At rehearsals today, one of the other singers asked me a question I often get asked by European singers; “Are you fixed somewhere, or are you freelance?” It’s a question Americans never ask each other because we don’t have the opportunity to have “fixed” or “fest” contracts. There are no opera companies in the U.S. that can afford to have a roster of singers for whom working at the theater is their permanent job. Of course, we have the Met, which has a roster of “plan artists” who are usually singing secondary roles, and we have our young artist programs, which allow young singers to live in one place for a couple of years while they “cook.” But otherwise, we are either destined to be nomadic drifters, or we move to Europe.
It got me thinking about how different the lives of American singers would be if they had the opportunity to stay in one place and still have careers as opera singers. The way our system works now, if you want to settle down and be at home more, you can either get a teaching position at a University, or switch completely to a different career. There is simply no way to have a career as an opera singer unless you are willing to be on the road for between 6 to 12 months per year. I honestly don’t think most young singers who are getting their degrees in vocal performance realize this. I mean, maybe they realize it intellectually, but there is no way to internalize what it really means until you have experienced it.
And as I’ve observed before, European singers honestly just seem so much more relaxed than American singers when it comes to their careers. Whenever I do a gig in Europe, most of the singers I work with are really busy, have plenty of gigs, and are coming from one gig to another, or fitting a few extra gigs into the schedules of their fixed houses. Whereas when I do a gig with mostly American singers, everybody is always complaining about the fact that they have no work. Seriously. Everybody. When the General or Artistic Director of the company walks in, the temperature and mood of the room changes and everybody perks up a little bit. They have to – they need to get hired back so they will be able to feed themselves and their families, but also for their emotional well-being. But in Europe, nobody even looks up when the GD walks in – they just continue on with their business, knowing that there’s plenty of work to go around.
So, okay, you move to Europe. I used to think this was what I would eventually do. At different points in my life I have been planning on moving to Paris, Rome, Berlin, Vienna – you name a big capital with an opera language, and I’ve thought about moving there. I love Europe – I really do – so many things about the sensibilities and cultural affectations of European countries make me feel right at home. And who knows what my future will hold – I can’t predict where I will end up. But I just can’t wrap my mind around giving up my apartment in New York and picking up and actually living over here. Who knows, maybe I’m feeling overly patriotic because I just took an unexpected trip to the U.S. over Fourth of July Weekend. Maybe I just have a different perspective these days. Maybe my brain just isn't capable of learning how to speak German. I mean, the word order is insane, people! Frankly, word order is probably reason enough to scare me into staying in the comfort of my own living room. For now, anyway.