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If You Want to Sing Opera, Learn German

The city of Magdeburg, one and a half hours west of Berlin, isnt the sort of place that features in
international cool city rankings. Still, each year a steady stream of highly qualified young North
Americans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Italians, Russians, South Koreans, Japanese and Latin
Americans make their way here in pursuit of a prestigious career.
Theyre opera singers. Today, there are fewer opportunities for young singers in America, so
Americans are again coming to Germany in larger numbers, says Karen Stone, general manager
of the Theater Magdeburg, which this season features a roster of 12 German and 14 international
singers. Plus, Eastern Europe has opened up, and lots of young singers are coming here from
those countries now. And 20 years ago, the great number of South Korean and Chinese singers
we have now didnt exist. There were just a few Japanese singers.
Because the European Union doesnt issue specific opera visas and EU residents can move
freely, there are no immigration statistics documenting the singer influx, but the opera houses
contacted for this story all confirm the trend.
The attraction? Steady work, even full-time employment. Germany, Austria and Switzerland
have a very large number of opera houses for their size, says Jennifer OLoughlin, an American
soprano now at the Theater St. Gallen in Switzerland. And they have many more operas per
season, which means you get to sing many more roles.
The German-speaking countries, as well as Switzerlands non-German regions, feature a higher
opera stage density than any other region in the world. According to the Deutscher
Bhnenverein, an association that represents performing arts organizations, Germany boasts 83
publicly funded opera houses, many dating back to the countrys old patchwork of duchies and
principalities, as well as 130 orchestras, 200 privately funded theaters and 70 music festivals,
while Austria has 67 theatersincluding opera housesand Switzerland 30. France and Britain,
by contrast, have only about a dozen state-funded opera houses each.
According to the opera statistics website Operabase, last year 7,230 opera performances took
place in Germany, one-third of the worlds total. The United States was a distant second, at 1,730

performances, followed by Russia and France, at 1,441 and 1,288, respectively. Austria ranked
sixth, at 1,252 performances, and Switzerland ninth, at 795. Measured in number of
performances per million residents, Austria tops the ranking at 149.8, followed by Switzerland at
102.1, Estonia at 95.5 and then Germany at 88.14.
As international singers are well aware, even second- and third-tier houses feature large
repertoires. German opera houses alone employ 1,270 soloists and 2,870 choir members on fulltime contracts. Next seasons nine productions in Magdeburg include Richard
Wagners Lohengrin, a newly commissioned opera by American composer Philip Glass and a
new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozarts Cos fan tutte. The National Theater in Weimar,
two hours away, will feature eight productions, including Richard Strausss 20th-century
masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier. Next season at the opera house in Altenburg, just over an hour
from Weimar, also includes Der Rosenkavalier, along with Giacomo Puccinis La Bohmeand
another 20th-century masterpiece, Benjamin Brittens Peter Grimes.
Almost everybody whos had a great career has started in Germany or Austria, says Kristine
Opolais, a 34-year-old Latvian prima donna, who got her big break at Berlins Staatsoper (Berlin
State Opera). Hans-Georg Wegner, Weimars director of opera, points out that international
opera singers came to Germany back in the 19th century as well. But today they come from all
corners of the world. And a lot has changed in the past couple of decades. Twenty years ago, it
wasnt easy for a South Korean to come here, or for us to find him. Now there are competitions
and agents everywhere.
South Korean men are an operatic mainstay in the German-speaking world. Budget airlines, in
turn, have made traveling to auditions and competitions a viable prospect for even cash-strapped
performers. And as Stone observes, the Internet is enabling young singers to research smaller
opera houses as well.
Young American singers speak of problems getting engagements at home. There arent as many
opportunities as there used to be for up-and-coming singers in the U.S., notes Irene Roberts, an
American soprano wholl be joining the Deutsche Oper in Berlin as a staff soloist next year. If

youre a lesser-known name, American opera houses often dont take a chance on you because
they need to sell tickets.
In

Italy,

the

birthplace

of

opera,

the

houses

are

battling

acute

money

problems.Newsweek reported last year that Italys opera houses are over $400 million in the red.
I sang at the Maggio Musicale [in Florence] two years ago, and I had to hire a lawyer in order to
get paid, says OLoughlin.
Of course, singing in a lower-tier opera house like Germanys Halle is a far cry from performing
at the Met in New York, the Berlin Staatsoper, the Vienna Staatsoper or the Salzburg Festival,
and singers at smaller opera houses earn incomes more in line with an office worker than a prima
donna. But whereas 200 sopranos often compete for a single role in the U.S., the Halles opera
director, Axel Khler, says he usually gets 15 to 30 applicants per opening, including for fulltime soloists.
In our price class, of course, were not going to get singers who perform at the Met, he says.
But roles and ensemble positions are advertised internationally, and at our auditions we get
singers from Scandinavia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Americas and Asia.
The genre of opera has become international in a way that nobody would have guessed 20 years
ago. The best singers prevail, and those singers are not always from Germany.
Indeed, globalization has turned these smaller-city purveyors of an elite art form into pioneers of
integration. In Weimar, for example, only a third of the singers are German. But the operatic
immigrants dont just benefit from career stepping-stones in cities like Graz, Austria; Greifswald,
Germany; and St. Gallen, Switzerlandtheyre needed there. Halles upcoming Ring des
NibelungenWagners enormous four-opera cyclewould, says Khler, not have been
conceivable without foreign singers. Though plenty of singers graduate from local
conservatories, opera directors dismiss many of them as not good enough.
The preparation at German conservatories comes nowhere close to the training at Juilliard,
Indiana University or even the Royal Northern College of Music [in Britain], says Stone. We
all want German singers, especially because we do pieces with spoken parts, like The Magic

Flute. Were in Germany, so wed prefer German speakers. But if we didnt have the
international singers, the musical standards would be much lower.
Alik Abdukayumov, an Uzbek baritone, is pursuing a career in Weimar, the center of Germanys
literary tradition. In other EU countries there are opportunities as well, he says. But opera in
Germany and Austria has tradition, and its secure. Earlier, Abdukayumov spent five years in
Austria. Theres another thing he likes about singing in Germany: Audiences are grateful, and
they like musical theater. Here, things are not as stressful for a singer as in Italy. Audiences are
not going to boo you if youre not in top form, so you dont tremble before each performance.
In Germany, opera is defying rumors about the art forms imminent demise. While attendance
has dropped in several German states over the past four years, it has increased in others.
According to Austrias national statistical agency, opera attendance grew by 3.8 percent between
2011 and 2012. Switzerland doesnt measure opera visits, but in a national survey, 66.1 percent
of residents said they regularly go to the theater, opera or museum.
In Germany, whose multitude of theaters and opera houses goes back to its patchwork of
independent duchies and principalities, private contributions account for just over $500 million
of musical institutions income, compared with $3.2 billion in public funding. According to EU
statistics, Germany spends 0.8 percent of its gross domestic product on recreation, culture and
religion, while Austria spends 1 percent. The EU average is 1.1 percent.
That public-private imbalance understandably irks some taxpayers, but its stability for
performers attracts foreign talent. And after several years in Greifswald, Graz or St. Gallen,
young Violettas and Don Giovannis have a better shot at the big leagues. Singing in Germany,
says Roberts, is also a seal of approval. When I return to the U.S., she says, people will say,
She must be good, shes sung at the Deutsche Oper.