Daniel Gundlach


Second Chances
As published in Classical Singer magazine, October 2004

It was the spring of 1996, and I was seeking a psychic return to the womb. I was sick of the rat race of trying to build a singing career. I was concerned about the toll my long absences took on my relationship with Nick. I was bitter because I was not getting the recognition I thought I deserved, though deep in my heart I recognized that I had not done the serious technical work necessary to sing at the level to which I aspired. I sensed, accurately or not, some jealousy and resentment from Nick, who had recently abandoned his singing career altogether, for very similar reasons. Our house was overrun with the If-I-Can’t-Make-Up-The-Rules-Then-I’m-Taking-My-Toys-And-Going-Home syndrome. For me, there was also the feeling, left over from my adolescence of If-I’ve-Got-To-Work-This-Hard-For-It-I’m-Not-Sure-It’s-Really-Worth-It syndrome.

Many true artists give up or are spiritually slaughtered because they don’t have the fight it takes to keep going in the face of punishing odds. To gain access to the stage on which you want to open your soul, you have to sell it first, killing off a big part of it in the process. It felt easier to give up than to cast myself, with no guarantees, further into that nest of vipers that constitutes a significant portion of the world of opera. So I locked myself in the house and painted the upstairs interior while I tried to figure out what to do next.

My self-esteem was at an all-time low. As a singer, I had gone from the brink of major success to permanently unemployed. I berated myself constantly for my cowardice and lack of moral fiber, drive and artistic integrity. If only I could schmooze myself into success as many of my colleagues, often less talented than I, had done. I feared that I was creating a reputation for myself in the business of being too demanding, too moody, not collegial enough, when I suspect the truth of the matter was that I barely registered as a blip on the radar screen of the consciousness of most people in the business. On the one hand, I felt too good to waste my time on anybody else; on the other, I was a failure because I wasn’t meeting my own exacting standards. And of course, the deeper I sank into depression, the less I was able to properly engage my body, my musical instrument, and the worse I sounded. Eventually the struggle just got to be too much and I shut my mouth for a year and a half.

Nick had been through it all himself, and my personal struggle was a can of worms that he simply couldn’t open. His pain and regret over having given up his own singing career made him unable to bear my suffering. To make matters worse, I was so withdrawn that there was simply no getting through to me with words. So it fell to Finnegan, my dog, to be my true helpmate in this life-and-death artistic and existential struggle.

It sounds melodramatic, but it was the truth. The more cut off I became from my friends and colleagues, the less ambition I had and the less reason I could see for even continuing to live. Many was the time I would lie curled in a ball on the kitchen floor, sobbing, or catatonic in front of a chat room screen in our so-called “Career Room,” whose very name now seemed like a cruel joke. I felt like I had no friends except people in the business, and I was afraid to talk to any of them about what I was going through, for fear that news of my depression would get me blacklisted. I was afraid to even examine how far off-track I had gotten, while at the same time, I felt there was no way back.

Out of financial necessity, I had taken on a full-time position in the word processing center of a huge corporate law firm. Each succeeding day in that place slashed another bloody chunk out of my soul. The rules and restrictions imposed on support staff employees were legion, a way of imposing a corporate mindset on even the most quixotic disposition. The work we took part in — modifying figures on balance sheets for huge corporations, inputting copy that put a positive spin on clear corporate greed, working on mergers that created larger and more virulent corporate behemoths — all chafed at me.

All full-time word processing employees were required to work three 12-and-a-half hour shifts a week. This was a struggle for anyone, especially someone with my work ethic. But at least, as a diabetic, I had gotten a physician’s dispensation from working the overnight shifts. While this schedule ostensibly granted me four days to myself, in reality it took two and sometimes three days for me to recover from the physical and psychic strain.

At least the sale of my soul to Corporate America allowed me to have health insurance for the first time in my adult life. With that expense partially covered, I was able to find a disreputable shrink in our neck of the woods who started me on a course of Prozac, along with meaningless once-a-month therapy sessions. (“How are you feeling? OK, let’s up your dosage.”)

Prozac did exactly one thing for me: it removed the extremes of joy and sorrow from my life. I lived in a state of perpetual gray, which, if I had had access to my emotions, would have only made me feel worse. Finally, after less than six months, I weaned myself off of that particular poison and regained, if not mental health, then at least the normal spectrum of emotion.

It is impossible to overestimate Finnegan’s contribution to my survival through this period. Through it all, he was my one bright light, sometimes my sole reason for hanging on. He knew when I needed him to be there for me, but he also knew when I was merely weeping for myself out of pity, which he shunned. He intuitively knew the difference between compassion and indulgence, but he never withheld a kiss or a hug from me, no matter how melodramatic I was being.

Others have remarked on the centering influence of a pet, even when the owner is going through a crisis. Your dog still needs to be walked, fed, and loved. Finn’s needs couldn’t be ignored the way mine could. In return for these small attentions, slowly, gradually, he gave me back the world.

Finnegan’s ecstatic greeting upon my return home from another hellish day at the law firm was sufficient remedy for me to face the next day. Your dog knows you are not evil, I told myself, though you are involved in immoral work. When I was able to train myself to see myself through his eyes, I became much less hateful to myself. And I began to realize that, singer or not, I craved some kind of artistic expression, the lack of which was nearly killing me.

During those first months of my year and a half of shunning singing, I tentatively explored other artistic avenues. I took the writing classes at NYU, where I first began to envision myself as a writer. I undertook to paint the upstairs interior of the house with outlandish color schemes, intricate effects and bold patterns in myriad layers. Never before had I taken any interest in creating a visually striking home. Zeroing in on my Inner Eye, I attacked this paint job with gusto, occasionally assisted by Nick. Though I’d barricade myself off in whichever room I was working on, Finnegan was invariably on the other side of the partition, waiting for me to take a break, scrub my paint-streaked arms and face, and take him for a walk or cuddle with him.

My initial preoccupation as a writer was with children’s stories. None of these books ever saw print, but at least I kept going. Then I decided to write my autobiography, since memoir was suddenly such a hot literary genre.

Eventually I found my way back to singing, entirely by accident. A conductor I had worked with before called to ask me to sing the alto solos in the [Bach] B-Minor Mass at Lincoln Center, in Avery Fisher Hall. Though I had not particularly enjoyed working with this conductor, I thought the profound stasis of the Agnus Dei that concludes Bach’s masterpiece would be an apt way to close the door on my singing career. I accepted the engagement.

At the beginning of the concert, I looked out into the audience and saw persons preoccupied, angry, dozing, anything but present. I thought to myself that whatever their reasons for attending, no one came to this concert to be bored. It was my job to make them wake up and pay attention to what Bach was saying.

I was preoccupied with about a hundred different things myself, but when it came time for me to sing, I stood up and sang from my heart, probably for the first time in my life. By the time I reached the Agnus Dei, a plea for mercy and peace, I was able to summon up all the pain I had been feeling and to forge it into something clear and strong and transfiguring. And those persons who had been bored or angry or even asleep went with me on that journey. They knew what I was singing about; they let me know by their applause at the end that they understood, and they let me know that I was by no means ready to give up, on myself or on my voice.

My subsequent return to singing was slow and deliberate, but the setbacks no longer made me feel damned to hell. I felt like I had been given a second chance, the kind few people get, and that I owed it to myself to be the artist (and the person) that my audience (and my dog) thought I was. Eventually, my work took me away from home for longer and longer stretches of time, but now home, instead of instilling dread, was a place I longed to return to.

I never really found my stride as a writer until I returned to singing. Then I began chronicling my voyages around the world via a series of e-mails that kept my friends and colleagues abreast of my activities while affording me another means of self-expression. Always at the heart of all of those chronicles was how, though I was deeply in love with the European way of life, I still longed for my home, my family. I was never able to resolve those two incompatible possibilities. When I was home, I was longing for Europe and the plum opportunities that seemed to elude me in my own country, and when I was in Europe I was gratified and invigorated by my successes, but homesick for Nick and Finn.