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.
Hey, don't stay in your own living room yet.
Thank you for putting this out there, Jennifer. It is interesting that vocal programs costing up to $30,000 per year and more in the US don't seem to emphasize the practical realities when preparing their singers for the future. And that is if their graduates are even lucky enough to have a professional path when they are done with their training. Just the staggering loans piling up these days are enough to make one wonder how they are going to make it, financially, it's sad to say.
The economy has only constricted more in the past two years or so as we all know, and even in Europe the work is tight. This is nothing compared to the scarcity of opera jobs in the US, however. As you rightly point out, there are many options for people who want to make a life in music, so no matter what it is a privilege if one is able to somehow.
The fest option in Europe has a lot to recommend it, but it's not for everyone and now it may be difficult to get positions because they are so desirable and people aren't jumping around from house to house as they once did - they all want to be as relaxed as the singers you describe! You'd be amazed what these folks retire on, after years in the German system. Try finding that in the US...
Sorry to be so discouraging - you are already one of the lucky ones :-).
Well, Europeans are raised so differently than the Americans. I guess that in a certain way, you could never get used completely to Europe... you say that here everything is relaxed but Europeans always believe that Americans have such a full and chill life because they have it all there and because they are so open-minded and we are just...too restricted or strict or how you say it. Every Romanian I know, wants to leave to America and live there and work there and be with those people who accept you how you are and even love you. Differences between people are very differently treated here in Europe. You must be somehow to be good enough...
I am moving to Paris and i love the post quoting about singers!!! Freelance is what to with art??
MOVING TO PARIS
comfy living rooms are transferable plus love we mixed up word orders in a foreign accent!
but 4th july and giving up NY are definately strong arguments, too...
What about Prague? Have you thought about being based there?
What horrifies me is when voice faculty not only gloss over the statistical odds against their students making a living at opera, but then they encourage them to continue on to grad school and amass even more debt. It's irresponsible. This from people many of whom never had full performing careers themselves.
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