With the death of Prince the recently I found myself thinking how liberating it could be to change your name as he did. Would people treat you differently? Would things go better or worse for you?
In pop music there is a long tradition of artists changing their names, Elton John might just not have cut it if he had stayed as Reginald Dwight and Sting might not have had quite the impact if he had kept to Gordon Sumner.
In classical music artists don’t often alter their names partly because they often start performing young and don’t have time to think of a stage name before their career takes off. Undeniably though classical music has always had a taste for the exotic in nomenclature; someone with an ovsky or an ovich at the end of their name often has a head start as far as concert promoters are concerned. The conductor Leopold Stokowski, although English born and bred, spoke with a Polish accent to emphasize his foreign roots and Hungarian violinist Josef Szigeti changed his name from Singer. Stephen Bishop became Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich. So there are examples of name switching but in general classical music disapproves of obvious PR strategies and it can be hard to make a name catch on- have we ever got used to Nigel Kennedy becoming Kennedy?
You can of course go double barrelled (particularly if your name is Johnson) partly to avoid confusion- Rolfe-Johnson and Wilson-Johnson spring to mind. Actually I quite enjoy having a name that gets me mistaken for a certain famous actress with a similar name; I even received a few congratulatory letters when people thought it was I and not she who had married actor Kenneth Branagh.
Jazz condones the stage name – Artie Shaw, Cleo Laine, Billie Holliday for example – but it has to be said that for Prince the name change doesn’t appear to have generated everything he hoped for because he eventually changed it back again. In the end his name was Prince Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince…bit of a mouthful.
As usual the Bard sums it up best: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Aka Emanuella Johnson-Klarinetski
formerly Emma Johnson