The (unofficial) Metropolitan Opera Guide to Long-Distance Relationships

What do you do if you are in New York but your spouse is spending the next ten weeks performing in Vienna? Singers around the Metropolitan Opera offer strategies, ideas and methods for dealing with the dreaded long-distance relationship.

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It’s Valentine’s Day! That means chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, candlelit dinners over glasses of red wine and sexy lingerie... at least that’s what Hallmark would have you believe! Of course the reality is, as always, much more complicated; it’s a mixed blessing of a day. People without significant others can feel as if they have been left out of some pink-tinted national holiday. But I’ve always felt that it’s hardest on people in relationships that can’t be with their loved ones. Which brings us to the subject of this website: opera singers of course!

The opera business is one of constant change and movement. Singers move from company to company, staying for three to six weeks (long enough to rehearse and perform a show) and then traveling to the next contract. 1 So where does that leave relationships? Well… mostly long distance! My wife, Tanya Roberts, is also a singer. We have had the privilege of working together at times but, more often than not, we are singing with different companies throughout the country and world. 2 It certainly has not always been easy but, through trial and error in our seven years of marriage, we have developed ways of dealing with the separation. We have three unbreakable rules 3 :

  1. Say goodnight every night.
  2. Always know when we will see each other next.
  3. Never go more than two months without seeing each other.

When you write them out they seem a little obvious I guess. But no matter how apparent they might be, I believe that those three tenants have greatly contributed to my continued marital bliss!

I wanted to see how other singers at the Met deal with the issue so I asked around the opera house for long-distance strategies, ideas and methods and got a fantastic response. Principal sopranos Janai Brugger, Angela Mannino and Katherine Whyte, bass-baritone Paul Corona, and choristers Maria D’Amato, Belinda Oswald, Richard Pearson and Gregory Warren have all spent time away from their loved ones in varying degrees throughout their careers and were generous with the knowledge they have gained. So, without further ado: The (unofficial) Metropolitan Opera Guide to Long Distance Relationships.

Stay in touch: Embrace the Technology

Bass Edward Hanlon (yours truly) and wife, soprano Tanya Roberts, in The Gondoliers at The Ohio Light Opera. Photo my Matt Dilyard

Bass Edward Hanlon (yours truly) and wife, soprano Tanya Roberts, in The Gondoliers at The Ohio Light Opera. Photo my Matt Dilyard

The world has changed since Elizabeth Bennet was forced to wait weeks for an letter from Mr. Darcy 4 ; we now have a constantly expanding toolkit of communication options! Angela Mannino says “thank God for the internet and cellphones! Phone calls, text messages, Facebook messenger, FaceTime, and now, even our apple watches make keeping in touch throughout the day easier.” Katherine Whyte feels the same way: “I think modern technology makes this job so much easier for sure. We have a phone plan that lets us text from anywhere in the world.” But it’s not just what technology you use, it’s how you use it. Angela is married to Paul Corona and he makes sure to include the whole family: “we are in a group text with me and Angela and her parents, so all day we send pics and funny texts.” But sometimes just “the simplest text message of ‘good morning’ or ‘love u’ can make you feel connected in different time zones many miles away.”

Time zones add a degree of difficulty to my Rule #1. When Tanya was singing in Austria her bed-time was my dinner break! 5 Maria D’Amato has also had to deal with time-zone troubles: “when it was difficult to talk or see each other in real time, I would send detailed emails outlining my day and asking about his and send little videos over Skype. I remember rushing to check my messages in the morning or sometimes even in the middle of the night!”

None of this is to say that technology has made things a walk in the park. Gregory Warren feels it’s hard “not to talk about NEGATIVE things about work or colleagues. It can monopolize a conversation and then you're too tired to talk about one another.” And of course, disagreements still happen and arguments are, to some extent, unavoidable. But Katherine stresses “We have learned that it’s so important to deal with issues, if we have them, over the phone. We don't hang up until we have figured it out... this is pretty essential”

Nothing Beats Seeing Each Other

Janai Brugger as Pamina at the Royal Opera House: Die Zauberflote (2015, Photo Credit: Mark Douet)

Janai Brugger as Pamina at the Royal Opera House: Die Zauberflote (2015, Photo Credit: Mark Douet)

All this communication is great, but there is no substitute for the real thing! For Gregory “surprise visits [if possible] are my favorite”. Visits (whether they be surprises or not) are extremely important. Katherine finds it “pretty romantic to meet up in different parts of the world.” For Maria these visits make the absences easier; she enjoys “planning all the fun things you're going to do together when your partner comes to visit… It's almost like a honeymoon period because you value the little time you have together even more.” My third unbreakable rule is to never go more than two months without seeing each other. Other singers are less patient! Belinda Oswald and her husband Mark (a singer and teacher) had a 2 1/2 week rule and Janai tries for a rendezvous every two weeks.

There are, of course, two sides in being apart. Maria feels that “the hardest part is being the one left behind, (made even harder by an active imagination!). [Especially early in a relationship] the ‘little voices’ can take over when you're left alone… ‘is he going to meet someone else?’, ‘why didn't he call me yet today?’, ‘why is he having fun without me?!?’ etc... It took time to adjust to not seeing each other every day.” Both partners need to understand that this is difficult, and if that means flying into Middle-of-Nowhere, USA for a 1 ½ day visit… well… looks like you’re booking a flight to Middle-of-Nowhere, USA!

Variety is the Spice of Life

There are an infinite number of ways to show your partner you are thinking of them! Gregory suggests “putting iCal reminders for yourself to try and do something for them once a week just to keep reminding them that you are thinking of them.” Janai has a 4 year old child: “I try to leave a little note and piece of candy or small toy for each day that I'm gone for my son.” It both makes him happy and reminds him that his mother is thinking of him!

Whether you are together or apart, find excuses to have fun! Katherine and her husband “take the opportunity to celebrate just about anything, anniversary, ‘monthiversary’, two Christmases, two New Years, [her husband is Serbian so has a different calendar] engagement.... yes the list is pretty exhaustive.” Tanya and I are the same way; we sprinkle five different relationship “anniversaries” throughout the year!

You can be creative about how you spend your long-distance time together (whether it be online or on the phone). On one of our most memorable anniversaries Tanya and I turned on Facetime, set up our computers in the kitchen and proceeded to cook identical dinners. We then got dressed up, sat down to eat with the same bottles of wine and enjoyed a truly romantic meal together (despite the fact that I was in Virginia and she was in Chicago)!

No Matter What, Find the Positive!

Soprano Maria D'Amato and husband, baritone  Dimitrie Lazich.

Soprano Maria D'Amato and husband, baritone Dimitrie Lazich.

No matter what strategies you employ and how thoughtful you are, long-distance is never going to be easy. So it’s important to focus on the positives. Almost everyone I talked to stressed what a wonderful thing traveling actually is! Janai loves visiting a “new and amazing city/country that I've never been to before! I get time to focus on myself and the role that I'm preparing.” For Katherine, the relationship has changed her but she still loves the travel: “It's funny. I used to get so excited about going away on gigs before I met Stefan [her husband]. The first time I went away on a gig after I got married I would cry just thinking about going away a whole month before I left. Going away is still fun as it lets me see the world and I love singing but it aches so much more than it used to.”

It is vital to remember that when your partner is away, they are fulfilling their dreams. This keeps things in perspective for Richard Pearson: “My wife is doing what makes her happy. She deserves to be heard and the world deserves to hear her. Knowing that makes feel very proud and helps the time pass more quickly.” Angela could not agree more: “there is a great deal of admiration and respect that accompanies the anticipation of your wife/husband leaving for a gig. You are proud and excited that his or her career is thriving. This is what we've trained to do and what we are constantly working towards.” I find the joy, pride and happiness I feel for Tanya’s accomplishments equal to that which I feel for my own. They augment and guide the relationship to a better and healthier place.

Above all, it seems best to use the separation to strengthen the relationship. Maria felt it made her and her husband “appreciate each other more”; for Rick “knowing that the heart will grow fonder by the absence is best way to deal with the distance”. Paul and Angela’s relationship has been strengthened by their absences: “Spending time apart makes you really appreciate the time you spend together. You learn a lot about yourself - how to deal with ups and downs of everyday life, anxiety, etc. - it makes me a stronger, wiser person which I think will make me a better partner.” Plus “we never fight and when we are together we have the best time. No time for fighting when you are gone 6 months of the year!” Katherine agrees “We have built a lot of trust”.

So no… following the (unofficial) Metropolitan Opera Guide to Long Distance Relationships is not going to solve all of a couple's problems 6 . Being apart is lame… and probably that’s a good thing. There is no opportunity to get complacent; the constant challenge of long-distance forces couples into better communication, deeper understanding and stronger commitment. And you know what? That sounds like the ingredients to a very healthy and long-lasting relationship!

Edward Hanlon, graduate of McGill University and University of Michigan, is a happy Long Island boy making good with the Metropolitan Opera. Favorite roles include Figaro, Sparafucile, Dick Deadeye, Sarastro and Nick Bottom with companies such as the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Lincoln Center Theatre, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Des Moines Metro Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival. He dreams of singing another Figaro with his beautiful wife, soprano Tanya Roberts. His first novel is is due to be released this summer ... at the end of the 2017-18 season ... umm... someday? Check out his website and follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

  1. This is generally different in Europe but that is a story for another article.

  1. Her currently singing with Edmonton Opera in the frozen tundra of Canada is one of my main motivators for writing this article!

  1. Not following these is roughly similar to using one of the three unforgivable curses at Hogwarts.

  1. But let's be honest... Mr. Darcy is worth the wait!

  1. This has the effect, by the way, of making me very sleepy after dinner!