DANA VARGAComment

SUPERWOMEN: Boston-based female artists on balancing pregnancy and parenting with busy careers

DANA VARGAComment

Women in the arts often feel they have to choose between having a family and having a career. These talented and brave Boston-based artists are balancing both, and have a lot to say on the subject! They shared with me the struggles and triumphs of navigating pregnancy, breastfeeding, parenting and more while staying relevant and active in the field.

EVE SUMMER, STAGE DIRECTOR [www.evesummerdirector.com]

This season Eve Summer directs Trouble in Tahiti at The Glimmerglass Festival, and YA outreach productions of Falstaff at Opera Colorado and The Ugly Duckling at Opera Saratoga. Directing credits include productions of Così fan tutte, Lucia di Lammermoor, Xerxes, Carmen, The Magic Flute, L’elisir d’amore, Le nozze di Figaro, Die Fledermaus, Don Giovanni, and Suor Angelica. A former professional ballet dancer, she has been on staff as a choreographer and assistant director at Tulsa Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Colorado, and Opera Boston. Eve has two sons, ages 1 and 4. 

Announcing the pregnancy: The first time when I disclosed my pregnancy it cost me a few jobs. I wasn’t prepared for opera companies to not want to accommodate me bringing the baby, and the housing issues seemed daunting. Some offers disappeared, and I was talked into withdrawing from others. But once my first son was born and I realized I was still the same intense and motivated person I was before, I set about making it work.

Finding the balance: Logistics, logistics, logistics. I spend as much time prepping housing, travel, and childcare as I do prepping a production! Each gig I bring my children on means finding new childcare on the road, calling friends around the country for housing and childcare recommendations, dozens of nanny interviews, calling references, etc.

I go through periods of intense work followed by intense momming, and it really works for me! In between gigs I’m working and prepping from home, so I have tons of time with my kids. I host lots of play-dates, go to play-places, and cook every day. I miss the kids when I’m working, but when I’m in rehearsal I’m completely transported and it is all more than worth it. Fortunately I handle sleep deprivation very well, but parenting after a day of rehearsals is really hard.

How the opera world can better serve parent-artists: Education and a willingness to change priorities are key. Most of the negative experiences I’ve had have not happened out of malice, but a lack of experience. I’ve breastfed both of my kids and it is a huge physical and logistical commitment and is very important to me. The reason I pump and how frequently is often a new learning experience for my employers. Pumping throughout the day in a clean room with privacy is a physical necessity if you’re breastfeeding. Not pumping often enough, besides lowering your milk supply, can make you sick.

Having worked as a producer I completely understand what it’s like to stretch a budget and resources to house visiting artists, and to feel like other people’s personal lives aren’t my responsibility. But having kids isn’t like asking for green skittles in your dressing room. It is sad to have to think of your family as a liability. When opera companies take an active role in keeping families together, it makes every part of the experience of working there more positive and fulfilling. Education and investment in artists’ well being is important.

Being an “opera mom” role model: Since my second son was born last year I have really come into my own being visible as an opera mom. I didn’t travel with my first or bring him around rehearsals. I wanted to show everyone that I was exactly the same, that having a kid didn’t affect me, but of course it does and that is not shameful. Now the kids travel with me more. Colleagues see me nursing and playing with my kids on our breaks. Singers, staff, and production team members get to know and love my kids. Openly nursing and parenting my kids on gigs shows more women that being an artist and a mom aren’t mutually exclusive. If they want to be both, they should fight for both.

How the kids are affected: There are huge pros and huge cons. I know that sleep, attitude, and behavior have been tangibly affected by my absence, and that is a hard pill to swallow. But they also get to have extraordinary experiences. My 4-year-old has been to 12 states already! He makes friends (and fans) at every new opera company and learns so much. My day off in each new city means new adventures; a new aquarium, new zoos and museums, parks and playgrounds, fairs and festivals, hikes and special outings.

Wisdom to share: I’ve never been more frank or more completely confident about who I am. People know how ambitious I am. Being a mom makes me a better director and being a director makes me a happy mom.

SONJA DUTOIT TENGBLAD, SOPRANO [www.sonjatengblad.com]

Grammy-winning soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad spends her time equally between oratorio, chamber and new music, choral, and early opera. She has been a soloist with nearly every major orchestra in the Boston area, and curated her own award-winning program of modern settings of Dickinson poetry. She teaches voice at Wellesley College. Her son is six months old.

Pregnancy and postpartum support: Fortunately, I mostly felt great during my pregnancy. Every conductor I worked for was also incredibly kind to me. My question is: why doesn't this continue for a while postpartum? Your body is dealing with a lot for a long time after childbirth, no matter how you give birth. Not to mention that you are incredibly exhausted, and dealing with major hormonal changes, and major lifestyle shifts. All of this seems to be in tandem with how our entire medical system treats mothers postpartum, so maybe it shouldn't surprise me! 

Preparation and practice: I think one of the best things I'm giving my son is a life of music, so I like for him to be as surrounded by it as he can, and he obviously loves it. I don't practice as much as I used to, but I do find I am far more efficient than I used to be. I also love practicing in front of him. Seeing his face while I'm performing those arias is a definite nerve-aid! For really challenging gigs, I do find I need him out of my space so that I can really focus.

Finding the balance: I think the best and worst part of it is that your attention is so divided. It's a lot harder to get focused technical and musical practice and prep time in, and in rehearsals (especially when they're traveling with you and are backstage with a babysitter) you feel pulled somewhere else. But that's exactly why it's fantastic too: it shows you that it's just music after all, so just have fun making it. I now choose not do some gigs because of travel, and I'm okay with that. I waited a long time to have my son so that I could make those decisions and wouldn't resent him. Fortunately, the little travel I have done with him so far was either near grandparents or through a college where babysitters were easy to find!

Accommodations for breastfeeding and pumping: While everyone’s breastfeeding situation is so different, our society as a whole is not breastfeeding-friendly. You have to state what you need (within reason) and your conductors and employers really should listen. That said, gigs in this field often do not provide adequate breaks, and usually don’t have any semblance of a lactation room. Sometimes you need to get creative…but you figure it out! 

Two musician parents: One of the blessings and curses of my situation is that my husband is also a freelance musician (percussionist) with a career path similar to my own; about 1/3 teaching and 2/3 gigging. A bonus of not having one spouse with a full-time, regular job is that one of us is almost always with the baby. It is a happier situation for all of us, cheaper, and ensures we're not getting sick from daycare germs. That said, our schedule is never consistent so it takes careful and creative planning. Add to this the fact that we have no local family; we've discovered that flying a grandparent out for an especially busy week is cheaper than paying for babysitters!

Wisdom to share: I get far less nervous now about performing because he reminds me every day about what's important in life, and that I'm so lucky to be a musician for a living.


VERA SAVAGE, MEZZO-SOPRANO [www.verasavage.com]

Mezzo-soprano Vera Savage, whose voice has been described as "supple and powerful, with a deep velvet shimmer" (Houston Press) has performed in opera houses across the country, including Florentine Opera, Opera Saratoga, Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, Opera in the Heights, and Opera on the James. A frequent principal artist with Boston Lyric Opera, Vera was last year's winner of BLO's annual "Stephen Shrestinian Award for Excellence."  Upcoming engagements include The Handmaid's Tale with Boston Lyric Opera and her debut with the Spoleto Festival USA in Donizetti's rarely performed opera Pia de' Tolomei. Her son is two and a half.

Adventures in pregnancy: I was very lucky, as my pregnancy likely had a positive impact on my career. I had accepted the role of Tisbe in Rossini's La Cenerentola with Opera Saratoga, and calculated that I would be 36 week along by closing night. I had heard stories of offers being rescinded due to pregnancy, so I was nervous to communicate the news to the company. The response I received from Larry Edelson (AD, and stage director for this production) was "great, we will figure it out!" They were all incredibly supportive there; Larry really embraced it and worked my baby bump into the show. He gave my character a binge eating disorder to justify the enormous belly. I spent the show eating various items onstage: bread, lollipops, drumsticks, spaghetti, a banana, etc. I really love physical comedy and had a blast throughout the rehearsal process and performances. It also went over really well with the audience. People thought it was hysterical, and my various eating escapades were highlighted in several reviews. I will always have a special place in my heart for Larry and Opera Saratoga. They really rose to the occasion and made this first time pregnant lady feel supported and fantastic. Additionally, my current manager Robert Gilder happened to be in the audience for this show and I think this helped me land a spot on his roster.  

Kids and gigs: The biggest challenge by far is childcare. Traveling with a baby or toddler is tough, but finding someone from afar who is trustworthy to care for your little one is really hard. During a gig in Virginia last year I had to fire a sitter during tech week and it was an absolute nightmare. I also had to turn down an offer last year with a lovely company down south, which was upsetting. They simply couldn't find a homestay with the space for a Mom/toddler/occasional babysitter. They really tried to make it work, but they simply couldn't accommodate us.

Pumping is also a difficult issue to navigate. AGMA breaks are often not long enough for pumping. I think that many moms would like to see AGMA come up with specific directives as related to pumping; such as a private space and minimum pumping time

Preparation and sleep: It can be incredibly hard to strike a balance as a singing mom. When I am not on a gig I stay home full time. I love being home with my son, but I do struggle to prepare music and get work done when I'm in “mom mode”. My son hates when I practice and finds very creative ways to get me to stop. It has turned into a joke actually! It is hilarious watching the various ways he will sabotage my practice sessions, and I enjoy sending the videos to my friends and family. I have to hire sitters in order to have quality practice time to myself. I don't always sleep enough; late night rehearsals are particularly tough for a singing parent. Though many of my colleagues can sleep into the late morning, my little guy will be up at 6:00 AM regardless of whether I'm ready or not!

Wisdom to share: With all its challenges, I do think that having a little one has really changed me as a person and singer for the better. Having a baby really changes your perspective and reminds you what is important. Rejection is always a bit easier to take when you have a little person's arms to hug you at the end of the day. It is a huge challenge at times, but I wouldn't change it for anything.

MAJA TREMISZEWSKA, COACH/PIANIST [www.majatremiszewska.com]

Maja Tremiszewska is Boston-based pianist, accompanist and coach. She holds the DMA from Boston University and Masters of Music from Gdansk Academy in Poland. She has worked with many local opera companies, including Boston Lyric Opera, MetroWest Opera and Boston Opera Collaborative. She freelances extensively as a chamber musician, accompanist and orchestra keyboardist. She has performed with Boston Landmarks Orchestra and worked as a staff pianist and coach for Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Currently she serves as a pianist/organist at St. Mary's church in Brookline. She will spend her summer as a resident coach for Chicago Summer Opera. Maja has two daughters, ages 1 and 4.

Gigs: childcare and housing for the family: I only occasionally travel with my children for gigs since it requires so much planning. It is difficult, but it can be done if you have a strong support system. Recently I had to turn down a gig that may have furthered my career as an opera coach. I was told my children could not be accommodated, and of course it was very upsetting. Mothers in the music industry are at a big disadvantage because there is so much to juggle, and if the company is not willing to help, it’s your problem. I’ve given up gigs (or ended up working essentially for nothing) because the pay was not enough to cover childcare. I think every musician with kids is familiar with this situation. This is particularly difficult for women who are still in training (Young Artist, Emerging Artist), because usually those programs pay poorly to begin with.

How the opera world as a whole could improve its family-friendliness: Motherhood is often considered a burden in the opera world because children have to be accommodated, we don't have as much flexibility, we need breaks to pump, etc. Women with children are more expensive to hire, so are often passed on for someone who is not a mom. This saddens me immensely. Not all companies are like this; I have had many positive experiences as well, when people were considerate and accommodated my needs. I think there is a lot of work to be done to improve a mother’s situation in the artistic workplace. 

Being a role model: I hope that my career has a positive impact on my daughters. I love the look of awe and pride on their faces when I play piano for them or when they see me perform. I hope that I model for them that women can be just as successful in their work as men. I believe that their constant exposure to music enriches their lives immensely. There are sad moments, when they cry and ask me not to leave. But I think the positives or having a career outweigh the negatives. After all, I want them to be proud of their mom!

Wisdom to share: I’ll be honest: when I am with my children, I think about work and I miss it. When I am at work or a gig, I miss my children. I value my time very differently now. A gig has to be really worthwhile and fulfilling, either artistically or monetarily (ideally both) to take me away from my children. I have noticed that the more fulfilled with my career I am, the better mom I become!