Photo and interview by Angela Karen
Name: Kristine Hurst-Wajszczuk (pronounced Hurst-VICE-check)
Age: Old enough to know I should never answer that question!
Occupation: Director of UAB Opera, Associate Professor of Voice
What led you to teaching voice and sparked your interest in directing opera?
I was still focused primarily on performing until my late 20s, when I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Pondering how I might leave a legacy led me to consider teaching at the college level, something that my undergraduate voice teacher had suggested a decade earlier. Oddly enough, she’d seen that as a career path for me at a time when it didn’t interest me at all. She knew me better than I knew myself—thank you, Lindsey Christiansen! Now I have a life that includes performing, teaching, directing, research, and service, and it’s deeply fulfilling.
How did you become opera performer/director? What were some defining moments?
The transition from a musical theatre performer to an opera singer was an organic one. The more I studied music, the more operatic my path became. As my training deepened, I left musical theatre (mostly) behind and focused on classical music. As for directing, I began serving as an assistant director in high school, and before long was co-directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s wild when I think about it, but even my high school theatre directors knew to nurture something in me that I couldn’t yet envision for myself (thank you, Bob Kramsky and Carol Ann Hopkins). In Spoleto USA and the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy, I was fortunate to work with eminent stage directors such as Gian Carlo Menotti and Gunther Krämer. Although I was only a college student at the time, I watched and learned. In my first tenure-track university position, I ran an entire musical theatre program, which included opera scenes and eventually a full-length opera. I wasn’t going to settle for musical theatre simply because that’s what they had always done. When I came to UAB, they already had an opera program, so I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Since I arrived in 2007, UAB Opera has won three national awards. I like to call us “The Little Opera Program That Could.”
You mentioned certain techniques you’ve used to overcome stage fright. Can you elaborate on what works for you and your students to overcome the anxiety?
Different things work for different people, and it would be difficult to sum up the many techniques that I explored in my doctoral research. For some people, addressing physiological symptoms directly helps: deep breathing techniques, light exercise backstage, regular yoga practice, progressive muscle relaxation, etc. For others, it’s important to restructure cognitive patterns. Many people have destructive habitual thoughts that need to be changed. Changing how one thinks may sound impossible, but we know that neuroplasticity is real and that changing one’s thinking can be a game changer. Some performers need psychotherapy, biofeedback, or even medication before they can overcome their anxiety. Other folks simply need to prepare more thoroughly—they are nervous because they actually aren’t quite ready for a performance. Adversity training works very well for some students. For them, once they experience the worst possible situation in a practice session, the performance feels like a breeze. It’s different for everyone. Part of my job is to find out which of these treatment paths might work best for any given student.
How did you become passionate about wellness for performers?
I’ve come to believe that, while some people experience performance anxiety even though they are 100 percent healthy, there are often lifestyle changes we can make that drastically reduce our overall level of generalized anxiety. Addressing things like diet, exercise, and one’s emotional and spiritual life can make a huge impact on how one responds to stress. I firmly believe it’s the first thing we need to address before we even look into performance anxiety as a specialized problem. Is your life in order? Tend to that first, then we can talk about stage fright.
Our society has become very anxious. It’s hard to get through the day without being bombarded by things that demand an immediate response. While some of those things are convenient, they make us nervous is general. Twenty-four-hour news, social media, email, and text messaging demand our attention constantly. There never seems to be a time to just let down one’s guard and be present, unless one consciously chooses to do so. Each week, I refrain from any electronic media for 25 hours. Whether or not you observe a day of rest, taking one day a week to refrain from checking email, Facebook, or the like can be really refreshing. More often than not, all of that can wait a day. There was a time before voicemail or even answering machines, when you called someone and if they weren’t home, you called back later. The world kept spinning about its central axis! I think it’s good and healthy and right to simply choose not to respond immediately to every text, message, or call. Delayed gratification is a good thing.
What thrills you most about teaching or directing?
Two things: seeing my students succeed, and the way the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Working with creative people means we come up with answers together that we’d never discover on our own, and that is invigorating to me.
What are some of your favorite performing venues?
Carnegie Hall, Weill Hall (the smaller recital hall at Carnegie), and the Teatro Nuovo in Spoleto, Italy.
Do you sing in multiple languages?
Yes: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, and Hebrew. I’m also interested in learning some Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish songs.
Tell us what it was like living abroad as an opera singer? |
Immersing oneself in other cultures, in other languages, experiencing different food and traditions is wonderful. There is a huge world out there where people do things differently than we do in America, and I find it fascinating to explore.
What is your biggest achievement?
Nineteen years of marriage to the most fabulous man on the planet.
What’s your favorite book?
It’s impossible to choose just one, as I have six stacks of them in my living room alone. I enjoy everything from Jane Austen to Hermann Hesse to historical nonfiction to light summer reading. Right now, one of my favorites is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
What’s your current obsession?
What’s one thing you can’t live without?
My sweet, witty, kind, generous, brilliant, gorgeous husband Joe.
What’s your motto/mantra?
I don’t really have a motto, but perhaps the best way to sum up my philosophy of living is to have a balanced life. All work (or even all music) and no play makes Kristine a dull girl. It is just as important for me to go to the gym daily as it is to practice, just as important to read or spend time in the garden as it is to learn a new song. It’s all about balance—a full life is a happy life.
Connect with Kristine Hurst-Wajszczuk at kristinehurst.com.