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Joseph Gaines, the Story of Opera and of an Artist

by Andrew Swensen

Artists have a good story to tell. One does not become an artist because of conventional motivations so often associated with career pursuits. No one says that learning ballet is a “good trade” or that becoming a painter promises job security. But such thinking is beside the point when considering the inspiration to make art. You can remember the writing dissertation conclusion that you read on this topic, but it is worth emphasizing that being an artist is hard work, when you constantly have to work on yourself. Somewhere in there, artists talk about the long odds. Two hundred cellists show up for one position, and fifty actors audition for a bit part in a television show. Yet all the while, that admirable motivation to make art defies calculation. They are trying to do something that they love, and we could all learn a valuable lesson from that.


Joseph Gaines performs the role of Scaramuccio in the 2009 Indianapolis Opera production of Ariadne auf Naxos, with Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta (Photo: Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.)

We all know the Hollywood story of artists – either as one of unending frustration or that great moment getting the Big Break. Yet the story of most working artists is typically neither one nor the other. It is a long, demanding narrative of commitment and practice, and hopefully one arrives at that moment when you are actually making ends meet and do not need to work somewhere else to supplement your income as you go from one audition to the next.

In the case of opera, you have to think about those studying voice in conservatories around the country. They work so hard to celebrate an art, to have it endure, but one cannot help but speculate that this passion faces some of the toughest odds. A recent Wallace Foundation study opens with these sobering words: “It’s no secret that the audience for opera is dwindling and graying. While participation in most art forms has declined in recent years, nowhere has that decrease been more pronounced than in opera.”

Not exactly the language of good odds. There must be some good stories in there. There are, and Joseph Gaines is one of them.

Gaines’ first singing interests were in early music, which he labels his “obsession” early in his undergraduate studies, and in choral music where for a while he contemplated a career as a choral conductor. As his studies progressed, he participated in opera, and it found a place in his heart. Gaines is something of a polymath and polyglot tenor – literally and figuratively – as his career has unfolded since that time. From the University of Houston he traveled to the Hochschule of Leipzig for study of not only voice but also some of the other arts of the opera, dance and acting.

Gaines as Pontio Pilato in the 2008 Glimmerglass Opera production of Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, with Ryan MacPherson as Luzio (Photo: Cory Weaver)

Gaines as Pontio Pilato in the 2008 Glimmerglass Opera production of Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot, with Ryan MacPherson as Luzio (Photo: Cory Weaver)

It would be a while before he found his niche, as he puts it, but his career has really embraced a certain breadth required of the working artist. Each of those three areas of early music, choral repertoire and opera found a home in his schedule. As you look at his performance history, it reflects in some respects the truer story of an artist who “makes it” because his career crosses genre boundaries and embraces serendipity. And so, a little over a decade after his return from his study in Germany, he has assembled a resume that includes Glimmerglass, the Indianapolis Opera, and the Pittsburgh Opera; the Baroque offerings of Washington Bach Consort and a recent turn of Handel with Chatham Baroque; as well as the full range of the choral repertoire. Then there is this fall, when he will be covering a role for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. As he speaks about the range of work, his voice carries a love of the art and a happy identity as a self-described “musical omnivore.” For the working artist a career may come together in many ways: “The challenge is to get enough gigs to call it a full-time job.”

As Gaines narrates the standard pattern for opera singers, it seems a daunting, anxiety-producing road. Opera companies journey to New York in the fall to seek singers for the year ahead, and all the singers converge for auditions. “It is more challenging now to get work than ever before. There’s so many of us.” In his case Gaines pursues the character roles for tenor, and he embraces the stagecraft and acting that goes along with performing some of the more colorful personalities of a piece.

Gaines reflects on the future of opera without alarm or substantial anxiety over the form itself. While some may worry about its future – and we previously looked at a few considerations that might lead to alarm inherent in the Wallace Foundation study – he has a clear faith in the enduring nature of the art. “The impending demise of opera has been greatly exaggerated,” and he points out that “there’s more opera available to America now than there has been at any time in its history.” Indeed Opera America tells the story of numerous opera companies and abundant program offerings. Of Opera America’s 120 member companies, half have come in the last 40 years and 40% in the last 30 years, which is cited as evidence of growing availability and production. In the 2010-11 season (the last for which they offer data), there were “1,070 mainstage, festival, educational and other productions.”

Gaines against the backdrop of his current hometown of Pittsburgh, of which he says, "people like having the arts here."

Gaines against the backdrop of his current hometown of Pittsburgh: “People like having the arts here.” (Photo: David Bachman)

For Gaines, opera is a “tremendously successful intersection between art and entertainment. When it is done well, it is its own best argument for why it will survive in the future.” He continues, “Every single time I get someone to go to opera for the first time, once they get in the theater, they have a great time. I don’t think the challenge is making it more accessible, more entertaining. I think it is already accessible and entertaining.” It would seem then that the challenge is getting people in the front door in the first place.

Gaines has indeed made it as a full-time singer. Like every artist I have ever met, there were the times working other jobs, including a turn as an arts administrator where he learned to appreciate the efforts of those behind the scenes who keep an organization going. The art form is so expensive and labor intensive, says Gaines, that “everyone is doing eight jobs and getting paid for 2/3 of one – I have a lot of respect for them.” Ultimately, his achievement comes from a love and an appreciation that reflects why we should continue to tell the story of artists: “Because it is the most satisfying thing that I have ever done. It makes me feel like I am doing something substantial with my life.” We can benefit from such stories. While perhaps we are not all meant to be artists, surely we have something to learn from those who have pursued the calling to do what is satisfying, meaningful, and substantial.

Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:

“‘That Was Not What I Was Expecting’: To Get to Opera We Must First Get Past Ourselves” by Andrew Swensen. The first article in this series.

“The Future of Opera, A Conversation with Christopher Hahn” by Andrew Swensen. The second article in this series

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