So how come you have landed this fancy job in a far-off land? Well, as often as not you discover that they really wanted someone else but ended up with you instead. Don’t worry. Get over it. It’s how the world works. You’ll be amazed once you step onto mainland Europe just how many singers there are in the business, most of whom you have never heard of, all singing away and scratching a living.
Don’t let it daunt you. Just be thankful for the job you have and realise that it’s OK to be a small fish (that no-one has heard of) in a very big sea. You’re in good company and you must have done something right or you wouldn’t be here in the first place.
It also makes you realise that your paranoia that various casting directors “don’t like you” is almost certainly misplaced. They have a huge pool of people to choose from, most of whom are actually (like you) terribly good. The fact they don’t hire you isn’t personal. It simply means they already have a good supply of people they know and like.
We all need to be reminded from time to time that we’re all good at what we do. Sometimes things just don’t go our way, and that’s how it goes. Don’t dwell on it. Move on. Someone who used to be high up in Welsh National Opera’s administration once told me that casting often came down to whose file happened to be on top of the pile on a given day. That’s how random it can be.
British singers are well-liked and trusted abroad. We are considered very calm and professional, hard working and not prone to tantrums or funny tricks. In some cultures, the throwing of a “sickie” in order to do a job elsewhere is quite common (though it’s pretty dumb these days when you can find who’s singing what and where at the few clicks of a mouse) but Brits are considered to be too honest for those pranks. I’ve met many foreign directors who love the British school of acting. They think we are subtle, cunning, funny and willing to try anything. Our standard of musicianship is also very high and we have the reputation for being responsive to suggestions and ideas. We’re considered to be expert at performing difficult modern music.
All these assets count for a lot and have probably helped secure you the job in the first place, so make sure you are well-prepared and live up to the standard. Or else.
So you’ve got your role, quite probably small to start with, and you’re in a foreign opera house. What can you expect?
Well, most opera houses look pretty-much the same the world over. They have stage doors, corridors, rehearsal rooms, offices and stages. The French, instead of saying stage right and stage left (which are also
reversed as far as Brits are concerned in several countries), say Court and Jardin. I can never remember which is which and I’ve survived intact so don’t fret about it. German houses will often have one dressing-room corridor for men and another for women, sometimes on either side of the stage. I have no idea why. Some houses have fancy dressing-rooms with daybeds, pianos, TVs and en-suite bathrooms. Many decidedly do not. (I don’t recommend the loos in the otherwise beautiful Reggio Emilia opera house. A hole in the floor awaits you.) In the Teatro Reggio in Turin they hand you an allowance of loo roll on your first day. The Teatro Real in Madrid has an abundance of uniformed flunkies backstage who don’t seem to do anything at all except become agitated if you try and fetch yourself a glass of water.
It’s the people who really make an opera house and while the people who work in opera houses are generally jolly the world over they do tend to conform to a few national stereotypes.
German houses tend to be kunst factories, knocking out one show after another. The fest system does tend to ingrain a clock-in, clock-out mentality into a lot of contract singers. German opera houses are generally efficient places with well-run canteens serving German food but not filled with much joie-de-vivre. Many, except the top Stadt houses, do all their rep in German. You really need to speak German to get on in the German system.
Italian houses are everything you expect them to be: chaotic and crazy. It’s piss-up in a brewery time. There are swarms of people who probably inherited their job from a relative and who have very little to do except sit around and gossip. The volume of backstage chat during a show can be astounding. And yet for all the huge number of people working in the house, you can find it very difficult to speak to someone who can actually deal with a particular problem you’re having. Bring a lot of patience to Italy and smile at the chaos.
Spain and France are more organised, the latter prone to strikes and walk-outs. The French divide singers into Lyrique (singing over acting) and Comique (acting over singing) and can be a bit snotty about the latter. The Dutch and Belgians are laid back but efficient and generally very helpful.
American houses are by far the friendliest and most welcoming. Performers are treated with respect and politeness, though you are expected to return the compliment by attending large numbers of fund-raisers and social events where you rub shoulders with immensely wealthy patrons who know next to nothing about opera but whose pockets are deep.
Never swear in American opera houses. It is NOT done. Don’t wear perfume or aftershave either. A lot of houses have strict rules about these things.
Your first port of call is the company manager or artists’ liaison. Be nice to this person as your happiness can be in their hands. They usually speak English, though not always very well. Some will give you a welcome pack full of useful information about the house and the city. Some will not. The rule of thumb tends to be that the smaller the house the more helpful the company manager. Big houses often have several and they’ve seen it all. They’re hardly likely to be impressed by a squirt like you.
The other people you need to cultivate are the stage manager, the assistant director (if he or she is on the house staff) and the music staff. These are terribly important people and your relationship with them can make all the difference not only to your immediate work but to your career. They will also, in my experience, be the best people to talk to about local knowledge; where to eat, where to buy groceries, how the trams work etc. Often they can become your friends. (Many music staffers are also more than happy to earn a few extra quid on the side if you pay them to coach you on something you have coming up.)
Most houses plan their rehearsals on a day-to-day basis. You’ll be telephoned or emailed in the evening with the next day’s planning. If you’re doing a small role this can mean you end up with days and days of no rehearsal but without the luxury of being able to make any plans, let alone pop back home. It can be very, very frustrating, especially if you’ve had to turn down, say, a concert because you’ve been expressly told that the opera house cannot spare you any time at all and they won’t give you the NA. Don’t moan about it too much. It happens to us all.
Use the free days to sight-see, to do something you don’t always allow yourself the luxury of doing at home (for me it’s reading), to get some exercise, to learn your next role. You probably won’t though. You’ll end
up doing what a lot of us do – getting up late and wasting the day doing sod-all.
It is usually stipulated that you can’t leave the city without permission to do so. That doesn’t mean you can’t do a day trip on a train but you should think twice before flying off anywhere without asking the company manager. Once the show has opened, presuming you have a couple of days off between performances, you can go further afield (though you’re still supposed to ask) but you will have to be back in the city the night before your next performance.
The Icelandic volcanic ash episode made it quite clear how you can’t casually assume that you are always able to get anywhere in Europe in an hour or two. I was performing in Amsterdam at the time of The Ash and had to spend all day on trains getting back to the Netherlands Opera from London in time for my next show. Our mezzo, trying to get there from Sweden, didn’t make it, losing thousands of pounds on cancelled flights as well as the fee for the show she missed. Between shows is a good time to go off and do some auditions for other houses, if you can get them, but don’t venture further than you can travel back with an alternative to flying. Just in case.
German houses usually rehearse in the morning and evening with the afternoon free. It can be a culture-shock and it is worth bearing in mind when booking your digs. You don’t want to make the mistake I made of having to spend all afternoon travelling back and forth to a dreary flat in the suburbs of Frankfurt from the opera’s equally dreary rehearsal space many miles away in another corner of the city. In Germany it pays
to live near the opera house.
Some houses have very flexible working hours and you can find that there’s just one rehearsal a day, say from midday to 5 pm with a long break in the middle. Very civilised. In smaller houses with a limited season and no other shows on the go you may find yourself rehearsing on stage almost from day one.
Rehearsals, particularly the further south you go, can be scatty and erratic. I’ve grown quite used to having pretty-well no direction at all. I have done whole productions where I have barely exchanged two words with the director. There’s a lot on this in Who’s My Bottom? My advice: bring lots of your own ideas. Don’t expect to be told anything apart from where to come on and where to go off. Be creative. They’ll love you for it and won’t hesitate in taking all the credit.
In Germany there’s every chance that production will be heavy on Konzept. There’ll be machine guns instead of swords, comedies will be played as tragedies and, god help us, someone will sing an aria into a mobile phone. In America everything will probably be very old-fashioned and literal and all the baritones will have regulation goatee beards. There are no hard-and-fast rules on this. Except the German bit.

As for conductors… there are some real doozies out there and many of them work in opera houses. In Italy I have experienced the strange phenomenon of the maestro (and do call them maestro, especially in the States) who won’t come to any staging rehearsals but who thinks everything can be sorted out in music calls.

It must be a hangover from the park-and-bark era where people didn’t really move much on stage; they just assumed a position near the front of stage and bellowed.
Again, don’t assume you’ll ever develop much of a working relationship with the conductor. Sometimes it happens and often it doesn’t. Many aren’t that much inclined to give you notes or discuss anything with you.
That’s the job of the music staff, in the bad conductor’s opinion. They may also insist on a prompter, in which case you have the joy of someone hissing words every few seconds, slapping the stage to keep time and generally being a nuisance bang in the middle of the front of the stage. If there is a prompter you won’t get any cues from the conductor. That’s not his job. His job is the orchestra. It’s seriously strange.

So, all-in-all it can be a thrilling, bumpy ride. Oh and just to make it even more interesting, in some houses the first night audiences are made up of über-wealthy subscribers who secretly hate opera but who love showing off their latest mistress/boyfriend/shoes/jewellery. You bust your balls trying to get them interested but they are simply not. Not unless you’re a household name. It can be seriously dispiriting when the patter of applause at the curtain call is drowned out by the sound of Porsches revving up outside the opera house doors.

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