You stand in a room. You are not alone, but you are. A piano is there, a pianist ready to play. There are people there waiting to hear you sing, critique and take notes you will never read. These are general directors and music directors, other staff from the opera company. This is your 15-minute shot at getting a gig, but you don’t know exactly what that might be. This is audition season, where, for a few weeks each year, opera companies from across the country occupy studio spaces in New York City to hear as many artists as possible to cast their upcoming seasons. Once it’s over, a singer can have spent thousands of dollars in travel, housing, and audition fees in hopes that job offers will come and their dream can continue.
The offer may come from Seattle, Nashville, Florida, St. Louis or any place in between, but a singer does not get a chance to stay in one place for too long. For a single production a singer can spend up to five weeks in rehearsal and three weeks in performances, then pack up and move on to the next gig, yet soprano Kerriann Otaño has found herself living in San Jose for three years now, the longest she’s lived in one place over her decade-long singing career. In 2018, she was hired to perform the role of Senta in Opera San José’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman while her husband, the tenor Dane Suarez, was a resident artist with the company. Each season Opera San José hires a resident company of singers, from six to eight artists, giving them roles in each of the four productions that season. Each singer is given a salary and an apartment. Suarez was offered residency in the 2018-2019 season, so Otaño used San José as her home base as she travelled for various productions around the country.
“Now my mantra is, ‘I’m good enough. I know enough. I am enough.’ It’s a reminder that I’ve done my preparation. Who I am as an artist and the story that I’m telling is enough. I don’t have to be anything other than what I am.”
The New York native was first drawn to the world of musicals, performing in the likes of Godspell, West Side Story, and Into the Woods, but while in the 10th grade Otaño was taken to the Metropolitan Opera by her voice teacher to see Bizet’s classic opera Carmen. “I’ve always been kind of a thick chick, a bit juicy in the thigh region, and not a great dancer. I went to these Broadway shows, and I was like, ‘One day,’ but no one looked like me, and they were all super skinny and great dancers and high crazy belters, way better singers than I was. I don’t even remember who the [Carmen] singer was, but she had big, curly hair, and she was all curves. She was this beautiful hourglass, sauntering around the stage with this swag and confidence, and I was like, ‘That’s me. That’s where I fit.’ I really started focusing more on classical music.”
With an incredibly electric presence and booming voice, Otaño’s resume grew into an impressive list containing some of America’s greatest opera companies—Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and, where she first fell in love with the art form, the Metropolitan Opera. Otaño traveled for each role, her husband traveling as well for his own gigs when not booked with Opera San José, a situation that is quite common in the world of opera. “The way that I’ve always looked at it is if Dane and I are in the same place together, it is a thing to celebrate and it’s wonderful. And if we’re not together, that’s because one or both of us is making music and doing the thing that we love.”
Following a cover role in Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, Otaño was offered a residency with Opera San José, a job that would give the young couple a chance to stay rooted a bit longer in San José. “After the Met (Metropolitan Opera), which you would think would be the highlight of my life, I couldn’t leave the house. I was just crying all the time. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t know what to do about it.” After years of constantly putting forward a perfect version of herself, the stress and anxiety broke her. Otaño’s peers did not appear to be suffering the way she was, and there was nowhere to turn to for help. “Singers are low on the totem pole of priorities, because we are very replaceable in a market that is over saturated with the amount of talent in America. We have so many very, very talented singers, so it feels like you have to constantly be performing, even when you’re not on stage—you have to always be happy and enthusiastic and pleasant, beyond just being professional. It’s almost like you can’t reveal any damaged sides of yourself.”
She needed time to focus on herself. She needed time to not work—a difficult decision to make knowing her residency with Opera San José was at stake as well as her reputation. Nevertheless, she approached the Opera San José senior management team, General Director Larry Hancock, Music Director Joseph Marcheso, and incoming General Director Khori Dastoor, regarding her situation. She assumed her contract would be terminated and she would be left to deal with her health issues on her own. Yet, Opera San José replaced her for the first production of the season and got her health insurance taken care of, ensuring that Otaño wouldn’t be left jobless and unprotected, a decision that Dastoor explains. “Watching her push through that, I knew she was gritty. I knew she wanted this and was hungry. I watched her triumph over it. She is just a good presence, a good colleague. She has given so much back for everything we gave her. So, of course when she needed our support, there was no question we would be there.”
Dastoor is a former singer herself. Her story is not the same as Otaño’s, but there is a similarity with her struggle. “I’ve lived this life. I didn’t quit because I couldn’t do it or I didn’t love it. I quit because it takes a toll on general wellbeing, happiness, marriage, security. We are social mammals. That DNA doesn’t change because you choose to sing, but the career takes you away from every way people have of coping with the stresses of everyday life.” Otaño first found immediate help from the therapy app Better Help, where for a small fee you are connected with a therapist that fits your issues. Soon, she found a local therapist she could meet with in person. With her story playing out in honest social media posts, other artists reached out to her, unaware that anyone else was dealing with mental health issues. Unlike physical injury, these are invisible illnesses. “It’s not a physical thing that you see. We, as singers, to keep our jobs, push those feelings down and don’t have proper healthcare to pursue therapy and things like that. We ignore it, and it builds up and builds up and builds up and that’s sort of what happened with me. It was about a year that I was experiencing depression symptoms before they really came to a head.” With the help of Opera San José and her doctors, Otaño is back on stage and most importantly, healthy. With the unexpected outpouring of support and confessions, the experience revealed a new world to her. There is safety in expressing those fears and anxieties that remain hidden, deep inside. “I’m in a place now where I want to talk very openly about the importance of therapy and not just be smiling and grinning and baring it, but really getting to the heart of these issues that we all experience as performers, because we’re so generous with our emotions on stage that baring and hiding your emotions in real life only stifles you as an artist.” Her next role will take her behind the scenes in opera, as an artist advocate in administration where she can support and nurture other artists and make them feel less alone when in yet another new city.
The change in Otaño’s approach to life and art is one of joyful growth and evolution. “I have these mantras. It used to be before I would go on stage, I would stand in front of the mirror in Superman pose and I would say, ‘I’m a bad bitch, and no one can fuck with me.’ That was definitely coming from fear. “Now my mantra is, ‘I’m good enough. I know enough. I am enough.’ It’s a reminder that I’ve done my preparation. Who I am as an artist and the story that I’m telling is enough. I don’t have to be anything other than what I am.”
Article originally appeared in Issue 12.2 "Sight and Sound"