Finding the Right "Day Job"

Kelli Butler

  • OnStage Opera Columnist

One of my favorite comedians, Maysoon Zayid, gives a web talk called 'Advice You Don't Want to Hear”. In one of them, an acting major at ASU asked her about finding out what she really wanted to do with her life. Maysoon's answer?  “Get a job. If you can get a job in your field, thats GREAT. If not, take whatever you can get. Nothing makes it easier to figure out what you love than doing a job you hate.”

Among the biggest problems for a working performer is...well, to be honest, the time when you AREN'T a working performer. There are very few singers I know in the opera world that are consistently booked; my friends in musical theatre (until they land in a Broadway production) often find themselves in the same boat. 

Enter the dreaded 'day job'. 

Some of my fellow opera singers, when asked, gave me a huge list of jobs taken to support the in-between times. Zuly Iniro taught school and tutored; Michelle Trovato and Anne Slovin both extolled their work found via temp agencies; Christine Thomas and Joshua Hughes teach voice and music classes, ranging in ages from pre-school and up. Without fail, we all have 'church jobs' – we get paid to come in and sing for congregations to round out their choirs, do more difficult solo pieces like Requiems and Messiahs, and so on. In addition, many more of my performer friends, across all disciplines, work in catering, waitressing, and bartending. Even with taking these rather temporary jobs, many of us find ourselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes time to leave for a contract; many times, we face unemployment upon our return.

When I started looking for a day job at the end of college, I had to face hard truths: my  piano skills weren't great to teach (and I don't have a lot of patience!), and I am fairly close to the klutziest person you will meet, ruling waitressing and catering right out. I floated in and out of retail jobs, admin assistant jobs, but nothing interested me enough to really stick – curse of being an ADD soprano (neither of those classifications tend to have a long attention span...oh look, a squirrel!). After three years of varied retail work starting in junior year, I finally found my niche.

For the past thirteen years, I've been selling luxury onstage and off - opera when I'm on, and diamonds and fine jewelry when I'm off. I fell into jewelry sales almost by accident; I was working retail and went to buy my Mom a gift for her birthday, and found the people to be kind and fun. On a lark, I decided to apply for a job for the Christmas season – and ended up being at my first jeweler for two years, until the company went out of business.  I found work at another company, along with two people who have been friends, coworkers, and great supporters of mine for many years, Myrna and Janet. Ten years later, I'm still in jewelry.

My current workplace, Blue Nile, is one of the leading online retailers of loose diamonds and fine jewelry in the United States. Every day, I get to go to work, play with diamonds, and basically sell romance. I've found Blue Nile to be amazing for a creative person – since we customize many of our bridal pieces to match what a client wants, and we can even custom create from scratch. Also, I've got a great manager, Candice, and fantastic coworkers; we all support each other and they are always very excited when I get a gig!

Now, not all opera is about luxury. I sing my fair share of concerts, oratorios, and church works; even there, however, opera singers are expected to have a certain glamorous look. You won't find even the lowliest fallen courtesan onstage without a perfect set of fake lashes and makeup – that would be letting the side down. However, there are so many roles that ARE luxurious, and decadent, and shiny...okay, so I like shiny. Nothing wrong with shiny. I can Glitter and be Gay with the best of them.