Sharing I

I was chatting recently to a friend Brynne, currently on an opera studio in northern Europe, and we were discussing the mecca for young opera singers: Germany. She had been in a discussion at the studio where she is training, where almost all of her colleagues, whether they’d sung in the country or not, stated that their dream for the future was to forge a career in Germany and…. get a fest contract.

It’s the holy grail. A regular working contract where you have rights as an employee, holiday and sick pay, maternity leave and job security. You are a soloist and you get to perform the standard rep for your fach. You also get to have a base in one city and perhaps even combine the amazing singing career with financial stability and a family…! Dream!!

Brynne and I were talking about various topics, and I was saying things that seem normal to me, now that I’ve been here ten months or so, but that were brand new information to her. As could be predicted… I feel like sharing. And I also felt like asking others to share too. So I got in touch with friends at all different stages of a career in Germany and German-speaking countries. The guest star, the fest contract, the opera studio, the freelancer, the student and anyone in-between. Brilliantly, they have all shared a piece of advice – completely independently of each other. Several themes are recurring, and some are new that I haven’t mentioned before. I can’t thank these lovely people enough, and posts referring to various threads will appear in due course. Some contributors have asked to be anonymous, and some will be linked to their respective websites.

There is already too much to include in one post, but I will make a start with one or two points on… Handel, being useful, German opera houses, ‘audition packages’ and fach.

Firstly Handel. Handel keeps getting mentioned! Handel is actually the original inspiration for this post and the research that followed. We were discussing auditions and I casually said that it perhaps wasn’t a good idea to start with Handel as your first piece when auditioning in Germany (whether for an agent or a house). It seemed a normal enough statement to me. Brynne is a fab Handelian singer, and is used to presenting it as her first aria and was shocked at what I said and it made me think about why I had said it. I immediately felt the need to back up my statement and went on the websites for at least ten houses around Germany and checked to see if they were offering Handel in their repertoire. Not all of them were, and those that did offer Handel only offered one (maximum two) in the whole year. So I stand by my original statement, don’t begin with Handel (though I will return to him before the end of this post to elaborate.)

To explain…

Rep houses are not like houses in other countries. They are rep with a big R for Repertoire and lots of it. They put on three or four DIFFERENT operas a WEEK along side chamber concerts, kinder oper, recitals and benefit galas. They have an ensemble of house soloists (fest contract) that can always cover all of the roles that they need to fill in a given week, and on top of that they employ guests (guest contract) that specialize in certain repertoire, have a special relationship with the public of the city or are big names to draw audiences. As well as this, they often have an opera studio, where 4 or 5 young singers are taken for two years, and within their time they will get to cover lead roles and also sing several times a week in supporting roles. A repetiteur at one of the main three houses in Berlin said to me last year, that if he thinks too hard about all of what has to happen every day/night to change the production; not only the singers, but the orchestra, the stage, the set, the lighting, the costume, the conductor, the chorus, the guest soloists/opera studio/fest soloists… It all gets a bit baffling.

This may be common knowledge, and I know I learnt about it through my own research, reading and going to see performances at these houses week in week out, but there is a high likelihood this might be useful to some…

So. If you want to work in Germany, you have to be USEFUL. I’ve posted about fach before and there are dozens of books and websites on the topic so please don’t rely on me…, but when you offer your audition repertoire, you have to be as useful as possible to the house as they have different roles to fill every week. Think STANDARD rep. How else would these houses pull in audiences week after week, year after year, if they didn’t perform works the public love?

A masters student based in Berlin, said “I think you really have to have a clear, clever plan. Work out which repertoire suits you best, and make sure they’re in keeping with each other. Don’t sing Zerlina, Zerbinetta and Tosca all at once….  Look at what is in the repertoire of where you’re auditioning. Present arias/prepare the roles that you know would be asked for in your fach. [Rep houses] need singers who can be flexible, as the more useful you can be to them, the more pieces they can cast you in, the more worthwhile it is for them that you’re in the ensemble. Present things that you can actually do, and roles you could actually perform in the the next spielzeit. Not only the arias of the heroines you hope to sing in five years time.”

She’s totally right. You need to be aware. Do your research. Look at what a house is offering in the season, and take the time to actually go through, see who the fest singers are, and which roles within their fach they undertake from week to week. It’s illuminating – and sometimes different in taste to other countries.

Freelance opera singer Diipti Firmstone has also grappled with fach and it has taken her a while to reach her conclusions. Not every singer fits in one little box. Those who are obviously a Queen of the Night, or a Sarastro, are much easier to ‘box’. If you are a fach-in-between and have had conflicting advice (due to differing tastes) and you are a talented enough vocalist and musician to sing more than one type of music then you can actually end up in a pickle as it’s hard to know what to present.

Diipti says… “Ok…so in Australia I marketed myself on being an “I can do anything!” Soprano, so I thought that would be my aim of attack when I came to audition here in Germany last season. I thought, I will show them! I can sing Donna Anna, Mimi, Pamina, Juliette, (oh and I think I had Liu in the list too if I remember correctly)! This seems ridiculous to me now although it made sense to me a year ago (try explaining that to an agent). Now I see how it screams: what are we going to do with this short, brunette, feisty soprano and what roles can we cast her in?! Donna Anna – too young; Mimi – should be singing Musetta first, Pamina – too short and voice quality not warm enough, Juliette – voice too colourful and too passionate, traditionally blonde and petite; Liu – you can’t have Donna Anna and Liu in the same fach list! All of these comments have been told to me by various people (coaches, teachers, agents) during my time here. So my package you ask? Well a Lyric Coloratura who is short, funny, crazy, dark features, passionate and a colourful voice. Final bit of advice, know what you can’t do – don’t choose anything that shows that.”

So, after the obligatory battle understanding voice types… Make a decision. Don’t present a confused programme to the panel. Make their lives easy, and make it easier for them to pick you.

It is generally a given that you will have four or five arias – often including one operetta – prepared within your fach for agent and house auditions. Americans are renowned for being incredibly well prepared, coming with seven arias ready, with three copies of each in three separately bound folders. Perhaps this is a little extreme, but there is a reason why Americans do so well here! American houses are also used to bigger voices, which is not dissimilar to here either, so (usual example sorry if you’ve read previous fach post) a Susanna in Germany would probably be cast as a Countess in the UK and other countries where there is a heavy influence of early music.

Before I start rambling, I will come back to Handel. If you are a Handelian singer, then by all means include it in your audition pack, or programme. The same Berlin-based student says, “I think it’s good maybe to have one Handel aria in your list. That is, if you can really nail it, it shows your abilities, and it can can be transferred/likened to other rep by showing coloratura, legato, good Italian, vocal range….. Houses tend to do one or two baroque pieces per season, even if it’s not Handel. So it’s not completely sinnlos.” I would add to that also saying, if you’re British, they probably expect you to have Handel on your list…!!

So. Main points.
Be useful. Know your fach. Get your package ready. Present what you do well, but also present what the house/agent needs. Be aware of stylistic differences between the tastes of the country you’re coming from and the one you want to go to.

The next element of ‘Sharing’ will include aspects from the Musik Hochschule system here. Keep reading! Thank you.

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