Sharleen Joynt, between ‘The Bachelor’ and the challenges of an opera career


Sharleen Joynt as Fausta and Antonio Giovannini as Amilcare in the Theater und Orchester Heidelberg's production of Alessandro Scarlatti's "Marco Attilio Regolo." (Klaus Frohlich/Klaus Frohlich)

To the American public, Sharleen Joynt is an opera singer. More specifically, she’s the opera singer who recently appeared on ABC’s reality TV show “The Bachelor.” On the show — which involved 27 women competing for the attention of a hunky Venezuelan ex-soccer player named Juan Pablo — she was seen by many as injecting sophistication and authenticity into a show not usually known for either. “She seems on a whole different level than a lot of the girls,” said one Web commentator. “I don’t know how ‘The Bachelor’ producers slipped up and let a regular girl on the show,” said another, “but it’s refreshing.”

To the opera world, the Canadian Joynt, 29, is one of a large pool of eager young singers. In Germany, where she has sung for three seasons in small to mid-size opera houses, she’s gained considerable attention as an artist to watch. But although she studied at Mannes College the New School for Music in New York, she has no management in the United States and is not widely known here.

And although her “Bachelor” sojourn — she lasted until the seventh episode, when she decided Juan Pablo wasn’t for her and left of her own accord — won her a huge fan base and sent her YouTube video views rocketing, it makes her suspect to people within the classical music business.

Neil Funkhouser, an artists manager in New York, said that a friend from Los Angeles recently urged him to check out Joynt after her “Bachelor” appearances. “I immediately wrote off the idea,” Funkhouser wrote in an e-mail, “thinking that she would be a ‘Miss America’-level soprano.”

It’s not just the fame and the pop culture that make opera people suspicious. The conventional wisdom has it that you must be ready to sacrifice everything — friends, family, a personal life — for an opera career. In a recent blog post titled “Why you’re not going to be a professional opera singer,” the mezzo-soprano Cindy Sadler, who blogs as “Mezzo with Character,” summed up this attitude. “For most of your career,” she wrote, “but especially when you’re studying and transitioning from school to your profession, the fact that you are a singer trying to get paid for singing and trying to build your résumé and your contacts in the business — that has to take precedence over all other factors.”

And when anyone takes a step in another direction, it seems to telegraph a lack of seriousness — or some ulterior motive.

“A lot of people assume it was a sly career move,” Joynt said, speaking the other week by phone from New York, where she has a a cover, or understudy, contract for the role of Fiakermilli in Richard Strauss’s “Arabella.” “But it really wasn’t. I’ve been singing full time in Germany for the last three and a half seasons. I find it really lonely. I’m single. I’m still a 20-something girl. When I applied for [“The Bachelor”] it was more of a joke than anything, but when the opportunity appeared, I thought, why not?”

“I wouldn’t say this has helped my career,” she added. “I was recently refused an audition in the States. I haven’t been refused for an audition in like three years. . . . I can’t see it not being show-related. Evidently the casting director said I was too junior league for them.”

Operatic studies cover a wide range of topics. You learn diction, and, ideally, several foreign languages. You take hours of voice lessons, and work on repertoire with coaches. You take acting classes and often study yoga and Alexander technique. But you don’t, as a rule, learn about what it’s like to live out of a suitcase in a foreign country, cut off from your social network, struggling in a competitive job in a language you don’t know well.

Joynt’s career start in Europe seemed strikingly smooth. Taking part in the well-known Belvedere Competition in Vienna, Austria, led to her getting her first Met cover contract and German management; her first audition, in Amsterdam, led to a year-round (or “fest”) contract in Dessau, and from there she went to the larger theater in Heidelberg. Singers dream of this. Their dream may not tell them that Heidelberg is a city the size of Fort Collins, Colo., or Salem, Ore.; nor may it tell them how well they’re going to fit in. “I find the opera career very emotionally difficult,” Joynt said.

Even her personal style didn’t seem to mesh: “I’ve always been a girly girl,” she says, “and in Germany I felt kind of out of place.” But then, on “The Bachelor,” “I got to the mansion [where the contestants are housed,] and I didn’t feel I necessarily fit in there either. . . . No one is ever allowed to call me high-maintenance again,” she joked.

One person who understands the challenges of living in Germany is Joynt’s teacher, Ruth Falcon, one of the most familiar names on the New York voice-teacher circuit. Falcon, who has taught such luminaries as Deborah Voigt, Danielle de Niese, and Sondra Radvanovsky, praises Joynt as “a fiercely wonderful musician.” “When she e-mailed me that she was going to do [‘The Bachelor,’]” she said, “I thought, What is she doing?”

But Falcon remembers starting out as a young singer at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and being bitterly homesick. “I was so lonely the first year,” she says, “I cried every day.” The great conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch persuaded her to stay on, but at the end of her second contract, she says, “they handed me another three-year contract, and I started weeping. I knew my soul would die if I stayed. I would have had a better career if I’d stayed, but I couldn’t.” She went on to freelance around Europe before getting married, returning to New York and launching her teaching career.

The issue is about more than just living in Germany, or being on the road. It’s about trying to figure out how to balance a personal life against career demands in a career that is supposed to take precedence over everything else. It’s about finding ways to have kids, or a relationship — “I’ve been perpetually in long-distance relationships since university,” Joynt says — or just a little bit of fun. Not every singer has a chance to go on “The Bachelor,” but plenty of singers find themselves faced with career decisions they didn’t necessarily anticipate when they were first dreaming of the big time.

Ten years ago, the soprano Celena Shafer seemed on her way to a major international career. “I had worked so hard for this to happen,” she says. “I had prayed for it to happen. It had been my passion since I was 12 years old. I wanted it so badly.”

But she also had a husband and three small boys, and life on the road was a challenge. “I kept going, seeking the career, and kept not being happy on the road,” she says. “What I felt when I was away from home — I felt I was waiting for my life to resume. It was like my life was always on hold.”

Shafer told her manager that she wanted to scale back the opera work (which involves months at a time away from home) and cut down on travel. Since then she has had another son, home-schooled her kids and continued to work regularly close to home in Salt Lake City (at the Utah Symphony and Opera) with a few select concert appearances a year. “You don’t only doubt the decision before you’ve made it, but after you’ve made it as well,” she says. But her manager stuck with her, and the engagements have kept coming, and now, at 39, she is ready to take on a little more.

“That bug inside of me has never died,” she says. “When I was younger, going into it, part of it is this dream and passion, and part of it is figuring out what you want to do. [You] figure out as you start doing it. Now I know what I want.”

“I think the trend in the music world is changing,” she continues. “Families are more accepted and seeen as normal. The whole prima donna thing, that doesn’t work anymore, either.” She adds, “There’s no one path for a musician to take. There are so many ways to do it.”

Joynt didn’t leave Germany specifically to look for love; the decision was based on her assessment of her long-term prospects. “I just didn’t want to wake up at 45,” she says, “in a place I was lukewarm about, singing roles I was lukewarm about.” But not signing the contract she was offered left a “gaping hole” in her schedule that happened to coincide with the time “The Bachelor” was taping. Having applied on a whim and gotten a lot of encouragement from the casting director, she thought she would probably regret it more if she didn’t try it out than if she did.

“My German agent was not cool with it at all,” she says. But as others see it, walking away from a steady contract in Germany might not have been such a terrible career move after all.

“To be a ‘fest’ these days in Germany does not mean too much for a career in North America,” says Bernard Uzan, an artists’ manager and stage director based in New York. When most singers who have had such contracts come back to North America, he says, they “have to start from scratch and audition again for everybody after a few years away.”

As for the effects of “The Bachelor” on Joynt’s opera career, the jury is out. Of three artist managers questioned for this article, one hadn’t heard of Joynt. Uzan had heard of her, but only because he checks through the résumés of Met cover singers. And Neil Funkhouser finally gave in to his friend’s insistence and listened to Joynt’s YouTube video of “Grossmächtige Prinzessin,” a challenging 13-minute coloratura aria from Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” — and was, in his words, “blown away.”

“Here was a soprano who seemed to have it all,” Funkhouser wrote. “She sang the aria as if it were the easiest thing in the world and easily overcame every challenge the aria presented. Every high note, every staccato, every trill was taken as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”

“So ‘The Bachelor,’ ” he added, “through the ministrations of my friend, brought Sharleen Joynt to my attention, but if she hadn’t sung the hell out of Zerbinetta’s aria, I wouldn’t have had the slightest interest. No colleague of mine has ever mentioned ‘The Bachelor’ to me, so I have no idea if they watch it or not. And I don’t know if her being on the program would make any difference in her career. But her bravura performance certainly captured my attention, and . . . if she were to come to me looking for management, I would offer it to her in an instant.”

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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