laissez-faire towards children in the theatre. I have had the children onstage in final rehearsals. Quietly colouring in at the back of the sets. I have had them with a local baby-sitter and without one. When disasters do occur, things have a way of sorting themselves out in the end. The sun usually comes up the following morning, and what seemed a great hiatus the day before is now nothing. Perhaps that is one of the requirements of a parent then: to be adaptable with kids as well as with oneself?
S: Simon, have you noticed a change of attitude towards women in opera during your career? Do you see any difference in these attitudes in different countries?
Simon – I note that there are very few female directors. I see no reason why this should be the case. One must be careful not to apportion blame, but I do not think it is a question of training more women. They are already there. In my opinion it is not a question of promoting the talent, only of giving them the opportunities which they are clearly not getting. How you achieve that? It’s beyond my pay-grade. I see too that there are even fewer women conductors. How to redress this balance too? I suspect is an even thornier issue, but it cannot be beyond the bounds of possibility. In my lifetime some of the very greatest orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic - which had no women in it a decade or so ago - are now wonderfully represented. One of the co-leaders of this great orchestra is also a woman. This shift in orchestral balance is true the world over, and it’s something to celebrate. Some good changes can and have happened with respect to gender equality. Fifty years ago, concert pianists and violinists were the preserve of men. No longer. Some of the greatest exponents of both are now women. So it cannot be beyond the realm of possibility that we can overcome whatever the resistance is in the world of opera directors and orchestral conductors.
S: Women are considerably under-represented in opera when it comes to directors and conductors. Do you observe any differences in the way women in these roles work, or the vibe of a production led by women? Zenaida, is it a noticeable difference in ballet too? Have you worked with female conductors?
Zenaida – I have worked with female conductors. I think only three during my 25 years as a professional.
Simon – I don’t believe that there is any difference in the way a woman works as a director, as compared to a male counterpart. The job description involves an overview: an idea and the ability to marshall large numbers of people as well as work in detail with individuals. Talent is the commodity we always seek. Self-evidently that is not gender specific .
S: Do you think there is any value in targeted support, training and performance opportunities specifically for female directors and conductors in order to redress the balance?
Zenaida – I feel the message is definitely out there and every generation of women is growing more in confidence and self-assurance to fill in those jobs. I would like equal opportunities for both genders, especially when they are in the process of developing as an artist. Before you become a master of your craft you inevitably have to go through a long learning period involving many failures. I feel the pressure on women to not fail is much bigger than that of their male counterparts.
Simon – I fear that in going down his route, what you might achieve would be a world full of female assistant or associate directors. Opera houses full (as they already are) of extremely capable and knowledgeable women house-directors, whose job is always to revive other people’s work faithfully. I don’t think this is a good way forward. Until we identify a way through the glass ceiling and the forces preventing women from being given the new productions from the outset, we are not going to change a thing .
S: What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry, to make life easier for artists with families/dependants?
Zenaida – I feel a crèche should be a compulsory facility within the establishment.
Simon – I really do not know what changes one might make for artists working in opera to make life easier for families. We must all take responsibility for the fact that we chose this profession in the first place, and it is a very difficult one to juggle with the rigours and challenges (and joys too) of family life. We cannot expect the state or our employees to pick up the tab . However, there could be structures that we might so easily develop, such as crèches. Wonderfully useful for company members, chorus, stage crew, ballet. A small payment by all concerned would cover the cost of corporate childcare in the workplace and the question of which hours, when and how, I daresay would sort itself out over time. How would that work for visiting freelance singers who move from country to country all the time? I don’t know. I guess that we too might pay into these schemes: pay-as-you-go, and in order to get the same benefits? A crèche seems the obvious solution. It would help no end I’m sure. Whether the opera houses would be prepared to allocate space for this, when practice-rooms and rehearsal studios are already at a premium? I don’t know. At the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, we were very impressed that they already have a soundproof glass-fronted room designed to allow late-comers and company members with children to observe the stage and listen through speakers. That, too, was a great help for parents with young children.
S: What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry is about to become a parent?
Zenaida – Tighten your belt... it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Simon – Not to panic. Not to make too many hard and fast rules for your own working life. The kids will wreck most of them all the time in any case, and even strategies that once worked to control them will quickly become obsolete. So, just be adaptable and keep calm. You will surprise yourself in finding that your work and your artistry will not suffer as much as you might think. Singers be prepared, however, for a world of coughs and colds.
S: Were either of you ever advised not to have children for the sake of your career?
Zenaida – No. But in my profession the decision of having a family is a tough one. It’s a very competitive job and having you off for a year (you can’t dance after 3 or 4 months pregnant...sometimes earlier) means the company moves on without you and other people will inevitably take your place. Also you incorporate yourself back into the company 3 months after giving birth, just when you’ve finally worked out some kind of feeding and sleeping pattern at home.
You are expected to be back into your “dancer shape” and fully working 4 to 5 months after the birth. Good luck with that!! If you’ve miss out on a production during your pregnancy, it is very likely you will never be part of it after having had your child. That means that your career will most likely be stomped. So you can see why many women dancers would hesitate in starting a family.
And that’s before the thought of child care and all that!
Simon – I was never advised of any such thing and could not conceive of that ever crossing our minds. What we gain from the children, in innumerable ways, is of an order of the entire Universe in advance of whatever we could ever have imagined.
S: Simon, how has your voice/the roles you are cast in changed as your career has gone on?
Simon – Mother Nature will dispense a whole raft of changes to a male singer as he ages. In general I would say that with a balanced voice, time will give more resources. A cursory glance at the artistry of long-dead singers will illustrate that by virtue of the roles they embraced as they got older. Personally, I have also found too, that with age has also come more vulnerability. It takes me longer to recover from not just bugs and fatigue and kids, but the performances themselves .
S: Do you think a woman’s singing career progression differs from a man's? And Zenaida, it would be interesting to hear about this from the ballet perspective, too.
Zenaida – Mother’s careers rarely progress in the ballet after having kids. It is a fact.
Simon – It is difficult to equate either what a woman’s perspective is from a man’s, let alone what Zen’s is to mine? Or one art form to another. A violinist will play until he or she is around 70, roughly the same time as a singer. A pianist appears to last longer. A conductor longer still.
And a ballet dancer? They’re pretty well cooked by their early forties. Not much different from a professional footballer. A little longer than a track athlete, and a little shorter than a contemporary dancer. I can only observe other art forms. I couldn’t answer for more than that.
S: If you could go back in time would you change anything in your career?
Zenaida – I’m happy with my achievements but I would like the system to move forwards with the present times and incorporate a better and more sustainable working plan, not just for dancer mothers and fathers but for all artists working in a big establishment.
Simon – Good question. But all humankind is famously reluctant to change what and how they lived, one jot! To do so would negate so many of the personal experiences and people that they met along the way. Perhaps I would have preferred it were I not such an idiot when I was younger?
Then again .... who’s to say ......