There are possibilities in some German-speaking houses of getting year-round “house singer” contracts, called a “festvertrag.” Most Americans call this a “fest” contract for short… This is a steady job. A house singer can definitely have a real life outside of singing, because he/she doesn’t travel all the time. If you are hell-bent on having a traditional home life, and making your living singing, this may be the niche for you. There can be drawbacks of fest contracts, too, such as possible pressure to sing the wrong rep outside of your fach , or lack of upward mobility, or others, but that’s why I said to imagine what is MOST important to you in my first paragraph! Read below for an article from 5 Americans doing this in Germany.
Excerpted from The New York Opera Newsletter, now online as ClassicalSinger.com
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Five Americans in Chemnitz
Oper Chemnitz is part of the Municipal Theater of Chemnitz (Städische Theater Chemnitz), one of the largest, if not the largest of the approximately 100 municipal theaters in Germany. It is an “A” house–one of five such theaters in the former German Democratic Republic. The Municipal Theater is a complex consisting of the Opera House, the Schauspiel (Spoken Drama) Theater, and the oldest municipal Puppet Theater in Germany. The 120 member Robert Schumann Philharmonic Orchestra and Ballet Chemnitz complete the performing units of the Theater.
The Opera House was built in 1909. Destroyed during World War II, it was rebuilt in 1951 and fully renovated from 1988-92. It is the most technologically modern theater in Europe today. It seats 720. The theater has a venerable performing history. Many of the great luminaries of the German stage have performed on the Chemnitz stage including the famous tenor Richard Tauber who made his debut as Tamino here in 1913. Richard Strauss, Engelbert Humpredinck, Sigfried Wagner and Franz Lehar all conducted in the theater.
Oper Chemnitz currently performs 20 operas, operettas and musicals in repertory 11 months of the year. The current season consists of: Opera: Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni, La Bohème, Tosca, Martha, The Bartered Bride, Hänsel and Gretel, La Traviata, La Forza del Destino, Der Junge Lord (Henze), Salome, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (premieres on March 30, 1997), Tannhäuser, and Parsifal. Operetta: Gräfin Maritza, Wiener Blut, Land des Lächelns. Musicals: My Fair Lady, Evita, West Side Story. This is accomplished with a troupe of 26 soloists, with additional guest performers as needed.
The city of Chemnitz (pop. 280,000) lies in the foothills of the Erz Mountains, a famous summer and winter vacation area, near the border of the Czech Republic. It is an hour from Leipzig and Dresden. In the German Democratic Republic it was called Karl- Marx-Stadt, and still has a gigantic bust of Karl Marx on display in the center of the city. Sometimes called the Manchester of Germany, the city was a famous center of the German industrial revolution. It is also famous as a “sports” city. Many of the most famous Olympic athletes from the German Democratic Republic, including the skater Katherina Witt, come from Chemnitz.
The participants: William O. Beeman (Bill B.) , Bass; Nancy Gibson, Soprano; Arisa Kusumi, Soprano, Edward (Ted) Randall, Tenor; William Spaulding (Bill S.), Coach/Conductor
TNYON: Tell us a little about yourselves and how you came to Chemnitz.
Nancy: I studied in Toronto as well as London, and I studied violin as well as singing, so I started singing professionally pretty late. I started in Chemnitz with a Festvertrag (permanent contract) in 1992, the year that the theater was newly renovated.
Ted: I went to the University of Maryland at Towson State and actually studied acting first. And then I studied voice and went to the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. I came to Chemnitz in 1990 and first sang the Prince in Dvorak’s Rusalka. My first performance in the newly renovated theater was as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte with Nancy. So I have already been here for seven years.
Bill S.: I went to the University of Maryland. After a year I got a scholarship and went as an exchange student to Bremen.. After the year was over I decided to hang around a little bit longer. I studied piano in Bremen and the conducting in Vienna. I’ve been in this area since 1991 conducting and coaching in Annaberg/Buchholz and in Chemnitz since 1994. In Chemnitz I am also second chorus director.
Arisa: I studied at the Eastman School of Music with Carol Weber. At that time I got interested in German Lieder. I wanted to learn how to speak the language and I wanted to understand what I was singing, and to learn proper pronunciation because that is so important for proper word painting. So I came over to study in Berlin, partly because I couldn’t find a graduate school I really liked. I studied at the Goethe Institute in Berlin. I found a wonderful teacher, Reri Grist. She was living part time in Berlin, and accepted me in her studio. One thing led to another, and I got a role at an important festival for young singers, the Rheinsberg Festival. The stage director, Stefan Piontek, was working in Chemnitz. He let me know that there was an audition in Chemnitz for a soubrette. I came and was hired.
Bill B.: I came late to singing, having done other work for a number of years. I studied at the Boston Conservatory and with private teachers in New York and San Francisco. I wanted to sing German repertoire for bass, and that is done only in the largest American houses–and for those roles American opera companies usually hire Germans. Therefore I came to Germany to audition, and found the large repertoire here in Chemnitz very exciting. We do Wagner, Strauss, Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and a range of operettas and musicals. Many of the operas were new for me, and the opportunity to do Die Meistersinger, Tannhäuser and Parsifal in the same season was wonderful.
TNYON: What made you decide to come to Germany to begin with?
Nancy: Because there is lots more for singers in Germany, and there is very little for singers in the United States.
Ted: I just got tired of painting houses. You know you go and do your Barber of Seville with Mildred Miller in Pittsburgh, and the experience is great, but you get $600 for two weeks work. You do your two performances and go home to your temp job typing for some bimbo lawyer.
Nancy: And it seemed that the only way to get experience getting big roles was to come here.
Ted: Actually, I sang a lot of big roles, I just didn’t make any money.
Bill S.: Even then, you didn’t sing that often. You would prepare the Barber of Seville, and then you might sing it one or two times. Here you sing a role 20 times a year, and you can grow with the role as well.
Arisa: As a lighter soprano, I think Germany is really great. In America there are big houses and huge orchestras. Here I can actually survive as an artist, and people really appreciate my voice type.
TNYON: Would you say that if a professional singer came here they would have a chance of getting work?
Ted: The best tip I can give is: Don’t come in October and leave in December and expect to get any work. Sell everything you have and come and stay for at least a year. You need that much time to really do the audition circuit.
Bill B.: Auditions were very late this year, running into March and April.
Nancy: That points up the fact that you need to have your auditions very well organized.
Bill B.: For most Americans it is a two-step process. You have to first audition for an agent, many of whom have special relationships with different theaters. The agents will refer you to theaters for auditions.
Nancy: But you can make application directly to theaters as well. When I first came, the theaters in the East were just opening up, and many of the agents were not well known. I sent my material directly to the theaters, and that is how I got this job. I got an invitation to three theaters.
Bill S.: One soprano I know has gotten a lot of work by sending her repertoire to the director of the KBB (Künstlerische Betriebs Büro). This is the person in the opera house who is the first to know if anyone is sick. They keep your resume on file, and call you if someone is needed on short notice. Of course, you have to have the roles ready to go on a moment’s notice.
Bill B.: You get these addresses and names from the Deutsche Bühnen Jahrbuch, an expensive, but invaluable publication something like Opera America in the U.S. (Write: Deutsches Bühnen Jahrbuch, Box 13 02 70, 20102 Hamburg, Germany Tel: (040) 445185). Every theater in Germany is listed with the names and telephone numbers of all the administrative personnel. We should mention that there are two kinds of contracts in Germany. One is a Festvertrag, or permanent contract. When you are hired under this contract your main job is in a single opera house. Insurance, unemployment and retirement benefits are part of this package. A guest contract can be very lucrative, but you have no benefits. A guest can receive thousands of marks per performance. Sometimes a guest can make in one night what a “Fest” singer makes in a month, but you can’t be a guest unless you have sung the role in a staged production with an orchestra somewhere that people respect. Most American singers are not prepared to do this. They learn lots of arias, but few whole roles.
Bill S.: One thing to remember is that once you have a Festvertrag, you are bound to the theater and can’t work elsewhere without special permission. After five years steady employment you get a kind of free work permit which allows you to take employment anywhere without seeking a new work permit.
TNYON: What else besides raw talent and a good resume is a factor in a successful job search?
Bill S.: Your German has to be very good
Ted: And it is getting tighter. They are just not hiring people who can’t speak German any more. It didn’t matter some years ago, but it is question of supply and demand. There are a of singers today, and the demand for singers is not as great.
Bill B.: Therefore those who have excellent language skills are at an advantage.
Nancy: It is important to have some knowledge of German, but with the idea of becoming fluent as soon as possible. It is not possible to become fluent in America, but you can study hard and have a decent vocabulary, and that will help when you arrive.
Bill S.: I had the chance to live with a German family in an exchange program, and that was very important. They spoke no English, and that solidified my German skills.
Ted: Actually, the best way to become fluent is to come over here and find a lover. But seriously, fluent doesn’t mean “perfect.” You have to be able to understand what is going on in a staging rehearsal, and discuss the part and the character with the conductor and director.
Nancy: And you should know enough German to be able to discuss your contract.
Ted: But one other factor is that in Chemnitz and in many houses there is an operetta revival going on. As a performer you must be able to do dialog in German.
Bill S: This is big factor. If you sing just opera, you can get by with solid phonetic ability, but doing Die Zauberflöte or an operetta with German dialog, you must be a convincing stage speaker of the language.
Ted: If you don’t demonstrate good language skills, most agents won’t send you on auditions if they know you will have to speak dialog. But it doesn’t have to be accent free at the beginning. There are people within the theater that will help you with diction. Even our German colleagues are not always perfect in their pronunciation.
TNYON: What are the advantages and disadvantages North American’s face in the German job market?
Bill S. : Everybody says that the level of musical training in North America is better than Europe in general.
Nancy: But the big criticism I get over and over again about American singers from people who are really experienced, is that they give the impression of being cold and without personality on stage.
Bill S. Americans seem overly professional and lacking in character.
Nancy: I think they have relatively little stage experience. They know how to sing with a very high level of technical skill, but they don’t know how to analyze a role to be able to interpret a character on stage.
Ted: At AVA we had a different experience. We did four or five full productions a year, and that helped develop our stage skills, but this is rare in the States.
Bill S.: But this criticism is not limited to singers. We hear this about American pianists and violinists too. They are technically proficient, but lack interpretive skills.
Nancy: Once I had been here for a while I realized that I had just not worked through my material in nearly enough detail. I needed to know the meaning of every word, and the relationships on stage.
Bill B.: I can’t resist interjecting that this is why Daniel Helfgot and I wrote the book: The Third Line: The Opera Performer as Interpreter (Schirmer Books 1993). Daniel comes out of the German tradition, having worked for many years in the German theater, and was dismayed to see how poor the interpretive skills of most American singers were. We’re in a house here in Chemnitz that is heavily influenced by Walter Felsenstein, the legendary director of the Komische Oper in Berlin. The singer/actor ideal he established is very much alive here, and Americans are fixated on vocal production with not nearly enough attention given to integrating good singing with good stage skills.
Bill S: The problem may be that in America we have very little time in production. Americans have to work alone or in a studio with a coach, and their music has to be memorized and note- perfect at the first rehearsal or they risk being fired. The interpretation comes last or not at all. They arrive at the first rehearsal with basically what they will present in performance. Here in Germany operas are rehearsed for at least six weeks, and sometimes much longer. Here singers grow into their roles.
Arisa: That was one of the reasons I wanted to come to Chemnitz– to get real stage experience and to not sit in a classroom anymore, because I was really sick of doing that.
Ted: And boy she is really getting it now. You have had to take over a lot of parts in a very short time.
TNYON: Can you make a decent living as a singer in Germany?
Nancy: If you have a Festvertrag you make a very decent living.
Ted: You don’t have to wait on tables.
Arisa: My income is comfortable. It is a lot better than what Americans get. Singers in America can just barely scrape by, or they have to have another job. My teacher in America had to teach lessons and work another job in order to survive. Here I have enough to be comfortable, although I am careful to budget my money.
Bill B.: What that means is that you will have a very decent place to live, enough to eat, and you may even be able to save a little. The lowest wages here are around 3,500 DM per month before taxes. After taxes, insurance and retirement are deducted that comes to something like $1,600 a month take-home pay. Married people pay less in taxes. Top soloists in this house make up to 7000 DM per month gross income. That is about $3500 net. It is not a fortune, but it is possible to live comfortably. A one- bedroom newly renovated apartment in Chemnitz ranges from $400- 600 per month plus utilities. Moderate food costs run around $200 per month per person. And it is possible to make additional income with concerts and guest appearances at other opera houses.
Ted: Some local churches pay upwards of 1000 DM ($650) for a single concert appearance. You would get $200 for the same performance in the United States.
Bill B.: But anyone coming to Germany to get rich singing is in the wrong camp. It is possible to have a comfortable middle class life, but the principal reward is getting to be an artist 24 hours a day.
TNYON: How is the weather, the water and the air in Chemnitz?
Nancy: For people coming from the North in America the winter is not as snowy or cold. It is wetter. Summers are, on the other hand somewhat cooler than in North America.
Ted: There is no Siberian Express like in North America.
Bill S. But the water in Chemnitz is excellent, and the air is very good and getting better because of the shutting down of the larger industrial facilities.
Nancy: I live in Leipzig and the air and water in Chemnitz are much better. As for allergies, if you are prone to them, you probably had better think about other work. The work schedule here just too intensive to tolerate much down time. There is nothing here that is especially conducive to allergies.
Bill B.: Except cigarette smoke, but this is a problem throughout Europe. In any case, staying healthy is part of the job in a big theater like this. Maybe it is the most important part of the job.
TNYON: How are Americans treated in the city and in the theater?
Nancy: I feel very well accepted everywhere. I have had no trouble with prejudice against foreigners.
Ted: But you, as a blonde, blue-eyed foreigner, look pretty German. But some of my African-American friends have had troubles.
Nancy: But when I open my mouth, of course it is clear that I am not German, and I have had no difficulties.
Ted: Well, as Americans, we are “first-class” foreigners.
Arisa: As an Asian-American I must confess that I have had some difficulties.
Ted: That is because you are probably taken for a Vietnamese person. They were imported in large numbers as laborers in the former German Democratic Republic, and after the wall came down they were stuck here.
Nancy: But we have to remember that all over Europe people are not so multicultural as in North America.
Bill S. It is a point of honor to underplay cultural and racial differences in America today. Germans are somewhat different. They go right to the point.
Ted: In the former Federal Democratic Republic (West Germany) the situation is not so pronounced. My African-American friend feels much more comfortable there.
Nancy: The people in the former East simply lack experience with multi-racial populations. They are just learning to adjust.
TNYON: What about social life? Are you bored when you are not in the theater?
Nancy: I’m not bored at all. If you’re the type that can be bored, you will be bored anywhere.
Ted: I have a wonderful house in the mountains outside of Chemnitz with my wife and child, and when I go home, I am in Paradise.
Bill B. The area around Chemnitz is a wonderful part of Germany. There are mountains with skiing in the winter, and hiking in the summer. The Erz Mountains are full of wonderful little villages that are especially lovely at Christmas time. Dresden with its museums is an hour away, as is Leipzig. There are nice restaurants in Chemnitz open till midnight. You don’t find that in many American cities.
Arisa: But I must say, the theater life makes it hard for me to go to Berlin where my boyfriend lives. The schedules can be very short-term and are demanding. I am often in the theater six or seven days a week in some weeks.
TNYON: That brings us to the question of work conditions. How do you find them?
Bill B: The schedules are posted very short term, so it is hard to plan personal life much in advance. Many Americans have also not worked in a real repertory house. We have 21 different shows going all the time. Yesterday was Wiener Blut, today it is Tosca, tomorrow Tannhäuser and the day after My Fair Lady.
Nancy: That’s right. In the states you usually are working in the “stagione” system. You only work on one piece at a time. Here you are often rehearsing several pieces at once. The schedule is very complicated.
Ted: I’m singing seven different operas in March. Some of our colleagues are in almost every show.
Nancy: You are forever having special rehearsals for pieces that haven’t been done in a couple of months while you are mounting a new production.
Bill S. And you may not get much rehearsal. The revival of Tosca we did in December had not been performed since June and was performed with no rehearsal at all.
Bill B.: That means that you had better have the stage and performance skills to walk into a performance with little or no rehearsal. But the long rehearsal period for mounting new productions really helps. You learn slowly, and it stays with you for years. This is more or less how the largest houses in the United States–the Met, City Opera, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera in Chicago operate. But the difference is that these American houses bring in guest artists for almost every principal role. In Chemnitz the ensemble members are singing 90% of all principal roles all season.
Arisa: As a beginner, you have to learn a tremendous amount of stuff. In Berlin they don’t add new productions quite so often.
Nancy: In the bigger houses there are more singers as well. So there is not so much work for each singer.
Ted: But one thing is great. When you come to a rehearsal and there is supposed to be a set with three stories and ladders and steps, you come onto the stage, and there it is, with three stories and ladders and steps. It may not be finished, but everything you need to work with is there. It is not a church basement with blue, red and yellow paint indicating the different levels.
Nancy: That’s right. The technical conditions are wonderful. The costumes are there on time,. and the set is always there and functioning for the final rehearsals.
Ted: And the Chemnitz stage is the most modern stage in all of Europe. It is the newest, and it has everything.
Nancy: Outside of the stage work, you should remember that during the first six months you will do more paperwork than you ever thought possible getting into the system.
Arisa: But the thing I like best is that in Germany singing is considered a real job. You get paid, you get benefits.
Ted: If you get on a train in Germany and say you are an opera singer, almost anyone will have something to discuss with you. They’ll tell you, “Oh my favorite opera is Traviata, and I jut love Alfredo Kraus, but our tenor in Magdeburg is really good too.” In the U.S. when you tell someone you sing opera it’s kind of like “Waaal I ain’t never met no OPRY singer before. I thought they was all FAT.”
Bill S: I was in Italy, doing a master class based on Rigoletto and I was talking to someone behind the bar in the hotel. In the U.S. if you were discussing Rigoletto with a bartender, you would have to say, “Oh that’s an opera by Verdi.” When I did this, I just got disdainful looks from the bartender–of COURSE anyone knows that.
TNYON: What are the differences working with German directors and conductors compared to America?
Nancy: My experience as compared to what I was used to in America is that you are not asked right from the beginning what you think. Later on you can negotiate or discuss certain things. In the interpretation of your part you are not asked for your input. You have to earn the right to negotiate these things. It is a very stage-director oriented theater.
Bill S.: When reviews come out, 80% will be about the staging and only 20% about the music.
Ted: It is in effect director’s theater. But you have to learn to protect yourself. When I was preparing Pedrillo from Entfhrung aus dem Sarail I was having trouble with the word “Frisch” in the big aria “Frisch zum Kampfe.” My teacher, Nell Rankin, said, “Why are you struggling with that word.,” and I answered, “I’m afraid some German director or conductor will object if the pronunciation isn’t clear.” She said, “Ted, if some German conductor tells you to sing F-R on a high b-natural, you just tell him F-U!” The point is: be prepared. But you can’t get your way by being stubborn.
Nancy: You have to make directors and conductors feel that they are getting their own way.
TNYON: What do you love about working here?
Ted: I’m going to say this unabashedly. I love my colleagues.
Nancy: Yeah, me too.
Ted: We have the greatest ensemble here. We have fun. We like being together. We like making music together. We have tremendous stress with all our work. I know I’m going to be on stage with Thomas Maethger (principal bass in the house) or Nancy and I’m feeling like s—, and he comes up and puts his arms around me and says, “Come on, man you’re going to be great!” or Nancy says, “Hey I heard you warming up in your car, and you’re going to be fine.” And I don’t care who is in the pit. If you get along with the people on stage everything is going to be fine.
Nancy: But you can’t expect this in every theater. Not all ensembles are as collegial as ours.
Bill S.: What I love is that you can do a wonderful opera like Die Meistersinger for three months morning, noon and night. You have the time to deepen your understanding. You do a scene and then again after two weeks, and it has grown in your head, and in my case in your fingers.
Bill B: When you learn something so completely, you really have it in your consciousness forever.
TNYON: What is your greatest concern?
Ted: There are times when I think the singers are taken for granted. There is often not enough time given to thinking about our vocal health. They are looking more at the marketing of the pieces, spreading the different shows out over the schedule.
Nancy: When a director is doing a new production of Die Meistersinger as we are (premier on March 30), the director is not often adequately aware of what else we have to do in the same time. To have four revivals of earlier productions (Salome, Traviata, Tosca, Forza del Destino) during this period is really too much.
Bill S.: On the other hand, I expect singers should look at things from THEIR standpoint. If you have Zauberflöte on Saturday, Martha on Sunday and Tannhäuser on Monday, and the same soprano is scheduled to sing the lead roles in all three, then the soprano must object.
Nancy: But sometimes, you just have to accept an impossible situation. That happened to me this week, and there was no changing it. I had to do Forza, Martha and Zauberflöte with all the rehearsals. I knew months ago that this was a problem, but I just had to get busy and do it.
Bill B.: Chemnitz is one of the great theaters of Europe–maybe the world. I am concerned that budget cuts due to the deteriorating German economy may destroy this wonderful cultural facility. Theaters are being closed or combined all over Germany. We may not be able to hold on to this fantastic house. It will be sad if it goes, but for the time being, I am enjoying myself immensely.