This is for all the human beings of the opera industry. For everyone who has worn a smile when they have wanted to cry, for everyone who has pretended to know what they are doing when inside they feel like they are cheating, and for everyone who has ever felt pain or disappointment as well as pride and joy in their work. This is to tell you that it is ok to not be ok. It is ok to have doubts, confusion, and to struggle with our own sense of inferiority in the world around us. It’s called being human. And you know what – you are not alone.
It is taboo as an artist to talk about yourself in a negative manner. It’s all about presenting ourselves in a manner that makes us irresistible to employers and at the vanguard of audience tastes. We must strive for perfection.
I commit a cardinal sin that I loathe entirely and google myself. Take a moment to step outside of the person that I know I am and look at myself from afar. The public face. The Ella that people see and that I have been painted to be. Most of the media I can find about myself is from 2015 – a year when I directed 28 productions in Europe and Russia, founded a fringe theatre in Stoke Newington, oversaw the theatres move to Balham, observed at The Royal Opera House, adapted Rock Tosca, assisted at Buxton Festival, and made my Mariinsky debut. Even now I’m sat here at my computer nodding to myself. The sheer volume is extraordinary. Even I don’t know how I did it. But apart from raining achievements from out my ears what language can I find about myself. I dig further and find the following adjectives applied to me: “dizzying” “bright spark” “brave”. In the Telegraph I am described as having energy that opera managers are “smitten” by. I smile as I think, hey not too bad, I sound like an Indiana Jones-cum-siren of avant-garde opera in the UK.
But here is the truth about 2015. I worked every single day of the year until November 28th, then went on a three day bender, and finished the year off by leaving Theatre N16. I underwrote a company debt with all my savings, and would cry myself to sleep night after night because I felt completely alone and unable to talk to people about what was really going on. And yet, whilst this was happening paparazzi were outside my shows and people were hanging medals and wreaths of success around my shoulders.
I started working in the industry painfully early. I fell in love with opera and it was the sole entity that gave me real purpose, joy and drive in life. I’d been in a relationship that left me fractured and unwilling to let others in, which led to a pattern of self-destructive abuse in the way I related to others. Before I had even started University I had worked abroad on two long contracts, and returned to Leipzig missing my first week of lectures in order to make the final week of Tosca rehearsals.
I am loath to admit it but I was a victim of my age, gender and naivety in my own lack of comprehension of what behaviour that would elicit in men. I am far from the epitome of an angel, but I have counted at least 20 occasions where I have felt sexually compromised or emotionally blackmailed by powerful men within the industry, and if I thought hard about it there would probably be more. I tricked myself into believing this was ok by convincing myself that I was living through exciting adventures. And this added to the damage. In addition to this as a young woman travelling alone I have also been attacked on three occasions in three different countries by men in the street, and had a van driven at me in Berlin on the way home from an opening night party (whilst wearing a tracksuit I hasten to add).
Had I been a man would my experience of the industry been any different?
I am now 25. I have no company debt to underwrite, I am very astute and specific in the work that I take on being careful not to overload myself (although still no sign of a holiday alas), and greatly enjoy the work that I do because I have the space to do it properly. I was so singleminded when I started out working that I wanted to be a world class director and I would choose that over family. In my mind doing both simply wasn’t a concern. I think differently now. Even in the last year I’ve had my fertility tested. I want to be sure that when or if I ever meet the right person that I could dive into this other adventure of life. Because as much as work is important, so is balance.
And this is why I find myself at SWAP’ra. Because I know that I have been treated differently throughout my career because I am a woman, and because I want to make sure that if I choose to be a parent in the near future that I can do so without sacrificing my career. Mother AND director. It is possible, evidenced by all the wonderful mothers and parents that this group is already celebrating. But it extends beyond parenthood. I am here because I care about the wellbeing pastoral care and emotional safety of artists in general, and I want to do everything I can in my power to make the industry as compassionate, balanced and supportive as possible.
I’m still a veritable emotional rollercoaster, but am much more comfortable in the skin I am in now because I am not afraid to speak publicly when I feel pain. I have learnt that to wear a mask will only make things worse. Judge me for what you want, but take a step back and you will realise that we are all in the same boat to some capacity and that there is a group of us working to help you.