The following article was published in the American School of Milan's monthly magazine, the Globe, in June 2003. ASM is a small private school, with a student body including citizens of more than 30 different countries. The student body ranges from age three to age 19. I was invited by the school administration to write an article describing my career, but instead chose to highlight the challenges of being a working mother, hoping to inspire the female student body. I also used the opportunity to explain to many parents puzzled by our family lifestyle, how and why we came to our unique situation. Lastly, it provided me a venue to thank all the people, especially my hard working husband, who make it all possible. In writing it, I came to appreciate even more, how lucky I am to have two such wonderful 'jobs'   -   Laura Aikin

A Mother's Song
by Laura Aikin

"So YOU"RE the Mom that's never there!" That's a tough thing for a mother to hear, but shortly after Marcello, my dear son, began to attend The American School of Milan in the Fall of 2000, I actually heard those words. They were certainly not said with malicious intent, and, for the mother that said them, they were true. I had missed Marcello's first day... almost the entire first month of school. I was in Zurich (or was it Vienna?) singing. That's my other full time job. I'm an opera singer. Imagine that! Born and raised in a rural suburb outside of Buffalo, NY, I am now invited to perform regularly at concert halls and theaters all over the world, including Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, with the greatest conductors and orchestras of our time. I heard my first opera when I was already a music student at the State University of NY at Buffalo. My vocal talents were discovered when I was 15 and auditioned for my high school musical. Already an accomplished instrumentalist, trumpet, baritone horn, piano and very interested in acting, singing was something I knew I could do well, but didn't take particularly seriously, until a new music director had me vocalize (that's singing scales... something I had never done before) and lo and behold, out came a perfect high "C"! Lot's of them!!! Suddenly all those talents and interests came together and I was an opera singer! Well, maybe not so suddenly... That happened after ten years of higher education, three universities, 4 diplomas, a DAAD (German Fulbright) grant and a family far, far away. It was a tough road, and I traveled it alone. My sisters and I used to like to sing along with our Broadway musical recordings, but classical music not part of our repertoire. I was the first person in my extended family to go to college, so staying home was a logical choice. My father was a foreman at a metal casting plant, my mother a dedicated stay home mom (i.e. Chauffeur!) until Dad retired, and then she went to work at a local tennis club, working the front desk. I was born the youngest of 5 girls (only one bathroom!) and was an aunt by the time I turned 7, so I learned very quickly about life and boys and all the complications of human relationships. Information which has served me well on the operatic stage. After graduating from the University of Buffalo with a Music Education degree, I moved to Indiana to study at IU Bloomington. As the first in my family to move out of Western New York, I found the transition very difficult. No footsteps to follow, no idea how to pursue a career in music, no role model. But in the end, it certainly worked to my advantage. Since I had no preconceived idea to fulfill, I was free to explore my options and follow the path my voice and my ambitions laid out for me. After three years of study at Indiana, I was ready for the biggest challenge of all. Europe. Again, no one in my family had ever traveled outside of North America, and we had no relations in Europe. Armed with my grant and virtually no foreign language skills, I got on that plane and off I went... not knowing that I would never again call America my home. When I got off the plane in Munich on a sunny day in July 1990, my teeth were chattering... from fear. I had one night booked at a small pension, a few dollars in my pocket and a Eur-rail-pass. My grant wouldn't begin to be paid out for a month, but I wanted to see a bit of Europe before I started my studies. So I crisscrossed the continent, staying where ever I could that was cheap, sometimes met friends who were also traveling, made some new ones, cried a lot from homesickness and loneliness, but it was a good experience. I began my studies in Munich shortly thereafter. It was hard work, but I learned quickly and profited greatly from the opportunity the grant afforded me. During that period I also met the man that would later become my husband and Marcello's father. Gianluca, a lawyer from Milan, was in Munich to study German, and we hit it off immediately.

My grant was extended for another year so I could complete my artists diploma at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, and during that time my career began in earnest. Concerts, operas, auditions, all the things I had denied myself that first year of study in Munich, as I wanted to concentrate on understanding why I was there, why I was singing, who I was as an artist. I preferred to starve a bit that first year and really feel the "heart of the art", than to run around trying to make money here and there. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I think of those difficult days, the Bohemian student life, with a great deal of affection. It was that time that I really got tough, and knew I could and wanted to suffer for my art. Easy was not a option for me.

During my second year of study, I was offered several contracts at opera houses in Germany. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, they have a system called Ensemble Theater; a group of singers from which the artistic administration casts their season. Roles that can not be cast from the ensemble are given to free-lance singers engaged as guest artists. Being the member of an ensemble is a very good way to start a career. One learns a lot of repertoire and gets strong physically. Singing opera is a very physically demanding exercise! Artistically it is also wonderful to have consistent colleagues with whom to share ideas and grow. So I joined the ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, a very prestigious house, and they were six wonderful years. I loved my colleagues dearly, and made many lifelong friendships. The experience I gained there will certainly carry me my whole career.

During that time Gianluca and I married and in my last season in Berlin, Marcello was born. Back then, when I was 15 years old, and the idea of becoming a professional musician presented itself, the first question that went through my head was "How will I have children?" Because I knew I wanted to have children.... lots of children! I come from a big family and love that crazy confused atmosphere. But no matter who I asked or how I phrased the question, there was no answer. Children come from the heart, are born of love, and that love takes care of them through their parents. A pregnancy for a singer is a tricky thing. It can mean the end of a career, or a maturing of the voice. A gamble. Also the questions of how to balance the two worlds can create a great deal of uncertainty. When I held my tiny baby, like all new mothers, all I could think was "Will I be a good mother?" But also, "Will my love be strong enough to keep us together even when we are apart?" The answer came in a very special way. When I was pregnant I was studying the role of Rosina from "Il Barbiere di Siviglia". After Marcello's birth I discovered quite by accident while mindlessly humming during a diaper change that the melody from "Una voce poco fa", Rosina's famous aria, quieted him and made him bestow upon me the most beautiful smile. Such a confirmation of the wondrous power of music and the great gift which is my life gave me the strength to go on. So I packed our bags and off we went on the road. My contract with Berlin was just about over, and then I was officially a free-agent. Traveling from theater to theater, concert hall to concert hall up to 9 months of the year. Babysitters, Mother-in-law (many of you know her well... my dear Anna), and Gianluca. Sleep deprived and singing.... not a good combination. But others have survived it, so would I.

Our first separation took place when Marcello was 10 months old. Long before I was even pregnant, I knew I would be performing back to back at the Chicago Lyric and the Metropolitan Opera (my debut!). Three months straight gone from Europe. The plan was one month alone in Chicago, then Gianluca would bring me Marcello with the babysitter, one month alone with Marcello while Gianluca worked in Milan, and then the last month Gianluca traveling back and forth for the holidays and Marcello's first birthday. I still cry at the thought of that moment with the taxi waiting below as I handed my sleeping baby to my husband and walked out the door. How not even a week later I had Gianluca on the phone desperate because Marcello was crying non-stop, with a constant low-grade fever. Both of them suffering. It was a moment that signals the end of many singers' careers. But I knew that we would, we had to get through it. So we bit the bullet and we made it. It would be two years before we had to suffer such a long separation again, and then it wasn't nearly as traumatic, but somehow I think we will all always bear the scars of that time.

Shortly thereafter Marcello started attending a nursery school in Milan. We noticed he craved contact with other children, so when he wasn't traveling with me, he had his little friends, and things went quite smoothly. I could take him out of the school as fit my travel schedule. He attended rehearsals occasionally, but often cried because the music was too loud, the theater too dark, or he wanted me and I couldn't go to him because I was on stage. So, I can't say he was a theater baby. He did like to watch me on television, and occasionally requested to see some of my videos. He really began to appreciate my music only when he was about four years old. Before that, he, logically, associated my singing with my absences and therefore didn't like it at all! Cleverly, he also associated German with my work, so that even at a very early age, if he heard me speaking German on the telephone, he would get very upset and demanding. He now attends performances and concerts all over Europe, and proudly speaks of my job and his travels. Recently I performed in a small church in Milan and was thrilled to have 11 of Marcello's little friends and their parents in the audience. It is a very special feeling to perform for him, because I know no one in the world is as touched by my singing as he is.

Marcello wasn't quite three years old when he began attending ASM. Still a little baby. As I already mentioned I missed his first month of school, but found when I returned a very welcoming atmosphere, where parental involvement was encouraged. I tried to keep Marcello's absences to a minimum, taking him out of school even less often than when he was in nursery school. But despite this it began to be apparent that life on the road was beginning to loose its charm for him. Understandably he prefers his life in Milan, and especially his world at ASM. He has entered what female artists refer to as the "Zone".... between 5 and 10 years old, when children are still small and very attached to and need their mother, and yet too old to take out of school. Some singing mothers choose the home schooling route. That is not an option for us as Marcello is far to socially inclined to thrive in such circumstances. So I'm back to traveling alone. Luckily I can now adjust my schedule accordingly to avoid frequent long separations, and am honored to be invited to perform often at La Scala in Milan. I am acutely aware of the sacrifices Marcello makes, the stoicism he exhibits regarding my career choice, and respect and admire him for that. When I feel guilty leaving him, I try to imagine what it would have been like to have had a mother with a wonderful job like mine, that gave her so much satisfaction and joy. A mother that could share that joy with her audiences, and with me. It would have been hard when she was gone. I would have missed her, but she would have made me know she loved me and that I was always in her thoughts.

Yes, I may travel alone, but I am not alone. I have my team... Gianluca, Anna, Meriam (Marcello's babysitter and my right hand), Marcello's teachers and my dear friends at ASM.... I will continue to need their help and support. Every note I sing they are with me, making not only my career, but also my dream of being a mother possible.

March 2003

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