Several years ago, Daisy Jackson, a gifted young lyric soprano from Washington, won a Metropolitian Opera Regional Competition. Notlong thereafter she sang for the great soprano Dorothy Maynor, who told her, "You have everything you need for a career. You must come to New York City."
"But I don't want to live in New York City," Jackson replied. "I can't stand it. I become sick if I have to stay here any length of time." And Maynor said to the hopeful young singer, "Then, my dear, you will never have a career."
Maynor, who lives and teaches in Manhattan, was voicing what for many years was an accepted view. Whether you were a singer, a pianist, violinist, cellist or conductor, it was practically an article of faith that you had to "make it in New York." A good review from one of the leading newspapers in New York was said to be the key to a career and perhaps even riches. Today that is not necessarily true, though there are shades of opinion.
Now, there are many notable exceptions to Maynor's rule. Members of the National Symphony Orchestra, for example, find it necessary to go to New York only when the orchestra is performing there. There are also spectacular individual examples of how Washington can sometimes be a better base than New York for chamber music and for launching a conducting career. And many singers, particularly in opera, have started careers in cities that have developed as music centers since World War II.
Yet it seems that it is the opera singers singers who remain most dependent on the New York connection and for whom that city is still a necessary starting point.
"Today I live in Santa Fe," says John Reardon, whose career over the past quarter-century has included notable successes at the Metropolitan Opera and opera houses across America and Europe. "But I did not move there until five years ago. I can get to an engagement in Washington or London or San Francisco just as easily from Albuquerque as by going out to JFK. But when I was getting started, I had to live in New York."
Richard Stilwell, who sings every year at the Met and in European houses, as well as other opera theaters in the U.S., has a home in suburban Virginia. "But that did not come until I was established in New York," he said last week, when he was appearing as Marcello in "La Bohe me" with the Washington Opera -- a role he is also singing these weeks with the Met. "For the young singer, it is important to be in New York because that is where the auditions and the managers are."
Todd Duncan, whose career was launched in the 1930s as Porgy after George Gershwin heard about a "remarkable baritone who lives in Washington," still lives here and has taught a generation of Washington singers. Duncan, who also teaches at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, answered succinctly when asked if a singer has to go to New York to succeed. "Indeed," he said, and added, "Absolutely."
But it looks as if the situation may be changing for opera singers, too. Soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson is one of the singers most in demand on the concert scene. She flies to London to sing and make recordings; she goes to Amsterdam to take part in a world premiere; she appears with the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, she sings for Pierre Boulez and Seiji Ozawa -- and she lives in Potomac, Md., with her husband and two young sons. She is also a soloist with the Theater Chamber Players of the Kennedy Center and teaches voice at Maryland University.
"I tell my students that it is not necessary to go to New York to make a career," Bryn-Julson says. "And it can be terribly frustrating to go there. It does not make a career immediately. Perhaps for a short term it might help, but a singer must think of the long term. Does the singer want the voice to have 10 glorious years? Will they be from 20 to 30, or from 30 to 40, 40 to 50? You have to think about the voice."
Margaret Carson, who was for a time director of publicity at the Metropolitan Opera and who today operates her own office representing a number of prominent musicians and orchestras, points out other places where young singers can get a start.
"Look at Santa Fe, where Kiri Te Kanawa, and Frederica Von Stade, and Richard Stilwell, and Donald Gramm, and John Reardon made names for themselves," she says. "It was different some time ago, when singers needed the Metropolitan Opera label beside their names. Today a lot of singers can break through by going to Europe.
"I think the musical grapevine is still the most efficient means of musical publicity in the world," Carson adds. "Someone says, 'There is a young singer in Cologne or Graz or Kassel,' and their names become known."
For chamber music, Washington has offered a particularly propitious climate ever since the Library of Congress got into the performance and commissioning of the music half a century ago. Conditions became so congenial that the leader of the library's first resident ensemble, the famed Budapest Quartet, Joseph Roisman, moved here.
And when the next generation of local chamber music performers started organizing, those conditions were a firm foundation. As Dina Koston, co-director of the Theater Chamber Players, points out, "There's probably not another library in the world that operates on this scale musically -- certainly not in New York. At the New York Public Library, they just collect; they don't commission and perform."
So when Koston and Leon Fleisher put together the Theater Chamber Players 14 years ago, their daring proposal for a group that explores some of the more adventuresome byroads of the repertory did not seem so pie-in-the-sky here. They were further helped, Koston says, by the presence of accomplished professionals on regional faculties, particularly at the University of Maryland and the Peabody Conservatory.
These local assets have given birth to groups such as the 20th Century Consort, the Folger Consort and the Contemporary Music Forum. Most of them now perform occasionally in New York and elsewhere. None of these organizations provides full-time employment, and all are subsidized -- as is chamber music virtually everywhere. Koston is hopeful, however, that salaries will come in a few years.
Over the years, several conductors have based careers here -- Howard Mitchell, Paul Calloway and Richard Bales among them -- but none has come so far so fast as the National Symphony's Exxon-Arts Endowment conductor, Hugh Wolff, now in only his third year as a professional conductor.
Wolff, 28, has been here most of his life. He graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School before going on to Harvard. He applied for one of the 65 three-year Exxon orchestral grants with trepidation, aware of stories told by former assistants who had taken similar positions at other orchestras and found themselves with little to do. San Francisco Symphony music director Edo de Waart recalled his stint as an assistant at the New York Philharmonic, when he "raised his baton only once, for the first six sections of 'Pictures at an Exhibition.' "
Success as an assistant "depends on how they use you," Wolff remarks, and it's hard to see how he could have hoped for more with the NSO.
"The first year alone I got to conduct 40 concerts, and last year there were 65," Wolff says. Through the National Symphony he has made a New York debut. And the combination of his considerable success with Washington audiences and the support of music director Mstislav Rostropovich led to his opera debut, directing last year's widely admired Washington Opera production of Strauss' "Weiner Blut," and to his getting his first music directorship, with the orchestra in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania.
"We perform once a month there, mostly with free-lancers from New York, and this spring we will do a complete concert 'Traviata,' " Wolff says. With opportunities like this, Wolff says he feels "no pressure to live in New York. And he and the orchestra are exploring the possibility of his staying on after the Exxon grant ends this spring.