I’ve promised to hand out of gobs of knowledge to the young singers who attended British Youth Opera’s career advice day (and also to those who didn’t) so if you’ve come to the blog today hoping to read about, say, barmy tenors, pancakes or train journeys you’ll be bitterly disappointed. You might learn a thing or two though. Some of this is stuff I said at the seminar, some of it is new.
Getting work abroad in the first place is pretty difficult unless you have an agent. Well, that certainly always used to be the case, but it is feasible that you can simply contact the casting department at most opera houses and see if they’ll give you a general audition. And who knows what might happen next? Certainly it shouldn’t put you off because for all the auditions you do that provoke no response whatsoever, you will possibly do one that has someone in the stalls thinking “Eureka!”
Very few casting directors will give you feedback, though there are some who will tell you exactly what they think straight afterwards while you’re still gasping and trembling in the wings.
Some companies send people to London to hear singers, but not so much these days, and if they do you can bet that the agents have all their time pretty-well sewn up.
My first work abroad didn’t come as a result of auditions. It came from British-based directors and conductors asking for me to be hired by foreign companies for their productions. And that would be true for many singers I know.
If you want to work abroad then your best bet is probably baroque repertoire (especially if it’s in English) and modern British music from Britten onwards. There are a lot of foreign companies who recognise the need to have Britten operas in their repertoire but who aren’t entirely comfortable with casting them. They know who would be best for, say, Verdi, but not for Britten. I once found myself helping a Franco-Russian director in Rome cast “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. All he could see was a list of British names but I knew which ones would be good for the piece and which ones wouldn’t. If you go to a foreign house and try and sell yourself as a Nemorino, you’re up against singers from every corner of the earth who are also selling themselves as Nemorino. If you sell yourself as a Novice (from Billy Budd), you’ve narrowed down the competition by a massive margin. So bear that in mind when you choose your rep and when you’re thinking about what it is you are trying to achieve by auditioning in the first place.
Unless you have a Green Card I wouldn’t think about auditioning for American companies at the outset. The visa issues are immense. US opera companies won’t generally consider hiring you unless it’s for a starring role or something veryspecialised for which they can’t use one of their own, and even those roles are extremely rare. The unions are verystrict about keeping American work for American singers. You will probably find that your first work in the States is as part of a visiting company on tour. Though, just because I can, I will enlighten you in future posts about some of the joys and pitfalls of working there. It’ll be fun!
On the one hand singing opera abroad can be exciting and thrilling, but on the other it can be soul-destroying, lonely and miserable. There’s no escaping this and I’d be deceiving you if I didn’t make this clear. If you are a travel junkie like me (and I use the word “junkie” advisedly) it presents enormous possibilities. You can truly immerse yourself in another culture for a significant amount of time, visit fantastic museums at your leisure, buy food at wonderful markets… always remembering though that you are there to work and you may find that all you actually want to do at the end of a day’s rehearsals is buy a frozen pizza and slob out in front of the TV. You wouldn’t be alone. It’s what a lot of singers do. More on that later.
There’s no doubt about it: singing abroad is generally good for you domestic career. Apart from the fact that it gives you a certain amount of kudos, learning and performing a role away from the acid gaze of the London critics can be very useful. What can be better than bringing a role home that you’ve conquered abroad?
The fees abroad are generally much higher than at home. I’ve been paid four times what I get at ENO for the same role. But don’t let the size of the fee fool you into thinking you have struck it rich. More on that later too. Besides, I’m afraid the recession is hitting everywhere and fees are shrinking the world over. More good news eh?
That’s it for this gob. Next time I’ll be writing about LOGISTICS. Thrilling stuff, but which comes to occupy your every waking moment once you are climbing the greasy pole. Believe me.

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