American Singers in Germany

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Voice teachers of the College Music Society, rejoice! Your efforts, far from being lost in the cultural wilderness of middle America, are instead bearing fruit in the distant vineyards of the European opera houses. Opera is alive and well and making a living in Germany.

Lest you say in return that opera is also thriving in the United States, first check with your most gifted young professionals as to how much of their total living expenses they are able to earn in their chosen field. It is no use hiding our heads in the sands of grants and supplemental aid and just plain public deceptions; our opera singers need help. And they need help for an extended length of time.

Conservatories have known for years that they were training more musical performers in general than the market could absorb. The graduate instrumentalist could look to a fairly large number of symphony orchestras in the United States for full-time salary to support him and his family more or less creditably in his chosen profession. The trained singer was not so fortunate.

Public relation statistics seem to show a growing number of opera companies throughout the country—a number which might appear superficially encouraging to the neophyte opera singer. The National Endowment for the Arts and the private foundations have made it possible for these groups to perform creditably with the help of large contributions. These grants are usually eaten up by the costs of the physical production; and the singer is paid by performance, rarely generously and never enough to support himself completely. Only the Metropolitan Opera, of all those touted companies, maintains a full year of performances which in turn feed and house its artists completely. The New York City Opera usually schedules two short seasons, the Chicago and San Francisco often only one.

Various big cities boast of a single opera company, and each presents a number of good performances. Baltimore, for example, may give a total of five productions at the most, with no more than four performances of each. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra contributes its services during symphony off-nights, so that the instrumentalists earn no more than their regular salaries. The soloists are imported, usually from the New York City Opera, on a per performance basis, as are the various members of the directorial staff. Baltimore (or Miami or Cincinnati or Seattle) profits by the arrangement, and the guest artists pocket their fees gratefully to help stretch their short New York season salaries.

Other opera companies perform only in the summer or during special festival periods. They too provide a needed service for the opera-loving public but not much profit for the soloist, who must again travel away from home base for his stipend. The singer must pay also for special coaching for these performances and continuous voice lessons to be sure that his instrument is able to function healthily as all other physical conditions change around him. Few other professions demand the proportionate amount of continuous investment that singing does.

Nevertheless the rewards for the successful singer can be great, and America is full of gifted young singers who choose to compete for an operatic career each year. Many of them still head for New York as their fathers, mothers, and teachers did before them. There they will need the financial help of either private or public funds to enable them to survive until they find a way to support themselves with their singing. A very few make the important contacts which lead eventually to places in the professional opera companies of the city or to an equally precarious career as a concert singer. Most of them take church jobs as soon as possible, many of them fill spots in professional choruses, a few find openings in Broadway or off-Broadway shows. Eventually most change professions or teach in schools and colleges.

The best solution of all for the opera singer at this moment may well be to go where there are 34 state-supported theaters and 70 city theaters with professional full-time opera companies which hire singers regardless of nationality—that place is West Germany.

According to Das Deutsches Bühnen Jahrbuch 1982, these theaters have contracted to employ 1,681 solo singers for the 1981-82 season and 2,092 chorus singers. The German government does not release a breakdown of these figures into percentages of German and foreign employees. Such a policy called Dataschütz (Privacy of Data) protects the government from chauvinistic political attack in a time of high unemployment in many fields. Where the arts are concerned, public criticism is minimal. Germans seem to want the best possible personnel to staff their theaters and play their concerts, so long as the singers sing and speak German fluently and the musicians can follow German direction. The largest opera houses such as Berlin and Hamburg present the same international stars who sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in single productions of their individual specialties. These houses show a roster of Italian, Spanish, English, and Russian names, well distributed among other nationalities as well as German. The smaller houses tend to employ more Germans and Americans, with a smattering of Orientals and Balkans.

The number of Americans actually singing in Germany at the beginning of 1982 seems to be a well-kept secret that no official will venture to estimate, partly because each house will vary somewhat from year to year. A look at some individual productions in a variety of differently-funded theaters should be more illuminating. Counting only the leading singers in those productions, we can also arrive at a conclusion as to how American singers are ranked abroad.

Let us start with the New Year's Day 1981 performance of Die Fledermaus in the Aachen Stadtstheater. The two leading sopranos were Paula Page and Julia Schechtman, both American, and the tenor was William Dresskell, also American. Alternate casts contained the names of Gail Steiner and Deborah Sasson, sopranos, Thomas Booth, baritone who had made his Metropolitan Opera debut a few months previously, Linda Heimal, soprano, and Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano. From a permanent roster of no more than 25 solo artists, eight were Americans playing leading roles regularly throughout that year.

Not many houses have that high a percentage of Americans, but you will seldom find even the smallest house without representation. Hof, for example, boasts only eleven male soloists, but one eleventh of that roster is Curtis Dickson, from New York out of Texas.

Düsseldorf's Deutsche Opera am Rhein is an international house with an excellent budget. Several favorite singers from New York gave important performances in the fall of 1981 in Simon Boccanegra. In the lead role, Eugene Holmes made a great success supported by Malcolm Smith and David Holloway. Gwendolyn Killebrew, Patricia Stone, and Hildegard Behrens appeared among the female stars in other productions.

A few of the most experienced singers in Germany today have been honored by the title Kammersänger. This title implies a rank similar to that of prima ballerina in a ballet company and combines admiration for artistry and a reward for years of service as a leading attraction, so to speak. One such Kammersängerin today is June Card, who sings leading roles in both Munich and Frankfurt opera houses. In the Stadtsbühnen in Osnabrück, she opened the 1981-82 season in a stunning performance of Lady Macbeth von Minsk, the Shostakovich opera which was given a New York production some years ago under the title of Katerina Ismailova.

In 1972 Jean Cox was already a favorite tenor in the Nationaltheater, in Mannheim. He is now Kammersänger there, still a great favorite with his public even though he too makes a number of guest appearances in other houses of Germany and even with symphony orchestras in the United States. Donna Woodward, soubrette, is a more recent addition to the Mannheim roster. Simon Estes is listed for a guest appearance there this season (1981-82) along with other scheduled performances in Germany.

The names of James King, Barry McDaniel, and William Dooley, long familiar to American audiences, are now Kammersänger in German houses. Das Oper der Stadt Köln (Cologne) boasts a number of international artists among its performers, including Kammersänger John van Kesteren from Florida as well as David Kuebler, Kay Griffel, and Georgine Resick.

Theater Oberhausen has added a new American Kapellmeister, Saul Schechtman to a staff which already included two American pianist-conductors, David Heusel and Vicky King, plus Thomas King, tenor, Gustavo Halley, Steven Gifford, and Judith Wilkinson.

Music lovers in the United States should know about the charming new production of Figaros Hochzeit in Osnabrück where the Susanna (Julia Schechtman), the Countess (Julia Kemp) and the Cherubino (Janet Cobb) are all American (along with the leading tenor of the company, Guy Renard). The press has greeted the Mozart work with the sobriquet "Ein Glückstag ohne Ende" and equal Freude for all performers. The States should also know about Jane Henschel, singing Azucena in Wupperthal in a manner seldom heard since the long ago days of Bruna Castagna.

How have all these fine singers managed to cross the ocean to a better market? One path of opportunity has opened through the Fulbright grants. In 1963 for example June Card won a Fulbright to study in Germany and has remained here ever since. William Workman stayed in Germany after his first award and is now singing in the major houses of Hamburg and Frankfurt. Thomas Rebilas is singing his third year in Mainz, and Joyce Williams spent one year at the Gärtnerplatz Theater in Munich and then joined the Zürich Opera. Jesse Coston, after winning the Antwerp Competition, now sings at the Stadtstheater in Saarbrücken.

The Fulbright Commission supports its grantees for a year, providing funds for living costs and tuition of all kinds. They enroll their singers with such teachers and coaches as Richard Holm, Erich Werba, Marianna Schreich, or Wolfgang von Stass. After that initial boost, the singers are on their own.

However, not all the singers here have won Fulbrights. A recent independent arrival, mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler, credits her immediate employment solely to her teacher at the University of Tennessee, Edward Zambara. She sang one audition while visiting the Franz Schubert Institute at the end of August and on September first, 1981, she was under contract to the Bonn Opera House, which lists two other Americans: Lisbeth Brittes-Carter, a soubrette, and Karen Middleton, a soprano.

Other enterprising independents included Cheryl Lichter in Trier, Sharon Markevich in Nürnberg, and Francesca Della Porta in Dortmund. The total list probably includes a hundred other names, with the door open for more your best.

A career in the German opera establishment is not easy to pursue, however. The artist whom you send abroad must be better prepared than his German colleagues. He or she must be strong enough emotionally to survive at least a year of loneliness while acquiring fluency in a difficult language, learning to know the agents, and coping with strange food, housing shortages, and the pursuit of practice rooms.

On the other hand, the blessings are great. Once the singer signs a contract, the house staff will teach him his complete roles, both music and mise-en-scène. And the singer has a chance to grow into a role in a way that would be impossible in an American house, no matter how prestigious. For example, Julia Schechtman will be giving at least 20 performances in the role of Susanna alone this season in Osnabrück. Last season she sang Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore eleven times and Adele in Die Fledermaus fifteen times. Add that experience to the long period of daily rehearsals before the openings, and you have soon a well-seasoned opera singer, contented and growing steadily in her art.

After a few years, the singers in German houses can achieve a stable domesticity that is rare in the American scene. Julia Kemp and her husband, Guy Renard, originally from Curtis in Philadelphia only eight years ago, now own and operate a farm near Osnabrück; and their three bilingual children attend German schools. June Card has apartments in both Munich and Frankfurt, and vacations on her farm in the south of France during those rare periods when she is not guesting in other houses. Curtis Dickson speaks glowingly about the security of working all year around in Hof in contrast to the precarious free-lance existence led by singers in New York. His contract includes six weeks paid vacation in the summer to fly back to Texas for a lengthy visit with his folks.

Each year more and more American musical artists have the opportunity to compete freely with others for berths in the German opera houses. If your students are truly competitive, they may actually change the present statistical proportion of Americans to other singers there. Germany wants the best. Although the singers may be somewhat underpaid by our standards, they are amply repaid for this disadvantage by year-around employment and few professional expenses.

More singers can work at their chosen profession in Europe. By all means, prepare your young singers realistically for this market. Give them a lasting vocal technique, a basic repertoire in their best roles for audition purposes, fluency in German, some knowledge of the business side of selling themselves as artists, and a mountain of courage.

Then send them off to Germany to become opera singers. It's a tough, wonderful profession!

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Last modified on Thursday, 25/10/2018

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