Life on The Road – Opera Couple Sara Duchovnay & Clay Hilley Open Up About The RV LifestyleBy David Salazar
(Credit: Kaleigh Rae Photography)
The opera lifestyle is one of the most complex and challenging. Working singers are constantly on the road and generally have little time to truly establish a homebase where they spend most of their time with families and loved ones. If anything, the idea of a homebase can be fleeting with many singers and their families undertaking the path of the nomad.
But Sara Duchovnay and Clay Hilley wanted to try something different. The opera couple are on the rise and have found themselves increasingly on demand around the U.S.
In 2018-19, Hilley, a heldentenor, has worked with such company as The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Odyssey Opera in Boston, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has covered for the Dallas Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, and San Francisco Opera. In 2019-20, he is set for his mainstage debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and will be working at the Met and Bard Music Festival.
Meanwhile, Duchovnay is set to appear at Opera Roanoke with Hilley in “Pagliacci” and has recently appeared with such organizations as Odyssey Opera, Earplay Ensemble, and Opera Delaware. It is safe to say that the two are busy.
So the two decided to take life on the road in the most literal sense of the word and purchased an RV that they live out of . As they prepare to perform together in “Pagliacci” at Opera Roanoke on Sept. 20 and 22, the opera couple spoke to OperaWire about their unique lifestyle, its challenges, and the future.
OperaWire: Why the RV life? How did this choice come about?
Sara Duchovnay: I think most singers would agree that one of the hardest things about this career is having to spend so much time away from home.
Before we got the RV, we had both been living out of suitcases full-time. We weren’t “home” enough to justify having an apartment, so when neither of us were on a gig, during which we would stay in hotels, Airbnbs, or in a patron’s home, we’d stay with family and friends. While we are super fortunate to have wonderful and generous people in our lives who were willing to host us, we were both really craving more stability and independence. It’s hard feeling like a constant houseguest…especially as a couple!
One day we realized we might be able to find a way to just take our home with us! I had never thought of living in an RV before, but I was really into watching those Tiny House videos on YouTube and HGTV, and camper living isn’t really a very far cry from that!
Clay Hilley: My parents literally met each other in the 70s at a campground in Georgia. My mother’s family always had a motorhome (“Class A”–think Walter White), and my Father’s family preferred the “travel trailer/camper” style (which is pulled by a pickup truck).
All during my childhood years we would spend a good amount of time with each set of grandparents camping in these RVs at lakes, in the mountains, and by the ocean. So you could say RV lifestyle is in my blood.
Artists always claim to be “living out of a suitcase.” Our “suitcase” just happens to be 38-feet long, has indoor plumbing and electricity, and attaches to our truck to be towed thousands of miles at a time.
OW: What is your RV setup? Can you describe what type of RV, what it has, what are the essentials?
CH: We have a Keystone Montana “travel trailer,” which is a camper that requires a towing vehicle. We pull ours with a Ford F350 Diesel pickup.
When we arrive at our destination, we disconnect from the truck, set up the camper, extend the slideouts, and use the truck to commute. Our camper is what’s called a “Fifth Wheel.” It has 4 wheels on two axles, and the living room portion of the camper sits above the truck bed.
We opted for this model because it has the most living space and feels more like a home than a bus. We have five hydraulic slide-outs, and when everything is extended we have around 380 square feet of living space.
Our camper is equipped with two couches (both folding down to create two queen-size beds), three flat-screen TVs (one of which is outside so we can watch TV while we enjoy nature), a 12 cubic-foot refrigerator/freezer, a three-burner gas stove, a gas oven, a very large convection microwave, a shower, a WASHER AND DRYER, toilet, double kitchen sink, king-size bed, electric fireplace, and quite a good bit of closet space and storage throughout.
There is even room in our living room for an 88-key keyboard that Sara and I use to learn our music.
SD: When we first started to shop, I was blown away by how much space and how many luxuries these things come equipped with. The ceilings in 5th Wheels are very high, so it doesn’t feel cramped at all. There’s plenty of room for our clothes, shoes, and scores, and the kitchen is more spacious than a lot of apartments I’ve been in!
When Clay first floated the idea, I was imagining a VW van or something like that, but as soon as he sent me some walk-through videos, I was completely on board. The stackable washer and dryer really sold our specific model for me! Is there anything more wonderful than being able to do laundry in your own home?
It also feels a lot bigger than a studio apartment of the same size because we have so many doors. One of us can be in the living room practicing, and the other can be in the bedroom watching TV and we don’t disturb each other!
OW: Where have you traveled with your RV and for how long?
CH: We bought the camper in Dallas in October of 2017 while I was covering “Samson et Dalila.” We had been shopping for a while, and happened to find a great deal on the exact model we wanted.
SD: We bought it on the spot, canceled the rest of our Airbnb stay, and lived in it for the remainder of the contract. We didn’t have a truck at that point, so we had the dealership deliver it to the campground and then bought the truck that we needed to tow it.
Our next stop after Dallas was San Francisco where Clay covered “Turandot” at SF Opera. We had a little over a week to get there and it was the first time we had ever driven the rig. You’d assume they’d give you lessons of something when you buy something like that for the first time, but they don’t! We just got in the truck and were like “Ok, let’s drive this huge thing across the country!”
We couldn’t have started out driving on open roads either! No, we had to drive this huge thing through downtown Dallas freeway traffic! It’s truly a miracle we made it out unscathed! Clay was a natural!
CH: After San Francisco, we dragged it all the way to Georgia for Christmas, by way of Houston and New Orleans. The day after Christmas we started our drive up the eastern coast to Liberty Harbor RV Park in Jersey City, where we lived while I covered “Parsifal” at the Met. Yes. I commuted daily from my own home with all my stuff to Lincoln Center to be on-call to jump in for the title role of a Wagner opera. It was an adventure, to say the least. All those details will have to wait for their very own blog post!
In a nutshell, we got hit with the Bomb Cyclone of 2018 immediately after arriving, all our water tanks froze, I surprised Sara with an epic marriage proposal, and we made it through the winter. Liberty Harbor is probably a lovely place to stay in spring, summer, and fall, but we won’t be staying there in the winter months again. After “Parsifal” closed, Sara and I headed to Maryland for some brief engagements together with Opera Delaware and Baltimore Concert Opera.
After that we headed back west, crossing the whole breadth of the country again to San Francisco for me to cover Siegmund and Siegfried in the Ring Cycle.
Sara: That wasn’t the simplest cross country trip either, because I had to be back to start rehearsals for “Gianni Schicchi” with Opera Delaware about a week before Clay’s rehearsals in SF started. I didn’t want him to have to drive across the whole country alone, so I decided that I would drive with him for the first part of the road trip, and then book a flight back to Delaware from wherever we happened to be when it was time to go back. That place happened to be Des Moines, so I just hopped on a flight and flew right back to where we started.
CH: I stayed in SF for the opening of SFO’s current season in which I covered Turiddu/Canio for “Cav/Pag,” and then we parked the camper in storage in Petaluma, CA because, alas, my next gig was with Chicago Lyric, covering “Siegfried” and there are no RV parks in Chicago. We then went to Germany for an audition tour until mid-December, also without the camper, as we have not figured out a way to affix pontoons to the rig just yet.
Right after new years’ 2019 we were happily reunited with our home, and stayed on the west coast for most of January and early February. Sara was still working on the world premier of an opera in the Bay Area when I set out alone for my next engagement, “Manon Lescaut” at Dallas Opera. This was not a fun trip to do alone–it’s never fun without Sara. But I made it, and Sara flew to me soon after I’d arrived.
After “Manon Lescaut” closed, we brought the rig back to Georgia to get married! It has stayed in Georgia all summer because all of my gigs have been only a week (or so) long and somewhat back to back.
Generally speaking, we don’t haul it with us for short-term engagements like concerts. If either of us has a brief concert, we will just fly to it and stay wherever the organization houses us (AKA normal singer life). If it’s a longer gig, we obviously love having all our stuff on-hand, and will travel to it with our home.
SD: We’re very excited to drive it into the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and do a little bit of glamping in the area before we sing “Pagliacci” together with Opera Roanoke in September!
OW: What was the greatest challenge of getting started with this lifestyle? What remains the greatest challenge in maintaining it?
SD: The greatest challenge was probably just taking the plunge financially. It was a big purchase, especially because we also had to buy a reliable truck to pull it with! Downsizing wasn’t really a challenge because we had already been living on the road and didn’t have too much stuff. If anything, we both felt like we really upgraded, because all of the sudden we could have all of our belongings with us in one place.
CH: I think the greatest challenges now are the lack of reliable internet in some campgrounds, as well as the fact that it takes a long time to get from one place to the other. If we have to get across the country to get to the next gig, that’s a lot of driving time! It takes a lot longer than driving a car too, because you can’t go more than 75mph and it takes a lot more focus.
OW: What do you enjoy most about it?
SD: We have complete freedom with all the comforts of home. We can go anywhere at any time, and if we’re not on gigs at the same time, we can travel together.
We love having access to all of our stuff while we’re on a gig, instead of having to decide which clothes/scores/pots and pans etc. go in a suitcase and which ones stay behind. We can always cook in our own kitchen with our own appliances, spices, condiments, etc! When we have gigs in expensive locations like the Bay Area or NYC, we go there, and when we’re done, we get to drag our home to a less expensive city!
We aren’t paying rent or a mortgage on a place we never get to live in, and we don’t have to worry about finding subletters. If we need to go somewhere and can’t bring the camper, we can find inexpensive or free storage and leave it until we come back. When we’re both on gigs at the same time, I’ll stay in a homestay or other company-provided housing for my gig and then just come home to wherever Clay and the camper happen to be when I’m done. It’s always a cool feeling be able to fly into a totally different city, and have my home, with all my stuff, and my husband waiting there for me!
CH: Just getting to sleep in my own bed for months at a time while working in so many different cities is amazing. I used to pack an entire suitcase full of spices and cooking utensils to bring with me on gigs just in case my accommodations didn’t have what I needed, and now I just get to have everything I need in my very own kitchen everywhere I go. All my scores are alphabetized in my bookshelf and I can grab whichever one I need at any time.
OW: What unique experiences have you had because of this lifestyle that you could never have otherwise?
CH: We’ve gotten to see so much of the country that we might not have had the chance to experience otherwise! If we’re not pressed for time to get somewhere, we like to find interesting places to stop and explore.
When we went to New Orleans on our way from San Francisco to Georgia, we parked in an amazing RV park that was a 10-minute walk from the French Quarter! We loved the city so much that we went back for our honeymoon (without the camper though.)
SD: I really love when we get to live in nature! Some RV parks are glorified parking lots with electrical/water/sewer hookups, but some are really gorgeous! In Pacifica, we could stand outside our home and see whales in the Pacific Ocean.
At one of the campgrounds in Georgia, we could go swimming in the lake and watch the sunset over the water from our doorstep. I also really love that we get to spend so much time together and have these adventures together as a couple! When we’re driving, we’ll listen to our favorite podcasts and have great conversations about the topics discussed, or listen to funny podcasts and just laugh hysterically together.
There was one trip where we got on a Gilbert and Sullivan kick and listened to every G&S operetta we could find on YouTube and Apple Music. We’ll take silly pilgrimages to pay homage to our favorite literary or pop culture characters, and we get to introduce each other to so many old friends from our past when we pass through their towns.
OW: What essential advice would give artists looking to take on this lifestyle?
CH: Go to different dealerships and look at as many different models and types as you can to see what appeals to you and works for your lifestyle. Think about how much home time/vs gig time you have and where you want to call home while you aren’t on the road. Some areas have tons of RV park options, and some have none. Also, some places have limits to how long you can stay.
Also important is closet space and shelf space. If you intend to become a “full-timer” like us, then you need lots of room for your entire wardrobe and lots of shelf space for your opera scores.
SD: If you want to try it out and see if you like it, you can rent an RV or camper and take a little trial trip with it. I’m not sure if it would make financial sense to rent it for the length of a gig, but at least you’d get to have a little taste of the experience to see if you like it! Also, feel free to reach out to us via social media if you want to talk specifics or if you have any other questions. We are super happy with our decision to live this way full-time and we never get tired of talking to people about it!